Combustible Celluloid
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With: Jeanne Moreau, Orson Welles, Roger Coggio, Norman Eshley, Fernando Rey
Written by: Orson Welles, Louise de Vilmorin, based on a story by Isak Dinesen
Directed by: Orson Welles
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 58
Date: 05/24/1968

The Immortal Story (1968)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Quest for 'Story'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I first saw Orson Welles' The Immortal Story on arguably the most horrendous bootleg cassette in history; it was bleached, washed out, cropped, the works. Seeing it again on the 2016 Criterion Collection Blu-ray is like being able to see for the first time. The movie, originally shot for French television, looks better than I could have guessed, and in retrospect, it stands up with Welles' best films.

Welles once claimed that Isak Dinesen (really Karen Blixen) was his favorite writer. (He once said that he composed a love letter for her that he never sent.) He hoped to produce a television series based on her stories, but only made it as far as this one film. His first film in color, The Immortal Story tells of a wealthy old merchant, Mr. Clay (Welles). Mr. Clay hears a story about an old man who hires a sailor to impregnate his wife, and, for his own amusement, takes measures to make the tale come true. To play the various parts, he hires a real sailor (Norman Eshley), as well as a beautiful woman (Jeanne Moreau), who is bent on revenge against Mr. Clay's past transgressions. Fernando Rey appears in an early scene, as a merchant.

The Immortal Story is shot on a smaller scale than Welles' other films, but it has all of Welles' hallmarks, including cavernous shots and startling angles. Foregrounds and backgrounds are kept in focus, as if in an attempt to keep all of it "real" at the same time; close-ups are used sparingly, and only when a genuine human connection threatens. Meanwhile, Welles' Mr. Clay seems deliberately stuck, physically and emotionally immobile in the center of all this deeply felt drama. Some have suggested that the movie mirrors the idea of a film director, manipulating the action around him, but Welles denied that this was his intention.

Criterion's release comes with an alternate French-language version, a commentary track (recorded in 2009) by film scholar Adrian Martin, a 1968 documentary on Welles (which was meant to air at the same time as the film), a new interview with actor Eshley, a 2004 interview with cinematographer Willy Kurant, and a new interview with Welles scholar Francios Thomas. Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum -- who edited the collected Bogdanovich/Welles interviews into an indispensable book -- provides the liner notes.

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