Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Mr. Arkadin (1955)

The movie Mr. Arkadin has fascinated me for years. Written & directed by and starring Orson Welles, it is strangely elusive even while watching it. I've seen four different versions of the movie, including the "comprehensive version" assembled over fifty years after its original release, listened to the radio shows that inspired it, and browsed the English translation of the French novelization of the original script, and it still remains a rumour, a ghost.

In some versions, Arkadin opens with a short piece of narration about a plane that was discovered to be flying without a pilot. This is appropriate, as Welles was fired during post-production and it was completely re-edited without his involvement; no Welles-approved version of the movie exists. I'll never know how Welles would have put the movie together, so I have to piece it together in my mind.

The story is fairly standard for a noir-ish thriller: smuggler and general scoundrel Guy Van Stratten is hired by a tycoon to investigate his past, under the pretext of having amnesia; of course, the tycoon's old associates start turning up dead. What makes it interesting are the particulars, and also the structure: in most versions, the movie is mostly told in an elaborate series of flashbacks as the now-desperate Van Stratten tries to extricate himself from the situation.

While on the one hand Arkadin is one of Welles's more commercial directorial efforts - in most respects it's a straight thriller - it is experimental in a number of ways, especially in how it keeps audience identification at arm's length. There seems to be a deliberate effort to make the male leads as unsympathetic as possible; Arkadin is distant and sinister, while Van Stratten is a charmless jerk, and both are shown using and discarding people thoughtlessly. The visuals and the performances are also highly stylised. But it's also very pulpy, and at times almost feels like an artfully-made exploitation flick.

Welles himself is terrible in the movie, wearing a particularly ridiculous fake nose and beard. And yet, with the themes of masks and hidden identities crowding every corner, his ham acting and obvious make-up seem to work in the movie's favour. Robert Arden has taken a lot of knocks as Van Stratten, but I suspect he's exactly as Welles wanted. Paola Mori was capably dubbed by Billie Whitelaw, which isn't as obvious as it might have been since the whole movie is post-synchronised (with Welles himself dubbing half a dozen major characters). The best performance, in my opinion, is by Patricia Medina as Mily; she provides the closest thing the movie has to a human centre.

A good part of the movie is made up of Van Stratten visiting and interviewing a slew of bizarre characters, played by an interesting cast including Michael Redgrave, Akim Tamiroff and Katina Paxinou. Arkadin's character is assembled from bits of hearsay and stories, as well as what's implicit in the things that they don't quite say. This structure is dimilar to that of Citizen Kane, but in Arkadin the approach is deliberately more subjective. In the end, particularly as we don't have Welles's final version, he remains something of an enigma.

I have to wonder if I would find it as compelling if it had been finished to Welles's satisfaction. There is an uneasy sense throughout the movie that everything adds up to less than the sum of its parts, much as there is a sense that if we knew just a little more Arkadin himself would turns out to be less omnipotent and more ordinary. But there's always hope that there is a solution, a good one, hidden somewhere in the fabric of the movie. I'll keep looking until I find it.

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