A serial dissembler and renowned bullshit artist, Orson Welles remains an expansively ambiguous figure, his gift for self promotion tending to shift focus depending on whichever fiction – cinematic or otherwise – he was peddling at the time. The closest thing to a codex for understanding the many sides of Welles, and the manifold puzzles contained within his complex filmography, is probably the fantastic This is Orson Welles, a Jonathan Rosenbaum-edited collection of interviews conducted by Peter Bogdanovich, whose longtime friendship with the director allowed him to plumb parts of his psyche that would have been off limits to a stranger. This occurs across a series of provocative, often hilarious discussions, in which the nerdy, detail-obsessed Bogdanovich attempts to pin down the famously evasive Welles, challenging him on his embellishments and contradictions, as the elusive master shirks questions, changes stories and strenuously avoids discussion of his own films. What emerges is a fuzzy image of an eminent fabulist, a man for whom every moment functioned as performance.
It’s this love for artifice, and the acute awareness of life as innately founded upon such deception, that establishes 1955’s Mr. Arkadin as one of Welles’ most personal and resonant films. It’s a movie that’s viewed in a much different light now, situated near the center of a long, often divisive oeuvre, than it was at the time, with the still-young director’s wunderkind status fading and his project choices growing more eccentric. At this point in time, Welles’ puffed up, late-era magician persona has grown so bundled up with his career-long fixation on false surfaces that it’s easy to make limiting blanket statements, concluding that all his films are really about himself, coded commentaries on his fraught relationship with the studio system and whichever producers he was battling at the time. This is dangerous interpretive ground to be treading, yet as with Werner Herzog’s monolithic tales of men battling hopelessly against nature and themselves, there’s something innately personal in Welles’ accounts of larger-than-life figures brought low by reality, particularly the ones where he plays these figures themselves.
There’s a time-based continuum of such films, gradually developing from the high-toned tragedy of Citizen Kane, which charts the downfall of a man powerful enough to take charge of dozens of newspapers, but hopelessly lost when it comes to the intricacies of actual communication. At the other end of the spectrum sits F is for Fake, in which the Wellesian protagonist has now found respite from stage makeup and heartbreaking calamities – playing an affable, winking version of himself – and learned how to master the form’s capacity for subterfuge, character and director fusing into one smirking entity. Coming after the quietly revolutionary murkiness of Othello, which loosed Shakespeare from the stage straight into a shadowy noir underworld, Welles lands on a fascinating pivot between these two extremes with Mr. Arkadin. This is a serious film, highlighted by the director’s embodiment of another big, solemn figure, but it’s also loose and playful in a manner not seen in his earlier work, a collection of bizarre Mitteleuropa set pieces playing out in a world that’s both fantastically implausible and bracingly realistic.
Just before getting busted for smuggling cigarettes, Guy Van Stratten (Robert Arden) encounters a mysterious man with a knife in his back, who passes along two names and then expires in his arms. After a brief stint in jail, Van Stratten reconnects with his treacherous girlfriend Mily (Patricia Medina), and starts digging around for facts, sensing an opportunity to turn a profit. This soon brings him to the attention of Gregory Arkadin (Welles), a powerful Russian businessman with a Zeus-style beard and a gigantic Spanish castle. Arkadin is a semi-reformed gangster who’s made millions running guns, his legitimate status mostly an illusion, and so of course he and Van Stratten become acquainted during a massive masquerade at his palatial estate, Arkadin’s face hidden behind an elaborate mask. Strapped for cash, intent on solving the mystery and smitten with the millionaire’s daughter, Van Stratten accepts an assignment to investigate the roots of Arkadin’s fortune, which, according to the rich man, got its start in post-WWI Zurich, where he woke up one day stricken with amnesia and in possession of an unexplained sum of money.
Mr. Arkadin got its start in expanded scripts for a Harry Lime radio show, and it’s easy to see the connections between this film and The Third Man, from the shared post-war setting to the concept of dreary fall-guy protagonists getting involved in exciting criminal conspiracies. Yet despite its ostensible noir structure, Arkadin is less about character drama than the odd spectacle of the investigation itself. Welles confirms this by casting two dull no-names in the lead roles (Arden and Paola Mori, soon to be his third and final wife) giving the primary focus to the rogues gallery of weirdoes, ne’er-do-wells and freaks that constitute the title character’s checkered past. The criminal element grows more pronounced as the story progresses, implicating Arkadin by association, and the film gets more outlandish along with it, each successive scenario stranger than the last. It eventually becomes clear that Arkadin is really interested in wiping out his past, locating underworld ties so they can be eliminated, preserving the illusion of a spotless reputation.
Taken out of the director’s hands before he could finish editing, Mr. Arkadin stands as yet another unfortunately tainted masterpiece, not released in the US until 1962, not adequately restored to a near-original version until after Welles’ death. In this context, the idea of Arkadin as a cinematic analogue for the real-life Welles becomes even more fitting; an Eastern European Wizard of Oz with seemingly inexhaustible resources, the character sustains himself on the power of illusions. Popping up mysteriously in different locations across the globe, shifting from one guise to another, he’s a phantom in the making, one who’s ultimately helpless in keeping the specifics of his story under his own personal control. When the capacity to shape the illusion is taken out of his hands, Arkadin simply vanishes, setting up the film’s iconic opening image, an empty prop airplane drifting along through the sky. Thankfully the real-life Welles was far more adaptable, creating a string of larger-than-life, inherently analogous characters whose purpose in their respective films continued to change as his embattled career progressed, the destruction of one illusion giving way to another, all ghosts in a glittering hall of mirrors.