“A certain great and powerful king once asked a poet “What can I give you of all that I have?”
He wisely replied “Anything Sir… except your secret.”
Orson Welles never had the same financial or artistic freedom since the moderate commercial success of Citizen Kane. Those limitations are clear from near the beginning of the film. In the initial lengthy dialogue, most shots are short and done with stand-ins. Over-the-shoulder visual bores. In some of those the words are still sounded after the actors mouths have quit. There’s maybe one longer shot that comes close to the length and quality of the initial shot in Touch of Evil, and close is not the right word. It’s both interesting and painful to think how much more could he have achieved with deeper pockets, with a faster scissor in them – he was famous for slow editing, which drove the studios to finish the editing themselves; Mr. Arkadin took him 8 months and the studio removed him and finished his editing. Despite these limitations, Welles print is visible throughout the film. One of the first shots uses depth-of-field making me reminiscent of Kane playing in the snow and, immediately after, another shot fades into the darkness, making reality the light at the end of the tunnel, much like in The Third Man.
It was in The Third Man that Welles played Harry Lime, his least transformed character (no make-up or prosthetic nose). In Kane he played an imposing media tycoon, but never as imposing as Gregory Arkadin; a humongous man, oozing with power. He was a burly 6’1, but he plays a giant for most of the film. The low angle shots dwarf the other characters. The tilted camera distorts his features. The wide lenses makes him seem distant, but after a few creeping steps he measures up to his gigantic self, for a menacing effect. If high screeches are supposed to break windows, his bass guffaws should hypothetically mend them. An apparently amusing suggestion that Mr. Arkadin should try jet-skiing prompted one of his secretaries to defend that he resembled Neptune. To describe him as a god seems right.
If Gregory Arkadin fears something, it’s the discovery of his secret. Arkadin is based on Basil Zaharoff, one of the greatest adventurers of the modern age. He was an all-powerful canons seller who amassed great fortune despite both humble and suspicious origins and attained legitimacy along the way. Money has a shape-shifting quality. Both in reality as in Orson Welles’ movie, it morphed into an effective soap.
The cliché that money can’t buy everything must be at play in any work that portrays it as a crucial force. In Mr. Arkadin, it’s his daughter. His shady background is unknown to his daughter – as is to the rest of the world. He values her more than anything, so she mustn’t find out. He hires Guy Van Stratten, an adventurer and ladies’ man to investigate… himself. The information he pretends will give him the power to bind everything together in a neat package, and cut the loose ends. That Guy is interested in his daughter fits in that package.
These two characters play opposite each other. They are both enigmatic and morally ambiguous. They share one trait that makes them appealing, summed-up in a parable told by Arkadin:
A scorpion wanted to cross a river, so he asked the frog to carry him. The frog refused because the scorpion would sting him. That would not be logical, explained the scorpion, because if he stung the frog they would both drown. So the frog agreed to carry the scorpion. Half way across, the frog felt a terrible pain – the scorpion had stung him. There is no logic in this, exclaimed the frog. I know, replied the scorpion, but I cannot help it – it is my nature.
They are true to their natures. Arkadin wants to protect his daughter’s image of him. He’s tormented by the things he did and wants to save her from learning the truth, thus keeping something untainted in his life. His actions are always true to this goal, his core. Guy is a narcissist who values his own life and well-being above all else. He also keeps true to his core, but his actions are only justified by selfishness while Arkadin’s are selfless, to a degree. Guy also lacks empathy. Arkadin is bigger than life. He’s a loudmouth and enjoys vodka as an archetypal Russian should. He has friends and is always surrounded by people who admire him. He loves women, in a way that almost seems juvenile for a man of his stature. His eyes wander to lustful women, midst conversation. Unbridled hate can never be felt for a man who truly loves women. If Hitler loved Eva Braun as much as he loved his dog, I suspect he’d spared a few thousands of Jews, maybe a million.
Orson Welles takes on this dramatic setting tongue-in-cheek. I fail to understand his reason. Humour seems to be sporadically inserted, especially with the character of Jakob. A lot of the dialogues are forcefully jestful, making the whole lose impact. Only once it seemed appropriate and funny. I’ll leave you with it:
I’m not the messiah, but you can follow me: