This Is Orson Welles
This Is Orson Welles (audio tapes)
The Cradle Will Rock
“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, epigraph to Mr. Arkadin
One of Orson Welles’s best stories, though not one of his best films, Mr. Arkadin (1955) tells of an aging tycoon of mysterious origins who becomes terminally anxious that the guilty secrets of his past will come to light. He hires a venal adventurer to seek out the people who still remember the truth—and then has them systematically killed. When it becomes clear that the scheme has failed and the truth has been unmasked, Arkadin kills himself by jumping from his plane, vanishing (literally) into thin air.
Though filmed in Welles’s most grandiloquently baroque manner and studded with dazzling performances from such character actors as Akim Tamiroff, Katina Paxinou, and Michael Redgrave, Mr. Arkadin falls far short of Citizen Kane as a meditation on biography, not only because of wholesale reworking by other hands (“More completely than any other picture of mine has been hurt by anybody, Arkadin was destroyed,” Welles told his biographer Barbara Leaming), but also because of its curiously indifferent portrayals of the two central characters. Hiding behind egregiously phony beard and makeup as Gregory Arkadin, Welles seems determined to keep him as hollow and insubstantial as possible, a symbol rather than a human being, as if illustrating too literally Jorge Luis Borges’s description of Citizen Kane: “a centerless labyrinth.” Welles allows Robert Arden to play Guy Van Stratten, Arkadin’s researcher, as an utter fool, devoid of any but the most self-serving motives. Arkadin’s contempt for Van Stratten is matched by that of the director, who displays wrath at those who dare to reveal the darkest secrets of others, even if they’ve been invited to do so. The emotional “No Trespassing” sign Welles erected in Arkadin helps to explain why he was so skittish about having his own life probed by interviewers, and why he never managed to write a full-fledged autobiography.
Nearly twenty-five years ago, Peter Bogdanovich, then a young film journalist and budding director with one undeservedly obscure B-movie (Targets) to his name, was invited by Welles to interview him for “a nice little book” intended to “set the record straight” about his life and work. It was a chance to explore and understand the mysteries of a film maker long absent from the American scene, a man whose life had become as quasimythical as those of his protagonists. But Bogdanovich found that the unexpectedly lengthy and contentious process took on unsettling resemblances to Mr. Arkadin: “There were times when I seemed to play a variation of Van Stratten to Welles’ personal version of Arkadin, because during our talks (on or off the record), he would get particularly agitated and annoyed about connections made between his work and his own life.” Their fragmentary but fascinating interviews, edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum and now belatedly (very …