By Scott Ross
A tantalizing enigma, like its writer/director and star. Compromised as much as any Orson Welles production, by budget, sound problems — how that must have maddened him! — and lack of adequate post-production facilities, yet Mr. Arkadin is, with Citizen Kane, one of Welles’ two most perfectly entertaining movies. It was released in several versions, depending on the region, and Welles’ elaborate flashback structure was entirely absent in at least one of them. But if you’re a Welles aficionado, as I am, the recent, three-disc boxed set from Criterion provides a means of piecing it all (or mostly) together. If you watch the two, truncated, versions of the movie first and then the “comprehensive” edition stitched together by Criterion, you find each reflecting on, and enriching, the others. Although Criterion is, quite rightly, at pains to point out that there can be no definitive version without Welles, the final disc is probably as fine a representation of his intentions as we’re ever likely to get.
The narrative arc is a bit too close to that of Citizen Kane (third-party reporter investigating the life of the central figure) for true originality, and the budgetary poverty of the thing is written all over it. But it’s beautifully written — the “novelization” is included in the Criterion package, as signed by Welles, who always maintained “some hack” wrote it — with a superb gallery of rich characterizations buoying up the enterprise.
Chief among these pleasures is Michael Redgrave’s marvelous turn as the Polish antiques dealer, the splendidly named Burgomil Trebitsch. It’s a queen-y role — one Welles could not have gotten away with under prevailing American Production Code censorship — but not offensively so, either in its conception by Welles (himself recently the recipient of some, not unwarranted, sexual speculation) nor by the nominally bisexual Redgrave, who has a high time of it with his hair net and his oddly sweet, if seedy, charm.
The most moving of the vignettes is the one with Katina Paxinou as Sophie, as mysterious in her way as Arkadin himself, if more notably vulnerable.
Suzanne Flon is nearly as affecting, in a subtler and more cheerful manner, as the Baroness Nagel; even in her impoverished state, she has ethics. (Although it doesn’t matter; Arkadin gets from her exactly what he wants anyway.)
Mischa Auer shows up too, in a curious, and slightly gruesome, flea circus sequence. Oddly, his voice on the soundtrack (like that of the murder victim at the beginning of the movie) is clearly Welles’. I don’t know, or no longer remember, why Orson re-dubbed Auer’s lines here, as he did with Robert Coote’s Roderigo in his 1952 Othello, and Criterion offers no explanation.
Akim Tamiroff, who was to return to the Welles fold as the memorably comic villain Grandi in Orson’s 1958 Touch of Evil, gives a superb performance as the dying ex-con Zouk, the final piece of the Arkadin puzzle, and the last to be eliminated by the fiercely private multi-millionaire. Tamiroff is so good, especially when working with Welles, that one is constantly asking why he is not more widely known, and revered, as a character actor. Whinnying, screeching, conniving, less afraid of violent death than of missing his final Christmas goose, his is an unforgettable presence in the movie.
Arkadin himself is essentially a supporting role, even an extended cameo, played by Welles himself in his deliciously plummy style, but his presence hangs over the whole thing like a malevolent fog.
As to Arkadin’s famous toast “to character”: It has since become something of a by-word among Welles critics, who — fatuously — see in it a confession as revealing of the filmmaker as of the character he’s playing.
Do they also believe Welles thought he was Basil Zaharoff? It’s a fictional character, you clots!
“Now I’m going to tell you about a scorpion. This scorpion wanted to cross a river, so he asked a 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 of that?’ For scorpions would try to be logical. ‘If I sting you, you will die, I will drown.’ So the frog was convinced to allow 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, taking 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.’ Let’s drink to character.”
All other text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross