Midnight Screening: Mr. Arkadin

If Orson Welles truly did pine for the spotlight, he was nevertheless often at his best devouring all-comers while occupying the fringes. Maybe it was his passive-aggressive drive that forced him into a corner. Maybe having to struggle for his reputation was purifying for him. Maybe having his own little corner of cinema fed his ego and controlling belligerence. Maybe he needed to be left out in the cold, so he could burn even more dangerously. Whatever the case, whether Welles actively retreated into the nether realms of independent cinema or was coerced to hibernate there, Welles never let go of his dream. Becoming a Hollywood outsider, if anything, only made him angrier and more loathsome, and loathsome Welles was Welles at his most playful. His self-serving grandeur and operatic diction could take on a pompous hue when he was already at the top, but when he was picking his battles from the outside, as with Mr. Arkadin, his directorial bravura actually seemed carnivorous and challenging, even combative. Working from the outside gave Welles something to fight for, and Welles with fangs drawn ready to pounce is the only real Welles in my book.

The more he aged, and the more he was ostracized from Hollywood, the more Welles took to the patois of expressionism as a coping mechanism, and the more his luxurious marinating in an out-of-touch style turned Hollywood’s head away even further. I suppose his ostracization wasn’t as outlandish as it could have been. Just look what happened to Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter, released the same year Mr. Arkadin saw the light of day: it killed its director’s burgeoning career before it left the womb. If Laughton was left in the grave, Welles was merely cordoned off into the cemetery, but Welles being Welles, he accomplished most of his best work in the cemetery.

Largely because Welles’ retreat from Hollywood left him with unfinished business, and this business shows through in every corner and crease in Mr. Arkadin. As he did with his previous film, 1952’s pre-psychedelic Othello, Welles didn’t cotton up to Hollywood’s needs and desires; he flaunted his rejection of the cultural zeitgeist, startlingly rereading The Third Man (which he acted in, and arguably directed from the shadows) and painting his version of the same tale, his variation on the same theme. And a ghoulish, gallows variation it is, with the same general story of “man wallowing around in misbegotten European nation post-WWII looking for a mysterious egomaniac pulling the strings” flipped on its head and turned into shards and diagonals at every turn. Welles, having had some of his greatest acting success in The Third Man, a film that probably wasn’t under his control, wanted to show his version of the same material, and he staked out his low-budget outlaw credentials by going full-on potboiler with the material slanted and at-odds, just like the post-war world it depicts.

At various points in Mr. Arkadin, a man named Guy van Stratten (Robert Arden, his character name invoking his blind everyman status in the film) searches for a Mr. Gregory Arkadin (Orson Welles), a millionaire beset with amnesia and residing in his stately, oblong mansion where the world cannot get to him, but where he can still pull some of the strings of the world. Other characters abound, but they are a fodder of sorts, beginning with the man who dies to set off the tale (dies luxuriantly, I might add, for Welles always loved to bathe in a good, pitiless death scene, as you well know if you’ve seen his next film Touch of Evil). That opening man, Rocco, mentions Arkadin to Guy, setting Guy on a quest to learn more about Mr. Arkadin’s peculiarities, with each eventual contact Guy meets becoming the victim of foul play around the time Guy contacts them.

Pure trash, and Arkadin finds Welles playing homage to, and muckraker to, cinematic trash the world over. His craft is indelible; a Goya-inspired shindig at Arkadin’s mansion is cinematic surrealism at its naughtiest and most mirror-cracked, and the opening scene prepares us for the gross parade of Dutch angles and penetrating, tactile close-ups where we can almost smell the glue holding a fake nose to Welles’ gargantuan features. The style, like The Third Man set to overdrive, approaches self-parody, and it exhibits a remarkably self-critical drive on Welles part. At a nuts-and-bolts level, the glitzy Euro-trash tale invokes Citizen Kane, the perpetual noose around Welles’ neck, by locking Welles in a Xanadu of his own making while an ineffectual man searches for the secrets of his identity. It is, like Kane, a commentary on the everyman of Hollywood and the world desperately craving some sort of lexicon with which to approach a behemoth like Welles. But just as Kane demolished that behemoth with startling immediacy in a classical Type-A Hollywood picture, Arkadin furthers the same dueling selfishness and self-deprecation for a B-movie of the most lurid variety. It is a perversion of Citizen Kane and The Third Man, the two critical darling of Welles’ career. It is a homage to those films, a debate with them, and in some ways a drug-fueled criticism of their straight-laced demeanors.

Upon release, the hodgepodge of scenes and edits Welles prepared was devoured by the studio and regurgitated in befuddled fashion when they tried to salvage an anti-commercial film for commercial release (the story of Welles’ life). But Mr. Arkadin is a far too off-kilter a motion picture for the studio to be fully to blame; watching it, a drunken stupor is apparent in the very fibers and girders of the film. One glimpse at the dissociative, schizophrenic nature of Renzo Lucidi’s hyper-manic editing or Welles’ garish plot developments (barely focused on, even when all of the material was restored in the most recent edit of the film) announces the film as something more intentionally discombobulated at a basic narrative level. One whiff of Welles in full-on ham-bone mode as a portly, foppishly manicured sailor-suit wearing Arkadin plays like a riff on, and satire of, Welles’ own impulse toward baroque accents and make-up/ costuming. Arkadin almost feels like Welles making a joke at Welles’ expense.

A joke that I suspect may have been intentional, but the intention doesn’t matter as much as the effect. And the effect of Mr. Arkadin is vexing underground cinema of the highest order, processing Hollywood noir logic into a shattered take on the disarray of post-war Europe where environments seem more like sets than reality and where scenes don’t naturally bleed into each other, mirroring the way life no longer functioned according to narrative logic for the victims of the war. Arkadin is a deeply perplexing motion picture, arguably Welles’ most perplexing, but the ripcord way it fires on all cylinders, even if some of those cylinders were accidental firings, is a magnetic cinematic experience. Whether it represents self-satire or more ambiguous experiment with the limits of continuity editing, Arkadin reveals a lot about a world where disorder and destruction had run rampant with human memory, where the quest to “find” anything at all was stricken blind at every turning point by an unseen danger lurking in the corner. At every turn, the film is about a quest for identity and understanding, and yet it intentionally constructs itself as an unknowable object, a prism that distorts and leaves its own quest for understanding futile. Arkadin is a unique cinematic lexicon for a fractured world.

It may also be the most unique lexicon for the fractured world of Orson Welles the man, arguably unable to cope with the stress of his own dogged tenacity as he was left losing his own memory of glory days, pining for them and returning to the well with a dastardly Frankenstein’s monster of ticks and habits, both good and bad, learned in past films and remembered only partially. It is no secret that his Arkadin character is a hazily remembered composite of his prior characters. He is equal parts Charles Foster Kane and Harry Lime, filtered through a meat grinder and repackaged with a fake nose, a beard, and all manner of canted angles out of Universal horror. Welles fashioned many of his characters after himself, and even less of a secret that the characters he played – anxious, madcap, photogenic until they become abusively charismatic – were not simply costumes for Welles, but devouring entities that would become him before long.

In Arkadin, however, Welles also bears a connection to Guy, as though Arkadin himself and Guy were but two identities occupying the same body. Portions of Welles were Arkadin, drunk on his own laurels, floundering under his success and past glory. But as much of him was Guy, who like Welles the man, is left pouring through the history of a life lived on the edge until it became a parody of its former self. Just as Guy does when looking back on Arkadin’s life, Welles was always searching for his own identity, searching for memories of his former glory and refashioning his past into critiques of his past and present. It may have been a nominally post-war world, but Welles shows how he, like that world with itself, was still at war with himself.  Welles would always be at war with himself, and Mr. Arkadin suggests he knew he could never find an answer, but he would keep trying, giving us imperfectly mad reflections of an imperfectly mad genius as Welles searched for the “right” style to understand who he was and what his success meant.

On these styles, “grotesque noir” is neither more or less fitting than his previous and future “avant-garde Shakespeare pictures” or his future “post-structuralist documentary on the idea of a lie”. But together, these films represent the most fascinating single case in film history of an auteur struggling for decades to dissect their own identity, a gesture that is as aggrandizing as it is self-tortured. It is what made Orson Welles himself. And it is what beckoned him to produce films, like Mr. Arkadin, that are, if deeply flawed, still some crazed, sensational variety of essential cinema nonetheless, whether Hollywood likes it or not.

Score: 9/10


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