Friday, September 14, 2012

#322: The Complete Mr. Arkadin

(Orson Welles, 1955)

Excepting people like Jean Vigo and James Dean who died young, there is perhaps no career in film history more tragic than that of Orson Welles. Director of the greatest second greatest film ever made, Welles followed up his debut with another masterpiece in The Magnificent Ambersons. Yet this film was massacred by the studio, who eliminated nearly half of the running time and butchered what was left, leaving a husk of Welles's intended work. Tragically, this was a harbinger of how his career would continue, and the rest of his oeuvre is filled with  severely altered works, half-made epics, and a long trail of never-made screenplays and treatments.

Although The Magnificent Ambersons and Touch of Evil often get more attention for their checkered post-production history, Mr. Arkadin is certainly the greatest mystery in Welles's career. Made in 1955, the film went through multiple iterations in its initial release across Europe and the US. The famously contrarian Cahiers writers declared it better than Citizen Kane upon its release, despite the fact that the cut they saw was not finished or approved by Welles. Viewing that version now, along with the Criterion version that attempts to most closely approximate Welles's original intentions, it seems almost laughable that anyone would compare this film to even Welles's secondary classics like the two mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph, let alone to his greatest masterpiece.

The biggest problem with Mr. Arkadin is Robert Arden, the lead. He's simply terrible, stammering and hamming his way through what might have been a moderately enjoyable role had it been tackled by anyone competent. The addition of his narration in Confidential Report makes it even worse, since it becomes even more his picture (though the awkward cuts in this version are its real downfall). Welles is equally hammy in his fake beard and on-again off-again accent, but he was always able to carry off even the cheesiest performance with a knowing wink and childlike enthusiasm.

The story of the film has some real appeal, and it's easy to see why Welles would have been interested in making it - there's a sort of Citizen Kane-through-the-looking-glass thing going on that I dig. Still, this probably wouldn't warrant a release if it wasn't for the various elements and different cuts that make this a worthwhile boxset. Then again, if it wasn't for all these disparate versions, we might have a singular, far better film - something said all too frequently about Welles's output.

By the way, I wonder why Criterion would upload the inferior Confidential Report to their Hulu page, rather than their own "definitive" edit, which they must certainly have the rights to. It's rather annoying, I think.

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