Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Directors, Essays, Orson Welles

Mr. Arkadin

[This is a program note written for “The Cinema of Orson Welles,” the Autumn 1971 film series of the University of Washington Office of Lectures & Concerts, and distributed at the November 9, 1971, showing of the film.]

Mr. Arkadin is another of Welles’s European productions. The soundtrack is consequently erratic, and this, plus the fact that the storyline is so crowded with events and characters, suggests the advisability of offering a brief outline of the scenario for reference either before or after viewing:

Orson Welles as Gregori Arkadin

*Pre-title sequence. Typed words: “A certain great and powerful king said to a poet, ‘What can I give you of all that I have?’ He wisely replied, ‘Anything, sir … except your secret.'” A plane is seen sweeping over a barren landscape. The director’s voice tells us that this pilotless craft was sighted one Christmas morning, that investigation of the incident “reached into the highest circles,” and that the attendant scandal very nearly toppled a government. “This motion picture is a fictionalized reconstruction of the events leading up to the murder, and to the appearance, last Christmas morning, of the empty plane.”

*The titles. The main title is formed out of newspaper cuttings. The cast is introduced in order of appearance, each seen in a subsequent shot from the film. Various other shots are seen now, to be repeated in context later.

*Jacob Zouk’s apartment. Guy Van Stratten arrives to tell Zouk both their lives are in danger. “If I’m going to save your miserable life for you, you’ve got to understand.” He proceeds to recount about an hour of the film in flashback; there are occasional cuts back to Van Stratten narrating to Zouk.

*The murder of Bracco and the death of “the pegleg.” Bracco whispers Gregori Arkadin’s name and that of a woman to Mily, Van Stratten’s girl. The police search Van Stratten’s boat.

*Van Stratten gets out of prison (having been discovered as a smuggler) and scours Europe for Mily. He finds she’s got in with the fantastically wealthy Arkadin, though it takes her a while to remember the woman’s name Bracco told her: Sophie. Van Stratten tells her to get invited on Arkadin’s yacht.

*Guy meets Raina, Arkadin’s daughter, and connives his way into accompanying her to Spain. There he encounters Mily again, is threatened with exposure by her (she is jealous of his interest in Raina, which seems to go beyond getting hold of some of her father’s money). He continues to see Raina under the eyes of her father’s many “secretaries.”

*The party at “the ogre’s castle.” Goya-esque processions of “visions and monsters.” A masked Arkadin approaches Guy with friendly menace, reveals he knows what a shady character Guy is, precipitates a crisis in his daughter’s bedroom. Guy storms out, prepared to renounce his plot with Mily and go far away.

*The next day. Arkadin summons Guy to the castle again and confides that he has amnesia, that he doesn’t know where he came from before “one snowy night” in 1927, in Zürich. He wants Guy to run a check on him, claiming that the U.S. Army will shortly be doing the same thing when reviewing his bid for a contract. Guy is ordered not to see Raina again or tell her about his mission.

*Research of the confidential report begins. Van Stratten reads a Thatcher-like statement of some Swiss financier to the effect that the origins of Arkadin’s fortunes and power are insoluble mysteries.

*In her cabin on Arkadin’s yacht, Mily tells Arkadin that Guy has spoken with the tailor’s cutter who worked on Arkadin’s one suit in Zürich: the label revealed that Arkadin had come from Warsaw. It has also been learned that Arkadin helped some Nazis get to South America during the war.

*Copenhagen (after a montage of many travels). Guy interviews The Professor, once the world’s greatest confidence man, and is referred to an old colleague, Thadeus, in Tangiers.

*Tangiers. Mily sees Thadeus, who gives her the name of Burgomil Trebitsch.

*Trebitsch’s cluttered antique shop. Guy gets an inkling of the activities of Sophie’s gang and, after a tortuous conversation, is referred to the Baroness Nagel, once a special police agent who helped break up the group. (She is now a saleswoman in a fashion salon.)

*Another travel montage, Guy searching for the Baroness. We see her dining with Arkadin himself in Paris. Arkadin wheedles Sophie’s married name and whereabouts from her, only to learn Van Stratten has accomplished the same thing in the meanwhile.

*Another bedroom confrontation, at Guy’s Paris hotel, among Guy, Raina, and Arkadin. Raina is disappointed to learn that Guy has been bought. Arkadin tries to take him off the case but Van Stratten vows to learn the secret he was hired to learn: “Maybe I’ll end up an Arkadin!”

*Mexico. Guy has found Oskar, Sophie’s first husband and one of her accomplices, and imprisoned him on a boat away from his heroin supply. Oskar cracks and tells about the old gang, including Arkadin’s real name (we do not see this but hear of it through the narration). Guy goes to Sophie, now married to a superannuated Mexican general. She tells him she has known all along that the great Gregori Arkadin was her ex-lover and accomplice; she bears him no malice, no more than she does her first husband Oskar.

*Guy learns Arkadin is also in Mexico, at his private hotel; they speak briefly, Guy telling Arkadin of his past, but Guy is being hustled out of the country, at Sophie’s wishes, because of his treatment of Oskar. At the European end of his flight he meets Raina and is made to realize that his employer has always known full well who he was.

*Munich. On his way to see Zouk, last member of the old gang, Van Stratten is waylaid by the German police. He gets away from them by announcing he’s on his way to Arkadin’s Christmas party. He goes there and learns that Sophie, Oskar, even Mily, anyone who might point to Arkadin’s past, is being murdered. Only one remains, he says: Zouk, whose name and address he has already given Arkadin. Arkadin observes Guy’s arithmetic is mistaken and looks at him significantly.

*Van Stratten concludes his narrative to Zouk and tries to persuade the man to conceal himself. Zouk expects to die any time now (it’s the only reason he is not still in prison) and cooperates only so that he may live long enough to enjoy a goose liver, of which he has been dreaming for fourteen years. But despite their precautions, Zouk too is assassinated.

*If Arkadin’s past was never really a secret, his present motive has been. Guy realizes that all these machinations have the single purpose of assuring that Raina will never learn what her father was before he became Gregori Arkadin. He gets away from his employer and beats him back to Spain by mere moments, just long enough to instruct the girl to lie to her father that she knows all. Arkadin commits suicide, virtually evaporating into thin air. Guy’s life is saved but Raina’s is shattered by her knowledge that she has helped kill her father: there was a “murder” that Christmas morning after all.


Gregori Arkadin offers a toast: “A frog was approached by a scorpion who wanted to be carried to the other side of the river. The frog refused, knowing the scorpion to be deadly. Logically—for scorpions always try to be logical—the scorpion protested to the frog, ‘But what harm can I do to you without harming myself? For only you can carry me across the flood.’ The frog considered this and decided it was true, and so he took the scorpion on his back and started into the water. But as he reached the midpoint of the current, he felt a terrible pain and knew that he had been stung. ‘Logic!’ he cried. ‘Where is the logic in this?’ ‘I cannot help it,’ said the scorpion as the current took them both down; ‘it is my character, and there is no logic in character.’ Let us drink to character.”

Gregori Arkadin tells a story

The quotation (not quite verbatim) serves better than any other to define virtually the entire creative output of Orson Welles, and especially the denizens of his unique universe. Peter Cowie, in his Cinema of Orson Welles, has gone so far as to divide all Welles’s major characters into frogs and scorpions: Kane, George Minafer, Elsa and Arthur Bannister, Iago, Hank Quinlan are scorpions; Jed Leland, Eugene Morgan, Michael O’Hara, Othello, all frogs. Such a division seems to me entirely too simplistic; indeed, it reflects a blindness to the essential ambivalent tension in Welles’s work. Charles Foster Kane is the most sympathetic character in Citizen Kane, George the most perishably valuable in Ambersons; and one cannot feel especially easy about Isabel Minafer’s and Desdemona’s submissions to their respective fates. Each character—each of us—includes a bit of frog and scorpion. Human nature is eternal. It is also imperfect. Welles obsessively finds forms through which to express these imperfections.

The relationship between Mr. Arkadin and Citizen Kane should be clear enough: both involve titans the reach of whose influence is near-global (delete the “near” in Arkadin’s case), and both involve an investigator undertaking a quest for the secret of a great man’s past. What is perhaps not so obvious is that Guy Van Stratten as well as Gregori Arkadin carries echoes of Charlie Kane: just as the role of Kane’s father and the nature of Kane’s own feelings toward him remain elusive, the very identity of Van Stratten’s father “does not seem to have been established”; and an early voiceover line of Van Stratten’s echoes some of Kane’s on taking over the New York Inquirer: “Plan? The truth is I didn’t have any plan….” He and Arkadin are constantly linked in the dialogue (“You mean you need to be trusted? Funny—so does Father”—Raina to Guy. “I know what I wanted—that’s the difference between us”—Arkadin to Guy), and both, for all the sophistication of their experience and methodology, are susceptible to surprising lapses (Van Stratten mispronounces “ammanesia” and “phenomemum,” Arkadin doesn’t know who Neptune is). Guy too is capable of Arkadinian sleight-of-hand, as when he asks the location of a hotel switchboard and we dissolve immediately to the Marquis of Rutleigh being paged for a phone call, leaving Raina available; or when, as part of the process of saving his own skin, he commandeers Arkadin’s own car in Arkadin’s name. Mily, his accomplice, threatens him with a form of blackmail out of jealousy of Raina, placing him in precisely the position, we subsequently learn, in which Arkadin fears to find himself in relation to his own criminal accomplices. It is not really inconvenient for Guy when she turns up dead. He even shares a certain responsibility for it, as he is in part responsible for Sophie and Oskar. The rush of his departure from Mexico prevents his elaborating his report to Arkadin, so that later, when Guy tells him the now-dead Sophie would have respected his secret, Arkadin demands, “Why didn’t you tell me all this before?” and Van Stratten answers, “I didn’t know she was in any danger.” “That,” replies Arkadin, “should have been obvious.” But even the cynical small-time crook Van Stratten harbored enough Wellesian innocence not to have foreseen the final, lethal implications of his employer’s quest.

Echoes of Charlie Kane and his world do not end with Van Stratten and Arkadin; Welles is as generous with affinities as with imperfections. Bracco staggers out of the nightmarish landscape of the Naples waterfront and collapses at Van Stratten’s feet. Van Stratten says not to worry, that he is with him, and Bracco gasps ironically, “You’re with me—after all the friends I’ve had.” He might be Kane in Xanadu, dying with a starched nurse and an unsentimental butler in attendance; and he does offer Mily wealth in the form of a dying whisper which, if it never develops the reverberation of a “Rosebud,” nevertheless sets the quest in progress. The motif of blackmail feared by both Guy and Arkadin is picked up elsewhere, and the variation is not without significance: Sophie permits her first husband Oskar to blackmail her “just enough to keep his self-respect…. So Oskar takes dope. Let them both have what they need.”

‘Mr. Arkadin’

The other half of the “they” is Arkadin, and what he needs is to preserve an image. (Pauline Kael interestingly suggests the film is an allegory of Welles killing off his collaborators.) Gregori Arkadin first appears as a form in a limousine, his head swallowed in shadow; he is next introduced as a plane flying over and interrupting Guy’s courting of Raina; then he’s a castle on a hill (“That’s a real castle in Spain!” Guy jokes, the line ironically serving to underscore the illusoriness of Arkadin’s identity and power), then a robed and disguised figure at a masked ball, and lastly a surreal closeup with shockingly artificial hairline and beard. All of Arkadin’s force is drawn from his surroundings, the size of his workforce, the low wide angles that enable him to loom over us and the others in the film. His identity is spurious. It is apt that the film which bears his name should be composed of irredressible imbalances and vast lacunae bleakly filling with snow, discordant Christmas carols, corrupted artifacts (the masked processions) and near-corpses, the detritus of history (disused cannon in Zouk’s courtyard, an inverted portrait of Hitler, a fallen swastika—not to mention the memory of Communist guns that didn’t shoot and fled Nazis bilked of their fortunes). Arkadin appears to enjoy temporary ascendancy: he can toy with Van Stratten on a long-distance phone call that turns out to bridge a gap of a couple hundred feet, but this is a technological feat as much as Welles’s rolling wa1ls that elsewhere unnervingly create a sense of a rocking ship and a chaotic world in which only Arkadin is stable. In the end Arkadin is unable to cross Munich for want of his own car, and he stands behind a chain watching Van Stratten and dozens of other commoners board a plane belonging to an airline of which he is a major shareholder. “I am Gregori Arkadin!” he booms at the crowd, as Kane bellowed after Jim W. Gettys; but Van Stratten deflates the identity by calling back, “Yeah, and I’m Santa Claus”—which Zouk sarcastically calls Guy at the beginning of the film, and a role which Arkadin himself played moments earlier. Raina looks toward Heaven and cries, “Father, Father…!” but the God of this particular universe simply evaporates, posthumously represented by an empty airplane and static on a loudspeaker.

Arkadin was, according to one of his business rivals, “a phenomenon of an age of dissolution and crisis.” The world of Mr. Arkadin aptly reflects such an age. From the first tilted views of the Naples docks at night (acres of strangely ominous crates, reminiscent of the warehouses of Xanadu), it is an alien country, though also unmistakably Wellesian. The poetically fragmentary Lady from Shanghai and Othello provide a transition, but this picture marks a full-fledged metamorphosis in Welles’s art. The European experience transforms his vision so markedly that his next picture, completely filmed in the States, will be seen to partake of the same landscape of the imagination.

It is a landscape in which flight is impossible and mere progress is confounded. As the pegleg flees the scene of Bracco’s murder and his figure diminishes in the distance, his shadow stays behind, projected on a heap of crates, huge but fixed. The very structure of the film mocks conventional notions of logic and sequencing. Many of the grotesques interviewed by Guy or Mily advance the storyline not a jot (but they do wonders for the narrative interest and their dialogue is studded with suggestive imagery). At one point Guy is searching for the Baroness Nagel; an informant reveals that she is having dinner with a bearded man; the man turns out to be Arkadin, who elicits from her the information—which Van Stratten has already extracted: we remember now that the informant speaks of having seen Guy “the other day,” but the sequence is deceptive, as the whole notion of the quest is based on deception. Wrapped around all is the by-now-standard Wellesian structure of opening the film with an announcement of how it will conclude.

Mr. Arkadin is a strange work by any accounting. Welles says it is the most mutilated of his films in terms of postproduction interference by the producer; one regrets Welles’s difficulties but tends here, as always, to take the end result at face value. And what is that value? To some, the film is a disaster, a measure of how far the vision of Citizen Kane had degenerated. It is worth noting that it is Welles’s only other completely original work—i.e., not an adaptation. To others, especially in Europe (where the film has been known many years longer than in America), it is a cardinal Welles film, Truffaut among others preferring it. I incline toward the positive pole although some of the writing is blatantly flat and Robert Arden makes an unpleasant hero beyond the director’s fondest dreams of evoking an ambivalent response from the audience. I feel, too, that the proliferation of detail, locations, and characters is not quite matched by an adequate intensity of purpose and craft. The film’s pretensions clearly exceed those of the thriller genre (there is too much indulgence of detail and atmosphere irrelevant to mere plot-serving for us to doubt this), but somehow—perhaps in letting Arkadin be too shallow, too empty—Welles fails to maintain a clear, strong focus.

‘Mr. Arkadin’

Where the film is splendidly focused is in the characters of Jacob Zouk and Sophie, and the performances of Akim Tamiroff and Katina Paxinou. In her gruff sympathy for any human frailty, Sophie functions as an on-screen practitioner of the supreme tolerance apparent in Welles’s own point of view in all the films we have seen; and the tremendous expressiveness of her face and voice as she cherishes her memories and her album of photos eloquently demonstrates that she shares the director’s infatuation with the past. But it is Zouk in whom the spirit of the film is focused most sharply; Zouk whose laughs and coughs are indistinguishable; Zouk who has managed to compress the blessings of life, health, freedom, and ecstasy into the single shining image of a goose liver (with mashed potatoes, apples, and onions, to be sure); Zouk who enters and leaves the film in the same pose, apparently dead and then actually dead; Zouk who regresses to childishness in the last moments of his life, mindful of no contingency but his own obsessive desire, locked up and left behind by an exasperated adult, instructed to “behave” or else. The new phase in Orson Welles’s art is exemplified nowhere more clearly than in the shot of Zouk, in black suit and derby, huddled tiny against a bare wall like a Beckett character while empty hotel room furniture surrounds him. Akim Tamiroff is nothing less than superb (who can forget him rocking on the edge of the bed and singsonging, “If I don’t get that goose-liver I’m going ho-ome!”?) and so will he be again in Touch of Evil and The Trial. For him, among so many other reasons, one yearns to see something made of the unedited footage of Welles’s Don Quixote, in which Tamiroff plays Sancho Panza.

MR. ARKADIN (in Europe: The Confidential Report). Filmorsa, 1955: Spain–England (U.S. release: 1961)

Written and directed by Orson Welles, after his novel The Confidential Report. Cinematography: Jean Bourgoin. Art direction and costumes: Orson Welles. Editing: Renato Lucidi. Music: Paul Misraki. (99 minutes)
The Players: Orson Welles (Gregori Arkadin), Robert Arden (Guy Van Stratten), Paola Mori (Raina), Akim Tamiroff (Jacob Zouk), Patricia Medina (Mily), Grégoire Aslan (Bracco—dubbed by Welles), Jack Watling (Marquis of Rutleigh), Terence Langdon (Arkadin’s secretary), Mischa Auer (The Professor—dubbed by Welles), Peter Van Eyck (Thadeus), Michael Redgrave (Burgomil Trebitsch), Suzanne Flon (Baroness Nagel), Frederic O’Brady (Oskar), Katina Paxinou (Sophie), Gert Fröbe (a German cop), Tamara Shane (woman in Zouk’s building).

Copyright © 1971 by Richard T. Jameson