In the mid-1950's, Orson Welles - once the Brightest Young Thing in Hollywood - found himself begging for scraps among the film producers of Europe. This is all well-known, and not worth repeating. What matters is that there came a time when Welles began shopping around an idea for a story about a shadowy man of mystery, a plot gathered together from some dead-ends explored on Welles' weekly radio show The Lives of Harry Lime. The untitled film was the story of a criminal with amnesia hiring a shiftless conman to prepare a report on his forgotten-past. Over the course of 1954, Welles shot a film's worth of footage under the title of Mr. Arkadin, starring himself as the title character and Robert Arden as Guy Van Stratten, the amateur sleuth.

As was so often the case, the film was taken away from Welles, and then given back, and then lost, and then found, and then taken away, and this is how we ended up with a remarkable number of distinct cuts of the film, under at least two titles (Jonathan Rosenbaum's vital essay on the subject takes its title from this glut, "The Seven Arkadins"). For many years, the film was impossible to find in anything other than its most unsatisfactory edit, until the spring of 2006, when the Criterion Collection released a three-disc set containing three versions of the film, three episodes of Harry Lime, and the novel Mr. Arkadin, itself a microcosm of mystery and anonymity: credited to Welles and translated into French by the director's friend Maurice Bessy, but more likely written by Bessy from Welles' script and translated into English by an unknown figure.

I'm giving myself an early birthday present: having purchased the set in May and never finding enough time to really dig through the thing in a comprehensive way, I've decided to finally sit down with the whole damn thing. I've read the novel, I've listened to the plays, and I'm about to start the first of the three editions of the film: as I finish with each edit I'll return here with my thoughts.

The Basics (the plot as it stands in all versions, with spoilers):
Petty conman Guy Van Stratten, while smuggling cigarettes into France, finds himself involved in a murder, along with his girlfriend Mily. The victim breathes one final word - the name "Arkadin" - and Van Stratten recognizes a chance to blackmail the international crime lord (taken from the Harry Lime episode "Blackmail Is a Nasty Word"). Upon meeting Arkadin's daughter Raina, Van Stratten's plans change; even more when Arkadin hires Van Stratten to prepare a confidential report: what happened to Arkadin before his memory begins, in Zurich in 1927 with 200,000 francs? (This from the Harry Lime episode "Man of Mystery"). A globe-trotting adventure brings Van Stratten to learn tha Arkadin was once the lover and right-hand man of a woman named Sophie, operator of a white slavery ring. Van Stratten also learns that Arkadin has never been amnesiac, but was following the younger man to find all of the people who know his past, so that they may be killed. Van Stratten lies to Arkadin that Raina knows everything, Raina confirms this, and Arkadin jumps from a plane, believing he has lost the one thing he cares for: his daughter's good opinion.

Confidential Report
Prepared by: produer Louis Dolivet, autumn 1955
Released: summer, 1956 (Europe). Distributed by Warner Bros.

No filmmaker was so delighted to be a liar as Orson Welles, and thus it's appropriate that this film begins with a lie: we are told (by the director, in voiceover) that the story is a fictionalised version of an actual event, the mystery of how a plane came to land without any pilot or passengers. Of course that's not the case, the film is really an outlandishly overbaked bit of postwar intrigue with an extraordinary jolt of Citizen Kane's "inner life of a mysterious tycoon" melodrama.

It is easy to overvalue any work by Welles, just as it's easy to undervalue any work which Cahiers du cinema breathlessly declared to be one of the 12 greatest films of all time only two years after its Cannes debut. It's a remarkable visual work, to be certain: grotesque and Gothic, full of absurdly made-up character actors such as Michael Redgrave, Akim Tamaroff and Mischa Auer; baroque setpieces, the most notorious being the Goya-themed masquerade; and endless canted camera angles, enough to make the Welles-starring The Third Man seem positively tame in comparison.

Then there's the story, an utter mess, incoherent and rushed, the flipside to the film's visual brilliance. But why call it the flipside? It's all part of the same impulse, a desire to be as outré with other people's money as humanly possible. For all that it collapses at every moment on the back of clumsily edited scene transitions and inane dialogue, the script is a great marriage of content to form. It's a mad film about mad men.

Fitting then, that Welles' performance as Gregory Arkadin loom large over the proceedings within the film, much as the auteur looms over the project's history (and what history does he not loom over?). It's hardly his greatest performance - it may indeed be among his worst, even comparable to the hamfisted anti-acting of Casino Royale - but it's doubtless arresting. When Welles is onscreen, you cannot look away, and despite the patently fake make-up (famously, you can often see the seems of his nose prosthetic, in those scenes where he did not forget to wear it), and the lamentable cod-Russian accent, he is a commanding presence. For this we must certainly thank the director's self-serving low angles, and the deep focus that keeps Arkadin in the center of every scene he appears in. But self-serving or no, it's impossible to look away or forget.

The Confidential Report cut, the only version of the film existant on 35mm, was not prepared by Welles, and therefore many of its problems are not best blamed on him: the speed with which scenes are raced through, the arbitrary A-B-C plot thudding that could only exist in a chronologically-straightened version of the film. It is also hard to argue that any of the dialogue (all dubbed; the film was shot entirely without sound, and this means that almost every version of the film had a customized script) should be viewed as the final word on things.

Without having seen any other cut of the film, my immediate thoughts are these: Confidential Report is a sloppy film, with most scenes, especially at the beginning and end, suffering from needlessly frantic editing. The story is perfunctory and is "gotten through," more than anything else; but it looks amazing at all times, and the performances, none of which are "good" in the usual sense (I would single out Robert Arden's Van Stratten as being particularly odious), are of such a heightened, silent-film style that they contribute to the grand sense of nearly operatic craziness throughout the film. It is a dazzling misfire.

Mr Arkadin
Prepared by: Orson Welles, summer-autumn 1954
Released: autumn, 1962 (New York). Distributed by Corinth Films.

Every film is ultimately made in the editing room. John Ford knew this; that is why he never shot coverage, giving the editor only the bare minimum of footage needed to complete a film. Jean-Luc Godard knew this; that is why he made grandiose claims about the morality of the cut. Orson Welles knew this; that is why he spent so many long months editing all of his films, and why an impatient Filmorsa took Mr. Arkadin away from him.

The "Corinth" print, or Mr Arkadin (no period) is probably the most "authoritative" cut of the film, although such a thing does not exist. It was the basis for two Spanish cuts, as well as a highly degraded version released in the US illegally; yet it was kept out of theatres for seven years because of a distribution deal signed with Warner Bros. By the time it was made public, all that existed was a low-quality 16mm print, which leads to one important way in which it is inferior to Confidential Report: it does not look very good, and for any Welles film, the sharpness of a print is entirely related to the quality of watching it.

Despite that, it is a better experience, and this is largely because it restores one of the most important aspects of the film: its flashback structure. Confidential Report, after the opening narration about the pilotless plane, drops in for one scene between Van Stratten and Jacob Zouk (Akim Tamaroff), the last of the gang that knos Arkadin's secret. Without explanation, the film then returns to the death of Bracco (Grégoire Aslan), the event that launches the plot. In the Corinth version, Van Stratten tells Zouk the story, and throughout the film we cut back to the two men in Berlin. This is a useful framework that allows for a much easier plot to follow, and with the copious alteration in dialogue (that, incidentally, makes the dubbing far more obvious), the entire story makes more sense. Indeed, aside from the flashbacks, the most important difference between the two versions is that the Corinth is much plottier: the scenes between Van Stratten and Arkadin, Van Stratten and Raina (Paola Mori), any combination you like, are all written with a much stronger eye towards exposition. I somehow doubt this would have long remained the case, but it is an easier and more enjoyable film this way.

It's important to note that the films are identical for about 50% of the shots, and a healthy bulk of the remainder are simply alternate takes, and occasionally alternate angles (the last twenty minutes of the film differ only in one shot showing Van Stratten closer to the camera in the Corinth print, and the duration of shots in the final confrontation between Van Stratten and Raina).

For some 15% of the film, however, the changes are anything but cosmetic: most notably, the shot of Mily lying dead on a beach (which Welles wished to include as the first shot of the film, a detail only present in one of the Spanish prints) has been cut from the Corinth version, making the reveal of her death much more effective. Indeed, the scene in Confidential Report which ends in Mily's death has been shifted so that the character has another entire scene afterwards (this introduces a continuity error, ironically enough).

Although it sacrifices character niceties, such as a lengthy Arkadin monologue about his graveyard dream, the Corinth version generally makes motivations much easier to follow due to more specific dialogue (one example that springs to mind: Raina at one point laughs at Van Stratten's gullibility towards her father's story: "Who heard of amnesia lasting thirty years?" Confidential Report dumbfoundingly omits this line, including only her laughter. It is much more "about" Arkadin, in the way that The Third Man was "about" Harry Lime - there are conversations about Arkadin's businesses absent in Confidential Report, and much like the novel, it is very clear that Arkadin is an internationally known businessman and crime boss.

There is one hideously important way in which Confidential Report is a more evolved work, and this is the sound design. Welles oversaw most of the sound creation in the time between leaving the editing room and the film's 1956 release, and the later film is much fuller (strangely, while the rough editing in the Corinth Mr Arkadin implies an unpolished cut, this has not been corrected). The two scenes where this is most significant are Bracco's murder and the Goya masquerade, both of which fall flat, or simply confuse in the Corinth print. The ending scenes are also much degraded in comparison, with their provisional soundscape. The Paul Misraki score is also used to much lesser effect, or at least there is less of it.

Still, as I stand right now, the Corinth Mr Arkadin is a better experience, and as it is almost certainly closer to Welles' unknowable goals, it is the best choice for the busy cinephile who can't put the effort of multiple viewings of a single film.

Mr. Arkadin
Prepared by: Welles historians Stefan Drössler & Claude Bertemes
Released: spring, 2006 (Criterion Collection DVD). Distributed by Janus Films.

In the words of one of the men who assembled the "Comprehensive Version": "we established two principles that we followed strictly: including all the shots with sound that were ever used in the editing, and always using the earliest cut in cases where there were different variations of the same shot, scene or sequence."

The longest version of Mr. Arkadin that exists, it would be tempting to call this therefore the most official, but even the editors don't make that claim. Rather, this is the cut that one turns to as a compendium of everything that could have ended up in Welles' final version: it contains the opening beach shot, the flashback and dialogue from the Corinth version, as much of the audio from Confidential Report as was practical, and a great deal of establishing footage of Van Stratten's globetrotting (including a solid eight seconds of Amsterdam) that is found only in one of the Spanish prints.

There are many incidental changes from the Corinth print, but only four of great significance, besides the beach shot mentioned above: an extended sequence involving Mily early in the film, dialogue between Raina and Van Stratten near the end that clarifies his plans, and Spanish footage of the ending (rather than sharing the same final shot as the previous two films in the Criterion box, the Comprehensive version ends with a view from Arkadin's empty cockpit). The most important change is one that exists in none of the five known version, based on a single dissolve found in European archives: two scenes set in Mexico have been flipped, bringing the film in line with the novel and eliminating a significant continuity error.

There are many charms to this cut, primarily that it allows the plot to breathe. Welles was not a director given to extensive establishing shots, but they are used here to rather calming effect. It is easy to believe that no authoritative version would have included these shots: score one for the bootleg. The masquerade, one of the most striking moments in any cut, is longer here by every bit of fifteen seconds, solely because of extensive crowd shots.

Despite this, I find myself still turning to the Corinth print, and for a simple reason: true to their word, the restorers included every possible shot in this print, including some places (especially in the first thirty minutes) where it causes the editing to be rather frantic and disorienting. A conversation that is shown in three shots in both Confidential Report and the Corinth version suddenly takes place over ten cuts. It is a significant liability; if I had not seen the story twice already, I would have frequently been unable to follow several scenes.

Furthermore, the order of certain scenes is ineffective. The film follows the superior Corinth version for the introduction of Arkadin, first seen in conversation with Van Stratten, but it includes a scene from Confidential Report and the Spanish print that makes little sense when it occurs as late as it does (this is the graveyard dream: a good scene, but here it dilutes the bargain between the two anti-heroes).

Make no mistake, it's a valuable reference: but it's a reference. This is the cut for people who have watched the film already, and preparing for academic papers, or over-long blog posts. For your introduction to Mr. Arkadin, either or both of the other cuts in the Criterion set are vastly preferred.

The film as a film

My thoughts while watching the Confidential Report version, I have decided, were ungenerous and inaccurate. Seeing a film three times in a row will start to make you focus on the tiny details, and re-evaluate the big picture over and over again.

In partcular, I regret implying that it was a worse Orson Welles performance than e.g. Transformers: The Movie. Repreated exposure to Welles and Robert Arden makes it ever more obvious that what initially seems to be a pair of overbaked hunks of scene-chewery is actually a rather mirroring of two men who self-consciously create their personas, and act like drama queens as a disguise. Not for nothing is there an overarching theme of masks and costumes; indeed, I've even come around to the idea that Welles' makeup (being as it is so worse than Michael Redgrave's or Mischa Auer's) is not so much of a cheap accident as it appears. Not that Arkadin wears a fake nose; but that Welles' fake nose is there to make us constantly aware that Arkadin is, essentially, a fake person.

Nothing can really help the plot, of course; but with a film whose editing history was as blighted as Mr. Arkadin, the story is like a dog walking on its hind legs: it is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all. Nothing could have kept plot holes from creeping in, nor could we expect every question to be answered, or every character to act at all times in keeping with what we have already seen. That it is coherent at all is a not-so-minor miracle.

As I mentioned before, the real draw is the cinematography, always the highlight of a Welles film. What I hadn't noticed is how obsessively the film trades in extremely deep focus, here achieved by use of the widest-angle lens Welles was able to get his hands on. The results are striking: the scene that jumps out at me is when Mily stumbles drunkenly around Arkadin's stateroom on his yacht, and a combination of focal depth and blocking keep him constantly towering over her like some demented god. I might as well join in with every viewer ever in singing hosannas to the tracking shot down a dark alley - you'll know it when you see it. I'm sure every viewer will have their own favorite scene; why take the fun out by detailing everything?

So, with 48 hours under my belt, is it the greatest film of Welles career? Certainly not. Nor is it one of the twelve best of anything you might want to list. But is fascinating, endlessly so, made by a certifiable mad genius. It's a lot of work to watch it if you want to watch it right, but it's worth it. Not every day that you get to watch a new Orson Welles film three times in a row.