Cervantes Films – Mercury Productions Director Orson Welles Producer Louis Dolivet & Orson Welles Screenplay Orson Welles Director of Photography Jean Bourgoin Actors Orson Welles Robert Arden Paola Mori Mischa Auer Akim Tamiroff Michael Redgrave Katina Paxinou
ARKADIN: You are simply a fool. I will not ask you your price, because you have nothing to sell. Instead I’ll make you an offer. I am going to give you something to sell. And then I will pay you for it. Come along now, you have tried to threaten me with a secret that does not exist. Now, I will make you a present of a real one. The great secret of my life.
“When the use of video cassettes becomes widespread and we can watch the films we love at home, then he who obtains a video copy of Mr Arkadin will be “a lucky man” wrote Francois Truffaut in the Cahiers du cinema in 1982. He was right. Mr Arkadin has for a long time been as difficult to get hold of as its capricious titular character. The film was thought lost, then found again at the start of the 1980s. This masterpiece made of pieces of string is a sort of parody of Welles’ style which combines a spy caper, a detective procedural and a political thriller. If one had to imagine a hypothetical ideal for a European film, Mr Arkadin would be its most precious exemplar. Produced with French and Spanish money, shot in Madrid, Munich and Paris and everywhere in between, the film is foremost a metaphor for a Europe in search of its identity, just like Arkadin, who hires a private detective to reconstitute his life story. This Europe in fragments, federated by the esperanto of Cinema, is impure and ravaged. Welles went and filmed the ruins of Rossellini with the grotesque and deformed vision of American B movies. Hence this feeling of outright quirkiness which places the sophistication of an auteur back-to-back with the triviality of a genre film. Welles refutes the concept of a noble form and borrows heavily from TV serials: disappearances, assassinations, strange dwellings, international conspiracies. Nothing is missing. We are much closer to Mabuse than to Citizen Kane.
If one word could sum up Mr Arkadin, it would be “speed”. Speed of information; speed of displacement, reinforced by the frantic music of Paul Misraki. Even though less well-known than its author’s major works, Mr Arkadin remains the one which most happily lends itself to the small screen. Home viewing carries the temptation of the greatest vice of the TV viewer besides “flipping”: fast-forwarding. In Arkadin’s case, the exercise is futile, given that the film seems to accomplish this function on its own. Witness the intervals in the action dissolving as if by magic, how from Spain we appear in the Place Vendôme with a sense of frenzy rarely achieved in the cinema of the time.
Of course, the editing of the film was kept from Welles but one senses throughout that this desire for velocity was always at the heart of his design. One scene alone sums this up. Van Stratten (Robert Arden), commissioned by Arkadin (Welles) to investigate his past, finds himself in Mexico in the hunt for information. In a sumptuous villa, he receives a phone call from Arkadin. During the course of the conversation, Van Stratten gradually realizes that Arkadin is seated a few metres from him, on a sunlit terrace. Well before the era of faxes and mobile phones, Welles had recognized that the future of the world would play out through the development of the means of communication. Welles was expressing his distrust of these deceptive and anti-human gadgets which were immersing us an illusion of truth…despite there being only falsehood. The director’s own radiophonic experience cannot have been far from this. In his other films, radios and telephones are always signifiers of danger and anxiety: the intercom of the motel in Touch of Evil, the sinister phone calls in The Stranger or The Lady from Shanghai. For Welles, communicating was first and foremost speaking to his audience, as in the theatre. The rest is just deception, if not death. The scene where Arkadin learns through the radio on his private plane that his daughter knows he is responsible for an innumerable series of murders is emblematic of this justifiable phobia for “artificial communication”. This superb idea of the killer-transmitter is perfected in his next film Touch of Evil and its famous recording-from-a-distance sequence. On seeing Arkadin, Truffaut’s maxim starts to make a lot of sense: we are all lucky men.
This article was first published in Cahiers du Cinéma (hors-série: 100 Films pour une vidéothèque), 1993. Translated by Julien Allen.