Monday, May 6, 2019

The Complete Mr. Arkadin

Criterion Collection, DVD, Release Date Apr 18, 2006
Review by Christopher S. Long

(In honor or Orson Welles's birthday, I present a review of a Welles film that doesn't get discussed nearly as often as it should.)

This is going to take some explaining.

“Mr. Arkadin” (1955) may be the work of a revered auteur, but Orson Welles’ under-appreciated gem proudly displays its pulp-fiction roots. All the lurid elements of the noir genre are in place: a peg-legged gunman, a would-be detective with a checkered past, his equally seedy girlfriend, a mysterious millionaire and his beautiful daughter, and a trail of corpses strewn across half of Europe.

Guy Van Stratten (Robert Arden) is a two-bit cigarette smuggler minding his own business in Italy when he encounters a dying man named Bracco who tells Guy and his girlfriend Mily (Patricia Medina) a secret that will make them rich beyond their wildest dreams. Problem is, Guy’s dreams are pretty wild, and he parlays this secret into a meeting with the beautiful Raina (Paola Mori, sometimes known then as Mrs. Orson Welles) who happens to be the daughter of the enigmatic multi-millionaire Gregory Arkadin (Welles) who also happens to be the subject of Bracco’s death-bed secret. Arkadin has a job in mind for Guy, he wants him to investigate the true origins of a man named... Gregory Arkadin. You see, Mr. Arkadin is so mysterious he doesn't know his own past, remembering nothing before a day in 1927 when he was wearing a suit and clutching 200,000 Swiss francs. I told you this was going to take some explaining. Guy isn't sure if Arkadin's amnesia is real or faked, but then the subjects he interviews start dying off, he has little time to worry about anything besides saving his own skin.

The plot is as delightfully pulpy as can be, but the real pleasure of the film is the kinetic frenzy that infuses nearly every scene. With its story about a reclusive tycoon, the film superficially resembles “Citizen Kane,” but a more proper point of comparison in Welles’s oeuvre is “The Trial” (1962). Like the later Kafka adaptation, “Arkadin” employs a strategy of whirlwind movement, distorted camera angles, and geographical disorientation to keep the viewer constantly off-balance. The story hops constantly from country to country and the locations are so grandiose and baroque (castles, ruins, etc.), Welles’ s detective story takes on a science-fiction quality. The Martians may have landed at Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, but you can almost feel them hot on Guy’s tail as he races from Amsterdam to Hungary to Spain and points between and beyond.

Welles was famous for his fondness for magic, and here he functions as a specific type of magician, a mesmerist. He hypnotizes the audience by never letting them fully get their bearings; as soon as you figure out where you are, whoosh, it's off to the next exotic setting. Welles is the only guide through the maelstrom, and pity the poor viewer who places their unconditional trust in him. As an actor, his Rasputin-like Arkadin (complete with a ludicrously F for Fake beard) uses his magnetic stare and stentorian voice to bend everyone to his iron will. You will obey my every command!

Gregory Arkadin’s background is baffling enough, but the film “Mr. Arkadin” is surrounded by its own tale of intrigue. As happened with many of his projects, Welles was never able to complete the film on his own terms, and he re-worked his material long after the completion of principal photography. Welles re-wrote the script in the editing room and even dubbed voices (usually his own) over the characters’ lines to the point where the lip movements often don’t even remotely match the spoken dialogue (this can be distracting at first, but actually contributes to the disorienting experience of the film). Welles’s perfectionism tried the patience of many a producer, and in the case of “Arkadin,” producer Louis Dolivet (a shady character in his own right) eventually took the film out of the director's hands altogether.

Since then, the movie has been shown in multiple permutations, none of which can rightly be considered the “correct” one. There is no official “Director’s Cut” of “Mr. Arkadin,” there are only competing versions. This sprawling three-disc set from Criterion offers three of these incarnations. The Corinth version has been the one preferred by scholars since Peter Bogdanovich tracked it down in 1960. The “Confidential Report” version was edited by Dolivet and released by Warner Brothers in 1956 (with the title “Confidential Report” instead of “Mr. Arkadin”). And the new “Comprehensive Version,” which draws on the best of many different cuts was produced exclusively for this Criterion release. This selection might exhaust viewers, but hardly exhausts the extant possibilities; there are also two Spanish-language cuts, the “Mark Sharpe” cut, and the “Bob Harden” cut.

In most versions, the film begins with Van Stratten visiting Jacob Zook (Akim Tamaroff), a man who knew Arkadin from the old days which therefore makes him a potential target of Arkadin’s wrath. The film is then structured as a flashback with Van Stratten relating the story to Zook. The primary difference among the competing versions is the way in which this flashback structure is preserved.

I don’t have the time or space to detail all the differences between the versions. Instead, I will compare the opening ten minutes of the Corinth version and “Confidential Report” to give you a sense of how substantial some of the changes are. The basic structure is identical in both: after a few title cards, the film opens with a shot of an empty plane, then the opening credit sequence, Van Stratten’s visit to Zook’s apartment, and a flashback to Bracco’s death on the docks in Italy.

In the Corinth version, Guy walks up to Zook’s apartment under the opening credit sequence with the title music still playing. In “Confidential Report,” these shots don’t occur until after the opening credits have finished when, in voice-over narration, Van Stratten tells us that he is here to save Jacob Zook from Arkadin’s evil clutches. Then another switch. In the Corinth, the flashback to Bracco’s death includes Van Stratten’s narration (as he tells the story to Zook); in “Confidential Report” this extended sequence plays with no voice-over whatsoever.

The Corinth version returns repeatedly to Van Stratten’s conversation with Zook, thus structuring the film as a complicated series of flashbacks, much like “Citizen Kane.” “Confidential Report” never returns to Zook until the story catches up with him near the end, and the film proceeds in a more standard, linear fashion (one big, well-ordered flashback instead of multiple smaller ones). The opening voice-over in “Confidential Report” establishes Van Stratten as a more traditional hardboiled detective, while the Corinth version preserves the sense of mystery well into the first scene.

The Comprehensive Version, on the other hand, opens with a shot of a dead body before showing the empty plane, but now I'm even confusing myself, so we'll leave it there. The Comprehensive Version was assembled by critics Stefan Drössler and Claude Bertemes, with the optimistic intention of creating a cut closer closest to Welles’s original intention. Drössler and Bertemes base their version on painstaking research of Welles’s letters and interviews over the years, and they incorporate elements from virtually all versions of the film which makes their cut the longest at 105 minutes (Corinth clocks in at 99 min, “Confidential Report” at 98 min.) Both men admit that there is no real way to know what Welles would have done had he maintained control over the final cut, but they wanted to provide another perspective on this labyrinthine project. I am not certain that the addition of yet another version of “Mr. Arkadin” to the mix provides any clarity, but it provides Welles aficionados even more material to obsess and argue over.

There is much more to the “Arkadin” story, of course. The various cuts each contain scenes or extended shots not seen in the others (e.g. the longer masquerade sequence in “Confidential Report”), and the jumbled ordering of the scenes in each version only adds to the confusion and fascination that is “Mr. Arkadin.” I’ll leave you to discover most of these smaller differences on your own.

The film contains further delights I can only hint at here. A lively and eclectic score by Paul Misraki provides a worthy match for the frenetic visuals. Colorful cameos by Michael Redgrave, Mischa Auer and Katina Paxinou add to the depth and charm of this cinematic tour-de-force, and Tamiroff’s magnificent turn as the irascible Jacob Zook threatens to overshadow even Welles’s towering performance. If there is any weakness in the film, it is the mixed bag that comprises Robert Arden’s lead performance. He seems less assured than the rest of the cast, not a surprise since this was his first major film role. Van Stratten is a reed-thin character ill-qualified to serve as foil to Welles’s heavyweight champion, but Arden breathes a lean, feral intensity into the role. Guy Van Stratten isn’t the smartest, the toughest, or even the quickest, but he is determined to survive at all costs.

“Mr. Arkadin” should not be viewed as a minor Welles offering, but rather as a central component in his body of work. This Criterion goes a long way to assuring a critical re-evaluation of this endlessly fascinating movie.


All three versions are presented in their original 1.33:1 full-screen aspect ratios. “Confidential Report” offers the best picture quality of all the versions, not surprising since this was the version most closely controlled by Dolivet and used an original 35mm source print. The Corinth version has usually been seen in a version struck from a 16mm source print. However, Criterion’s transfer is mastered from three sources: a 35mm composite print, a 35mm duplicate negative, and a 16mm duplicate negative. The image in the Corinth version is a bit grainier and not quite as sharp, but is still very fine. The Comprehensive Version varies in quality since it draws on several versions of “Mr. Arkadin.” However, whenever possible Drössler and Bertemes used the superior “Confidential Report” picture.


The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. The sound quality varies a bit, and the music can sound tinny at times, but overall, it's a solid effort. Optional English subtitles support the audio which is (mostly) in English.


Criterion has chosen to spread out the special features on all three discs.


The Corinth version is the only one accompanied by a commentary track, this one by Jonathan Rosenbaum and James Naremore, two of my favorite film critics. Each has written extensively on Welles, and they complement each other well on this incisive and sophisticated commentary.

“The Lives of Harry Lime” was a radio show that ran from 1951-1952, written and acted by Orson Welles who reprises his famous role from Carol Reed’s “The Third Man” (1949). Three episodes of the show are included here: “Man of Mystery” (April 11, 1952), “Murder on the Riviera” (May 23, 1952), and “Blackmail is a Nasty Word” (June 13, 1952). These episodes are a reminder that Welles made his fame first in radio, and the episodes also include several plot elements that Welles later deployed in “Mr. Arkadin.”

“Reviving Harry Lime” is a short documentary (21 min.) featuring critic Simon Callow who discusses Harry Alan Towers, the man behind the radio series.


“Men of Mystery” is a January 2005 video interview (25 min.) with Simon Callow. He discusses several of the personalities involved in the making of “Mr. Arkadin” including Michael Redgrave and producer Louis Dolivet (who comes with his own noir-style criminal background). A major chunk of this featurette revolves around audio interview material with Robert Arden.


“On the Comprehensive Version” is yet another video interview (20 min.) in which Stefan Drössler and Claude Bertemes discuss the guiding principles they used to compile the Comprehensive Version as well as the limitations in their approach. Peter Bogdanovich also shows up to remind us once again that he was really, really good friends with Orson Welles (at least for a while). Bogdanovich was integral in getting the Corinth version distributed, so his approval for the Comprehensive Version carries some weight.

Disc Three also includes several outtakes and rushes (approx. 30 min. total) which are real gems for the Welles fan and/or film historian. Of particular interest is the footage of Welles acting and directing. Watching Welles direct his actors’ every movement and inflection is a real blast, though perhaps traumatic for devotees of the Method.

Finally, there are two alternate scenes with Spanish actresses playing two key supporting roles. Welles filmed these to satisfy his Spanish financiers, and these scenes allow viewers to see pieces of the Spanish versions of “Mr. Arkadin” because, heck, you can never have too many Arkadins!


Just in case the three discs aren’t enough, this Criterion set also includes a copy of the novel “Mr. Arkadin.” The book is printed under Welles’s name, but its true authorship remains in doubt. Welles once claimed he never had anything to do with an “Arkadin” novel, but he may been teasing.

A separate insert booklet features several critical essays, and helps explain the differences among the multiple versions of the film.

Film Value:

Each of the versions included here will have its proponents, and it is important to realize that there is no definitive Director’s Cut, and there never will be. What we can say for certain is that more than ten years after this splendid, ambitious release, “Mr. Arkadin” is crying out for a Blu-ray upgrade. Just in case Criterion is listening.

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