Posted by Susan Doll on May 4, 2015
More than twenty years have passed since I last saw Mr. Arkadin, Orson Welles’s unconventional tale of an eccentric but powerful man. I look forward to revisiting this dark drama when TCM airs the film Friday, May 8, at 11:45pm as part of this month’s Friday Night Spotlight on Welles. The film is part of “Classic Noir” night, which also includes Touch of Evil, The Lady from Shanghai, and Journey Into Fear. While Mr. Arkadin is hardly ‘classic noir,’ any context for showcasing the film is alright with me.
Distributed in 1962, the film was shot in the mid-1950s. Welles had been reprising one of his signature roles for a second season of the BBC radio series Adventures of Harry Lime when he wrote an episode titled “Man of Mystery.” Intrigued by his own premise for this episode, in which a powerful man hires Lime to investigate his mysterious past, Welles decided to turn it into a feature film, Mr. Arkadin. The film stars Robert Arden, who had worked alongside Welles on the radio program, as Guy Van Stratten, a small-time criminal. Van Stratten crosses paths with the enormously wealthy Gregory Arkadin, a shadowy figure who dotes on his beautiful daughter Raina. Arkadin, who claims to remember nothing about his life prior to 1927, hires Van Stratten to research his past. The criminal-turned-investigator travels across Europe interviewing people who knew Arkadin, but the mystery deepens when these former acquaintances turn up dead.
While my memories of the plot are hazy, one scene stands out quite vividly. During a party scene, the title character, who wields his power like a deadly weapon, regales his guests with the fable of “The Scorpion and the Frog.” A scorpion asks a frog to carry him across the river on his back, because he cannot swim. The wary frog notes, “You are a scorpion, and if I carry you, you will sting me. Then I will be paralyzed and I will drown.” The scorpion counters, “If I sting you, then we will both die because I will drown also.” The frog finds this logic convincing and agrees to let the scorpion on his back. Halfway across the river, the frog feels a sharp pain because the scorpion has stung him. As the two sink to the bottom of the river, the frog asks, “Why did you do this, now we will both die.” The scorpion answers, “Because I am a scorpion, and it is my character.” After Mr. Arkadin finishes the tale, he adds with great flourish, “Let’s drink to character.” According to biographers quoted by Kevin Tierney in an article for Kinema, the larger-than-life but flawed Welles believed that the moral of the story was “to show that a man who declares himself in the face of the world, I am as I am, take it or leave it, that this sort of man has a tragic dignity.”
Having been stung by a few “scorpions” in my time, albeit two-legged ones, the story has always resonated with me. Apparently, I am not the only one, because the parable appears in several films and television programs, though not always with the same meaning that Welles had believed it to possess.
Director Blake Edwards worked the fable into his 1989 comedy Skin Deep, starring John Ritter as a womanizing, alcoholic author suffering from writer’s block and self-pity. A less-than-sympathetic psychiatrist relates the story to Ritter’s character during a therapy session in which the possibility of changing one’s outlook and situation is brought up. An irritated Ritter asks the doctor, “Do you know what I feel like doing?” The doctor replies that he knows Ritter wants to tell him to go “f___ himself,” because that is his character. The point is that Ritter has no possibility of changing so his situation is unlikely to improve.
Neil Jordan repeats the fable in The Crying Game, the 1992 drama featuring an unlikely romance as well as one of cinema’s most shocking reveals. In Northern Ireland, IRA member Fergus is assigned to guard Jody, a captive British soldier. Jody appeals to his captor’s softer side by relating the fable of the scorpion and the frog. Jody tells Fergus that it is his nature to be kind to him despite their circumstances of captor and captive.
In The Devil’s Carnival, a horror musical released in 2012, a kleptomaniac, an obsessed father, and a gullible teenage girl end up at a carnival in hell operated by the devil. Each protagonist’s situation is explained by the devil through a story set to song. In “The Scorpion and the Frog,” a slick, seductive knife-thrower croons “Trust Me” to a teenage girl reluctant to be tied to his target. After she yields to his charms, he throws the knife directly into her heart, destroying her, because. . . well . . . it’s his nature. Every girl who has ever had her heart broken by a handsome young “scorpion” and his empty promises can relate to this interpretation of the tail. The Devil’s Carnival was written by Terrance Zdunich, who plays the devil, and directed by Darren Lynn Bousman.
The fable is referenced but not explained in Drive, Nicolas Winding Refn’s noir-ish drama about a stunt driver with mob ties who almost escapes his violent past when he falls in love with his young neighbor. Ryan Gosling stars as the quiet man of few words who asks someone near the end of the film, “Have you ever heard of the story of the scorpion and the frog?” He doesn’t relate the fable, but knowledgeable movie lovers get the message from the reference. Gosling, who sports a yellow jacket with a distinctive scorpion printed on the back, reverts to his “true nature” when the girl and her family are threatened, realizing that his violent actions will forever alienate her.
B-movies that have also worked the story into their scripts include Soldier, a 2005 film about the Crusades, Boondock Saints 2, the 2009 sequel to the overwrought, overly violent, ultra macho original, and Wrong Turn at Tahoe, a straight-to-DVD crime thriller with Cuba Gooding Jr. and Harvey Keitel.
A number of television programs have referenced the fable, most notably an episode of Star Trek: Voyager titled “Scorpion.” In this two-part episode, Captain Janeway proposes a temporary alliance with the dreaded Borg against an enemy deadly to both of them. Her officers are reluctant to team up with their nemesis, particularly Chakotav who recites the parable of the scorpion to make his point that no amount of reasoning, logic, or diplomacy will change the Borg. The sitcom How I Met Your Mother alluded to the fable in an episode called “The Scorpion and the Toad.” Barney pushes the newly single Marshall to begin dating again, so the two go girl-hunting in a bar called The Scorpion and the Toad. However, lady-killer Barney lands all the girls himself despite his intentions to help Marshall. The reference to the fable serves as a reminder that people can’t help being who they are.
Variations of “The Scorpion and the Frog” have been told in episodes of Starsky and Hutch, The Sopranos (by Tony Soprano himself, not surprisingly), Smallville, CSI, The Gilmore Girls, Weeds, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. (No kidding.) As evidenced in How I Met Your Mother, other animals can be substituted in the tale. Sometimes, the frog is swapped out for a turtle (tortoise) or a fox.
In looking for the origins of the fable, I was surprised to learn that there is no definitive source for this story. Given its use of animal characters, a moral that ends the story, and the brief format, many attribute it to Aesop. However, while researching anthologies of Aesop’s fables, I found no version of this particular story. The closest is a fable about a woman (or sometimes, a farmer) who cares for a wounded or sickly snake, which then bites her when it recovers. Some online writers and bloggers have attributed the fable to African or Arab origin. It may be a variation of a story from a collection of animal fables in Sanskrit, except that a tortoise is the animal stung by the scorpion instead of a frog. It is possible, however, that the earliest verifiable appearance for the fable is Welles’s 1954 script for Mr. Arkadin. Fitting, since the fable not only defines Gregory Arkadin but Welles himself.
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