[11 May 2010]
Though billed as Orson Welles’ novel, the famed director later claimed he didn’t write, or even bother to read, Mr. Arkadin. As the 1955 film directed by and starring Welles, the novel involves two seemingly different players: Gregory Arkadin—industrialist, tycoon, amnesiac—and Guy Van Stratten, a small time smuggler sniffing out Arkadin’s vanished history. Between these characters (a khan and a con) is Raina, Arkadin’s daughter, pulled by the men’s vying affections and agendas.
Welles was lying about the book. Either the name on the cover or his denial of authorship is false. This is typical for Welles. From the hysteria and fear made by The War of the Worlds hoax to his last film (F for Fake, a study on the implications of art forgery), Welles was the consummate trickster. Deception, shadow, dishonesty, fraud, misdirection, outright lies: these are all legitimate Wellesian concerns. The only thing slight about the larger-than-life filmmaker was that he loved sleight of hand.
Perhaps Welles denied the novel due to disgust over the entire Arkadin project, which he called “the most butchered film of my career”. There is no director’s cut. Producer Louis Dolivet, unable to bear the costs of Welles’ labored editing, took back the film, which passed through the hands of many editors. The result was roughly five versions of Mr. Arkadin of varying effectiveness and coherence. Some versions employ flashbacks to relay the intrigue. Sequences are reordered. Footage went unused. The film was not a success.
In 2006 Criterion released a three-disc Mr. Arkadin set which included two of the better cuts, a “Comprehensive Version”” (a sort of best guess at where Welles would have taken the film) and a copy of the novel. Lots of material, yes, but the Criterion box told the Arkadin story with more focus than ever before. Now the novel, with a new forward by John Baxter, is obtainable without buying a stack of Criterion DVDs. With a copy of the novel and a Netflix on demand viewing of the film, the Arkadin enigma can be scoped out on the cheap. But is it worth the effort?
As mangled as the film became, the novel may be the most direct route to Arkadin. The book opens in Naples with the nocturnal musings of cigarette smuggler Guy Van Stratten. There’s a gunfight, a stabbing, a man with one leg. Noir archetypes abound. As with Citizen Kane, dying whispers light a slow burning fuse which blows open the past of a powerful, inscrutable man. Kane, of course, dies at the beginning of his story, but Arkadin (a character based on arms dealer Basil Zaharoff with a dash of Joseph Stalin) is very much alive.
After a botched attempt at blackmail, Van Stratten is quickly in Arkadin’s employ. His job is to piece together the industrialist’s life prior to the winter of 1927, when Arkadin found himself alone in Zurich with 200,000 Swiss francs and no memory to speak of. Van Stratten delves into a post-war European underworld, meeting a host of unsavory goons while becoming deeply interested in Arkadin’s daughter. As the onion peels, Van Stratten finds Arkadin was once a petty crook not so different from himself. The plot twists continue to tangle when Van Stratten learns that as he’s unearthing the past, Arkadin is lurking nearby to ensure it stays buried forever.
As knotted as the plot is, the making of Mr. Arkadin is an equally convoluted tale. Welles played the villainous Harry Lime in the 1949 Carol Reed film The Third Man. The popularity of the film led Welles to produce a series of radio plays called The Lives of Harry Lime. A few of the radio plots were cobbled together to make the script of what would be Mr. Arkadin. And the novel? Most likely it was adapted from the screenplay by Welles’ assistant Maurice Bessy. Because Bessy wrote in French, an unknown party produced the English translation.
So to summarize (deep breath): the book is most likely an English translation of a screenplay novelization written in French that was based on a radio play about a character Welles played in The Third Man. With me? No wonder that in his essay for the Criterion release, J. Hoberman observes, “Arkadin is, then, its own Arkadin”. Eventually, the intrigue on both sides of the lens cancels out, leaving only Welles to scrutinize and revealing deep-rooted ties between director and film.
Like how Van Stratten’s rambling odyssey through Europe reflects a director who by 1948 had quit the United States. And Arkadin’s daughter Raina was played by Paola Mori, an actress the Welles later married. If Welles didn’t write the novel, the book’s dialogue, coming from the screenplay, must have been his. Much of it has that particular meld of worldly and world-weary that Welles did so nicely. J. Hoberman relays that Welles told biographer Barbara Leaming that the book was “not a novelization of the movie but rather its source”, which would be a twist on par with Arkadin not ever having amnesia at all. More smoke and mirrors?
So the mystery remains, not taking in inch away from the great fun that the novel often is. Yes, it relies greatly on coincidences to drive the plot. Sure, the tone bounces crazily from choppy noir monologue to flowery descriptions of various European locales. But it’s surprising readable and, given all the complexities being juggled, it entertains consistently. Whether he wrote it or not, the spirit of Welles is on every page. Nothing is clear cut, but it’s a clear reflection. Speaking of the mighty Arkadin, or, if you prefer, Orson Welles, whoever wrote this book says, “He was everywhere, behind everything, or at least his name was.”