A Hot Mess Cooled Off

CAUTION: CONTAINS “SPOILERS”

I’ve always enjoyed Orson Welles’ “Mr. Arkadin”–a sort of comic-strip redo of “Citizen Kane”–but I’ve had to agree with those who found it a bit of a mess. True, it was an enjoyable, even a likeable mess–but a mess nonetheless. Recently film archivists working with Welles materials deposited in several institutions have done wonders with the man’s more neglected works. A few years ago they tackled his documentary/anthology film “It’s All True.” Although large parts of it have been lost for good, the central episode “Four Men on a Raft” telling the riveting tale of four fisherman who sail a raft down the coast of Brazil to Rio to petition for government assistance was a revelation showing just how much Welles could accomplish with almost no crew and non-professional actors. But this has nothing to do with “Mr. Arkadin.” In the case of this film, there was almost too much material–five different cuts, all with significant differences, and not one of them approved by Welles (who didn’t always fire off long memos documenting his wishes as he did with “Touch of Evil”).

What this group of archivists gathered for a conference on Welles’ work came up with is now referred to as “The Comprehensive Version.” It has much to recommend it. It makes sense as a narrative; it preserves the wonderful array of cameos that Welles lined up–Gregoire Aslan, Peter van Eyck, Mischa Auer, Michael Redgrave, Suzanne Flon, Frederic O’Brady, Katrina Paxinou, all playing witnesses/victims; it raises the masterful Akim Tamiroff from cameo to full-blown supporting player; above all, it allows the film to take shape as a sublimely sinister practical joke. The reporter in “Citizen Kane” is assigned the task of making sense of the life of Charles Foster Kane, the small-time con-man in “Mr. Arkadin” is given his task as a gift. “I am going to give you something to sell, and then I am going to buy it from you.” But what he is really going to do is to eliminate this chiseler who’s been nosing around his beloved daughter. But rather than just having the pest put out of the way, he allows him hunt down all those who knew Gregory Arkadin when he was something less than the fabled Mr. Arkadin.

Now Welles could have presented his fable as a doom-laden narrative, instead he turns it into a light entertainment. “Mr. Arkadin” is a very funny film–made all the more so by that array of guest stars who wink, mug and in some cases emote their way through their brief sequences. The film is strung together by having  Welles’ virtually unknown leading man, Robert Arden, frantically attempting to convince an impassive Tamiroff, the sole surviving witness to Arkadin’s sordid past, that their lives are in danger. But Tamiroff’s aging career criminal is already dying of cancer and has nothing on his mind other than a Christmas dinner of roasted goose liver. The more frantic Arden becomes, the more obstinate and child-like Tamiroff becomes. When Arden finally secures him his precious goose liver it is literally handed to him on a plate by Mr. Arkadin himself. But poor old Jacob Zouk won’t get to enjoy it. He’s already lying dead in Arden’s hotel room with a comically large dagger protruding from his back.

Welles loved Poetic Justice and for Mr. Arkadin, it comes when he is unable to get a seat on a booked-up Christmas flight to Madrid. He offers ridiculous, obscene amounts for someone to give up their seat, but Arden, who knows his only chance for survival lies in reaching Madrid before “The Ogre” convinces the passengers that the great Mr. Arkadin is just some ridiculous drunk. Once Arkadin believes that his secret is no more, that his beloved Raina knows that he began life as a cheap pimp who robbed his madam/lover of her savings he vanishes from the cockpit of the private plane he had managed to rent–no more secret, no more Mr. Arkadin.

The film will never rank with the major works in Welles’ all-too-slender canon, but at least The Comprehensive Version allows it take a secure place as a secondary work of a master. If “Citizen Kane” is Welles’ tragedy of a great man, then “Mr. Arkadin” is his comedy on the theme.

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