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The Immortal Story

The Immortal Story(1969)

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Synopsis: In 1860s Macao, Mr. Clay, an aging, wealthy merchant,inhabits a villa previously owned by a business partner and rival whom he bankruptedand drove to suicide. Unable to sleep, he asks his clerk Elishama Levinsky, a PolishJew who fled the pogroms as a child, to read to him at night. Elishama reads fromthe prophecies of Isaiah but Mr. Clay objects, saying that he wants to hear storiesthat actually happened to people. Mr. Clay himself relates the story of a sailorwho was paid five guineas by a wealthy man to sleep with his wife. When Elishamasays that the story is in fact a commonplace legend, Mr. Clay arbitrarily resolvesto make the story come true whatever the cost and asks Elishama to hire a sailorand a prostitute to act out the roles.

The Immortal Story, Orson Welles' second-to-last completed feature,is an adaptation of the story of the same name from the revered Danish author IsakDinesen's 1958 collection Anecdotes of Destiny. Welles' screenplayis largely faithful to Dinesen's story, though the location has been changed fromCanton to Macao. Originally, the film was to have been just one episode in an anthologyof Dinesen stories filmed on location in Budapest; however, the initial financialbacking fell through--the sort of thing that plagued Welles throughout his post-CitizenKane (1941) career--and Welles was forced to flee Budapest without even moneyto cover his hotel tab. The French television company ORTF later agreed to producethe hour-long film for French TV since Jeanne Moreau played the role of Virginie,in what is easily the standout performance in the film. Welles' film was then releasedtheatrically in other countries after its initial French broadcast.

Isak Dinesen is the pseudonym of Karen Blixen (1885-1962). In 1914, Dinesen marriedher cousin, Baron Bror Frederik von Blixen-Finecke; the two moved to Kenya and ran a coffee plantation.Although the couple divorced in 1921, Dinesen stayed on at the plantation for anotherten years before returning to Denmark. She later wrote about her experiences in the 1937 book Out of Africa, an enduring classic in the memoirgenre. Dinesen typically wrote parallel English and Danish versions of her work,and thus should be considered as belonging to both English-language and Danish literatures.Welles' film was the first feature-length adaptation of Dinesen's work; subsequentadaptations include the little-known 1982 Italian adaptation of Ehrengard,the phenomenally popular, Academy Award winning Out of Africa(1985), and the well-regarded Danish/French co-production Babette's Feast(1987); the latter is based on another story from the collection Anecdotesof Destiny.

Although filmed in color, the visual style of The Immortal Story,with its deep-focus cinematography and striking play between foreground and background,is recognizably Wellesian. Some critics have also seen a deliberate commentary onWelles the director in the figure of Mr. Clay; however, in the book-length collectionof interviews conducted by Peter Bogdanovich, Welles flatly denied any such allegoricalsubtext, protesting that his aim was simply to adapt Dinesen's story.

The cinematographer Willy Kurant first worked with Jean-Luc Godard on Masculin,Feminin (1966) and has since alternated between projects for French directors,among them Agnes Varda, Alain Robbe-Grillet and Maurice Pialat, and miscellaneousAmerican TV movies and independent films. His most recent credit is the blaxploitationspoof Pootie Tang (2001). The scriptwriter, Louise de Vilmorin,is best known for writing the novel on which Max Ophuls' masterpiece Madamede... (1953) is based; she also wrote the screenplay for Louis Malle'scontroversial The Lovers (1958). The soundtrack for TheImmortal Story employs the delicately textured, pensive solo piano musicof Erik Satie.

The Immortal Story was released in the US in 1969 as part of a double-bill with another medium-length work, Bunuel's Simon of the Desert(1965). Like so many of Welles' later films, it polarized the critics. Penelope Gilliatt of The New Yorker praised the film for capturing theflavor of Dinesen's prose, adding that "[t]he film is composed with the formalpoignancy that Welles commands as no one else in the world can." Raymond A.Sokolov of Newsweek called the film "a virtuoso explorationof what can be done--and so seldom is--with color in the movies." Stanley Kauffmannof The New Republic characterized it as "another step inthe descent of Orson Welles," arguing that its direction "shows the marksof TV drama of the fifties." He also complained that Welles wore "his phoniest makeup since Mr. Arkadin [1955]" Renata Adler of TheNew York Times called the film "surprisingly ineffective in a feebleway," criticizing the acting in particular, though she did single out JeanneMoreau's performance for praise. On the whole, Welles scholars have since tendedto regard the film sympathetically. Joseph McBride compares its spare textures and"clear-eyed simplicity" to the late works of John Ford, Howard Hawks andCarl Dreyer. Recognizing its technical limitations, James Naremore nonetheless considersit a work of "modest but real virtue" as a television film. Welles biographerDavid Thomson calls it a "small, great picture."

Producer: Micheline Rozan
Director: Orson Welles
Screenplay: Orson Welles and Louise de Vilmorin
Photography: Willy Kurant
Art Direction: Andre Piltant
Editing: Yolande Maurette, Marcelle Pluet, Francoise Garnault and Claude Farny
Costumes: Pierre Cardin
Cast: Orson Welles (Mr. Clay), Jeanne Moreau (Virginie Ducrot), Roger Coggio (ElishamaLevinsky), Norman Eshley (Paul), Fernando Rey (Merchant).

by James Steffen

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