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DVD Pick: Mr. Arkadin (Criterion Collection)


Film Written by, Directed by and Starring Orson Welles

Orson Welles' Mr. Arkadin (1955) is one of the strangest movies I've ever seen, yet it's quite entertaining. I would characterize it as a pulpy crime melodrama, laced with sardonic humor. It's an independent film, and production values are sometimes below those of Hollywood studio products. Costuming, makeup and Welles' wig are unconvincing, but that seems to me relatively unimportant since the movie is so highly stylized that you're always conscious you're watching artifice anyway. And by any standard, the film is visually striking, the dialogue is superb and the narrative is compelling.

Investigating Mr. Arkadin's Past Leads to a String of Murders

The protagonist in Mr. Arkadin is Guy Van Stratten, played by Robert Arden, a rather bland actor who had many minor roles in movies and television. Van Stratten is a drifter who accepts a peculiar job from a tycoon named Mr. Arkadin (Welles at his most flamboyant). The wealthy businessman claims he has amnesia, and Van Stratten is hired to find out what he can about Mr. Arkadin's earlier life. The investigation sends Van Stratten on a fascinating odyssey, and as it progresses several people turn up dead.

Geographical Hopscotching

Mr. Arkadin was filmed mostly in Spain, with additional location shooting in France and Germany. Also, there are scenes set in Naples, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Tangier, Mexico and elsewhere. At times I wasn't sure where a particular scene was supposed to be taking place, but it hardly matters. It's all just part of Welles' way of building a web of international intrigue.

Supporting Actors Who Are Memorable (and One Who Is Not)

Talented, experienced actors often appear in small roles in Welles' films, and this was the case in Mr. Arkadin. My favorite was Katina Paxinou, who plays a former lover of Arkadin's that Van Stratten locates in Mexico City. Others I enjoyed were Akim Tamiroff as the unkempt old man who has just been let out of jail in Munich, Michael Redgrave as the owner of a junk-filled Amsterdam collectibles shop and Mischa Auer as the "professor" who puts on a show in Copenhagen with trained fleas.

The key role of Mr. Arkadin's young adult daughter is played by the relatively inexperienced Paola Mori. I would describe her performance here as serviceable, but she never had much of a career as a movie actress. By the way, she and Welles were a couple at the time Mr. Arkadin was made, and not long after it wrapped, they got married.

Three Film Versions of Mr. Arkadin

In the post-production phase of Mr. Arkadin, differences between Welles and the producer resulted in the legendary filmmaker having no input on the final product. Different versions of the movie were eventually released, some with the title Confidential Report. The Criterion Collection DVD set contains three slightly different English-language versions of Mr. Arkadin, but there is no consensus of expert opinion as to which one is best. Materials packaged with the DVDs give lots of information about these three versions, but I can see no good reason not to begin by watching the one put together recently by scholars. Criterion has dubbed it the comprehensive version, and it's on Disc Three.

The Novel Mr. Arkadin and the Harry Lime Radio Episodes

The Criterion Collection DVD set comes with a 245-page novel titled Mr. Arkadin that is credited on its cover to Orson Welles. However, the book's preface and other materials with the DVDs make it clear that the novel was probably written by Maurice Bessy based on Welles' screenplay. I expect the novel doesn't have much literary merit, but it looks interesting, and I'm planning on reading it on my next airplane trip.

The film Mr. Arkadin was not adapted from any novel; it was based on three episodes of the radio show The Lives of Harry Lime. That radio series reincarnated the malevolent Harry Lime who died in a Vienna sewer at the end of the movie The Third Man (1949) and gave him new lives in which, instead of being evil personified, he was more of a likable rascal. The three episodes that became the source material for Mr.. Arkadin first aired in 1952 and run about half an hour each. They are contained in the DVD set, and I especially enjoyed the episode titled "Man of Mystery."

A Worthwhile Audio Commentary by Orson Welles Experts

The Corinth version (on Disc One) of Mr. Arkadin has a feature-length scholarly audio commentary track with Jonathan Rosenbaum and James Naremore, both of whom have written books about Welles. I found their commentary informative in terms of history, but only occasionally illuminating in terms of analysis.

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