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Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Orson Welles' Euro Adventure

Part One of the Mr. Arkadin Saga

I looked at the "notorious" Confidential Report (aka Mr. Arkadin)because Hulu Plus streams it in HD, giving (or rather, selling) us at last a crisp rendered image of Orson Welles' forever truncated Euro thriller. But am I amiss calling it a thriller? OW had high hopes of his independent effort being conventional enough (as in entertaining for all) to make "packets of money." There'd be  optimism too for Touch Of Evil and similarly lowdown content. Both in fact were pulpy and Welles appreciated pulp. I like how he went off and did a trashy Euro pic after example of down-in-50's-dump Erich von Stroheim. Did they ever meet and discuss the parallel? EvS acted in French thrillers but didn't, to my knowing, direct any of them. Welles ran his Arkadin show as we wish he could have any number of ventures in which he too merely performed. Continental Orson was so prolific as to make me  wonder if there might be a vault-hidden feature he directed that nobody knows about.

Having multiple versions of Mr. Arkadin just increases the fun. Best not to worry which is definitive, or reflects closest Wellesian "intent." Key question: Is this a show for scholars, or can anyone enjoy?, or better put, is Arkadin boring? To me, not at all, maybe because it's never in one place for long, and I mean that in terms of countries,  OW having shot everywhere, speaking in close-up one place, then getting response from a thousand miles away. Ragtag Welles commands greater interest than slickest Hollywood output, but that's not news. Is Mr. Arkadin the movie we'd have ended up with had Orson been permitted to direct The Third Man? They overlap in ways, Third grimly by-numbers when you watch it beside Arkadin, except for OW's performance, of course.

The Third Man was what made it possible for Welles to do Arkadin, Harry Lime the signature role of his acting career (was there any other that so identified him?). Welles spun off the character to a radio series in the early 50's, and restaurants played the theme when he entered (did they comp meals as well?). That made a big impression on his visiting oldest child, Christopher. Welles was pleased with fame his Harry Lime conferred, arranging a father/daughter screening of The Third Man. He adapted parts of Arkadin from the radio scripts, it's said. Harry Lime dying at the end of The Third Man meant the character couldn't turn up in more movies, a regret. Could it still have been managed?, the early years of Harry Lime perhaps, before he became such a rotter. Possibly a Welles starring/directing series for Columbia, more-or-less B's, of course, but good for three to four a year, like ongoing Boston Blackies or Lone Wolves; a dumb notion, I suppose, as probably was my earlier suggest that Orson meg a fourth Creature movie for Universal-International. Blame my bad habit of re-imagining OW's career ...

He was himself an International Man of Mystery by the 50's, which explains the Lime glove fitting snug. Orson had to scare up his own cash to make pictures, and that's how he wound up a-bed with shady types who'd invariably turn on him and land the troupe in court. Did OW worry about litigation dropped on his stoop like morning papers? They would certainly have cost me sleep. He developed a line in schmooze to charm lettuce out of star-struck diners. Orson loved to eat, but most such meals were a waste of his valued time. A lot of big talkers matched him for blarney, each wanting something the other pretended to, but didn't necessarily, have (mainly $). A key moment in Mr. Arkadin is Welles telling the story of a scorpion and a frog. Being the sort of anecdote ideal for dinner banter makes me wonder --- did OW use the fable (in fact, devise it) for purpose of baiting investor hooks? I hear sixty-year-ago raucous laughter and visualize Orson hoping his table companion(s) will reach for a checkbook in addition to the check.

One among you must know: How many languages did Welles speak? I'd assume lots, as how else could he gadabout worldwide and engage crews surely not Yank conversant? I wonder too how actors felt about voices being dubbed later, often by Orson himself. And whether they got paid for work. So then you ask if his Arkadin cast ever saw the finished movie, but wait, it never really was finished, which is not to claim Arkadin didn't get a release ... there were several, but that's for Part Two. Let's just say you'd need to be a detective like Guy Van Stratten (played by Robert Arden) to locate Mr. Arkadin once the negative got wrested from Welles. For years it went largely lost and legendary, bulletins issued occasionally by Herman Weinberg in his Variety column, Coffee, Brandy, and Cigars, but virtually no (mainstream) place else.

Finally, there is a matter of screen ratio. Mr. Arkadin, says published timelines, was shot from early 1954 over a next eight months. There had to have been discussion about wider screens in America and what might (must) be done to accommodate them, the US market a vital commercial consideration. All the majors by 1954 had gone over to some derivative of 1.85 projection, if not wider Cinemascope. Orson Welles never directed a scope movie (really? What about those he shot around the house in latter years --- might Orson have experimented with anamorphic filming then?). He'd say in a later 50's interview that "all 'scopes' are zero," whatever that meant. If investors suggested Mr. Arkadin for open-matte with "safe" head room for later wide projection, would Welles have scoffed and called them philistine? And yet to do any feature without such protection by 1954 amounted to boxoffice neglect, for stateside theatres at least were busily masking screens and cutting apertures to wide fit, and they'd not go back. Did Welles spend much of 1954 making a movie that was obsolete from its first clapboarding?


Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer reflects on Orson Welles, Erich von Stroheim, and "Mr. Arkadin":

There is a marvelous book out now, "My Lunches with Orson: Conversations Between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles." Jaglom was a young director in the late seventies and a friend of Welles. Often they lunched together at Ma Maison and Welles, ever the brilliant reconteur, talked and talked. He allowed Jaglom to record some of the conversations, so of course, there is an aspect of performance about them. What makes the conversations fascinating, though, was that Orson was never shy about delivering opinions about nearly everything. Some were thoughtful, some decidedly less so, but always they were witty and pungeant. Reading the book, I found myself thinking from time to time, "That's utter rot, Orson" or "Nonsense." For example, he thought John Ford was vastly overrated and "The Searchers" a "terrible film." The thing is, however, is that he was acquainted with Ford and Spencer Tracey, Rita Hayworth, Peter Bogdanovich, Laurence Olivier, David O. Selznick, and lots of others, so when he spoke, it was not about what he read or heard but what he knew. Or thought he knew.

There doesn't seem to be anything about "Mr. Arkadin/Confidential Report" in the book, though I'd have to thumb through again it to be sure, as there's no index. He did meet Erich von Stroheim in Paris, though, when he and Charles Lederer wrote the screenplay for a crime caper von Stroheim was to star in. This might have been during the period when he was hustling money to finish "Arkadin." The producer didn't use a word of their dialog, but he did use the story. Since von Stroheim was a big star in France at the time, he and Lederer got paid. And Welles got to know von Stroheim very well, he says, and liked him immensely. Von Stroheim was a terribly nice fellow and maybe the greatest prop actor the world has ever known--at least according to a French script girl who worked on "Grand Illusion," whose word Welles had no reason to doubt. Von Stroheim could handle a cigarette case or monocle in take after, always on the same beat.Orson thought it a terrible loss, though, that von Stroheim became an actor instead of being able to make films, because there was a "gigantic gift, really." But maybe he found a certain parallel between their careers, and in that a tragedy, for himself as well as von Stroheim. Between quips and anecdotes during those lunches, he had his plans, but never really got anything going, except well paid cameos in movies and wine commercials, and a few fragments of his "Don Quixote."


7:57 PM  
Blogger rockfish said...

Thanks for tackling this engrossing - and sadly, neglected - mystery. Arkadin has all the elements of a Fellini noir, with OW's grander than life personality leading the viewer by the nose. Meandering, puzzling and downright preposterous, I think the film is a hidden classic. Thankfully Criterion pasted together as best a jumbled box of versions as we'll likely ever find.... Waiting, waiting Casablanca-like for the opaque ghosts of OW's cut of the Ambersons and a release of TOSOTW...

1:31 PM  

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