Mr. Arkadin

Mr. Arkadin

The revolution brought about by Welles seems greater every day. Without him, as we said in the dedication to our Christmas issue, "the new American cinema would not be what it is." From Wyler to Robert Aldrich, through Kazan or Preminger, following a meandering but never entirely broken line, his influence has never ceased to obsess Hollywood. True, like Eisenstein, he is not the type that can be imitated, and with the help of time and ingratitude, the many errors committed in his name have caused us to turn to other gods. Little by little, we allowed ourselves to consider him the majestic and already-faraway portico to modern cinema, without dreaming that he could one day return to our ranks and dazzle us with unequaled brilliancy.

Othello reminded us in time that our god was not dead, but as much as we admired this film, we did not rediscover the fiery vitality that, ten years ago, had inflamed our young eyes. We resigned ourselves to believing that the meteor had absorbed the shadows of history, leaving behind a mere precious tail, whose glowing dust alone was left for us to gather, perhaps with somewhat less haste than our elders did.

Then came Arkadin. We cannot say that the critics were harsh. Yet, I would have hoped for less measured praise. What, the best Orson Welles film? Why not? It is just as great as Citizen Kane or the Ambersons, and before time imposes a more objective judgment, it is normal for my current choice to be for the most recent. Far from a remake of the preceding films, it continues a tendency that I had sensed at a recent showing of Lady from Shanghai. Although the director admits that the latter was taken from the first novel he picked up, until today it had been my favorite. It is appropriate to compare Arkadin with this film and not with Citizen Kane, as is usually done. Neither claims to be realistic, or at least if there is realism, it is only at a secondary level. These are tales, in the strict sense of the word, fables, yet not abstract allegories. It is surprising that a period so quick to get carried away with the many revivals of Kafka's The Trial or The Castle would so confuse genres in this case. Unlike thrillers, whose moral system and structures they borrow, they are not embellished myths of popular or scholarly origin but brand-new myths, pure myths. The fantastic springs from a primary source, but Welles does not treat it with the grain of condescension detectable in Raymond Chandler or in Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly. If the story's significance surpasses the director's explicit meaning, it is because it also surpasses analysis, as do all tales, of all ages, in all countries.

According to Pierre Kast and his followers, Lady from Shanghai is a demythification (or demystification) of a certain Hollywood idea of the woman, the denunciation of an entire moral and social system. Granted, but saying that Orestes is the expression of a Greek consciousness crisis linked to an economic infrastructure does not explain why this myth remained fertile until Giraudoux and Sartre, by way of Racine. For Monsieur Verdoux (which was Welles's idea, I know), OK, I agree it is merely a pamphlet in allegorical form, a tale like Zadig, to which we are free to prefer A Thousand and One Nights. In this case, Orson Welles preserves the naivete and polyvalence of the fable. In place of an optimistic, if not a completely inane, myth, he substitutes another, more bitter one, whose truth far surpasses the circumstances. "Innocent or guilty, it doesn't mean a thing," murmurs Michael the sailor. I just mentioned Orestes: The ancient idea of fate is replaced by a more obscure, more dubious one, somewhere between Kafkaesque absurdity and "politics," that is, human plotting. We find this idea of universal deception in Mr. Arkadin but associated with another, just as profound, idea: that of the invulnerability of the secret, of a killing truth, which reminds us of Pandora's box.

Arkadin asks the explorer Van Stratten to lead a strange search: to reconstruct a past that he pretends to have forgotten since a certain day in 1927. Van Stratten accomplishes his mission and little by little discovers the secret reason for it: to eliminate troublesome witnesses whose traces were lost. Everyone can interpret these rather extraordinary facts as he likes. What matters is the tone of this search, which is that of rape, of violation. Watch the improvised detective shaking the old Jacob Zouk, pulling pieces of truth from him as he pulls off his blanket. "The main thing is to age well," said Michael: Arkadin and Van Stratten refused to bend to the march of time, whether due to unbounded ambition, vanity, or the lure of profit. They cannot, or do not want to, forget the secret, as did the others, who have long ceased to pose a threat. They violate the past. This idea, which runs throughout all adventure stories, plays a prominent role in this one. The inquiry is no longer a method of narration, as in Citizen Kane, but is the very subject of the film. My explication does not claim to be complete. I simply want to show that of all his stories, this story especially cannot be taken literally. Who is Arkadin, in fact? One of these adventure figures, a few examples of which exist today? A Basil Zaharoff, a Serge Rubinstein? Probably, but he is different from the usual type. He resembles the god Neptune too much not to represent something more: the incarnation of destiny, a modern and omnipresent god, returning to the sky from which he seemed to come (his death is not shown, the plane crashes empty), a vulnerable god, a cruel, yet just god. Van Stratten saves his skin but loses Raina's love, who condemns him for having chosen his own life instead of her father's. His fault is less moral than metaphysical. The psycholanalysts will quibble endlessly over this story, as they did over King Lear or The Tempest. But I wanted to propose a meaning that would be less dependent on the director's personal obsessions.

This story is therefore not fantastic but, more precisely, marvelous, a type of marvelous that is all the more rare because it functions without resorting to the aids of modern fairytales: exoticism and science fiction. All symbolism aside, the adventure alone brilliantly illustrates a genre that has deteriarated since Jules Verne and Fantomas,* or in some cases has become overly intellectual. It builds its novelistic quality on neither anticipation nor displacement, which today is almost an impossible feat. In a century when reporting and memoirs of all types have made us more demanding concerning exact details, we find our familiar Europe in a strange light, and yet we recognize it. This unrealistic tale rings truer than many stories in which verisimilitude is carefully maintained. Although Welles neglects to justify many aspects of his story, whereas he meticulously follows up on others, he doesn't play around with the truth, which is carefully reconstructed. Some say this film "looks poor," and it did not require costly sets and all the technical extras that only specialists notice. The layman will find, in contrast, that this film is very rich, more than any European or American film this year, and he is right. In what way does the billionaire Arkadin interest the man on the street, which we all are, in a sense? His wealth consists not so much of possessions but of the most modern power: the ability to move around, to be somehow present at the same moment all over the world. The life of voyages and palaces charms us in a way that sedentary luxury no longer does. Most of the time, Welles was careful to bring his crew to the very spots where the action is supposed to take place, and the precaution pays off. The actors, who all are excellent, play "character" roles but play even more on their physical, even ethnic, characteristics. The power of money is portrayed with a precision that only Balzac would have no need to envy. All the true elements create an exceptional world, whose existence we believe in all the more because it is presented as an exception.

And then there is the style, the tone, the inimitable magic that stimulates us from the first chords of music by Misraki. Are the low angles, the short focal lenses, the first monstrous shots, merely trademarks, whose excellence crushes its many imitators? Never were these distortions, this delirium, so much in place, so justified: the truth that crumbles into fatal dust in the hands of the detective, these bits of a past that tumble like a sand castle, unable to be approached head-on and forcing us to emphasize both their crushing weight and inconsistency. As if he owned them, had invented them, Welles uses a mechanical system that he alone has been able to understand. Although he was justly praised in the past for his use of the still shot, since Lady from Shanghai, and especially in Othello, he likes his shooting script to be extremely fragmented, without shocking our modern demand for continuity. Andre Bazin observed that his favorite figure of speech was the litote, the strong point of the scene remaining in the background before the impassive camera. Here, he multiplies the angles, yet these leaps do not move forward. The camera seems stricken with the same illness as the characters are, who turn and totter. I am thinking of the scene on the yacht, on a stormy sea, when the drunken Mily tells Arkadin the secrets that will cost him his life. At every instant, everything seems carried off by the surge of a great wave. Even if it rarely appears, the sea continues its low rumble. I bet that the resemblance between Arkadin and "the god who shakes the earth" is not coincidental.

It is not the first time in the history of cinema that a effervescent genius, traveling on ordinary paths, so royally misused the technical or human material that fell into his lap. Orson Welles's case reminds us in many ways of Stroheim's. But I prefer to compare the director of Citizen Kane with Eisenstein. In both we find the same opinionatedness, though more didactic in the first, the same skill at using the primary power of the camera, of transfiguring reality by manipulating camera shots, the same confidence in the effects of editing, whether material or ideal (on the contrary, the use of ellipsis and camera movement, shooting script techniques, characterize Hitchcock). Yet, thanks to implicit or explicit attractions, we find the same ability to express more than a sentiment, to express an idea. We are compelled to place them among the greats, even if we refuse to be hypnotized by their brilliant examples. Both, too attentive to their own music, did not try to discover the lyricism that comes from things alone and that a camera "placed at a man's height," like that of Hawks, but also of Renoir and Rossellini, is more apt to bring out. Cinema's mission is more to direct us toward the aspects of the world that we didn't see than to place us before a distorting mirror, as good quality as it may be. Personally, I prefer the first school, but one must recognize that genius is still genius, no matter what form it takes.

(Cahiers du cinema 61, July 1956)