Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Mr Arkadin (aka Confidential Report) (1955)

After reading My Lunches with Orson the collection of talks that Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles had over a series of lunches I’m convinced that no biography or story (even by Welles himself) really is the truth concerning the man. Yea they may get the fact right of where he was and what films he did, but there is so much more that is going on and so many legends and half remembered bits floating around that its all merged into a collective half-truth and now it’s impossible to really know what’s real.

I mention the in ability to know what’s true because the question of truth is a free floating thing both in the film Mr Arkadin (aka Confidential Report) and the various versions of how the film ended up being cut. Thankfully Criterion has put out one hell of a set that brings together multiple versions of the film, plus the novel in an effort to sort out which is the real Arkadin.

The film, in all it’s versions, is said by many people to be Welles remaking Citizen Kane as a crime drama. The plot has Arkadin hiring Guy Van Stratten to travel around the world and put together his past which he says he's forgotten. The trouble is that as Van Stratten talks to people they end up dead. Someone is cleaning up Arkadin’s past.

I’ve seen the film any number of times in I don’t know how many different versions. I had always thought it was just the result of various prints in the public domain floating around, little did I know that the film had been cut and recut over the years by Welles, by the producers, by other people. Everyone had their reasoning for doing so. Criterion’s edition has the so called Corinth version, a version entitled Confidential Report and a relatively recent reconstruction that tries to make the perfect version. There are differences, explained in the copious extras, but ultimately the basic story remains steadfastly the same.

I’m not going to go into the differences of versions nor am I going to go into the extras which ultimately require a review of their own (come on there are multiple commentaries, bits with Simon Callow talking about Welles and documentaries all full of information and all worthy of discussion) instead I’m just going to talk about the film itself. I’m just going to talk about the film as if it’s one film and not multiple versions.

I’m not sure that the film can rightly be called a remake of Citizen Kane. It certainly could be considered inspired by or influenced by in that we have a man looking into a rich man’s past, but that’s as far as it goes. The lives of the two men are very different, one is an outright criminal the other just a rich man adrift. The purpose of the investigation is different as well in Kane it is to find out about the man as human being, while the other is to find out who knows what and eliminate them. In Kane we are interested in the foibles of human existence while Arkadin is a look at the dark things men do. Comparing them is kind of like comparing similar recipes ingredients. Just because some are the same it doesn’t mean the outcome will be the same.

Arkadin has the typical independent Welles feel. Lots of close ups, star black and white photography and a soundtrack that is best described as interesting. Made cheaply the sound in Welles’s film such as this, Othello, Don Quixote and other films from his long days in the wilderness seem to be separate and apart of the rest of the film. I know part of it was the result of bad recording on set or simply no sound recording. Welles post dubbed many of his films, often using his own voice since the actors weren’t available or didn’t speak English.

In Arkadin the weird sound actually works in the films favor since it creates a great sense of dislocation. Van Stratten‘s trip is a trip down the rabbit hole. Once he begins to look into who Arkadin is he is literally in another world. It’s the world that he has kept hidden. In a weird way the fact that characters speak with Welles voice works in the films favor since it makes it seem as if  Arkardin is inside them.

Is this a great film? What night is this? My feelings for the film go up and down. There are times when I really love the film and others not so much. It has very little to do with which version I’m seeing, to be quite honest I could never hope to tell you which version is which or which version is better. Yes I’ve gone through all the versions in the Criterion edition- but largely to listen to the commentary tracks. I’ve enjoyed the film every time and I expect to enjoy it several more times down the road. But is it a great film? As with all of Welles’s film for me it depends on the night.

(For the record probably the two best films Welles did is Touch of Evil and F is For Fake, if only that my opinion doesn’t swing that far from where I can say I really like them.)

I’m not one who holds Welles in any sort of mythic status and find the man, as glimpsed in Jaglom’s book much more interesting. I’m still trying to figure out where the love of Kane and Welles started and why it persists. It certainly is a good film and Welles is good filmmaker, but the reverence some people have for him is troubling. Reading Jaglom’s book there is an interesting exchange where Welles ponders do people hold “great” things because they are great or because they have been told they are great. One gets the sense that he felt we have to constantly keep evaluating the things and people we hold as great. I’m all for that.

As for Mr Arkadin, It’s a very good film made by a very good filmmaker. Forget the myth of Welles, forget that it echoes Kane and just take it on its own terms and you’ll be surprised to find it a very good, very B thriller.

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