In considering this quirky and delirious movie and book by Orson Welles, I am reminded of Winston’s Churchill’s quote about pre-war Russia: “It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key.” Arkadin tells the story of a rich man who tasks another with investigating his early life as he claims to be suffering from amnesia. We begin with a plane flying blind without a pilot …
I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo; Katie’s 2014 Book to Movie Challenge at the Doing Dewey blog (for review links, click here); and Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at Sweet Freedom.
“I watched this strange game of cops and robbers, as though I were solely a spectator, as though it was something I was seeing on the movies”
This is basically a simple story of an adventurer who tries to squeeze some money from one of the world’s wealthiest men via his daughter. But in the telling this became a globe-trotting fable of fallen heroes, not-so-innocent princesses and sad but dangerous ogres that on screen can be quite hard to follow but which on the page was more streamlined, more straightforward and actually quite compelling. But why all the confusion? Well, thereby hangs a tale …
“Van Stratten,” he said, with a heavy sigh. “It’s impossible for a man like you to realise what it is to have a conscience … and no memory at all … To be ashamed of something you can’t even remember …”
Also known in Europe as Confidential Report, any viewer’s reaction to this tale of dark deeds in post-war Europe will vary considerably depending on which version they get their hands on. This is because the Arkadin movie has been released in many, many different versions, either told (like the book) in a linear and strictly chronological fashion, or narrated in a fragmented flashback. The basic plot remains the same: Guy Van Stratten is an American adrift in Europe, making do as a small-time smuggler. One night he and his girlfriend Mily (the late Patricia Medina, later
to be, in private life, Mrs Joseph Cotten) find Bracco, a small-time crook, on the dock dying after being literally stabbed in the back. Shortly before expiring the man whispers a secret into her ear. The killer is apprehended but Van Stratten gets arrested for illegally importing cigarettes. After getting out of jail he tracks down Mily, who tells him that the secret was two names: and one belonged to the rich and powerful Gregory Arkadin (Welles). Van Stratten tracks him down by charming his beloved daughter, Raina (played by Paola Mori, later Mrs Welles in private life, though her voice was ultimately dubbed by Billie Whitelaw). Arkadin, to get rid of her suitor, tasks Van Stratten with a job – to compile a report on himself, claiming to have no memory of any events prior to 1927.
“This is the real secret van Stratten. And you’re the only human I have ever told it to. I don’t know who I am.”
What follows plays like a pulp noir version of Citizen Kane as Van Stratten researches Arkadin’s shady past, travelling to Germany, Monte Carlo, France, Denmark, Switzerland, New York and Mexico, to interviews those who played a part in it – who then start being bumped off. Soon Van Stratten is also on the run after poor, sweet-but-dim Mily is also killed. The story in the film is mainly a series of interrelated vignettes as we meet some very eccentric characters (cue several star cameos). These inlude a Danish drug addict flea-circus owner (played by Mischa Auer), a Dutch antique dealer (Michael Redgrave), a French black marketer (Peter Van Eyck), a Polish baroness (Suzanne Flon in English-language prints), a white slaver now living in Mexico (Katina Paxinou) and so on. Van Stratten travels all over the globe in his quest – but all roads lead back to the imposing Spanish castle where Arkadin lives with his daughter. There is a sort of fairy tale atmosphere to this very tall tale, which certainly suits the baroque shooting style that is full of expressionist styling and extravagant camera moves.
“And that was all that was known about him, his name: in the bottom right-hand corner of a check, or at the foot of a contract.”
The history of the genesis of the Arkadin novel is almost as convoluted as its plot. Though the novel is credited solely to Welles, it now seems clear that it was originally put together from an early draft of his screenplay for serialisation purposes as a prose tie-in and was actually written in French by film journalist and screenwriter Maurice Bessy, and later translated by persons unknown into English. To make it even more complicated, Welles’ original draft, known as Masquerade, had been derived from three episodes he wrote for his radio show The Lives of Harry Lime, in which he reprised (by way of a prequel) his celebrated role from The Third Man. Some question also attaches to who exactly was responsible for those three scripts but let’s avoid that blind alley … the episodes are ‘Man of Mystery,’ which is the main source (and you can read that script online here) and to a lesser extent, ‘Murder on the Riviera’ and ‘Blackmail is an Ugly Word.’ All three radio plays (together with the other 49 episodes of the show) are available online for free from the Internet Archive, and begin with the memorable intro from Welles after the sound of a gunshot:
“That was the shot that killed Harry Lime. He died in a sewer beneath Vienna, as those of you know who saw the movie “The Third Man.” Yes, that was the end of Harry Lime but it was not the beginning. Harry Lime had many lives. And I can recount all of them. How do I know? Very simple – because my name is Harry Lime”
The book offers Van Stratten as a fairly cultured individual who truly falls in love with Raina early on and his world odyssey in the dark past of Arkadin serves to point to the similarities between the two men and the woman they both will do anything to please. Raina comes across as quite compelling too as a strong-willed young woman barely at the end of her teens. The chronological telling helps build suspense as we learn who killed Bracco on the docks of Naples and what Arkadin really did in his youth and we really want the affair with Raina to succeed. What the book can’t do is deliver the visual splendour of the film, with its jagged editing and many extraordinary images that were Welles’ metier. Van Stratten in the film is much less appealing – cocksure, crude and obnoxious – which makes the film harder to like but makes it easier to see the connections between the two men. The film is a minor marvel but the book, a lesser work not least for its bastardised origins, is much better than a ‘mere’ novelisation. In its own way it is surprisingly compelling and different from the film too as we learn a lot more about the narrator (a lot of time is devoted to his mother for instance) and also has many of its own eccentricities (it is obsessed with smells) and I heartily recommend it, even to those who have not seen the film.
DVD Availability: Plenty of DVDs out but most of them are very poor indeed. Only the Criterion edition is really worth having as it has the three main versions and a bounty of extras including many new video interviews. In Italy the Confidential Report version, which is usually the best one to go for otherwise in terms of picture quality, has been released on a decent-looking Blu-ray in a dual-language edition but sadly with no extras. A new (2021) German Blu-ray includes the three cuts of the film in HD but no extras other than a commentary in German.
Mr Arkadin (aka Confidential Report) (1955)
Director: Orson Welles
Producer: Louis Dolivet
Screenplay: Orson Welles
Cinematography: Jean Bourgoin
Art Direction: Orson Welles
Music: Paul Misraki
Cast: Orson Welles, Robert Harden, Patricia Medina, Michael Redgrave, Paola Mori, Akim Tamiroff, Katina Paxinou, Mischa Auer, Peter Van Eyck, Jack Watling, Suzanne Flon
I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo in the ‘Man in the Title’ category: