After THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI, Welles swung by Republic Pictures on his way out of Hollywood to make his noirish adaption of MACBETH (1948), a fascinating experiment in combining the aesthetics of theater and cinema. The film was the darkest, most grisly adaptation of a Shakespeare play up to that point, but it did nothing to elevate Welles’s standing in Hollywood.
He left for Europe and pieced together financing for his four-years-in-the-making adaptation of OTHELLO (1952). Part of the funding came from a thriller directed by Carol Reed and starring his old pal Joseph Cotton, THE THIRD MAN (1949). It would turn out to be the biggest hit of Welles’s career, though he forewent a profit-sharing deal in favor of a flat fee which he channeled back into Othello.
Because THE THIRD MAN looks in some respects like a Welles film, speculation has existed for decades about the extent of his participation in its creation, but Welles himself remained insistent that he was merely a happy actor-for-hire on the project. What is beyond question is that while he only appears in the film for about fifteen minutes, his character, Harry Lime, dominates the whole of it. Reed gives him perhaps the best entrance in movie history, and Welles’s one verified contribution to the script—Lime’s speech about the cuckoo clock—is the most famous scene in the movie. In just a few minutes onscreen, Welles is able to nail the amoral charm of Harry Lime, but what often goes unacknowledged is that aside from the scene by the Ferris wheel, Welles gives an almost entirely silent performance. The last ten minutes of the film—as he runs through the sewers trying to elude capture—are largely dialog free, yet his acting here is vital. As his boyish face gives way to panic, his fear doesn’t illicit pleasure from the viewer but rather a strange kind of sympathy. Behind his bluster and mystery, Harry Lime is revealed to be a mere mortal. When Welles wordlessly beseeches Cotton to put him out of his misery, the moment is tragic rather than triumphant.
While Welles was by all accounts a bad businessman, he was able to spin off the massive success of THE THIRD MAN into a new revenue stream. He recorded (and helped write) fifty-two episodes of a weekly radio program called THE LIVES OF HARRY LIME wherein the drug-dealing murderer became a kind of rakish international adventurer. For one of the episodes he concocted a mysterious European businessman named Arkadin. He liked the character so much that Arkadin became the basis for his next film.
No one is quite sure how many different versions of Welles’s 1955 crime drama MR. ARKADIN are floating around out there. The film was taken away from Welles by producer Louis Dolivet before he had the chance to edit it, and over the years many different versions (at least seven) have surfaced in different formats. In 2006, the Criterion Collection released a box set featuring three versions of the film, one of which was a new “comprehensive version” integrating material from different sources. While Criterion’s box set is a spectacular piece of scholarship and restoration, there is one problem: MR. ARKADIN isn’t a particularly good movie.
The plot is structured as a mystery told in flashbacks. A shady character named Guy Van Stratten (Robert Arden) is hired by an even shadier character named Gregory Arkadin (Welles), a billionaire with underworld connections who claims he suffers from amnesia. He wants Van Stratten to investigate his past and discover his true identity, but the deeper Van Stratten looks into the past, the more dead people start showing up. Turns out Arkadin is using the investigation to find and knock off anyone who could reveal the truth of his identity. Van Stratten begins to suspect he might be next on Arkadin’s hit list.
This suspense plot lacks forward momentum because we never much care about the thinly drawn characters. While Akim Tamiroff, Michael Redgrave, and Mischa Auer have fun in comically grotesque supporting roles, the center of the film is dragged down by the uninspired performances of the central cast, particularly Robert Arden and Welles himself.
Of course, the primary pleasure of a Welles film is the visual texture of the thing, and MR. ARKADIN, for all its faults, is always interesting to look at. The opening shots of Arden trekking through a ruined city in the falling snow have an ominous beauty, and Akim Tamiroff’s weird attic hideout is a juicy bit of demented set design. Visually, the highlight of the movie is a masquerade ball at Arkadin’s mansion, a tour de force displaying Welles’s ability to blend artifice and anarchy.
But what does this all add up to? Not much. Since Welles was never able to edit his film, MR. ARKADIN never assumed its final shape, but even an editor of his skill would have had trouble breathing life into the central story. Even in its restored form, MR. ARKADIN remains Welles’s weakest film.
Luckily, however, his pulp triumph was right around the corner.
Next Week: In Part III Welles returns to America for "A Wild Night in a Sleazy Town"