COMPLETE MR. ARKADIN - DVD review

For those who fall under the spell, "Mr. Arkadin" is a sensual feast and a deeply engrossing film.

csjlong's picture
Christopher
Long

This is going to take some explaining.

"Mr. Arkadin" (1955) may be the work of a revered auteur, but Orson Welles' under-appreciated gem proudly displays its pulp-fiction roots. All the lurid elements of the noir genre are in place: a peg-legged gunman, a would-be detective with a checkered past, his equally seedy girlfriend, a mysterious millionaire and his beautiful daughter, and, of course, a trail of corpses strewn across half of Europe.

Guy Van Stratten (Robert Arden) is a two-bit cigarette smuggler minding his own business in Italy when he encounters a dying man named Bracco who tells him and his girlfriend Mily (Patricia Medina) a secret that will make them rich beyond their wildest dreams. Problem is, Guy's dreams are pretty wild, and he parlays this secret into a meeting with the beautiful Raina (Paola Mori, sometimes known as Mrs. Orson Welles) who happens to be the daughter of the enigmatic multi-millionaire Gregory Arkadin (Welles) who also happens to be the subject of Bracco's death-bed secret. Arkadin is so mysterious even he doesn't know his own background; Arkadin claims to have no memories before a day in 1927 when he happened to be wearing a suit and clutching 200,000 Swiss francs. He hires Guy to discover the true origins of famous Gregory. Arkadin. Whether Arkadin's amnesia is real or faked, Guy has no idea, but when the subjects he interviews start dying off, he has little time to worry about anything besides saving his own skin.

The plot is as delightfully pulpy as can be, but the real pleasure of the film is the kinetic fury that infuses nearly every scene. With a story about a reclusive tycoon, the film superficially resembles "Citizen Kane," but a more proper point of comparison in Welles' oeuvre is "The Trial" (1962). Like Welles' later Kafka adaptation, "Arkadin" employs a strategy of whirlwind movement, distorted camera angles, and geographical disorientation to keep the viewer constantly off-balance. The story hops constantly from country to country and the locations are so grandiose and baroque (castles, ruins, etc.), Welles' detective story takes on a science-fiction quality: the Martians may have landed at Grover's Mill, New Jersey, but you can just feel them hot on Guy's tail as he races from Amsterdam to Hungary to Spain and points beyond.

Welles was famous for his fondness for magic, but here he functions as a specific type of magician: a mesmerist. He hypnotizes the audience as director by never letting the viewer get his bearings; as soon as you figure out where you are, whoosh, it's off to the next exotic setting. The viewer is left only to trust Welles to serve as his guide in this whirling dervish universe. As an actor, his Rasputin-like Arkadin (complete with outrageously false beard) uses his magnetic stare and stentorian voice to bend everyone to his iron will. You will obey my every command! For those who fall under the spell, "Mr. Arkadin" is a sensual feast and a deeply engrossing film, perhaps not on par with Welles' greatest works, but eminently satisfying nonetheless.

Gregory Arkadin's background is baffling enough, but the film "Mr. Arkadin" is surrounded by its own tale of intrigue. As happened with many of his projects, Welles was never able to complete the film on his own terms. Welles re-worked his material long after the completion of principal photography. He re-wrote the script in the editing room and even dubbed voices (usually his own) over the characters' lines to the point where the lip movements don't even remotely match the spoken dialogue (this can be distracting at first, but actually contributes to the disorienting experience of the film). Welles' perfectionism tried the patience of many a producer, and in the case of "Arkadin," producer Louis Dolivet (a shady character in his own right) eventually took the film out of Welles' hands altogether.

Since then the film has been shown in multiple permutations, none of which can rightly be considered the "correct" version. There is no "Director's Cut" of "Mr. Arkadin," only competing versions. This three-disc set from Criterion offers three of these versions. The Corinth version has been the one preferred by scholars since Peter Bogdanovich tracked it down in 1960; the "Confidential Report" version was edited by Dolivet and released by Warner Brothers in 1956 (with the title "Confidential Report" instead of "Mr. Arkadin); and the new "Comprehensive Version," which draws on the best of many different versions, was produced exclusively for the Criterion release. This selection hardly exhausts the possibilities; there are also two Spanish-language versions: the "Mark Sharpe" version and the "Bob Harden" version.

(Some of you have seen "Mr. Arkadin" on the hideously awful Laserlight DVD release (the only Region 1 DVD of "Mr. Arkadin" I am aware of) and are wondering which of these editions it is. The answer: none of them! The Laserlight edition was yet another version usually known as "The American version." While there is no definitive version of the film, most critics agree that this badly butchered cut is inferior to the rest. )

If you're confused by now, don't feel bad. I told you this would take some explaining.

In most versions, the film begins with Van Stratten visiting Jacob Zook (Akim Tamaroff), a man who knew Arkadin from the old days which therefore makes him a potential target of Arkadin's wrath. The film is then structured as a flashback with Van Stratten relating the story to Zook. The primary difference among the competing versions is the way in which this flashback structure is preserved.

I don't have the time or space to detail all the differences between the versions. Instead, I will compare the opening ten minutes of the Corinth version and "Confidential Report" to give you a sense of how substantial some of the changes are. The basic structure is identical in both: after a few title cards, the film opens with a shot of an empty plane, then the opening credit sequence, Van Stratten's visit to Zook's apartment, and a flashback to Bracco's death on the docks in Italy.

In the Corinth version, Guy walks up to Zook's apartment under the opening credit sequence with the title music still playing. In "Confidential Report," these shots don't occur until after the opening credits have finished, in voice-over narration, Van Stratten tells us that he is here to save Jacob Zook from Gregory Arkadin's clutches. Then another switch. In the Corinth version, the flashback to Bracco's death includes Van Stratten's narration (as he tells the story to Zook); in "Confidential Report" this extended sequence plays with no voice-over whatsoever.

The Corinth version returns repeatedly to Van Stratten's conversation with Zook, thus structuring the film as a complicated series of flashbacks, much like "Citizen Kane." "Confidential Report" never returns to Zook until the story catches up with him near the end, and the film proceeds in a more standard, linear fashion (one big, well-ordered flashback instead of multiple smaller ones). The opening voice-over in "Confidential Report" establishes Van Stratten as a more traditional hardboiled detective, while the Corinth version preserves the sense of mystery well into the first scene.

The Comprehensive Version, on the other hand, opens with a shot of a dead body before showing the empty plane, but I'm not even going to go there. The Comprehensive Version was assembled by critics Stefan Drössler and Claude Bertemes, with the optimistic intention of creating a version closer closest to Welles' original intention. Drössler and Bertemes base their version on painstaking research of Welles' letters and interviews over the years, and they incorporate elements from virtually all versions of the film which makes their cut the longest at 105 minutes (Corinth clocks in at 99 min, "Confidential Report" at 98 min.) Both men admit that there is no real way to know what Welles would have done had he maintained control over the final cut, but they wanted to provide another perspective on "Mr. Arkadin." I am not certain that the addition of yet another version of "Mr. Arkadin" to the mix provides any clarity, but it provides Welles aficionados even more material to obsess and argue over.

There is much more to the "Arkadin" story, of course. The different versions each contain scenes or extended shots not seen in the others (e.g. the longer masquerade sequence in "Confidential Report"), and the jumbled ordering of the scenes in each version only adds to the confusion and fascination that is "Mr. Arkadin." I'll leave you to discover most of these smaller differences on your own.

The film contains further delights I can only hint at here. A lively and eclectic score by Paul Misraki provides a worthy match for the frenetic visuals. Colorful cameos by Michael Redgrave, Mischa Auer and Katina Paxinou add to the depth and charm of this cinematic tour-de-force, and Tamiroff's magnificent turn as the irascible Jacob Zook threatens to overshadow even Welles' brilliant performance. If there is any weakness in the film, it is the mixed bag that comprises Robert Arden's lead performance. He seems less assured than the rest of the cast, not a surprise since this was his first major film role. Van Stratten is a cottony-thin character ill-qualified to serve as foil to Welles' heavyweight champion, but Arden breathes a lean, feral intensity into the role. Guy Van Stratten isn't the smartest, the toughest, or even the quickest, but he is damned-sure going to survive at all costs, and he is improbably likable in the end even though his romance with Raina is never that plausible.

"Mr. Arkadin" should not be viewed as a minor Welles' offering, but rather as a central component in his body of work. This Criterion goes a long way to assuring a critical re-evaluation of this endlessly fascinating movie.

Video

All three versions are presented in their original 1.33:1 full-screen aspect ratios. "Confidential Report" has the best picture quality of all the versions, not surprising since this was the version most closely controlled by Dolivet and used an original 35mm source print. The Corinth version has usually been seen in a version struck from a 16mm source print. However, Criterion's transfer is mastered from three sources: a 35mm composite print, a 35mm duplicate negative, and a 16mm duplicate negative. The image in the Corinth version is a bit grainier and not quite as sharp, but is still very fine. The Comprehensive Version varies in quality since it draws on several versions of "Mr. Arkadin." However, whenever possible Drössler and Bertemes used the superior "Confidential Report" picture.

Audio

The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. Optional English subtitles support the audio which is (mostly) in English.

Extras

In their more sprawling boxed sets, Criterion often includes all the special features on an extra DVD. In this case, they have spread the features among the three discs.

DISC ONE: THE CORINTH VERSION

The Corinth version is the only one accompanied by a commentary track, this one by film critics Jonathan Rosenbaum and James Naremore. Each has written extensively on Welles (according to the disc, Rosenbaum has an upcoming book called "Discovering Orson Welles," which is exciting news as far as I'm concerned), and they complement each other well on this incisive and sophisticated commentary.

"The Lives of Harry Lime" was a radio show that ran from 1951-1952, written and acted by Orson Welles who reprises his famous role from Carol Reed's "The Third Man" (1949). Three episodes of the show are included here: "Man of Mystery" (April 11, 1952), "Murder on the Riviera" (May 23, 1952), and "Blackmail is a Nasty Word" (June 13, 1952). These episodes are a reminder that Welles made his fame first in radio, not with "Kane," and the episodes also include several plot elements that Welles later combined in "Mr. Arkadin."

"Reviving Harry Lime" is a short documentary (21 min.) featuring critic Simon Callow (who has also written extensively about Welles) who discusses Harry Alan Towers, the man behind the radio series.

DISC TWO: "CONFIDENTIAL REPORT"

"Men of Mystery" is a January 2005 video interview (25 min.) with Simon Callow. He discusses several of the personalities involved in the making of "Mr. Arkadin" including Michael Redgrave and producer Louis Dolivet (who comes with his own noir-style criminal background). A major chunk of this featurette revolves around audio interview material with Robert Arden.

DISC THREE: THE COMPREHENSIVE VERSION

"On the Comprehensive Version" is yet another video interview (20 min.) in which Stefan Drössler and Claude Bertemes discuss the guiding principles they used to compile the Comprehensive Version as well as the limitations in their approach. Peter Bogdanovich also shows up to remind us once again that he was really, really good friends with Orson Welles. OK, cheap shot. Bogdanovich was integral in getting the Corinth version distributed, so his approval for the Comprehensive Version carries some weight.

Disc Three also includes several outtakes and rushes (approx. 30 min. total) which are real gems for the Welles fan and/or film historian. Of particular interest is the footage of Welles acting and directing. Watching Welles direct his actors' every movement and inflection is a real blast, especially to those of us who are not great fans of "the Method."

Finally, there are two alternate scenes with Spanish actresses playing two key supporting roles. Welles filmed these to satisfy his Spanish financiers, and these scenes allow viewers to see pieces of the Spanish versions of "Mr. Arkadin" because, heck, you can never have too many "Arkadin"s!

THE BOOK

Just in case the three discs aren't enough, the Criterion set also includes a copy of the novel "Mr. Arkadin." The book is printed under Welles' name, but its true authorship remains in doubt. Welles once claimed he never had anything to do with an "Arkadin" novel, but he may have been teasing. The book may or may not be adapted (and translated) by film historian Maurice Bessy who worked with Welles from time to time.

A separate insert booklet features several critical essays, and helps explain the differences among the multiple versions of the film.

Film Value

Which version is the best? Each of the versions included here will have its proponents, and it is important to realize that there is no definitive version, no Director's Cut, and there never will be. For clarity of story-telling, "Confidential Report" is the best, but the Rube Goldberg design of the Corinth version fits better with Welles' razzle-dazzle visual style, and this is why I prefer the Corinth cut. The Comprehensive Version is too new for me to evaluate properly at this juncture.

In all versions, "Mr. Arkadin" is an impressive film. According to some Hollywood-inclined critics, Welles' career should be viewed as a tragic decline from the heights of early success. Welles may never have achieved the financial or critical success suggested by "Citizen Kane," but he produced phenomenal films throughout his career. "Mr. Arkadin" provides a sterling example of the great work Welles achieved in his mid-career incarnation as an independent European filmmaker. If it isn't a masterpiece, it's a near-masterpiece. In just about any version.

Ratings

Video
8
Audio
9
Extras
10
Film Value
9