A reimagining of Citizen Kane by way of Eric Ambler’s The Mask of Dimitrios, Orson Welles’ Mr. Arkadin remains one of his most pleasurable films. In Kane, Welles constructed a grand myth of the failure of American ego and wealth. Arkadin follows Kane‘s essential structure and theme, albeit now transported to a European milieu. But in Mr. Arkadin, Welles does not construct a myth, but dramatizes its implosion in a surreal, comic nightmare of corruption.
Mr. Arkadin emerged from story fragments found from Orson Welles’ radio series, The Lives of Harry Lime (a prequel to The Third Man), which were woven together with inspiration taken from the real-life dealings of arms dealer Basil Zaharoff. The story, which involves a cheap thug named Guy Van Stratten (Robert Arden) investigating the details of Gregory Arkadin’s life at Arkadin’s request (Arkadin claims to have lost his memory and wishes to discover his true origins), takes the structure of interviews with various personages from Arkadin’s past. These vivid episodes build on one another to create a vision of a world shaped by corrupt opportunists. In Mr. Arkadin, the currency of the postwar economy is crime.
As with The Lady from Shanghai, Welles finds stylistic liberation in the textures of pulp, though in Mr. Arkadin, his noir stylizations reach a frenzied surrealism that prefigures the grotesque charades of The Trial. Arkadin feels as though it was birthed entirely from Welles’ uninhibited whimsy, an animated parade of exaggerated characters and the distinct worlds they inhabit. Welles, as always, stages scenes such that the surroundings inform his images as much as the characters themselves; his cinema is very much a cinema of spaces, contextualizing people with architecture.
In the absurd makeup Welles creates for Arkadin, he stresses the sheer artifice of the character. Arkadin, with his Zeus-like beard, becomes a parody of a European despot. It’s a face Arkadin has fashioned for himself:
“Why’d you grow that awful beard?”
“To scare people with.”
To add to the fiction, Arkadin lives in an ornate castle (echoes of Kane’s Xanadu), protective of his daughter, Raina (Paola Mori, Welles’ third wife), and thrives on displays of his own power. At his decadent Christmas party, crowded with manic sycophants, Arkadin masks himself as Santa Claus (he subsequently gives protagonist Guy Van Stratten the gift of intimidation).
This theatricality stems from Arkadin’s desperation prove his own magnificence to himself. But unlike Kane, we get no direct glimpse of the man who was. We only hear the verbal accounts of people who claim to have known him in the past. Their recollections of his life of criminality are generally tawdry and underwhelming, secrets that were never worth unearthing.
Arkadin’s climactic defeat comes at Christmas, when, in a fit of desperation, he tries to use his ill-gotten wealth and manufactured reputation to gain a seat on a plane. Receiving no response to his extraordinary offer to pay any sum, he bellows: “My name is Gregory Arkadin!” Inspiring the crowd to burst into laughter, Guy Van Stratten shouts back: “Yeah, and I’m Santa Claus!” Arkadin has fashioned himself into a fiction too extreme to be believed.
In his final moments, Gregory Arkadin disappears off-screen, a ghost evaporating into the celluloid ether.
(Note: Mr. Arkadin exists in many different versions, all built from the same essential footage. I am partial to the “comprehensive” cut assembled for Arkadin‘s Criterion release for the way it restores the narrative’s proper continuity, and for the existential weight of its abstract opening and closing images.)