Criterion // 1955 // 302 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart (Retired) // April 10th, 2006
"A certain great and powerful king once asked a poet,
" 'What can I give you of all that I have?'
"He wisely replied, 'Anything, sir, but your secret.' "
"You've gotta get this straight. If I'm going to save your miserable life for you, you're going to have to understand this story." -- Guy Van Stratten to Jakob Zouk
You've gotta get this straight. If Criterion is going to save and appreciate this lost classic movie, you're going to have to understand this story...
It actually starts with a 1951-52 BBC radio series, The Lives of Harry Lime, which starred Orson Welles as Harry Lime, the amoral con artist from The Third Man. One episode, "Man of Mystery," featured a story about a billionaire named Arkadian and his daughter. That Welles script and ideas from other Harry Lime episodes formed the backbone of a script for a new movie he was working on, which became known as Mr. Arkadin -- at least for a while.
On The Complete Mr. Arkadin, you'll find five versions of the story of the mysterious billionaire -- the episode of The Lives of Harry Lime radio series which first told his story, the Corinth version of the movie, an alternate European version retitled Confidential Report, a new cut believed to be closest to Orson Welles's vision, and a novel based on the story.
Film historians looking into the movie found more versions than that, since there were three English-language cuts to choose from and two Spanish versions that were also cut differently. Not only that, but the Spanish versions had different actresses playing two roles, part of Welles's efforts to meet the conditions of a financing deal. You won't get the whole Spanish-language editions, but you'll get clips of those scenes as well. Since there are two Spanish-language versions, there's potential for a nifty three-disc set in Spanish as well.
Just to top off the confusion, there's debate as to whether Orson Welles actually wrote the book Mr. Arkadin presented here. Robert Arden thinks he did, but Welles friend Peter Bogdanovich doesn't believe it. A biographer, David Thomson, believed the book to be some form of collaboration between Welles and Maurice Bessy, as the novel's preface explains. Since all versions of Mr. Arkadin began with hastily-written Harry Lime scripts, Thomson's impression would make sense...but who knows? There seem to be multiple text versions of Mr. Arkadin as well, since there was a short London Daily Express serial of the novel and a longer French serialization, according to textual information in this set.
Criterion put together quite a package, but it's not complete. It seems that nothing ever is when it comes to Orson Welles.
Two out of three times, we open on a plane flying without a pilot, as we're told in narration that this odd incident will have far-reaching implications. What's going on? The answer lies in a rundown rooming house, where Guy Van Stratten (Robert Arden, The Final Conflict, Call Me Bwana) finds Jakob Zouk (Akim Tamaroff, Touch of Evil, Alphaville). He tells Zouk that he hopes to save the man's life. Since Zouk is dying after years in prison, he's not that worried about it, but Van Stratten insists. First, though, Van Stratten has a story to tell, in flashbacks. From the way Zouk reacts, it sounds like Van Stratten might bore him to death before anyone else gets a crack at him, but our hero proceeds nonetheless...
Van Stratten recalls his first -- and last -- meeting with a man named Bracco (Grégoire Aslan, Our Man in Havana) who changed his life. Bracco is on the ground, dying, and offers to "give you something to show you my thanks." It's not money, but a pair of names. This teaches us a very important lesson: if a dying man offers you a gift "worth millions," ask for a tie instead; it's less deadly. Still, before Van Stratten can hear the names, the police cart him off and search his boat for smuggled cigarettes, but his girlfriend Mily (Patricia Medina, Francis, Zorro) listens as Bracco whispers his dying secret. Confronted by police, Mily tells them the first name -- "Gregory Arkadin" -- but denies that there was a second name.
Mily uses her skills at "le striptease atomiq" to get close to Mr. Arkadin, who has an eye for the ladies. Soon, she'll be a passenger on his private yacht. Meanwhile, Van Stratten is getting close to Raina (Paola Mori, The Trial, although her voice was dubbed by Billie Whitelaw, Quills, The Krays), Mr. Arkadin's lovely daughter. He meets Raina at a nightclub, then follows her to Arkadin's Spanish villa. By the way, the lovely Mori was married to Mr. Welles; at 15 years his junior, she wasn't quite young enough to be his daughter.
Van Stratten then crashes a masquerade party at the villa, with the guests wearing masks to represent figures from Goya paintings. Here, Van Stratten meets a masked man who turns out to be Mr. Arkadin himself. Mr. Arkadin (Orson Welles, Citizen Kane) takes Van Stratten to Raina's bedroom, an appropriate place to show the small-time smuggler the "confidential report" that a private investigator has made on Van Stratten. Mr. Arkadin calls Van Stratten a "petty adventurer" and wants him to have nothing more to do with his daughter.
Van Stratten goes to Mily's lodgings, blaming her for Mr. Arkadin's wrath. While there, he gets a call from the mysterious magnate, who wants to talk "business."
Mr. Arkadin spins a story of amnesia, telling Van Stratten he can't remember who he was before the winter of 1927, and asks the small-timer to do a "confidential report" on Mr. Arkadin. Soon, Van Stratten is traveling the world to answer Mr. Arkadin's question: "Who am I?"
Which version of Mr. Arkadin is absolutely true to Orson Welles's vision? None of them, actually. As is pointed out in commentary throughout, producer Louis Dolivet kept the great filmmaker out of the editing room. Given his auteur habits (like looping in his own voice over that of several of the actors) that predated French New Wave Cinema and other artistic movements, it's not surprising. The accompanying pamphlet notes that Welles lost control of the editing of other films, including The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil, and Don Quixote; it's disappointing when you get to see even the mishandled versions of his work. For the final version here, a lot of cinematic detective work was done, but the popularity of DVDs came too late: Welles is no longer around to do the editing himself.
"The sad thing about Mr. Arkadin is that every time Orson spoke about it, he always referred to it as the most butchered film of his whole career, that no version existed of it that was in any way what he intended, since he never finished editing the picture," longtime Welles friend and well-known director Peter Bogdanovich says in the documentary, "On the Comprehensive Version." Bogdanovich notes specific elements, such as seeing Mily's body on the beach in the opening, that never made it to any of the previously released versions.
The two pre-existing versions here -- the Disc One Corinth version (found by Bogdanovich in the hands of a TV syndicator) and the retitled, European-released Confidential Report on Disc Two -- are similar. Some scenes are rearranged slightly, leaving continuity or logic gaps, but the visual red herrings that Welles used to distract the audience usually hide the places where things don't fit together. The big difference that's harder to hide is a change in tone. The Corinth version repeatedly goes back to Van Stratten's conversation with Zouk, showing him with the old man who challenges him as he tells his story. As Confidential Report, the movie ditches most of the exchanges between Van Stratten and Zouk, trading them for voiceovers from Van Stratten. The Corinth version makes the telling of the story an essay in fear and heightens the parallels between young lowlife Van Stratten and the great man Arkadin. Confidential Report bends Welles's narrative into standard noir form, with Van Stratten becoming more of a standard-issue tough guy hero.
While it's not totally certain whether the changes turn the Comprehensive version into the movie that Orson Welles intended to make, what is presented is very similar to the Corinth version, but with a few grace notes that make the film stronger. The most noticeable are the changes that bolster Mily's character. First and most important, it's her body washing up on the beach that's the first image here, even before we see the plane flying without a passenger. One additional scene, in which she goes into the nightclub to find out what Van Stratten's doing with Raina, does a lot toward making clear Mily's motivation for getting involved with Mr. Arkadin: Rather than being a mercenary, she loves Van Stratten and wants to keep an eye on him as he moves closer to Raina. This movie also includes a key scene from Confidential Report, in which Mr. Arkadin tells a parable about friendships at his masquerade, that didn't make it into the Corinth version.
Mr. Arkadin is shot in black and white, a wise choice since the shadows give the film an extra air of foreboding that just doesn't come in Technicolor. The movie evokes noir themes, but the attention to detail, great European scenery, and elaborate set pieces such as two parties thrown by Mr. Arkadin give Mr. Arkadin a sense of grandeur, coming through even in Confidential Report, that doesn't come with noir. As for the picture quality, you'll notice a few lines and glitches but nothing that detracts from enjoyment of the film. Like The Third Man, Mr. Arkadin uses a zither to create its slightly exotic musical score. The sound's mono, but the music still comes through.
One of the things you'll notice from the start is that there's a lot to see in every scene. It comes early on as the camera tours Zook's tiny room, seeing all the clutter, or in the first action scene, as Van Stratten hears and sees a man with a wooden leg running. Soon, there's a jumble of images: guns being fired, police with searchlights, a train roaring through, and Bracco dying on the ground. In commentary, this is described as Welles's way of keeping the audience disoriented and misdirected, like the patter of a magician (another one of Welles's talents). The commentators note that you could miss something, so pay no attention to the man behind the screen and focus closely on the dialogue in these scenes. The effect of these busy scenes may also hint of the disorientation in the minds of Van Stratten and Mily as they fall under Mr. Arkadin's spell.
The visuals create the portrait that lasts of Orson Welles's Mr. Arkadin. When he introduces himself to Van Stratten for the first time, he's masked for his party so that the audience -- and Van Stratten -- are in the dark just a little bit longer. When we do see him, it's in close-ups that give the man with the wild beard the air of a Pan or Dionysius -- or perhaps a devil. As Van Stratten learns more about Arkadin's secrets, the devilish nature of Welles's visage grows more evident until we see him as Van Stratten sees him. Throughout, his air of menace and majesty fills the frame in close-ups and captures attention in any scene he's in. He's made even more imposing by frequent use of canted camera angles that made every room a place where sudden death is lurking. Welles's portrait of Arkadin is best summed up in a story Arkadin tells as Van Stratten is about to discuss "business" with him for the first time. It's the one about the frog and scorpion, in which the scorpion stings the frog that's helping him across the water because it's in his "nature."
The close-ups also reveal Van Stratten to the audience, as they show him battling fear and anger to defy the powerful man. Robert Arden's Van Stratten -- a stand-in for Orson Welles's Harry Lime character from The Third Man and The Lives of Harry Lime -- takes on the radio version of the Lime persona, who is smart, capable, and charming while retaining a toughness that says he's in it only for himself. He's no smooth operator, though. When Raina tells him her father doesn't want her to ever marry, he makes a promise: "As long as I live, I'll never ask you to marry me." Little bits like that show the rough angles that haven't been sanded off in his character, as they have in at least the radio version of Lime. True, Lime had a more continental air to him, but the constant references to Arkadin having been a minor tough guy like Van Stratten suggest that Welles intended Arden's rough spots as a contrast to his own smooth persona as Mr. Arkadin. Arden was one of Welles's radio repertory players, taking on various roles in the radio Harry Lime series.
Gregory Arkadin is always present in Mr. Arkadin. As Van Stratten travels the world checking his employer out, Mr. Arkadin is always just behind him, even interviewing a witness or two himself. Even before we meet him, he's present in a way as Van Stratten and Raina see the sights. Arkadin's "secretaries" are always spying on the couple, and she recognizes his plane flying over. Of course, this seemed like the logical point for Van Stratten to split, but then there wouldn't have been a movie.
Akim Tamiroff steals the show as Jakob Zouk, the comic-relief crook who serves as a Greek chorus as Van Stratten tells his story; his part shrinks dramatically in Confidential Report, but shines on the other two versions of the movie. Also notable in smaller roles are Katina Paxinou (The Trial, Confidential Agent) as Sophie, the object of Van Stratten's search, a former partner-in-crime of Mr. Arkadin who has a unique attitude toward sin and sinners, and Michael Redgrave (Goodbye, Mr. Chips, The Quiet American) as Trebitsch, an antiques dealer who doesn't sell information, but does sell overpriced broken telescopes to those who seek it.
Now, we turn our attention to the extras; as befitting the "Complete" title, there are lots of them here.
As mentioned, the story of Mr. Arkadin began with "Man of Mystery," an episode of The Lives of Harry Lime (Disc One). That episode (and the two others that cover themes used in Mr. Arkadin) are included on Disc One here. It's an economical, tightly-written half-hour with many of the movie's twists and turns. It's the same yet different, since Welles paints his portrait of Mr. Arkadin there with words, while using visuals to reveal his character in the movie. Although I found irritating sound dips on the "Man of Mystery" episode, these radio dramas are a worthwhile extra. If you haven't met radio's Harry Lime yet, check out what you've been missing.
I liked the stills gallery (Disc One) here, mainly because it has some good captions to explain the background behind the pictures. I was also amused by the Warner Bros. media kit that tells theaters how to market the film, part of which is included here.
As expected, the commentators on Disc One deliver a lot of details on the film's convoluted history. While his movie suffered at the hands of rogue editors and didn't make an impression on the U.S. box office, they note that it had an impact on filmmakers like French filmmakers Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut. You'll also find lots of details on how Welles "shot segments piecemeal" and worked with a low budget, even borrowing hotel furniture for a scene.
"On the Comprehensive Version" keeps track of the versions of Mr. Arkadin that exist and features director Peter Bogdanovich (who wrote the book This is Orson Welles), along with film historians Stefan Drössler and Claude Bertemes as they discuss the restoration process.
We only get a few tantalizing morsels here, but biographer Simon Callow did a "confidential report" on Welles himself, talking to everyone he could find who knew the late filmmaker. He does share one treasure, a voice interview from 1990 with Robert Arden, who shares details of Welles's style.
You also get to see Welles in action as an actor and a director through outtakes and rushes. They also show that he's a human being, since he flubs a few lines, just in case you thought he might actually be a Martian.
If you can't keep track of the versions of Mr. Arkadin without a scorecard, look in the package. The 36-page booklet is a scorecard of sorts, with essays detailing each version and a timeline.
Oh, yes...there's a book. It's sometimes melodramatic but still a breezy read, especially after watching the movie four times through. The flashback structure is lost here, replaced by a first-person retelling by Guy Van Stratten that evokes noir, with literate style (perhaps Welles's). You'll find some changes, though: Van Stratten's mother turns up in Europe here, he's more direct in his first meeting with Mr. Arkadin, and the scene in which Mr. Arkadin questions Baroness Nagel in the movie is reworked with the same dialogue coming from Van Stratten's mouth. The novel also de-emphasizes the character of Jakob Zouk. These are especially surprising since the book is a novelization of the movie.
The ending here, which revolves around a race between Van Stratten and Mr. Arkadin to reach Raina in Spain, is exciting, showing off Welles's skill at putting scenes together. However, thinking about it in the cell phone and e-mail age, you start to realize that even in 1955, they had long-distance telephone and telegrams. One anachronism aside, however, most of Mr. Arkadin is as fresh and exciting as it was back in 1955; the fall of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc only makes it more likely that a mystery man could emerge from those regions and rise to global prominence.
Trivia notes that I just had to wedge in here somewhere: Director Orson Welles's way of making the great Arkadin more imposing by not showing him early in the film got a sendup in a first-season Magnum, P.I. episode, with Welles as the voice of Magnum's powerful boss Robin Masters. As you may recall, the audience got brief glimpses of Masters, just enough to form a picture in the imagination.
Although he died in his first appearance and didn't turn up in Mr. Arkadin, Harry Lime came to life once again in a British TV series with Michael Rennie taking over the role. I haven't seen it, but a Web check indicates that you might find some cheap episodes of that version of The Third Man at dollar stores.
Now to the summation: Mr. Arkadin works well as a standard noirish thriller, as you'll note from the hammered-into-format Confidential Report. But the extra touches that appear in the versions closer to Welles's intentions show what a great director can do with the familiar, transforming it into a meditation on motives and the contrast between the polished Mr. Arkadin and the rough Guy Van Stratten. While the Comprehensive version may well be the best available version of Mr. Arkadin, you might prefer the Corinth version since it's the better of the two versions that saw original theatrical release. It best reflects what champions of the movie saw in the first place. You may be a purist, but what is pure today, years after Orson Welles's death?
To bring you this review, I've done four viewings, a listening, and a reading in one week. While Mr. Arkadin holds up to repeated viewings better than most movies, I still recommend that you take it slowly and savor the experience.
If you didn't find enough here to keep you fascinated, you might regret that there was never a Mr. Arkadin video game or comic book, but most of us will find this one...not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2006 James A. Stewart; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Golden Gavel 2006 Winner: #9
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 302 Minutes
Release Year: 1955
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Audio commentary by Orson Welles scholars Jonathan Rosenbaum and James Naremore
* An interview with Welles biographer Simon Callow, featuring his audio interview with star Robert Arden
* Three half-hour episodes of The Lives of Harry Lime radio series
* "On the Comprehensive Version" documentary, including interviews with historians Stefan Drössler and Claude Bertemes and with Peter Bogdanovich
* Outtakes, rushes, and alternate scenes
* Extensive stills gallery
* Mr. Arkadin novel
* Booklet with commentaries and timeline
* Wellesnet.com on The Lives of Harry Lime