These notes accompany screenings of Orson Welles’s Mr. Arkadin (aka Confidential Report) on September 19, 20, and 21 in Theater 3.
By the time Mr. Arkadin (aka Confidential Report) finally arrived in America in 1962, the career of Orson Welles (1915–1985) had undergone more highs and lows than a roller coaster constructed across the expanse of the Himalayas. Citizen Kane was a commercial failure, but everyone with eyes must have been aware that no director had ever made such a striking debut. (Even the man Welles cited as his mentor, John Ford, had devoted two decades to apprenticeship before beginning to realize his full potential.) Welles’s second great masterpiece, The Magnificent Ambersons, had been yanked away from him and slashed to ribbons by Robert Wise. The trusting Welles had left the project after shooting in order to help the American war effort in Latin America, but that project proved abortive. Much of Welles’s footage for the Latin American film was finally shown in 1993 in It’s All True, partially through the efforts of Myron Meisel, a friend of MoMA’s Department of Film. Welles himself was disappointed with The Stranger, a film he made largely to prove to the Hollywood studios that he could be a loyal team player, not the maverick of his reputation. Still, with all its limitations, The Stranger remains one of the best pictures of 1946, a particularly fruitful year for Hollywood. Before finally moving to Europe, he made one more underappreciated masterpiece, The Lady from Shanghai, and a low-budget Macbeth, the least accomplished of his forays into Shakespeare.
During this whole period Welles supported himself as an actor, in films like Jane Eyre and The Third Man, and working for other directors—sometimes for the likes of Sacha Guitry, but all too often for lesser Hollywood hacks. Some of the money he earned enabled him to shoot sequences for his brilliant Othello (which finally appeared in 1952), mostly in Morocco and Venice. Except possibly for Welles’s later Chimes at Midnight (Falstaff), which was also made under problematic pressures, Othello remains the greatest rendering of the Bard on celluloid. (This is not to minimize the substantial contributions of Laurence Olivier, Peter Brook, Roman Polanski, Franco Zeffirelli, Julie Taymor, and others. I just have a hunch that Will and Welles shared a similar vision of the world.) Welles had managed to play virtually every major Shakespearean character, and several minor ones, in his stage productions in the quarter-century after 1932 (when he turned 17). Although Arkadin came out in Europe in 1955 as Confidential Report, it took seven more years to reach our shores, and it had been butchered and battered in the process. Meanwhile, Welles had a triumphant return to Hollywood with Touch of Evil (thank you, Charlton Heston), plugged away at his never-really-completed Don Quixote, and admirably played various roles for John Huston, Richard Fleischer, and even Abel Gance.
So, was Mr. Arkadin worth waiting for? Yes, I think so. It still retains enough Wellesiana to fit nicely with his other work. Like Citizen Kane, it is about a very rich and powerful man’s efforts to thwart an investigation of his past. (Welles would play a similar character, Mr. Clay, in his 1968 adaptation of Isak Dinesen’s The Immortal Story, the last of his narrative films to be released.) Shot over an extended period of time in a half-dozen different countries, it offers memorable performances by Michael Redgrave, Akim Tamiroff, Mischa Auer, and Katina Paxinou. It does suffer from being sandwiched between masterpieces (Othello and Touch of Evil), but, language aside, Arkadin has its own elements bordering on Shakespearean tragedy.
Ultimately, Mr. Arkadin, like every Welles tale (except The Magnificent Ambersons), is about the director/actor himself. As Andrew Sarris wrote, each of the films “is designed around the massive presence of the artist as autobiographer…he is always at least partly himself, ironic, bombastic, pathetic, and, above all, presumptuous.” Perhaps “presumptuous” is unfair, but consider all of Welles’s ordeals in getting his films made, often in conflict with his ideals—reflected in the internal scuffling of Kane and his successors in later films. As William Faulkner admonished, “An artist is a creature driven my demons. He don’t (sic) know why they choose him and he’s usually too busy to wonder why. He is completely amoral in that he will rob, borrow, beg, or steal from anybody and everybody to get the work done.”