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If you don’t wanna know, don’t go looking

It’s not uncommon for well-established movie directors to return to the scene of the crime, as it were, and revisit old successes. The defining masterpieces of brash young artists get remixed by older artists with a new perspective: Fritz Lang’s M and While the City Sleeps, Jean Renoir’s The Grand Illusion and The Elusive Corporal, Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo and Rio Lobo… and then there’s Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and Mr. Arkadin.

Both films begin with the death of a Great Man, and ruminate through intersecting circles of flashbacks as an investigator attempts to retroactively recreate that life and understand the man behind the legend. One was a blockbuster triumph that changed movies forever and remains hailed as one of, if not the, greatest films in Hollywood history. The other was a slapdash independent concoction brewed up far from Hollywood’s industrial organization and distributed in a scattershot way as if marketed by ADHD-addled amnesiacs.

Guess which one I prefer :)

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As I’m sure you know, Orson Welles’ 1942 masterpiece Citizen Kane was not only made using the full resources of Golden Age Hollywood, but it pushed those resources to reset the bar for what American movies could do. Generations of film scholars hence continue to look back at Kane with astonishment at the revolutionary leaps forward it represented. The concept of a powerful man with a dark secret would fuel most of Welles’ best work for the rest of his career (The Third Man, The Stranger, Touch Of Evil, to name a smattering few).

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By the mid-1950s, Welles was an exile, a Hollywood ex-patriot in Europe scrounging money from acting gigs to finance independent productions made on the cheap. Far from making revolutionary cinema that stretched the limits of Hollywood’s achievement, his Euro-pictures are catch-as-catch-can affairs that rely on a seemingly bottomless font of creativity and ingenuity just to get by. By my lights, that makes them superior, and more fun.

In addition to any Kane-esque flavors that hang heavy on Mr. Arkadin, it must be noted that the production was actually rooted in the aftermath of his hugely successful film The Third Man.

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In 1951, Welles had crafted a radio spin-off of The Third Man for Harry Alan Towers, one of the most notorious and infamous producers of Eurotrash sleaze. The Adventures Of Harry Lime was a syndicated half-hour radio program in which Welles reprised his role as Harry Lime. Sometimes Welles also contributed scripts along with his voice talents.

A few years later, Orson jumbled together some ideas from the radio shows as a new feature project tentatively titled Masquerade.

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At the heart of the story was Mr. Arkadin, a character allegedly based on Stalin or perhaps real-life arms trafficker Basil Zaharoff. But the real-life parellels don’t feel quite as palpable as those to Welles’ recurring Charles Foster Kane/Harry Lime template. Arkadin is a powerful man with a secret past he desperately wants to stay secret—especially from his daughter Raina (Paola Mori, the future Mrs. Welles #3).

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Arkadin hires a petty hood, Guy Van Stratten (Robert Arden, the film’s weakest link), to do the gumshoe routine and dig up whatever dirt he can. Stratten mistakenly believes he is trying to help Arkadin work through a case of amnesia—but when everyone he talks to is suddenly murdered, he realizes he is caught in a terrible trap.

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The plot works a clever inversion on Citizen Kane, with a similar search for a man’s secret, only here the ultimate point is not to uncover the truth but to bury it even further.

As was typical for Welles’ European films, it was made in a piecemeal fashion. For eight months Welles zipped from various cities in Spain to Munich to Paris to Rome, and then retraced his steps across the continent during the sluggish post-production process. When he missed the intended release deadline, producer Louis Dolivet yanked away control. Renzo Lucidi completed the movie, with Welles’ written suggestions followed only occasionally.

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Under the title Confidential Report, the film launched in Spain and gradually opened across Europe throughout 1955. In 1962, the film was recut closer to Welles’ originally intended version, with a more complex editorial structure, and this version appeared in the United States under the title Mr. Arkadin. These are just two variants–the thing has been recut almost countless times for variant versions in different territories and times—it has become a pasttime of Welles fans to dissect the myriad editions and argue about which is better/closer to Welles’ intentions.

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A novelization of the film surfaced, attributed to Welles—he insisted he had no knowledge of the book until he was shown a published copy. Peter Bogdanovich surmised that the book was a promotional tie-in for the French market that invoked Welles’ name without permission.

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In any version, this underrated gem of Welles’ later career is a fabulous opportunity to spot your favorite Euro-cult actors (hey, there’s Gert Frobe!) in a grim adventure that exemplifies Welles’ preoccupations with corruption, fate, and self-destruction.

7 Responses If you don’t wanna know, don’t go looking
Posted By David Bird : October 10, 2015 2:25 pm

Which version do you prefer on the Criterion edition?
I lean towards the comprehensive version.

Posted By Jonathan Barnett : October 10, 2015 7:57 pm

Yeah, it’s a fun and exciting movie and still underrated and taken for granted. It’s what I imagined most of the Euro Cult movie to be after reading Immortal Tales. Euro trash at its most sublime as opposed to the more common ridiculous tax write offs that passes for cult cinema.

For the record, I’m also fond of RIO LOBO and have never understood the critisim that it still receives. It has a confidence that that other 1970s movies rarely have.its not worried about ambiguity.

Posted By kingrat : October 11, 2015 11:58 pm

David, MR. ARKADIN is the only one of Welles’ Eurpoean films that I actually enjoy, apart from CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT. The visuals are great, so I can somewhat overlook the mess of a script, the woodenness of Robert Arden, the extended scene given to Akim Tamiroff (this kind of “humor” is something Welles loves, but I don’t).

By the way, a newcomer might assume from your post that Welles directed THE THIRD MAN. I know that some Wellesians like to believe he directed all the best parts, but if so, he was thoughtful enough to direct it in the style of THE FALLEN IDOL. Let’s at least mention the name of the actual director of THE THIRD MAN: Carol Reed.

Posted By Sammy : October 12, 2015 11:53 pm

Remakes of classic movies are garbage basically 100% of the time. Same for reboots and the like. Anytime I hear of a remake or reboot, I preemptively facepalm, and then if it’s actually good I’m pleasantly surprised. Needless to say, I’m rarely surprised.

Posted By Ben Martin : October 13, 2015 3:01 pm

I watched Mr. Arkadin for the first time this year on TCM. And I noticed something happening that often happens with Orson Welles movies – the fascinating camera work and blocking (Welles is my favorite blocker ever) distract me to the point where I don’t hear dialogue and I eventually become lost. With Arkadin I found myself rewinding endlessly and still not getting it. With other Welles films I overcame this obstacle. But I could just never follow Mr. Arkadin’s story. This probably says more about me than it does Welles, but I just don’t get the movie. I somewhat enjoyed watching it, but at the end I just shook my head – the charms of the movie did not outweigh the frustrations. Make sense?

Posted By swac44 : October 14, 2015 6:23 pm

I actually got to hear the Harry Lime radio series a few years before I saw The Third Man, thanks to its Sunday night airings on a local radio station, so it was nice to revisit the series when the episode that inspired Mr. Arkadin was included on the Criterion edition as an extra. I’ve only watched Criterion’s “comprehensive” edit of the film, which seems to cover all the bases, but one of these days I should get around to some of the other variants.

Posted By robbushblog : February 11, 2016 6:03 am

I watched it on TCM once more than a few years ago. I got bored while watching it. I can’t remember if I even finished it. Someday I will give it another chance.

And as far as RIO LOBO goes, it is the only John Wayne I’ve ever seen that I didn’t like. EL DORADO, an even closer kin to RIO BRAVO than RIO LOBO is, is much better than RIO LOBO.

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