Thursday, June 01, 2006

Let's Drink To Character... The Tale of Mr. Arkadin

Acapulco, it ain't...
You first hear what sounds like a harmonica, then the screen fades in on a female body on the beach

The screen then fades to black, only to be replaced by a quote, which reads:
"A certain great and powerful king once asked a poet 'What can I give you of all that I have?'
He wisely replied, 'Anything, sir...except your secret.'"

Then another fade-in on a small private airplane, flying high over Spain.
The inimitable voice of Orson Welles tells us that:
On December 25th, an aeroplane was sighted off the coast of Barcelona. It was flying empty. Investigation of this case reached into the highest circles, and the scandal was very nearly responsible for the fall of at least one European government. This motion picture is a fictionalized reconstruction of the event leading up to the murder, and to the appearance, last Christmas morning, of the empty plane.

Thus begins the “Comprehensive Version” of Mr. Arkadin, one of the most puzzling and intriguing films in the history of cinema.  You soon find yourself watching a tale of power and the past, a powerful man who is himself mysterious and takes great pains to keep it that way. The tale is of one Guy Van Stratten, globe-trotting “entrepreneur” a smuggler, adventurer, gigolo and wanna-be tough guy, someone who is more resourceful than bright, who is granted the gift of two names from a dying man.  The names, Van Stratten figures, will perhaps give him some leverage with the powerful and mysterious Mr. Gregory Arkadin, multi-millionaire and overprotective father to a strong-willed young girl. Arkadin soon hires Van Stratten to make a “confidential report” all about Gregory Arkadin for, with all his might and power, Gregory Arkadin does not know who he was prior to 1927. The resulting investigation and what happens next may prove the end for Mr. Van Stratten when he realizes, maybe too late, the lengths to which Arkadin will go to keep the past buried from his daughter.

There’s also another tale, one that has been told before, of a director, one of great creative power and perhaps an even greater reputation, having his work removed from his hands in the editing room only to watch as his work goes out into the world in several misshapen forms.
Both tales are told again, perhaps with more insight, for Criterion has released The Complete Mr. Arkadin, a 3-Disc DVD set which includes the two most complete versions and a “Comprehensive Version”, which was reconstructed using the best from all existing edits of the film, following, as close as can be determined, Orson Welles’s original editorial concept and wishes. Add to this stills, cut scenes, a full length commentary for the Corinth version, three radio broadcasts that formed the basis of the resulting movie and three short documentaries, plus a paperback copy of the novelization by Welles (which was, in all probability, ghostwritten by Maurice Bessy, based on Welles’s screenplay).

I first “met” Mr. Arkadin on VHS, under the title of Confidential Report which was included in a two-pack (along with The Third Man) of VHS tapes from Madacy, a public domain film distributor. Now I’ve always been a Welles fan, even though I have to still see some of his major works (The Magnificent Ambersons, Journey Into Fear and F For Fake are still on my “must watch sometime” list) and I remember seeing Criterion’s laserdisc edition (Confidential Report, which I learned later, was the European cut) so I plunked the 10-15 bucks for it. It was disjointed. It was very roughly dubbed. But I was hooked. The story was like something out of Eric Ambler (the plot has been compared to The Mask of Dimitrios) but it also seemed to get through it’s plot it’s own peculiar way. It is unmistakably an Orson Welles film and even in it’s reedited state (more on that later) I could follow it. The fantastically odd characters. The hero who doesn’t know when he’s getting in over his head (he seems to me like a slightly less bright, slightly more crude cousin of Jack Nicholson’s J. J. Gittes in Chinatown). The dense post-war Europe atmosphere. And at the center, a phenomenally rich, omnisciently powerful man-monster. An old-fashioned barbarian with the veneer of old-country charm and the soul of a poet. A man so adept at pulling the strings of someone as low-life as Van Stratten he can do it by memory. Van Stratten never had a chance. Unless…

You see, the Ogre (as his daughter Riana calls him), feels very protective of this progeny. So much so that it would devastate him for her to think anything but good of him. And that could be Arkadin's undoing, so Van Stratten better wise up - fast.

This is also the story of one Orson Welles, former wunderkind of Hollywood, working as he can in Europe, trying to make films with his own unique vision, destined to be tossed off of films and being recut ad infinitum.

The story of Mr. Arkadin starts in 1954. Welles has had been wildly successful portraying Harry Lime in Caroll Reed’s film The Third Man and has been approached by a radio producer to do a radio series with the character for the BBC. One of the scripts for the show was one titled Man of Mystery, about a multi-millionaire Gregory Arkadin, who hires Lime to do a “confidential report” on him. Welles, impressed by the story, decides to make it the basis of his next film, becoming partners with a somewhat shady and socialist-leaning man named Louis Dolivet. After shooting, Welles proceeds to edit the film but, furious at Welles for taking so long, Doliviet breaks up the partnership and bars Welles from the cutting room. Doliviet then proceeds to have it cut with others, and Mr. Arkadin/Confidential Report goes out into the world. This means that there was never an “official director’s cut” of the film.

When I got this set I was ready for a great experience, but I didn’t realize the profound effect it would have on my film viewing. This film, to me, is the Dead Sea Scrolls of motion pictures. The pieces are there; what others have made with it is open to debate.
One thing I came away with was a new appreciation of the art (and it is an art) of film editing You truly can make or break a film in the editing room. Another thing that struck me is how, through all the permutations (the Corinth version, which is probably the truest version up until this set, Confidential Report, with it’s partial dismantling of the flashback structure), through all the cuts, the story still makes sense. From what I found out, Welles was constantly changing his mind, on set and in the editing room, partially as a ploy to keep others from trying to piece it together in any other way except his way. While he wasn’t completely successful in that regard, what he did give us is a story that doggedly tells it’s tale the way it wants to – the way Welles wanted to.

There are some that say that Welles tried to dazzle the audience with flash, mirrors and that Wellesian barnstorming, that what lies at the heart of this film is a third-rate pulp novel.
And what’s wrong with that? It didn’t stop him from taking another potboiler (Badge of Evil) and use the patented Welles Style to turn it into the first-rate noir Touch of Evil. It also never stopped Hitchcock to take a minor horror story and turn it into the classic Psycho. It was known that Welles loved pulp fiction and it probably amused him to take such mass-market material and try to turn it into Art.

Now as to the supplements, they’re surprisingly meaty, even for a Criterion set:

  • Three versions of the film, all in newly restored high-definition digital transfers; the Corinth Version (newly found by Peter Bogdonovich), Confidential Report and the “Comprehensive Version”. Aside from a few instances of dust (which looks like that was from the original negative) all three look pristine and in 1:33:1 aspect ratio.
  • Audio Commentary on the Corinth Version by Welles scholars Johnathon Rosenbaum and James Naremore. They know their stuff and provide a lively, in-depth look at the writing, direction and production, not to mention info about some of the (in)famous people in front of and behind the camera (they also make a great point that Welles saw himself as a failed Hollywood director when, in actuality, he was a successful independent director).
  • A half-hour interview with Welles biographer Simon Callow, featuring an audio interview conducted in 1980 with Robert Arden (Guy Van Stratten). Callow’s a bit cold, but it’s a good place to start for those unfamiliar with the story behind the film. The Arden interview gave a good insight on Welles working methods. He comes across as very warm and happy to be talking about this significant point in his career.
  • Three half-hour BBC radio episodes of The Lives of Harry Lime, the show which was the springboard for the film. The audio isn’t great on them, but they are a fun listen.
  • An interview with Harry Allen Towers, the man who produced The Lives Of Harry Lime for the BBC, on how that was conceived and how he got Welles involved. This was fun. The guy is getting on in years, but he’s still sharp and has some wonderful stories to tell about the BBC, Welles and The Third Man.
  • A new documentary about the Comprehensive Version featuring the two gents who put it together, Stefan Drössler and Claude Bertemes, with a few comments by Peter Bogdonovich. This (and commentaries) is why I love DVD extras – it was fascinating learning what they went through to keep it true to Welles. A bit of an odd way of doing it (they basically interview each other), but great nonetheless.
  • Still Gallery – a lot of shots on the set and elsewhere.
  • Outtakes – now this is great – among these are clips (with sound) of Welles directing Robert Arden and Paola Mori. How often do you get to see examples of a great director at work? Priceless.
This one could easily be the DVD of the Year. Only someone like Orson Welles could see the potential of a slightly cliché script and then have the cojones to treat it like Kane. A lot of films present us with a Director’s Cut; Welles gives us The Director’s Puzzle. And, like all good puzzles, half the fun is in putting it together.

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SteveTP said...

Nicely done.

The collection sounds fantastic, but i'm still sort of on the fence... Welles give sme a headache. I just don't know what to do.

That said, Touch of Evil is amazing ;)

Smokestack Jones said...

Steve, do it. Worth it just for the extra stuff. I know you're up in the Great White, but it's still worth it. MSRP is 75.00 CDN but has it for 59.99CDN. Also DDD has it for 39.86US. Dunno the rate of exchange, but DDD wiill ship for 5.95 flat fee.


SteveTP said...

Our exchange is actually pretty awesome now! Like 91 cents to the american dollar. I may look into DDD. I shouldn't have to pay a customs fee on something so cheap.

jgodsey said...

WOW....great review..obsesse much?

Smokestack Jones said...

Hey Joyce,

Thanks. Obsessed? Me? Never! :-)

I always get that way when I get to champion a good film that everyone forgot.

Besides, I actually got someone on one of my RPG boards interested in it.


Steve-O said...

Nice review... so when are you going to write one for my blog Noir of the Week? You can signup at the back alley noir message board. We love having different voices write them.... stop by sometime.