Director: Orson Welles
"Mr. Arkadin has an insouciant air of what Welles might have done at a weekend house party if admirers asked him, Could you do a Citizen Kane again?"
—David Thomson, "Have You Seen . . . ?"
Even for an Orson Welles project, Mr. Arkadin has a strange, convoluted, and sad history. Written and directed by Welles, it was filmed in 1954 in several European locations and a studio in Madrid and then the eight hours of raw footage worked over in the editing room by Welles for several months. After more than a year without a final cut, the film was taken out of his hands by the producer, who had it re-edited as a straightforward chronological story without the flashback structure Welles had intended, retitled Confidential Report, and released at 93 minutes in 1955. It's important to keep in mind that at this point—before film studies and film schools became established parts of academia; before museum, repertory cinema, and film society retrospectives became common events—Citizen Kane hadn't been seen by most people for years. It didn't even make the 1952 Sight and Sound critics' poll of the ten best films of all time (although it has been #1 in every subsequent survey). Welles's reputation was basically that of a pompous has-been, so it probably never occurred to those involved in Confidential Report that they were vandalizing the work of one of the great geniuses of cinema.
Just three years later, though, Kane had been rediscovered, appearing in the 1958 Brussels World Fair survey as one of the twelve best films of all time, and Welles's standing elevated to that of one of the great cinema artists. Not to be outdone, in 1958 the young iconoclasts at Cahiers du Cinéma issued their own list of the twelve best films, and incredibly it contained not Citizen Kane but Confidential Report, the mangled version of Mr. Arkadin. Years after the film was finally released in the U.S. in 1962, I saw it while in college, and my reaction was that it was inconceivable that this rambling, barely coherent mess was the work of the man who had made Citizen Kane. In 2006 Criterion released what they called The Complete Version of Mr. Arkadin, compiled from several sources and more than twenty minutes longer than the release version. The Criterion reconstruction is essentially a new film, and to watch it for the first time is to discover an unknown masterwork by one of the greatest of all filmmakers.
The 2006 version restores the flashback structure Welles had envisioned, briefly teasing the viewer with two mysterious events—the body of a woman found washed up on a beach in Spain and an empty chartered plane discovered flying over Spain—before opening on Christmas Day in Munich. Here a young American, Guy Van Stratten (Robert Arden), is trying to convince a decrepit old man just released from prison, Jakob Zouk (Akim Tamiroff), that their lives are in danger from a millionaire named Gregory Arkadin (Welles). Desperate to convince the skeptical old man that they must act quickly to save themselves, Van Stratten then tells the story of how he came to realize this danger. The story proper begins with the peculiar last words of a dying man—one of which is the name Gregory Arkadin—whispered on a dock in Naples. The man has been murdered, and Van Stratten, an opportunist who senses in the situation money, possibly from blackmail, sets about pursuing the connection between the murdered man and the Aristotle Onassis-like millionaire Arkadin.
After tracking down Arkadin, Van Stratten finds himself hired by the enigmatic financier, who claims to be an amnesiac with no recollection of his origins, to investigate his early life. As Van Stratten travels across Europe and eventually to Mexico, he does locate several people, each of whom is able to supply one more piece of the jigsaw puzzle that is Arkadin's past. The only hitch is that right after Van Stratten interviews these people, each of them is murdered just like the man on the dock. Van Stratten belatedly realizes that he has been hired not to reveal Arkadin's history but to conceal it forever, that he is being used as a stalking horse to find those who know of Arkadin's disreputable and criminal past so that they can be eliminated. Finally, the only two people left to tell Arkadin's story are Van Stratten and Zouk.
With such a plot, it is impossible to think of Mr. Arkadin without comparing it to Citizen Kane, for it is in many ways a variation—some might even call it a semi-remake—of that earlier film. We have a dying man's cryptic last words, a flashback structure, the organization of the narrative as a series of episodes as an investigator tries to piece together the life story of a famous man by interviewing people from his past, the quest for the truth behind the façade of a mysterious public figure. Most obvious of all, we have the larger-than-life, almost mythic title character, the person who unites all the disparate pieces of the plot. With his by-now stout build, orotund voice and diction, and curly wig and square-cut beard, Welles seems like the statue of a Greek god come to life. I immediately thought of Zeus; a character in the movie remarks at one point that he looks like Poseidon. What an appropriate look for a man whose identity is essentially a self-created myth and whose power lies in his ability—in this case through money, violence, and manipulation of his public image—to control events. And Welles's rather theatrical acting style is a perfect match for this sinister, devious, and ultimately bogus character.
The reconstructed Mr. Arkadin becomes a real showcase for all of Welles's cinematic strengths. Like many directors who also are, or have been, actors, Welles gets amazing work from his fellow performers. The episodic nature of the film allows him to construct it as a series of set pieces focused on an individual actor, and he clearly encouraged each of them to pull out all the stops to create a memorably colorful character: Tamiroff as the dying, fatalistic Zouk; Mischa Auer as a flea circus master (I'm not kidding—Welles actually takes time to show the fleas performing as Van Stratten does his interview); Michael Redgrave as a pawnshop owner (in what appears to be a sendup of Alec Guinness's Fagin in Oliver Twist); Suzanne Flon as a down-on-her-luck aristocrat; best of all the inimitable Katina Paxinou (the poor man's Anna Magnani), with her raddled face, as the retired mastermind of a white slavery ring, now living in luxury in Mexico and whiling away the time playing cards.
The film also shows Welles's astounding ability as the complete cinematic visualist. You could turn off the sound, forget the plot, and just watch the images on the screen and still spend 105 minutes totally enthralled by what you're looking at. How many directors can that be said of? Murnau, von Sternberg, Eisenstein, Kurosawa, today maybe David Lynch and Terrence Malick—certainly no more than a handful in the history of cinema. In all of Mr. Arkadin there is not a camera placement, composition, shot, scene, or edit that is dull. Everything in the film is conceived to create and sustain maximum visual impact. If the ideas and narrative details of the film occasionally seem less than fully coalesced, the images never do, always underscoring that Welles was one of the cinema's great masters of visualization.
David Thomson calls Mr. Arkadin a "tattered" film. I agree with that statement, but I think the film's tattered nature suggests a lot about Welles's working methods. In Citizen Kane, Welles was reined in by a precision-engineered script that was pretty much tamperproof. But in his subsequent projects, he usually wrote his own screenplays, and the films which resulted from them plainly show that he had a huge problem controlling the chaotic profusion of ideas that poured from him. In a way, I see him as a victim of his own overexuberance, unable to limit his imagination, to select and focus on the pertinent details and discard the rest, or even to settle on a consistent vision of what he wanted. He was not only a man who couldn't make up his mind, but one who simply didn't know when to stop.
Watching Mr. Arkadin, I get the sense that Welles's working methods, at least when working from his own scripts, must have been more like those of a novelist than a screenwriter. He had a rough idea of the whole and a specific vision of some of the parts, but not a fixed plan of the film as a finished product. Like many novelists, he approached his films with a sense of spontaneity and improvisation, a faith in sudden inspiration that led to a willingness to expand, revise, change direction, and go with the creative impulse of the moment, to experiment with multiple approaches, to allow the work to evolve as it went along in the belief that it could all be shaped and edited into a coherent whole later. It seems that the process rarely turned out that way in the end, though, either because he grew tired of the project and moved on to something else or because his backers eventually became disenchanted with his lack of self-discipline and decided to take matters into their own hands. Maybe what really interested Welles was more the process of filmmaking than the finished product, and that is the real reason he so often had difficulty seeing a project through to completion.
Of course, all this is speculative. What is not is that Mr. Arkadin is a fascinating film that shows that with the right support, the post-Kane Welles was still capable of creating an immensely satisfying movie. Even if he needed help doing it, he was still clearly the source of the unique sensibility that shaped the film. That is in essence my understanding of the term auteur as it applies to filmmakers.