Wednesday, October 22, 2014

MR. ARKADIN (1955)

Hey, remember that Orson Welles movie about the mysterious, manipulative, all-powerful yet ultimately self-destructive tycoon? The one told in flashback? With the deep-focus black & white cinematography, striking close-ups, and memorable character actors in supporting roles?

It can be only one movie: Mr. Arkadin. Right?

Written and directed by Welles during his lengthy European sojourn in the 1950s, Mr. Arkadin is the probably the most obscure movie the great man ever made; it certainly appears to be the most low-budget. Alternately sloppy, brilliant, inexplicable, and hypnotic, Mr. Arkadin tells the story of the titular character -- played by Welles -- who claims not to remember his life before one winter's evening in 1927, when he suddenly found $200,000 in Swiss francs stuffed in his wallet, from which he started his financial empire. 

Arkadin hires Guy van Stratten, a low-rent criminal with underworld connections, to find out who he (Arkadin) really is and how he got that all that money. As Guy travels around the world digging up information, he finds Arkadin's past becoming even more puzzling. Especially when Arkadin himself starts tailing Guy -- and as the people Arkadin knew back in the day start winding up dead.

For all Mr. Arkadin promises -- and delivers -- its weakest link is front and center. As Guy van Stratten, Robert Arden gives the worst performance since the introduction of sound. Just what Welles, usually impeccable when it came to casting, saw in him is a mystery greater than the movie itself. I mean, Arden doesn't even move convincingly. It comes close, in fact, to becoming a parody of bad acting.

To be fair, however, Welles' script does Arden no favors. Guy's "hard-boiled" dialogue is closer to weakly-poached  -- again, nearly a film noir parody. Too, Welles appeared to have re-written some of Aden's lines after he completed filming, so that his own dubbed dialogue often doesn't match what he was originally saying. 

Then there's Welles' flamboyant performance. Not only does he speak with an accent difficult to identify -- which was perhaps the point -- his theatrical make-up is never quite believable. Thanks to his many close-ups, the phony nose, rouged-up cheeks, stiff beard, and hairnet under the wig are evident. Had he been onstage, it would be no problem. But three inches from a movie camera, he often appears to be what he really was: a 40 year-old playing a much older man.

And as long as we're talking about distractions, what do we make of Paola Mori as Arkadin's daughter Raina? Arkadin's obsession with her becomes that much more interesting when you learn that Mori was Welles' real-life wife. As for her acting skills, well, she's right up there with co-star Robert Arden.


Don't get me wrong.  Mr. Arkadin is never less than fascinating. For Welles understood the very look of cinema better than any director of his time. Not even the great Alfred Hitchcock was so visually consistent and fascinating. The scene with Arkadin and Guy's drunk girlfriend Mily in a rolling yacht; the grotesque close-ups; Arkadin's bizarre costume party. And, of course, there's the story itself, which pulls you in the same way Arkadin pulls in everyone around him.


Once the the boy genius of movies, Welles was, by the time of the Arkadin shoot, an outcast, thanks to his working style. Just give me your money, appeared to have been his typical pitch. In return, I'll go over-budget and over the scheduled shooting time. Then I'll disappear in the editing room for months on end -- and get distracted with another project -- until you get fed up and release it before I'm ready, which will probably be never, anyway. Look up the phrase "own worst enemy" and you'll see a picture of Orson Welles.

And so Mr. Arkadin's producer removed some scenes while re-arranging others, releasing it in Europe as Confidential Report, where it was immediately hailed as Orson Welles' best movie yet. A few years later, French cineastes named it one of the 12 greatest movies of all time. Now, you're likely to get a "Qu'est est ce Confidential Report?" from their grandchildren.


Under its original title, Mr. Arkadin saw its New York debut in 1962 before quickly disappearing. The American edit, told in flashback, is closer to what Welles had envisioned. But what was it really supposed to look like? Who knows? All I can tell you is that Mr. Arkadin, like The Lady from Shanghai, is an alleged "lesser" Welles production that despite its faults -- like the quite audible whirring of the camera on at least one occasion -- is worth repeated viewings.


No doubt Welles identified with the grand, larger-than-life puppet-master Arkadin. Most of his close-ups are shot from below, allowing him to loom over us like God. Outtakes reveal Welles giving precise line-readings to his actors, going so far as explaining how to hold their mouths after finishing their dialogue. You want to talk about a control freak? Welles dubbed in his own voice for at least 18 actors in the movie. Orson, lay off the caffeine for five minutes!


Welles' outlandish make-up itself might be a deliberate ruse. As written, Arkadin has done everything in his power to remain hidden from the world, even refusing to remove his mask at his own costume party or allowing himself to be photographed. After my second viewing, it hit me: Welles is supposed to be playing Arkadin in obvious disguise!... Or is he? Again I ask, who knows?

No surprise that his final movie, F for Fake, was a playful documentary about the art of fooling the public for fun and profit. Unlike Arkadin, however, Orson Welles had too much of the former and not nearly enough of the latter. 

PS: The name is pronounced Ar-KAY-din, not ARK-a-din. I made the same mistake, too

                                           *********************

No comments:

Post a Comment