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Mr. Arkadin

Mr. Arkadin(1955)

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In 1952 Orson Welles was acting in the second season of a popular BBC radio seriesbased on his role as Harry Lime in The Third Man (1949). Welleswrote a few of the half-hour "Adventures of Harry Lime" episodes himself,including episode 37, "Man of Mystery," broadcast on April 11, 1952. The story opens with quite an intriguing hook:
One late afternoon a couple of years ago, a plane was sighted about seventymiles out of Orly Airport in Paris. It was a private plane, medium sized, and nobodywas in it; nobody at all. The plane, keeping its course steadily toward Paris, was flying itself. Why was it empty? Who had been flying it? And why, and underwhat circumstances, had they left it? Why? Thereby hangs a tale.

The plane had been flown by one Gregory Arkadin, who in the radio play employs Harry Lime to investigate his past, feigning amnesia. A year after the broadcast,Welles set out to adapt the story into a feature film. He later told Peter Bogdanovich,"One of the plots I thought up in a rush [for the radio series] was that plot- and I realized that the gimmick was super - it was the best popularstory I ever thought up for a movie."

The story, then: Guy Van Stratten (Robert Arden), a small-time hood and cigarettesmuggler, and his girlfriend Mily (Patricia Medina), are given two names by a dyingman on a dockside freight yard in Naples. They are told that the names are wortha small fortune. Mily seeks out one of the names - Gregory Arkadin (Welles), a mysterious and immensely wealthy financier, while Van Stratten attempts to strikeup a relationship with Arkadin's daughter Raina (Paola Mori). Arkadin has Van Stratteninvestigated to discredit him, then makes an intriguing proposal: he will pay $15,000to Van Stratten to investigate his past, claiming that he remembersnothing before 1927. Van Stratten proceeds to travel across the Continent interviewingpeople who knew Arkadin before he amassed his fortune. Unfortunately, these sameacquaintances also begin to turn up dead.

The financing for Mr. Arkadin came together thanks to Louis Dolivet,a wealthy dabbler in film production. Based in Paris in the 1950s, he had actuallyknown Welles since the mid-1940s, when they both championed Left-wing political causes in America. Welles' previous film, Othello (1952), hadbeen filmed haphazardly throughout Europe over a span of several years. Largelyself-financed, Welles filmed whenever he had earned enough money from outside projectsto reunite his cast and get cameras rolling again. The more tidy financing for Mr. Arkadin meant a quicker shooting schedule, though the moviestill shot for eight months in far-flung locations in Spain, France, and Germany.

The Mr. Arkadin script called for a colorful gallery of supportingcharacters, and Welles orchestrated a memorable series of bizarre cameos. The filmis highlighted, in fact, by such guest stars as Michael Redgrave, almost unrecognizableas an antiques dealer; Mischa Auer looking at his flea circus, as well as the world,through a magnifying glass; Katina Paxinou as the much sought-after Sophie, sad and nostalgic while thumbing through a photo album; and especially Akim Tamiroffas the final person on the hit list, anxious for his last meal of goose livers. (Tamiroff was a favorite of Welles - he was unforgettable as Uncle Joe Grandi inthe director's next film, Touch of Evil (1958), and was cast as Sancho Panza in Welles' unfinished Don Quixote).

Critics have often found fault with some of Welles' other casting choices for thefilm. Arden, who had worked with Welles on the Harry Lime andThe Black Museum radio shows in London, is stiff and unappealing asVan Stratten, though that was quite possibly Welles' intention for the character.Paola Mori was Welles' girlfriend and had appeared in a few Italian films, but wasinexpressive and spoke English only through a thick accent (her voice in this filmwas dubbed by Billie Whitelaw). Owing to the blank performances of Arden and Mori,there is little tension in the Arkadin-Van Stratten-Raina triangle. (More triviainvolving the leading cast: five years after filming Mr. Arkadin,seasoned actress Patricia Medina married Welles' best friend Joseph Cotten).

Like Othello before it, Mr. Arkadin also fellvictim to some technical deficiencies. Welles' full-blown false-nose-and-beard makeup tends to change shape from scene to scene, for example. The sound recordingin the film is particularly erratic. The dialogue often sounds muddy, whether itwas recorded on location or dubbed in after the fact. It is also disconcerting to hear Welles himself dubbing several actors in the film - not just the bit parts,but major performers like Auer.

Welles admitted that it took him three times longer to cut a picture than it didto shoot, and it was during the editing phase of Mr. Arkadin that he (once again) lost control of the film. Dolivet desperately wanted a Christmas1954 release, but as Welles missed deadline after deadline, Dolivet took the filmaway and had others finish the editing. Several scenes which delved into Arkadin'scharacter were eliminated, according to Welles, as was an elaborate flashback structure.Ultimately, several versions of the film were released, though a true director'scut does not exist. European versions bearing the title Confidential Reportretain something of the flashback structure, but a version released in America in1962 is cut to tell a straight chronological story. Due to the Spanish financing,yet another version exists with Spanish dubbing and a few substitute actors. Welleswas later to say, "More completely than any other picture of mine has been hurt by anybody, Arkadin was destroyed because they completelychanged the entire form of it: the whole order of it, the whole point of it - [TheMagnificent] Ambersons [1942] is nothing compared to Arkadin!"Of course, loss of the final cut of his films was a chronic (and according to some,a partially self-inflicted) problem with almost all of Welles' post-CitizenKane (1941) projects.

Mr. Arkadin, in any version, is disjointed and technically flawed,but contains flashes of brilliance and many memorable set pieces. As it featuresan investigation of the past life of a man of wealth and influence, some criticshave dismissed the film as a pale echo of Citizen Kane. Suchan attitude is short-sighted given the themes that Welles visited repeatedly in his oeuvre. After all, Welles' next film, the Hollywood-produced Touchof Evil, also features an outsider who shines an unwelcome light on the pastdoings of a powerful figure while jeopardizing his wife and encountering a varietyof bizarre and grotesque personalities along the way.

Producer: Louis Dolivet, Orson Welles
Director: Orson Welles
Screenplay: Orson Welles
Cinematography: Jean Bourgoin
Film Editing: Renzo Lucidi, William Morton, Orson Welles
Art Direction: Orson Welles
Music: Paul Misraki
Set Decoration: Gil Parrondo, Francisco Prosper, Luis Perez Espinosa
Costume Design: Orson Welles
Makeup: Roy Ashton
Cast: Orson Welles (Gregory Arkadin), Robert Arden (Guy Van Stratten), Patricia Medina (Mily), Akim Tamiroff (Jakob Zouk), Mischa Auer (The Professor), Paola Mori(Raina Arkadin), Peter van Eyck (Thaddeus), Michael Redgrave (Burgomil Trebitsch),Suzanne Flon (Baroness Nagel), Katina Paxinou (Sophie), Gregoire Aslan (Bracco),Jack Watling (Marquis of Rutleigh), Gert Frobe (Policeman).

by John M. Miller

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