Saturday, March 17, 2012

Mr. Arkadin (1955) - Slow at first, but ultimately gripping

Welles as a Devilish Rogue

Mr. Arkadin 1955 film poster
Mr. Arkadin (1955).

For about the first half hour or so of watching "Mr. Arkadin" (1955) (known as "Confidential Report" in Europe).  I could not stand it. I was half inclined to shut it off. The pacing was terrible, the plot was highly improbable with unnatural interpersonal interactions, and characters spoke in a rushed fashion as if they were afraid the viewers would get bored if they didn't blurt out their lines.

Mr. Arkadin 1955
A castle! How scenic. I wonder if we'll see it again.

The worst part of "Mr. Arkadin is a tedious introductory sequence which looks uncompleted. The main character, petty criminal Guy Van Stratten (Robert Arden), zeroes in on his blackmail target, billionaire Gregory Arkadin Orson Welles), and in a most off-handed fashion manages to drive to Spain with Arkadin's daughter (Paola Mori). They wind up prancing about in the shadow of an admittedly scenic castle (Alcazar, Segovia, Spain, never identified as such) that is in the background of so many shots, so ostentatiously and unnecessarily, that it should have gotten lead actor billing. It would make a good drinking game to take a shot every time you see the castle. Wait for it, wait for it, there it is again! Down another shot! Stiff acting, stilted dialog - it was tough to pay attention and keep watching during this early part of the film.

Mr. Arkadin 1955
Say, is that the same castle?

But I'm glad I did.

Once Orson Welles in the guise of Mr. Arkadin enters the picture, things enter second gear. A menacing figure, he hires Stratten, who is tough but clueless, to research Arkadin's own past to see what dirt can be turned up. It turns out there is quite a bit of dirt, and Stratten finds it all. His interviews of various wacky Wellesian characters shift things into third gear.

Mr. Arkadin 1955
Did the castle get lead actor billing?

It almost is like watching two separate films. The first part looks like it was shot by a film student with access to fellow students as actors and a small budget. The second part rises to the sorts of levels achieved by "The Third Man" and "Touch of Evil." In the end, everything is explained and makes sense. Reaching the payoff requires the patience to sit through some of the most mystifyingly poor scenes in the career of Orson Welles. Welles' sinister stalking of Stratten is when things shift into top gear and the chase is on. The ending itself leaves you guessing, not about Mr. Arkadin himself, but about what happens to Stratten and Arkadin's daughter. But that, intriguingly, is the most satisfying conclusion possible, leaving you wanting more and having to fill in the blanks yourself.

Mr. Arkadin 1955 Orson Welles
The evil genius himself, Mr. Arkadin, played to hammy perfection by Orson Welles.

Standouts in the cast include Katina Paxinou, who gives a devilish performance as one of Arkadin's old associates, and Mori, who is radiant throughout. Unfortunately, Mori's character makes little sense, which is one of the film's main weaknesses. She unaccountably develops a major crush on Stratten despite having a boyfriend who inexplicably disappears, then reappears at the strangest moments. Patricia Medina also makes a strong impression as Stratten's confederate/girlfriend Mily, especially in a climactic scene when she gets tipsy on Arkadin's yacht and reveals a little too much information for her own good. Watch the camera-work in that scene, the ship sways crazily in a reflection of her drunken state, but Arkadin himself is rock steady, reflecting his own state of equilibrium. Just another sign that Welles was still in top form, despite whatever difficulties he was having with his exposition earlier.

Mr. Arkadin 1955
In Mr. Arkadin, there is the usual Wellesian assortment of odd characters...

There is a bit too much unnecessary globe-trotting and shots of fancy yachts and other luxuries, creating the impression that Welles is showing off sophisticated jet set society for the backwards Americans in the audience. It feels as if, given the time and money, Welles would have hit every historic spot on the Continent. Mercifully, he finally interrupts his travelogue and depictions of Eurotrash to bear down and actually resolve the story.

Mr. Arkadin 1955
... and odd gestures...

It is unfortunate that Welles never got a chance to finish editing. One can see a brilliant film bubbling to the surface, given the proper nurturing. It never quite gets there, and more's the pity. He needed more time, and he knew it, but he never got it. But, I am glad I did not miss that last part of the film, it makes we want to sit through it again.

Mr. Arkadin 1955 Katina Paxinou
...and interesting people (Katina Paxinou).

Recommended, just please, have some patience in the beginning.


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