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arkadin

Whatever Orsen Welles did in a past life, it must have been truly horrific.  Perhaps he slapped Da Vinci and pissed all over a work in progress.  Maybe he called Beethoven a hack and tore a lost symphony to shreds.  He could’ve been watching Monet paint and then sneezed all over the unfinished piece.  Whatever it was, the forces that control the universe felt inclined to reign down a life of artistic frustration on Welles what has been unrivaled by most in the modern era.  The man had an eye for film like no other before and it was his misfortune to have that eye constantly doubted and tinkered with.

Welles was able to complete just one Hollywood production without having his film drastically altered at the hands of producers and studios.  William Randolph Hurst merely offered $1 million in 1940 money to destroy it completely.  That one production being the landmark classic “Citizen Kane.”  Every studio film he made after that suffered at the hands of others unwilling to let director complete his visions.  His many independent productions took years to complete while several others were left unfinished.  Though now widely acknowledged as a master level filmmaker by nearly every film scholar, much of Welles’ work remains difficult to see.  His butchered “Kane” follow up, “The Magnificent Ambersons”, hasn’t seen any kind of home video release since the days of laserdiscs.  His Shakespearean films, “Othello”, “Macbeth” and “The Chimes at Midnight”, are hardly known in the U.S.  Helping remedy a small part of this Welles tangle are the good folks at Criterion.  The rescuers of dozens of lost classics have lavished their attention on one of Welles most curious films, “Mr. Arkadin.”  A jangled and fragmented motion picture which resembles a piece of broken glass dangling in a window, “Mr. Arkadin” has traveled one of the more curious roads to pseudo completion.

Criterion presents the film in what is being billed as a comprehensive version.  No fewer than five versions of “Mr. Arkadin”, all with major or minor differences, have been studied over to create this rough approximation of what Welles may have intended his film to be like.  Structurally uneasy, the film begins with a prologue about an empty airplane, moves to a desolate German city and then kicks in with a series of flashbacks which serve as the makeup of the entire film.  We follow a minor criminal who one night stumbles upon the murder of a man on a dock.  The dying man whispers a few words to his girlfriend before his departure, saying little more than the title character’s name.  Thus begins the strange tale of “Mr. Arkadin.”

It’s a disjointed experience from the first frame to the last.  These feelings of narrative instability were probably unavoidable considering the picture’s history.  In a move that he was probably growing used to by the time, Welles was removed from the editing room before he finished his film.  But unlike he restored “Touch of Evil”, he left no detailed notes about how the film should be finished.  Everyone involved has essentially guessed at what Welles would’ve done and hoped for the best.

The final product contains many of Welles signature elements.  Vivid black and white visuals shot at intense low angels dominate the movie.  Unconventional editing styles which flew in the face of most of the films being made at the time are common place for Welles.  With himself as the title character, a mysterious and sinister figure whose motives are unknown, almost unknowable, his presence dominates the film on nearly every level.  Everyone talks about, is scared of or drawn to Mr. Arkadin.   All of this makes for an eye catching movie experience, but also a chaotic and unendearing one.  A viewer can follow “Mr. Arkadin” but always making sense of it is another matter.  Characters seem to materialize out of then air, other characters globe trot with ease, plot is shot over so quickly one can barely understand what’s transpiring, assumption of importance is key.  It all seems to fall into place in the end, but the effect flirts with being exhausting.  The movie is a work out and growing a bit tired of its constant hoop jumping can be expected.  One scene in particular feels like a metaphor for the entire film.  Set on a ship in small room, the female lead talks plot with Welles’ Arkadin character.  She’s drunk and the sea is making the boat roll.  Welles stands in the center of the room unmoving, glaring at her with an unflappable demeanor.  From her perspective the entire room is practically moving in circles, while Arkadin, always stiff as a board, stands still, front and center, never moving an inch in frame.  It’s as if Welles is glaring straight at us, daring us to admit we’re lost in his head churning movie.

“Mr. Arkadin” isn’t really a classic in the traditional sense.  It lacks sympathetic characters, it rambles everywhere, in some ways it’s too nerve racking and it all holds together by the thinnest of threads.  Though there are unconventional elements to admire about it, in the end it’s simply a small piece of the unfortunate story of Orsen Welles.  All the same its existence is a minor miracle.  Welles had so many cinematic crimes committed against him that any attempt to rectify one is a noble and worthy endeavor.  Film fans eagerly, if perhaps foolishly, wait for the day his other cinematic works can be restored as this one has.  His body of work was mercilessly hacked at by people who refused to let his visions take shape.  Should the means to restore and resurrect his other lost masterpieces ever materialize, the people behind the scenes need only look to this monolithic collection of material for inspiration on how to do the next film justice.

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