A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Mr. Arkadin (Orson Welles, 1955)

"What if?" is the question that haunts every Orson Welles film after Citizen Kane (1941). What if Welles had had the financial, production, and distribution support for his films? Of none of them is the question more appropriate than Mr. Arkadin, which was edited by other hands than Welles's and not even shown in the United States until 1962, and at one point was said to exist in at least seven different versions. In 2006, the Criterion Collection released a three-DVD set that edited together all of the existing English-language versions of the film, following what was known of Welles's original plan, along with his comments on some of the other versions that had been released. It's probably as close as we're going to get to what the director had in mind. So what if Mr. Arkadin had been under Welles's control all along? Would we have a more coherent narrative and style? Would the protagonist, Guy Van Stratten, have been played by a more skilled actor than Robert Arden? (It's a role that would have been perfect for someone like William Holden.) Would Welles have called on the best makeup artists to provide him with a more convincing prosthetic nose and a wig and beard whose edges don't show? Would the function and the fate of Patricia Medina's character, Mily, have been clearer? And does any of this really matter? For what we have here, despite Welles's later description of the film (or its handling) as a "disaster," is one of the most fascinating works in his storied, troubled career. There are sequences that are haunting, even if their purpose in the film is unclear, such as the procession of the penitentes, who in their tall, pointed hoods look like exactly what Mily mistakes them for: "crazy ku kluxers." Or the Goyaesque masks at Arkadin's ball. Or the sequence of truly wonderful cameo performances, including a hair-netted Michael Redgrave as the junk dealer Burgomil Trebitsch, who keeps trying to sell Van Stratten a busted telescope (which he pronounces "telly-o-scope"). Or Mischa Auer as the proprietor of a flea circus. Or Katina Paxinou as a Mexican (?) woman named Sophie. And then there's one of Welles's most celebrated speeches, perhaps second only to his "cuckoo clock" monologue in The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949), in which Arkadin tells the fable of the scorpion and the frog. Though analogues have been found in folklore around the world, this particular formulation of it seems to have been Welles's own:
This scorpion wanted to cross a river, so he asked the frog to carry him. No, said the frog, no thank you. If I let you on my back you may sting me and the sting of the scorpion is death. Now, where, asked the scorpion, is the logic in that? For scorpions always try to be logical. If I sting you, you will die. I will drown. So, the frog was convinced and allowed the scorpion on his back. But, just in the middle of the river, he felt a terrible pain and realized that, after all, the scorpion had stung him. Logic! Cried the dying frog as he started under, bearing the scorpion down with him. There is no logic in this! I know, said the scorpion, but I can't help it -- it's my character.  
Perhaps it was Welles's character that betrayed him into making movies that flopped but turned into classics.