Orson Welles’ Greatest Puzzle? – The Illusive Mr. Arkadin

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The problems faced by Orson Welles in finding funding for his post-Citizen Kane endeavours are the stuff of legend. There is perhaps no greater poster child for the fraught paths that many of his productions befell than Mr. Arkadin, aka Confidential Report, the filmmaker’s 1954 work. Mr. Arkadin came at the height of the director’s first stay in Europe, a period which began with Welles performing for Carol Reed in the English director’s The Third Man and also saw him tackle Shakespeare’s Othello. At the culmination of his time in Europe Welles took Mr. Arkadin in to production, thanks to financing from the French, the Swiss and the Spanish. The film itself was never actually finished, with the production taken away from Welles mid-way through the cut. As such, the film exists in a number of different iterations. There are three different cuts of the film, as well as a novel, purporting to be written by Welles himself, although suspected by some to be the work of a ghost writer, while the tale exists in a number of radio performances too. This startling situation led to the authorship of Jonathan Rosenbaum’s famous ‘The Seven Arkadins‘.  While the film may remain an incomplete iteration of Welles’ own doing, it’s impressiveness is no less softened. In fact, the contextual surroundings of the scenario itself arguably leads to the film being all the better for the dubious production from which it resulted.

Mr. Arkadin makes for a fascinating negative imprint of Welles most famous work, with the  whispered words of a dying man again providing the MacGuffin. But unlike with Citizen Kane, we, the audience, aren’t privy to the muttered information from the off, and due to the nature in which they are revealed we can never be certain that what we are told is the actual case. The narrative of the film plays out as a relayed tale being told to a woken man, who is later revealed to be one of the key players in the tale unfolding. This modular, jigsaw of an approach makes for a tonal experience that matches the material.

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Prior to the events that set the plot in motion Welles hints at things to come with the sight of an empty aeroplane flying across Spain, adopting the familiar aesthetic tone of the newsreel footage that served the director so well. And what a hook! Who could resist such an opening salvo? Mr. Arkadin is a subversive Noir, the type of which Welles helped to define with Citizen Kane and the later Touch Of Evil. It’s very much in the vein of Reed’s The Third Man, with the core notion of what a detective-driven Film Noir is and can be deconstructed from the offset. In Welles’ film it is the subject himself who employs the detective figure investigating his life, so as to be clear of just how well hidden the skeletons in his closet are. There are a number of striking similarities to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, both on the surface and underneath the hood.

Most unsettling are the Goya inspired masks worn during the film’s great party scene. As Robert Arden’s protagonist, Guy Van Stratten, makes his way through the masses of people gathered in Arkadin’s Spanish castle, he is surrounded by a great number of fellow revellers, with each of them wearing a mask-based disguise, as per the conditions of the costume party. This unsettling scenario leads to the introduction of the “ogre” himself, the titular Arkadin. This reveal comes twenty-four minutes in to the film, while it’s a further three before the figure is unmasked, itself delivered with a dramatic crash zoom; no mean feat considering Welles is, naturally, the top billed performer in the film (see also, The Third Man, Richard Fleischer’s Compulsion). He boastfully poses the tantalising quip-turned-question “Do you know how old I am? Me neither. That’s my secret” to Guy, a remark which ties the character to Welles in the most remarkably auto-biographical fashion. The myth weaving nature of the figure of Arkadin reflects Welles himself, with the plot of the film reflecting the plight faced by Welles biographers across the land, such is the amount of misinformation masquerading as Welles-biography out there. It is thought that Welles vocally performs no less than 18 characters in Mr. Arkadin, while it’s somewhat fitting that the final scene in which his Arkadin appears does so solely via voice, with the camera’s gaze locked firmly on a speaker.

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Aesthetically speaking, it’s a staggering scene that takes place in the bedroom of Raina Arkadin, the woman caught between Guy and the film’s titular protagonist, as Arkadin reveals the report he has commissioned on Guy that remains the standout. Told with a masterful use of deep focus, and resorting to not a single cut, the clear and sleek mise-en-scène is the polar opposite of what was dubbed by J. Hoberman as the “deep focus clutter” that dominates much of the rest of the picture. Intricate, claustrophobic sets are frequent: see, the antique shop that houses Michael Redgrave’s Trebitsch, through which the action takes place through a veil of taxidermic crocodiles and harps.

Ultimately it’s the multiple references to Arkadin as a Minotaur that sit as the greatest clues behind the mechanism of the film itself, with the figure of Arkadin akin to the mythical beast that treads the boards of the labyrinth that is his life. This is further extended upon by the puzzling nature of the film itself. In the quietly staged but terrifying sequence involving the Penitentes one cant help but think of Griffith, thanks to the nature in which the pointed masks of the Penitentes resembles the uniform of the Ku Klux Klan. One might wonder if Welles saw Griffith’s Hollywood narrative as a cautionary tale for his own in a way, with the once golden son of the movies cast aside in the face of studio politics. 

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One Comment

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  1. carl copeland 12/04/2013 — 8:40 am

    Great article. I agree it does have elements of a lot of his other films. Arkadin’s larger than life figure reminds me greatly of Kane. But some of the more lavish ballroom scenes for example remind me of Ambersons. I thought the camera work was extraordinary really provoking ideas that was apparent in the Trial. It’s maybe not as tightly put together like some of his other pictures. But like you say the production sounded damming from the off, but I still love it to say the least.

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