Mr Arkadin (1955)

Mr Arkadin (1955) is an Orson Welles mystery drama French-Swiss-Spanish co-produced espionage film noir, also known as Confidential Report and as is not unusual for a plagued Welles production, one which exists in several edits and versions.

In an 1991 essay The Seven Arkadins, writer  Jonathan Rosenbaum identified seven different versions of the story, and since its initial publication, two more versions have emerged, including a novel and a stage play. 

When Welles missed an editing deadline, producer Louis Dolivet took the film out of his hands and released several edits of the film, none of which were approved by Welles. 

Adding to the confusion is a novel of the same title that was credited to Orson Welles, though Welles claimed that he was unaware of the book's existence until he saw a copy in a bookshop.

Welles's friend Maurice Bessy, a French screenwriter, is generally considered to be the author of the novel.

The film noir epic — Mr Arkadin (1955)

In an interview for the BBC's Arena series first shown in 1982, Welles described Mr. Arkadin as the "biggest disaster" of his life because of his loss of creative control —  and the film was not released in the United States until 1962.

Welles himself opens Mr Arkadin with a distinct and memorable voiceover:

Orson Welles: On December twenty-fifth, an aeroplane was sighted off the coast of Barcelona. It was flying empty. Investigation of this case reached into the highest circles, and the scandal was very nearly responsible for the fall of at least one European government. This motion picture is a fictionalized reconstruction of the events leading up to the appearance last Christmas morning of the empty plane.

Robert Arden in Mr Arkadin (1955)

There is a huge amount to enjoy in Mr Arkadin (1955) and this is down to Orson Welles' vision for a typically faithful internationally set film noir fable — a story of amnesia and war crimes, unravelled by an innocent narrator who is drawn deep into a mystery, which takes him rather grandly across the globe and into the orbit of many strange characters.

Patricia Medina in in Mr Arkadin (1955)

These strange characters include the operator of a flea circus — the imagery of which should be fairly obvious to anyone familiar with the speech in The Third Man (1949) which goes:

“Look down there. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stop moving — forever? If I offered you twenty thousand for every dot that stops, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?”

The Third Man (1949) in fact informs Mr Arkadin to a greater degree than is immediately obvious —the story was based on several episodes of the radio series The Lives of Harry Lime, which was based on the character that Welles portrayed in The Third Man.

Paola Mori in Mr Arkadin (1955)

Other interesting and strange characters which the fairly hapless hero Guy Van Stratten (played by Robert Arden) encounters, include a strange junk shop owner, an impoverished noblewoman in Paris, and a heroin addict, whom he tortures on a yacht, in order to extract information.

The plot of Mr Arkadin in a fashion that is wholly noir, is both complex and simple. The complexity arises from the folded and framed and flashbacked narratives and mysteries that arise and seem to compound and confound each other.

Essentially however, Mr Arkadin offers the two protagonists Van Stratten and his girlfriend Mily (played by Patricia Medina) money to investigate his own past, which he says has been blotted out by amnesia

Spanish fairy tale with penitents in Mr Arkadin (1955)

Arkadin's story is that in 1927 he woke up in a square in Switzerland, with a large sum of money in his pocket and no memory of his identity or past career. He successfully rebuilt his life, but is troubled by not knowing how it began. the truth is that Arkadin is doing his best to conceal his past as being involved in a sex trafficking ring.

In the closing stages of the investigation, Van Stratten discovers that Arkadin has been following him and visiting all the witnesses. He confers with Raina, Arkadin's daughter played by Paulo Mori, who startles him by saying that her father does not have amnesia. The entire pretext for hiring Stratten was a fraud.

Van Stratten attends Arkadin's Christmas Eve party in Munich, where he learns the real purpose of his investigation. Arkadin wished to cover up his criminal past, fearing especially that Raina might learn of it and cease to love him. He has used Van Stratten to locate people with potentially dangerous evidence, all of whom have been murdered. Worse, Mily is also dead and Van Stratten has in classic film noir style been framed for killing her, with the implication that he too will be silenced before the police catch him. 

Van Stratten hastens to find Jakob Zouk, the last surviving member of the sex trafficking ring, hoping to use him as some kind of weapon against Arkadin. Zouk grudgingly consents to go into hiding, but Arkadin soon traces him and has him stabbed to death. It is Jakob Zouk's story, and the Christmas setting, that opens and frames one of the more commonly available versions of Mr Arkadin. It is the Jakob Zouk story and the mysterious apathy of Zouk himself, facing death, and at Christmas, that powers much of its mystery as the story is retold in flashback by Van Stratten (Robert Arden).

All indications point to the fact that Orson Welles perhaps sought to make an epic film noir story with Mr Arkadin. Spanning history and continents, and crossing all social strata, the vision for the film seems clear in whichever version we wind up watching.

Alcohol plays a part in Mr Arkadin (1955)

Elliptical to the core, the main theme of Mr Arkadin would appear to be the story of a man fixated on the past — certainly noir. The story in many ways performs quite traditionally, and it could well be imagined to take place in a local setting, in any city. Instead Mr Arkadin is heaped with baroque visuals, the most striking of all being the strange Spanish fairy tale castle where Arkadin resides. 

On top of these are a constant stream of squint and obtuse camera angles, found at their most extreme in a drunken exchange on board a swaying yacht between Arkadin and Mily — Orson Welles and Patricia Medina. Here both alcohol and the motion of the waves combine to form one of the most askance and cocked scenes in all of noir, perhaps aiming for total disorientation. 

Drunken sailors — Orson Welles and Patricia Medina in in Mr Arkadin (1955)

The story is a little reminiscent of Citizen Kane (1941), in which flashback also forms the framing for the investigation of a wealthy man — also predicated on one dying name — 'Rosebud' in Citizen Kane — and 'Sophie' in Mr Arkadin.

Mr Arkadin, unlike Citizen Kane becomes a focused study of power and corruption, squeezed around some of the most exotic visual aspects of the by 1955, well-established noir style — Welles had more than a small hand in defining this style himself — and as the wealthy are stripped of all their glamour, these yacht-riding coteries are placed at the very centre of corruption, wherever it is in the world.

The flea circus as humanity in Mr Arkadin (1955)

This includes narcotics, rings of East German stasi, sex-trafficking and Nazi money laundering, and over it all towers Welles — the camera angles ensure it — Welles who due to budget or other problems literally ends up speaking to himself, as he dubs many of the characters with his own voice — listen out for it.

Welles did enjoy playing the devil, preferring to dissect captains of industry and other rogues. There is a sense of indecision lurking in Mr Arkadin, a feeling manifest in the many edits — revealing both the vagabond and the obsessive — and resulting in a film that despite its many versions — is still a production that none of us can see — because the original died with Welles, in his mind and in his dreams, seen only by himself.

There is simply too much to Mr Arkadin and even regular and repeated viewing leaves it impossible to take it all in — there is a strange Klu Klux Klan like penitent religious ceremony which is just one of many continual and unexpected stops. There is a also a short Munich police scene, starring Gert Frobe as a local cop. The flea circus master of course comes out with some of the best dialogue in a film that is a constant stream of alienated and existential quippery. 

Cold turkey for a heroin addict in Mr Arkadin (1955)

The main inspiration for the plot was the episode from The Lives of Harry Lime entitled Man of Mystery, though some elements may have been lifted from an episode of the radio show Ellery Queen entitled The Case of the Number Thirty-One, such as the similar-sounding name George Arkaris, the mysterious birthplace, the French Riviera property, and the Spanish castle. Other key elements for Arkadin's character come from a real-life arms dealer, Basil Zaharoff (1849 - 1936).

Orson Welles pulls a bearded face in Mr Arkadin (1955)

One of the richest men in the world during his lifetime, Zaharoff was both a merchant of death and an international man of mystery. His success seemed to be based on cunning, and aggressive business tactics. These included the sale of arms to opposing sides in conflicts, sometimes delivering fake or faulty machinery and skilfully using the press to attack business rivals.

During his business life, Zaharoff maintained close contacts with many powerful political leaders, including British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, Greek Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos and Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II.

Robert Arden in Mr Arkadin (1955)

Zaharoff sold munitions to many nations, including Great Britain, Germany, the Russian and Ottoman Empires, Greece, Spain, Japan and the United States, and he was rewarded with honours for so doing. Despite his reputation for corruption, he was instrumental in marketing military equipment, including various famous weapons such as the Maxim gun, one of the first fully automatic machine guns, and the first working submarine. 

Among many other claims to infamy, Zaharoff was used by Ian Fleming as the model for Ernst Stavro Blofeld leader of the international criminal organization SPECTRE and the main antagonist in the James Bond series of novels and films.

In real life however, Zaharoff was viewed as a master of bribery and corruption, although the few incidents that did become public, such as the large bribes received by Japanese Admiral Fuji in the 1914 Siemens scandal, indicated that plenty was going on behind the scenes.

Throughout Mr Arkadin allegations and corruptions pile so heavily on top of each other it is impossible to keep up, although in trying the message of corruption is clear. Wealth is but a means to evil:

Gregory Arkadin: When did you talk to Van Stratton?

Mily: [Drunk] It seems you were pretty chummy with some Nazi collaborators in Vichy.

Gregory Arkadin: Have some champagne.

Mily: They trusted you with all their money, those Nazis, who invested in South America for after the war. They didn't even ask for a receipt! Now their families can't even prove the money's theirs. And then, and then there's Mussolini. All those roads you built for the fascists in Ethiopia. Bad water. Not enough-enough food. Guy said more than a hundred of the men died. You know, you're kind of cute in a weird sort of a way. After a person gets over being scared of you. Why'd you grow that awful beard?

Gregory Arkadin: To scare people with.

Arms dealing is similarly dealt with as a means only to wealth:

Mily: Some of the guns he sent to the Reds in China didn't even shoot.

Gregory Arkadin: Is Van Stratton a communist?

Mily: Are you kidding?

Gregory Arkadin: Then, what's he complaining about?

Lost across several continents in Mr Arkadin (1955)

Interestingly, Mr. Arkadin (1955) is somewhat reminiscent of Eric Ambler's thriller, The Mask of Dimitrios (1939). Welles starred in the film version of Ambler's Journey Into Fear (novel: 1940, film: 1943), and both Welles and Ambler also shared a left-wing political orientation.

Although not essentially strong in the lead role Robert Arden as Guy Van Stratten is a sleazy kind of seeker-hero, a low life hustler particular to the early and middle 1950's, maybe recalling Ralph Meeker's portrayal of Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly (1955). Both men make an attempt to dress in a flashy manner but somehow end up looking vulgar, and are working class characters trying to get what they can in a world controlled by rich monstrosities like Arkadin.

Katina Paxinou in Mr Arkadin (1955)

These rich men have frivolous parties in which they behave in a ridiculous manner, all the while of course the message that keeps bubbling up is that these wealthy monsters were supporting the fascists in the 1930s — something Welles was keen to express in this epic.

Gert Frobe in Mr Arkadin (1955)

All that is left for viewers to embrace the movie's shortcomings, and dig as far as they can into Orson Welles' intentions based on which pieces remain. But there is no final state of this movie, just various butchered cuts none of which seem to catch any of the vivid grandeur of the director's better known films. It's an oddity that the supporting cast probably carry it, and make it both fascinating and confusing, and as close as we can get to a true film noir in the epic style.

Mr Arkadin (1955) at Wikipedia

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