Friday, August 21, 2015

MR. ARKADIN (1955)


Guy Van Stratten (Robert Arden) is a petty crook who is smuggling cigarettes in Milan. We first see him and his girlfriend Mily at night on the docks, on the run from cops, when they almost literally stumble across a dying man named Bracco, who was stabbed by a one-legged man. Bracco whispers the name "Sophie" and implies that if they can get to rich industrialist Gregory Arkadin and mention that name along with Bracco's name, they might make some money from Arkadin—we assume by blackmail. But when Van Stratten finally gets to Arkadin (Orson Welles, at right), by cozying up to his pampered daughter Raina, things take a different turn: Arkadin tells Van Stratten that his earliest memory is of standing on a street corner in Zurich in the winter of 1927 with 200,000 Swiss francs and no memory of his life before. So Arakdin hires Van Stratten to dig up whatever he can about his life before 1927. Traipsing across Europe, Van Stratten runs into a number of interesting characters who knew Arkadin and remember that he made his money running a white slavery ring, but soon most of these folks wind up dead and Van Stratten realizes that he might be next.

This infamous Orson Welles film has been released in a variety of cuts over the years, and because Welles had no hand in the final cut of any version, none of the films has been accepted as standard. The recent Criterion set has three versions of the film; the one I'm reviewing was released by Warner Bros. as CONFIDENTIAL REPORT. It is the most maligned of the three, largely because it simplifies the arcane narrative structure a bit, but having also watched the "Comprehensive" version put together by Welles scholars based on his notes, I think the Warners cut is actually better. No matter how many ways one puts the various pieces and parts together, the story is the same and there are some ambiguities present, and in my summary, I smoothed over some jagged edges. But despite reports that the movie is a mess, it's actually fairly easy to follow; what's not easy is understanding character motivations; everyone remains something of a cipher—Arkadin of course, but no character is really fleshed out, and Van Stratten remains about as cloaked in mystery as Arkadin, to the point where I think a movie about him might be almost as interesting as one about Arkadin.

Welles, spinning another CITIZEN KANE-type biopic about a mysterious but larger-than-life figure, has a good time hamming it up as Arkadin, wearing an eccentric beard and an obviously theatrical wig. The person with the most screen time is Robert Arden as Van Stratten. Critics tend to find his performance lacking, but I liked him a lot. Arden makes the character a little bit likable and a little bit despicable, and no smarter or dumber than he needs to be. Given that the screenplay gives him little help, he works wonders with his face and his often strained tone of voice. (Speaking of voice, the fact that probably 75% of the dialogue is post-dubbed—even though most of the actors are English speakers—is a burden to the viewer, especially since sometimes the dubbing is worse than that found in Japanese monster movies. I think it's worth trying to get past that distraction.) Patricia Medina as Mily and Paola Mori as Raina are both fairly weak as the potential femme fatales—and Medina's post-dubbing is particularly poor. A handful of character actors deliver strong support, including Akim Tamiroff, Peter van Eyck, Suzanne Flon (in a small role as a baroness, though she should have played Mily) and Katina Paxinou as the mysterious Sophie. Best of all is Michael Redgrave as a junk dealer (pictured at left, to the right of Robert Arden); he's about as close as the movie comes to any comic relief and though his character is not important, he's slyly riveting in his few minutes on screen.

As in any Welles movie, it’s worth seeing for its visual style alone. Cockeyed camera angles and close-ups abound, along with a strong film-noir use of light and shadow in many scenes. There are several bravura sequences beginning, well, at the beginning with the dock scene, followed by a grand and expensive-looking masked ball, and an almost nausea-inducing scene between Arkadin and Mily on his boat. Both versions of the film that I watched feel unfinished and a little raw in spots, but I think it's well worth making time to see a version of this. [DVD]

1 comment:

dfordoom said...

I've seen this film, or at least I've seen one of the many versions of it. It was bewildering but fascinating and as you say it's visually striking. I really should give it another go. I have no idea which version it was that I saw - it was an early Region 4 DVD release.