Mr. Arkadin (1955) – aka Confidential Report

Directed by Orson Welles

Sometimes too much is too much and with Orson Welles’ Mr. Arkadin we have an good example of this. It’s too much of so many things (which in some ways is the film’s point, if it has one at all). To begin with, I have the Criterion 3-disc set, which means I don’t just have the movie; I have three versions of it.

The result has been that it has been sitting on my shelf for ages because I couldn’t decide which version to watch. I finally have arbitrarily choosen the second (or Confidential Report) version for no reason other than that I read somewhere that it was the one with the best picture quality.

If you know anything about Mr. Arkadin then you know it is a movie Welles never finished, so there is no definitive version. The movie was taken from him and others have completed it, in one fashion or another, over the years. The most recent version is the Criterion “comprehensive” version, a scholarly approach to restoring the movie in order to get a version as close to what we dimly know Welles was attempting, though no one really knows. (This last version is also the longest coming in at roughly 110 minutes.)

Not only do the various versions include and/or exclude various scenes, the sequence of the scenes also varies depending on the version. It was always intended to use flashbacks and a degree of disorientation for the audience, but the degree changes. The Confidential Report version may be the one that comes closest to being comprehensible, but that is open to debate.

All of that aside, we’re still left with a movie to watch – one of its versions, at least. What’s the word on that? Is it any good?

Not really. It’s a mess, actually. I had thought I had never seen the movie previously but almost as soon as it started a voice in my head said, “Oh, that movie …” I had seen it before; it didn’t have much impact, largely because it isn’t a good movie.

It is, however, a fascinating movie, at least if Orson Welles intrigues you. It’s hard to know just how serious Welles was in making this work. There is a high level of playfulness in the movie. Is it because he’s just having fun, mocking himself even, but not too serious about the production? Or is it an aspect of a serious film?

Mr. Arkadin is, in some ways, almost a parody of Citizen Kane with its story of a mysterious, powerful man and the puzzle the movie creates around his identity.

Amongst other things, Welles distorts himself physically, at least in a sense, with his wig and fake beard and the obviousness of them, as well as his clothes in the movie. It’s as if he is deliberately focusing in on himself for the purpose of self-mockery. Was that the intent?

As for the puzzle the movie creates, that is largely responsible for the mess that the movie is as it tries to both resolve itself and remain oblique at the same time. Compounding this problem is fact that a puzzle, to be a real puzzle, must have a way to resolve. I suspect neither Welles nor anyone else ever truly figured that one out. As a result, the movie flounders in confusion because there really isn’t anywhere for it to go other than down another blind alley.

Yet the movie is dazzling in its confusion. And bizarre. Odd camera angles, over-dubbed dialogue (that changes from version to version), mix and match scenes … Yes, very odd.

I hadn’t planned to, but I watched Mr. Arkadin a day or two after having watched another of Welles’ movies, The Stranger. They make for an interesting contrast. The latter film is one Welles thought least highly of. It was an exercise in proving he could make a commercial film and, as a result, may be his most coherent. Mr. Arkadin is the exact opposite. It’s famously incoherent.

But for something that is a mess, it sure has style and humour and some fabulous scenes.

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