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Welles, in Order #7 – Mr. Arkadin (a.k.a. Confidential Report)

Posted on Aug 11, 2014 by | 0 comments

MR. ARKADIN (1955)

You need bread crumbs to navigate Mr. Arkadin‘s production history. Based on three episodes of the radio show The Lives of Harry Lime, a short-lived series based on Welles’ character from The Third Man. And these episodes in turn provided the basis for the novel, released after the movie premiered, long-believed to have been written by Welles, who claimed to Peter Bogdanovich that he didn’t write one word of it.

The film itself has a number of different versions, which are largely defined by the chronology of the storyline. Some include the flashbacks, most notably the “Corinth” version discovered in 1961 by Bogdanovich and premiered seven years after the several alternative versions were released. The well-known European release was titled Confidential Report and dropped von Stratton’s narration; and several other sources note that the most widely seen version suspends the flashback structure and have a linear timeline. Critic Jonathan Rosenbaum notes that this the least satisfactory version, while the “Corinth” is the best.

All this is covered exhaustively in Criterion’s superb release, which includes the three episodes of The Lives of Harry Lime, the European Confidential Report release, the “Corinth” version, and their own “Comprehensive” version, which includes, mostly, everything. Added to that is a commentary by Rosenbaum and James Naremore, an interview with star Rob Arden, and even the bloody novel. It’s a beast, but well worth the money.

For reference, I’m writing on the Comprehensive version in the Criterion DVD.

And of all Welles’ films, I think Arkadin is the most unfairly overlooked. Granted its sordid version history hasn’t helped, but an excellent version has been available for over half a century and an even better version for nearly 10 years, so that shouldn’t be an excuse. Structurally, it’s more cohesive than The Lady from Shanghai and has more flashes of brilliance than the well-composed but disappointing Stranger. Reading about it, the Welles film it draws the most comparisons to is Kane, but I think spiritually it’s closer to Lady from Shanghai, which is Welles playfully indulging in pulp and sensation — more or less having a lot of fun, which is something every critic seems to ignore.

Mr. Arkadin opens with a quote, “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.’’’ As far as opening quotes go, this is a fine one to set up the film, which, naturally, deals in secrets, or, perhaps more accurately, a secret. Mr. Arkadin, as we’ll quickly learn, is, like the certain king, both great and powerful, and does, of course, bear a menacing secret. But Guy von Stratten, in this case the poet, is not so wise as to avoid uncovering that which, for great and powerful men, must remain buried.

In Arkadin, secrets (or more generally the past) are deadly. Like a keystone, if one is plucked from its bearer, the whole structure crumbles, destroying itself, he who removed it, and, if the structure is large enough, all those who rely on its stability — a point that is reinforced with the opening narration – an empty plane was spotted over Barcelona, and that, in so many words, led to an international incident whose consequences were so devastating that at least one country toppled because of it.

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Cut to a rather loud rendition of Silent Night, a typical Welles’ joke, then to a man framed in the doorway of a hollowed-out building, surrounded by snow-covered artillery, remnants of a war. In the background is a modern building. It appears that this town has had a rather nasty past, a past which the figure in the doorway is figuratively walking straight into.

He turns and enters a back alleyway, as the camera slides back, engulfing the light of another doorway in black. The man is looking for Jakob Zouk, dying man with no money whom someone nevertheless wants dead. The man introduces himself as Stratton, a self-described smuggler who did, like all men, whatever he could to get by during the war. He has a story to tell Zouk, and we enter a flashback within a flashback, framed with canted angles and frenetic cuts. Stratton and his girl were at the docks one night and spied a man with a wooden leg skulking among the cargo. A few minutes later, another man appeared, at first seemingly drunk, but revealed to be mortally wounded. As his murderer escapes, the man tells Stratton that he has a secret worth millions, whispering two names, one we cannot hear, the other, Gregory Arkadin.

The sequence is extremely stylized – even for Welles, feeling more at home in the Adam West Batman series, and that’s likely intentional, as it seems perfectly natural that Stratton would recall the scene with as much a lurid tone as his imagination could muster. However, part of this is also due to the editing, and I suspect that it’s simply the nature of the restoration, as the cuts get senselessly abrupt, particularly when it shifts from Stratton’s girlfriend back to Stratton.

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In any event, as that story wraps up, Stratton begins another, this time relating his first meeting with Arkadin, or specifically Arkadin’s daughter. And from the squalor of the present, we travel back a few months to the high society of Spain, where Stratton is still trying to track down Arkadin. Before hitting the nightclubs for his leads, however, Stratton finds that his former fling, Milly, is now working as an exotic dancer, Her purpose, whatever it may have been for Stratton, has been used up, and now, instead of being a piece of meat for one man, she’s a slab for many of the Spanish elite – which may be a step up in the world. At least Milly has no trouble gliding between the underbelly and the high society Stratton hopes to ground his weaselly paws into.

At the nightclub Stratton meets Raina, Mr. Arkadin’s daughter, and tries his best to seduce his way into her father’s company. It seems everyone at the nightclub is only there to ask something of someone else, and despite her suspicions, Raina eventually warms to Stratton. Yet their courtship is haunted by the presence of Arkadin, who appears omnipresent, whether hidden in the darkness of his car or behind his eye on the sky. And if it’s not the man himself, it’s his guards, his spies, or his castle.

One of the interesting themes of Arkadin is its treatment of the past, and the first forty or so minutes of the film, if not the entirety, is filled with visual representations of it, which go deeper and deeper as the first act progresses – from present-day to World War II (or Franco’s succession to power) to feudalism and, with the religious procession Stratton and Raina are caught in, the beginnings of Catholicism. Yet, as opposed to The Magnificent Ambersons, which views the past fondly, Arkadin is more grim in its representations. Our first image of the past is of artillery guns and war; the flashback recalls a murder; and Arkadin’s ever-present castle, contrasted with the peasants below, evokes a constant oppression.

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But the religious procession draws a few more interesting parallels. The only description we’re given for it is Raina’s, who explains that the shrouded men are atoning for their past sins, some walk barefoot while others are in chains, which I take to mean that some tread freely from the past while others are bound to it. Each one carries their own secret, and though they’re masked (which in turn parallels the coming masquerade), their secrets are hidden from the onlookers, but not, of course, from God. And this is similarly, I think, a parallel to Arkadin, who, up to this point, has been a Godlike figure, or perhaps more accurately one who sees himself as Godlike – and I don’t think it’s any coincidence that immediately before this scene he was spying on his daughter from high above.

But the point is the processioners, at least in their minds and despite their disguises, have nothing to dread from their secrets, as an atonement is a recognition and exposure of oneself to (again, in their minds) the only person to whom that secret matters, and it’s for him to judge. However much Milly may mock them as Ku Klux Klanners, they’re far better off than she and everyone else in Stratton’s cabel – a point made explicit in the following scene where Milly reappears and threatens to expose Stratton’s plan to Raina. Five minutes into his cunning plan, and Stratton already constrained by his secret.

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Raina and Stratton continue their courtship in the village below Arakdin’s massive castle, which looms over the two lovers as it does the village. Their fun is counterbalanced by the constant threat of Raina’s father who, though never appearing in person, seems to always be watching – when Stratton pulls Raina away for a kiss, he does so under an awning, away from the village eyes, but perhaps moreso away from Arkadin.
This all sets the scene for the masquerade, another of Welles’ magnificent set pieces, combining the ball in Ambersons with the funhouse in Lady from Shanghai. The ridiculously over-sized masks burst into each frame like an explosion of spores, reveling, cackling, uninhibiting. Welles keeps the camera on the people, showing us glimpses of Arkadin’s estate only to emphasize how choked with decadence it’s become.

Of course it’s a visual callback to the procession, but where those bearers of secrets wore modest masks, these fellows come straight from Dick Tracy – some refined, some coarse, all grotesque. I don’t want to sound too pointed in mentioning the idea that the masks are their true faces, because that should probably be obvious. So I won’t.

And finally, we meet Arkadin – with a mask that doesn’t quite broadcast a sense of fun. It’s rigid and cold, and doesn’t appear to have been donned voluntarily. And though it bears two devilish slits, there’s no trace of Arkadin’s eyes. Appropriately, his first words to Stratton are a warning not to remove his mask.

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Naturally, Arkadin already seems to know Stratton, and Stratton immediately thinks Milly has informed him, but, a few moments later, back at her hotel, she pleas that she hasn’t. And near-as-immediately after that, Stratton’s whisked back to Arkadin’s castle.

During their discussion, Welles never puts the two men in the same shot, cutting back and forth between them. As Arkadin reveals more about the job he wishes Stratton to undertake, he gradually moves his head, going from the left side of the face until it stares into the camera. Stratton gets closer with each cut.

And though this is the plot-making scene, I prefer the following, albeit long bit, of exposition on Arkadin’s yacht, which is a nice mix of comedy and suspense. I’ve gone on about Welles’ expository scenes before, and this will be no exception. While Milly and Arkadin pal around on his yacht, Milly gets progressively drunker and Arkadin more inquisitive. He wants to know what Stratton has on him and Milly, poor, poor Milly, simply can’t keep her fool mouth shut. As she stumbles up the cabin, victimized by the bubbling seas both outside and in, the camera tries to keep up, cutting midway during her lines. This technique recalls the funhouse in Lady from Shanghai and the bathhouse in Othello, where Welles jumps frantically to different perspectives and points of view, usually when there’s a lot of action – instead of shooting a person walking across the room, he’ll shoot their first step, then abruptly cut to them already across the room – all the while never breaking their dialogue, and thus suspending time and space. It’s a neatly jarring trick, but even more surreal is how Welles manages to keep Arkadin stable while the background sloshes behind him. And add to all of this is the tinny Russian dance tune interminably playing.

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Back to Stratton, who’s now in Copenhagen, and we go from a heavily expository scene, to one that has almost no connection to anything, being the first in a series of scenes that are largely why I love Arkadin: The flea circus. Certainly you can draw a thematic connection between Stratton, Arkadin, and everyone else thus far and the fleas, performing when they’re told to, but never quite knowing the significance of their duties; but the real fun is the indulgence. Flea circuses, North African cafes, and old curiosity shops – each one with their own strange owners -– they’re just fun to watch, and remind me of what I really enjoy about the previous films. The curiosity shopkeeper is a direct heir to Billy House, the shopkeeper in The Stranger who cheats at checkers. You could just as easily see the man spelling out names with dollar bills (or guilder, in this case); the smoky café, flexing danger, with its effeminate owner, is not too far removed from Arthur Bannister’s first meeting with Michael O’Hara in Lady from Shanghai; and the flea circus, well, those are some amazing fleas.

All of them, and the whirlwind of people Stratton goes on to interview, have such a sense of backstory to them – I could easily watch a movie centered around any one of them, and are in the vein of all those mysterious figures haunting the bars of adventure serials, and yet, they do serve a purpose other than mere amusement.

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While Stratton pursues his leads, Arkadin meets up with the Baronness, another woman with a shadowy past who may or may not have been part of a prostitution ring. While she and Arkadin discuss the mysterious Sophie, the second name mentioned by the dying man on the docks as now, albeit abruptly revealed, the conversation revolves around, naturally, the past. Both the Baronness and Arkadin have skeletons in their closets (or boudoirs), but the Baronness apparently wants to forget her past, yet she’s pretty candid about disclosing it. Arkadin, of course, wants to recover his but keeps his iron lips tightened. Still, there’s a warm side to Arkadin that we haven’t seen until now. He’s been a party host, an employer, a father, and an interrogator, but all those roles have emphasized his coldness and reserve. And even though he’s laying on the charm heavily in this scene, there’s a sense of the Baronness as a kindred spirit, perhaps because she came from a similarly impoverished background and rose to refinement, or maybe Arkadin’s a big softy for gypsy music, but, so far, this seems the most genuine he’s been so far.

And that tenderness clashes with the following scene, where Arkadin catches Raina in Stratton’s hotel room, or is it the other way around? I don’t know if the setup is intentional, but when the concierge informs Stratton that someone is in his room waiting for him, I immediately assumed it was Milly, and perhaps I had forgotten that she and Raina have a standoff, but, as I said, it’s Arkadin, which presents even more of a sticky situation, but it’s carried by Arkadin and Raina’s dispute. And though Paola di Girifalco as Raina received negative reviews at the time of the film’s release (even though she was apparently dubbed), I do like her performance – and character – very much. She and Welles play exceedingly well off each other (she did, somewhat creepily, become his third wife); she’s as stubborn as her father and has a way of wiping away his many facades when they clash.

The only drawback to the scene is Robert Arden as Stratton, who never quite reaches the same level Welles and Girifalco are playing. Maybe it’s the nature of the film, which saves its best bits for the background players, but Arden is easily the weakest, acting like he’s in an episode of Dragnet, and simply trying to get through his lines as quickly, though with ample petulance.

As noted earlier, Arkadin’s structure is often compared to Kane’s, perhaps negatively, as both center around the mysteries of a man’s life, but Arkadin is the fuller mystery and Stratton a full-fledged detective. He’s certainly not the most interesting character in the film, but he works as a highly reactive element. If he were simply a mute ferryman through the film’s cast of characters, much like the reporter in Kane, we wouldn’t see Welles’ gallery of intriguing characters at their weakest or strongest. If Arden can’t quite live up to the performers around them, at least he elicits reactions from them.

And perhaps this is best exemplified in his dialogue with the illustrious Sophie, which is the standout dialogue in the film. Katina Paxinou, a Greek actress and opera singer, has such an air of confidence and volatility that her Sophie could easily be Raina’s mother. Or at least Arkadin’s lover. Drenched in glamor, seated on her throne, and surrounded by few greasy mongols, the setting immediately describes her as a woman who has much but has lost so much more. She effortlessly ripostes Stratton’s cockiness by casually dropping names, places, and other facts he’s sweat so hard to gather. And Stratton, the fellow who hasn’t learned to keep his yap closed is finally put in his place. Welles shoots the scene between she and Stratton with Paxinou in the forefront, visually overtaking him.

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Listening to her history with Arkadin, how much she suffered and yet how much sympathy for him lingers from her, Welles fans will immediately be reminded of Marlene Dietrich in Touch of Evil. There’s such a life revealed in the five or ten minutes of this sequence, that my only regret is that Sophie’s life is a bit too defined by Arkadin. I think Welles had a keen sense in writing and portraying women, but I wish he could have thought of them as independent of men — Dietrich, as great as she is in Touch, is there to add another dimension to Hank Quinlin, and Dorothy Comingore as Susan Alexander in Kane serves a similar role. Even Elsa Bannister and Aunt Fanny are more or less defined by the men in their lives. Regardless, Sophie stills stands as a powerful character, and is my personal highlight of the film.

And after Mexico, Stratton travels to Germany – this is your standard travel montage with the usual digressions, but I would like to note that one of the police officers in Munich is played by the incomparable Gert Frobe.

Stratton’s search concluded, he returns to Arkadin’s castle for the annual Christmas party. As the film enters the final reel, the scenes begin to bookend – the opening shot is recalled; we see, once more, Stratton venturing to Zouk’s apartment, and even the masquerade is echoed in the Christmas party. I don’t know if it’s too useful reading into it, but almost every element from the prior party is reversed: where Stratton first had only a vague idea of what he intended to do, this time he has a purpose; where Arkadin’s first mask was cold and uninviting but his demeanor eerily cheerful, now it’s an eerily cheerful mask and he cold and uninviting; where the masquerade is shot and assembled like a jigsaw puzzle of the various party-goers, and which Stratton helplessly drifts through, this time his entrance is one take – he marches through the front doors, grabs his obligatory three glasses of vodka, (now a mere procedure instead of an amusement), and heads straight to Arkadin.

And even within the scene itself, the reveal of each murder victim is contrasted with the festivity – and this ironic juxtaposition may be acknowledged as too on the nose by Welles himself, who inserts a shot of darts hitting a board. I wouldn’t put that joke past Welles, nor the joke of Arkadin as Santa Claus, visiting houses all across the world, delivering…death.

Stratton rushes to warn Zouk, and now, his story concluded, he drags him through the apartment complex, itself winding and spiraling much like the story, and as his fate begins its sealing, there’s several more on-the-nose visual metaphors: Zouk, literally caught with his pants down; the clock ticking in the old women’s apartment where Zouk eventually hides; and the quite literal death bed he takes refuge in. But those stand out likely because they’re red herrings – Arkadin spares Zouk, at least for now. And the anxiety dies down as Zouk’s insistence on goose liver is a comic interlude that goes on for just long enough for the audience to realize that the punchline is going to be rather grim.

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And as Arkadin speaks Stratton, he delivers a speech about men who give and ask and don’t give and don’t ask. It’s fine, but it doesn’t really fit with the rest of the film, which is more focused on the secrets of the past catching up. It does, however, fit in with the final image of the plane, which, as others note, is a reference to Daedalus and Icarus, Daedalus in turn being a reference to the labyrinth, which, granted is a another of the film’s themes.

The penultimate scene in the airport, regardless, is a delightful sequence. Arkadin’s money, it seems, is no good here, and Stratton’s response, “Yeah, and I’m Santa Claus!” is a nice twist-of-the-knife callback to the Christmas party as is the poster telling the travelers to be with their loved ones for Christmas.

The final few moments in the film do feel somewhat rushed as Arkadin’s secret is exposed and Raina makes the decision between Stratton and her father. It doesn’t carry as much weight as it should, and I’m not sure why. Perhaps because she’s a sweet girl, and she’s forced to choose the lesser louse. That actually makes for a very interesting decision, but Welles doesn’t dwell on it. Even the emotional weight that should carry the scene seems divided between Raina and Stratton — and Stratton has gone out of his way to be as unlikeable a hero as Welles cast– and that includes Macbeth. Similarly, it’s difficult to feel sympathy for Arkadin because we’ve just been hit with the extent of his evil and so the film ends on a cold and dour note — I can’t imagine Stratton and Raina having a happy life together, since, as we’ve already seen, his relationships don’t tend to end pleasantly. Maybe it’s for the better that the end is hurried by, as it raises fewer questions, such as how Arkadin’s death led to the downfall of those countries we were promised in the opening. It’s a flaw, but not one that perverts the overall experience.

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And whatever flaws, I still greatly enjoy it, though I do seem to be somewhat alone in my admiration of the film. J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum, both writing for the Criterion box-set release, argue that Welles never had a clear idea of how the film should be structured, and I get a sense that both feel the film suffers for it.

Without contradicting their points (I think the flashback element adds immensely to the picture), I don’t think the film is defined by how Welles intended or did not intend it to be cut. Focusing exclusively on the structure overlooks the sheer fun Welles is clearly having with the set pieces, which are the parts of the film I enjoy the most. And while, as both also note, there are many parallels to Kane, I don’t think the superiority of that film should diminish the appreciation of this one. To be fair, neither explicitly say that it does, but that does seem to be lurking in the subtext of their pieces. To counter that, I recommend what I said earlier: That Arkadin be treated much like Lady from Shanghai or even the best parts of The Stranger – a series of exquisite diversions, which, in at least two of its forms, maintains a more solid structure than either film. (And it goes without saying that the structural integrity of this piece should diminish one’s appreciate of those two.)

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Next Time: TOUCH OF EVIL (1958)

Nat Almirall
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