In 1955, Orson Welles foreshadowed the coming of the French New Wave with Mr. Arkadin, a movie that combines disparate genres with wit and style. Like later films by Jean-Luc Godard, Mr. Arkadin serves as both an affectionate homage to American film noir and a self-conscious deconstruction of the form; it also develops ideas about time and space that Welles began exploring in Citizen Kane. Yet this innovative detective story has never gained the critical or popular recognition of Welles’ best-known works. Perhaps this is because the picture has always been as elusive as its mysterious titular character— over the years, five versions of it were released, most of them without Welles’ participation or approval. One of the most famous incarnations, the European release known as Confidential Report, nearly destroyed the film’s flashback structure, yet it was still strong enough to be named one of the greatest films ever made by Cahiers du cinema in 1958.
The Criterion Collection’s three-disc package The Complete Mr. Arkadin includes Confidential Report and two other versions of the film, and this indispensable boxed set allows the viewer to investigate the Arkadin mystery. Battles between Welles and his producer, Louis Dolivet, prevented the release of a definitive director’s cut, but comparing and contrasting the three edits contained in this package is an illuminating exercise that yields many rewards.
The first Mr. Arkadin in the set is the “Corinth” version, named after its U.S. distributor. This is believed to be the last cut over which Welles exerted significant influence; it retains his narrative structure, which relies heavily on flashbacks. On the project, Welles continued his tradition of working with expert cinematographers, collaborating with French cameraman Jean Bourgoin (Black Orpheus, Mon Oncle). Bourgoin was proficient in the kind of deep-focus photography that Welles favored, and this transfer captures all the rich detail in the vivid black-and-white visuals, though there are occasional scratches and dirt on the source material. Film scholars James Naremore and Jonathan Rosenbaum provide a delightful commentary track that combines visual analysis, biographical context and production anecdotes.
Although the narrative restructuring might lead some to dismiss Confidential Report, the second disc in the set, it is no less Welles’ film than the others. As film-studies professor François Thomas points out in his superb essay, the overall shape is compromised, but the editing of individual scenes is in many ways superior to that of the Corinth version. (Welles made numerous technical refinements to the Corinth cut before Dolivet took the project away from him.) The sound design and scoring are particularly expressive and innovative, and the Dolby monaural soundtrack has far greater clarity than previous home-video releases of the film (including Criterion’s laserdisc). The image is extremely crisp as well, thanks to the fact that the original elements for the European cut have been better preserved than those for the U.S. release. The disc is rounded out by interviews with Welles biographer Simon Callow and actor Robert Arden.
The third version of Mr. Arkadin is a new edit created by film historians Stefan Drössler and Claude Bertemes, who have combined elements from all previous releases to reconstruct the film according to Welles’ documented specifications. This “comprehensive version” is the longest and most satisfying of the three, and is as close to a director’s cut as we are ever likely to see. Also on this disc is a fascinating documentary in which Drössler, Bertemes and filmmaker/Welles confidante Peter Bogdanovich discuss the differences between the various versions of Arkadin and explain the process of reconstructing the picture.
Two cuts of a Spanish-language Mr. Arkadin were also created, and contractual obligations required Welles to reshoot two scenes with different actresses. This package includes the footage featuring the Spanish performers, whose inflections subtly alter the meaning of their scenes. The supplementary materials also include a 30-minute collection of outtakes, rushes and deleted scenes that include some priceless footage of Welles directing his actors.
As if that weren’t enough, The Complete Mr. Arkadin contains two additional versions of the story: a collection of the radio shows that introduced Gregory Arkadin three years before the film, and a copy of the novel by Welles, which the director later claimed was the work of a ghostwriter. The technical quality of the radio program is uneven, but it and the book provide scintillating pieces of the Arkadin puzzle. (An interview with radio producer Harry Alan Towers yields additional insights.)
Taken together, all five Arkadins featured in this set comprise an intriguing, entertaining chapter in the career of American film’s most famous maverick.