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With: Orson Welles, Robert Arden, Michael Redgrave, Akim Tamiroff, Mischa Auer, Gert Frobe
Written by: Orson Welles
Directed by: Orson Welles
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 99
Date: 03/01/1955

Mr. Arkadin (1955)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Citizen Arkadin

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Of the thirteen finished, released films that Orson Welles directed, only two were written directly for the screen and not based on any other material, Citizen Kane and Mr. Arkadin. Many critics have noticed the connection between the two: a flashback structure, a third party snooping around in the past life of a great figure. But the two films are markedly different. Mr. Arkadin (a.k.a. Confidential Report) is pulpier and more deliberately flashy, and at the same time it suffers badly from its technical shortcomings. The sound is horrid, and the film stock on even the best prints makes sickening jumps with each edit. And yet it's still a spectacular film, a complete and total Orson Welles film with his unique fingerprints all over it. I wouldn't swap it for a dozen other films.

Welles stars as Gregory Arkadin, a wealthy figure with a shady past. An arrogant American, Van Stratten (Robert Arden) hears Arkadin's name from a dying man in a shipyard. He makes contact through Arkadin's beloved daughter Raina (Paola Mori), and Arkadin subsequently hires him to find out about his past. But the more Van Stratten digs, the more people turn up dead.

Because of the terrible sound, it's difficult to make heads or tails out of parts of the story. In addition, re-edited American prints have destroyed some of the film's continuity. But to its credit the film has several glorious set pieces, such as Michael Redgrave as a junk shop man. As the camera swoops around inside the crowded shop, bizarre hunks of debris suddenly appear in the frame (Van Stratten bumps his head on a petrified alligator).

Mischa Auer stars in another great scene as a flea trainer who looks at the world through a giant magnifying glass. And Akim Tamiroff (later in Welles' Touch of Evil) plays a man whose last wish is for a plate of goose liver. Other sequences include a masked costume ball and a climactic Christmas party.

In-between these magnificent scenes, Welles manages to make ordinary shots seem spectacular with his unique skewed camera angles and his unfailing eye for gorgeous framing. Every still in this film would make a photo suitable for a gallery.

In addition, with Mr. Arkadin Welles began experimenting with dream logic (he would perfect it a few years later with The Trial). Although Van Stratten hops all over the world in his quest to find Arkadin's past, we never see him at an airport or checking into a hotel, or struggling with language or money. It's as if he magically phases to every new city and arrives wide awake. This dream logic and dream movement helps envelop the film in a certain warmth and comfort, making it more exotic but not dangerous.

Indeed, though it can be baffling and frustrating, Mr. Arkadin is one of the few films that demands repeat viewings. It makes more and more sense each time you see it, and the film's beauty never wears off.

So far, the best way to see the film is on the old, out-of-print Criterion Collection laserdisc, which presents the non-mutilated English cut under the alternate title Confidential Report. A bargain-bin American DVD exists, but I've heard reports that it's just awful. Hopefully the Criterion Collection will find it in their hearts to properly re-issue this film on DVD.

On a side note, many critics have written that Mr. Arkadin was based on a novel written in French by Welles. But Welles claims to have had nothing to do with the novel, and that the novel came after the fact, based on his screenplay.

DVD Details: I haven't personally viewed the ultra-cheap $5 American DVD of Mr. Arkadin, but I've heard that the quality is truly awful. It's really a toss up wether to pay that pittance to see the film in a bad transfer or wait and not see it at all.

DVD Details II: Blessedly, the Criterion Collection has saved the day with one of the best DVDs I've seen in seven years of reviewing. An army of Welles scholars, including filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich and critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, have assembled an unbeatable three-disc set including two previous cuts of the film. The clincher is a new, 105-minute "definitive" cut, using footage from all previous versions and following Welles' original intentions as closely as possible. But, in the spirit of proper representation, the set still allows us to choose (much like Anchor Bay's extraordinary Dawn of the Dead set from 2004). Even better, the new DVD box set comes with a new printing of Welles' original novel, which he at one time denied writing. There are a wealth of notes, commentary tracks, interviews and featurettes, all in the spirit of decoding the origins and intentions of this film. And, though the sound has been improved quite a bit, it now comes with optional subtitles just in case that old cruddy audio track still bothers some people. Indeed, this new cut was deserving of a theatrical release, and it should count as a major new rediscovery from a great artist. Now if only we could have similar, multi-disc editions of Othello and Touch of Evil (not to mention American DVD releases of The Magnificent Ambersons, Macbeth, Chimes at Midnight and The Immortal Story) we'd be in business. (April 20, 2006)

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