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Criterion edition reminds us of Welles' flawed genius
on 9 January 2012
Let's be clear: the many negative reviews of 'Mr. Arkadin' on this site refer to the shoddy editions that populated the marketplace prior to Criterion's definitive and gorgeous 2005 3-disc release. The film's chaotic production history was matched by an equally chaotic release history in which it circulated in as many as seven different versions under the various titles 'Mr. Arkadin' and 'Confidential Report'. Its copyright status was equally chaotic, leading to its definition as a public domain artefact and allowing opportunistic video and DVD releases by companies who cared nothing for the quality of the print or the integrity of the version they peddled.
Thankfully, with this splendid package, Criterion have made all other versions redundant and have revealed the full beauty, complexity, originality, wild humour and waywardness of Welles's conception. Shot on the run across Europe in 1954, financed on a shoestring budget, and edited in acrimonious circumstances with the producer throwing Welles out of the cutting room with less than a third of the work done, the film tells the tale of Van Stratten, a shady American smuggler, hired by Arkadin, a shady international finance capitalist, to investigate his past which, he claims, he has lost to amnesia. The commission itself, and the motives of the two principals, soon turn out to be far more sinister than they intially appear, gradually revealing a complex web of murder, espionage, white slavery and organised crime which resolves into a power struggle over ownership of the past and possession of the tycoon's beautiful and innocent daughter.
Criterion offer three versions of the film - the 1955 European release, the 1962 American release and a new version several minutes longer than any seen before and reconstructed according to Welles's plan to tell the story in complex flashback structure. In all versions the picture restoration is beautiful, allowing us to relish the bravura camerawork, captivating modernist editing and startling scene construction. And the longer version includes all the wonderful set-piece scenes that make the film so cherishable and outlandish: Arkadin menacing Van Stratten's girlfriend below-decks on his yacht as the room pitches wildly about; Van Stratten interrogating the Professor, an old associate of Arkadin's, as he runs his performing fleas through their paces; and a hilarious Michael Redgrave in a ratty old hairnet as an international fence, trying to sell Van Stratten a defective 'telioscope' which constantly increases in price.
In terms of plot, the film is a serio-comic hybrid of 'Citizen Kane' and 'The Lady from Shanghai', blending the quest for the shadowy history of the powerful capitalist with a noir crime story in which a hapless drifter is drawn into a web of intrigue with a twisted sexual motive at its centre. 'Mr. Arkadin' perhaps doesn't attain the greatness of those two predecessors, but in the Criterion version it stands as testament that Welles's original genius remained intact throughout his years of European exile, before he returned for his Hollywood swan song with the great 'Touch of Evil'.
Five stars for the brilliant Criterion package and the invaluable service it performs for film lovers and Wellesophiles; four and a half stars for the film itself - a typical Welles effort: bold, original and bewildering in equal measure.