MR. ARKADIN (Orson Welles, 1955)

The film known in Britain as Confidential Report is among Orson Welles’s lamest films. It is intriguing and visually dazzling nevertheless. It is as intricate as a dense spiderweb—in some ways, a Trial run for his end-of-Europe, end-of-the-world masterpiece (1962) from Kafka.
     The protagonist is Guy van Stratten—it turns out, a false identity in a film awash in false identities and in which a major set-piece is a masked ball. Van Stratten, based on Welles’s Harry Lime character in The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949), is a young hustler/adventurer chasing a fortune—it turns out, Gregory Arkadin’s. Guy learned from a dying man in the street that wealthy, powerful Arkadin (Welles) has a secret, but Guy never learned what the secret is. Guy uses Arkadin’s daughter to gain entrance into Arkadin’s life in Spain. Will Guy be able to use what little he knows to shake down the titan? Unexpectedly Arkadin hires Guy to investigate him, claiming a period of amnesia nearly twenty years earlier (between the wars). Arkadin tells Guy that he wants to know if there is anything in his past that may come back to sting him.
     At the ball that Guy has wormed his way into, in a stunning scene ripe with incestuous implication (what Welles had expunged from his 1951 Othello), Arkadin takes Guy to his daughter’s bed! Lying on it is a book he tells Guy he wants his daughter to read—a dossier exposing Guy as a n’er-do-well. When Guy, in retaliation, blurts out the name of the dead man, Bracho, Arkadin whips off his own mask, exposing a grim, raging face. Having had Guy investigated, the next day Arkadin hires Guy to investigate him, Arkadin. We suspect, lured by the proffer of money, Guy is falling into a trap. In any case, Guy takes off, across Europe, on the job.
     This is a film of Third Man-camera angles in dark, desolate streets; and, indoors, mirrors reflecting faces. There is activity, what with Guy on the go, but few signs of life. It is a film of flashbacks-inside-flashbacks, for the whole thing is structured as a flashback that is introduced by Welles’s disembodied voice. (Welles’s, not Arkadin’s heavily accented one.) The launch of the mystery is this: last year, on Christmas, a plane in the sky with no one on board. Near the end, when we return to the airplane, we are returning to the past after spending time throughout the film at more distant points in the past. This is a film about a broken, decadent Europe, its vibrancy behind it. Early on, there is a religious procession in the dark, nighttime street: barefooted penitents in black robes, their faces hidden under black hoods—a strange theater of sorrow over two world wars and everything and everybody lost in them.
     Mr. Arkadin is from Spain, France and Switzerland.


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