18 December, 2006

Best DVDs of 2006: Part 2

This is the BEST DVD of 2006, perhaps the grandest DVD presentation ever given to any single film. No one deserves it more than Orson Welles, one of the greatest stage and film artists of the 20th Century and Jess Franco's favorite director. As an actor, writer and director Welles first revolutionized the theatre, then radio, and, in one stroke called CITIZEN KANE, cinema. MR. ARKADIN is no CITIZEN KANE, and therein is the key to understanding what it represents.

My own favorite Welles film is CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT/FALSTAFF (1965), on which Jess Franco worked as Welles' assistant and helped direct the central battle scene which is held by many critics as one of the most impressive ever put on film. Even critics hostile to Welles like Pauline Kael wrote in her review that it was comparable to the best of Kurosawa, Eisenstein and Griffith. Franco would also direct DON QUIJOTE (1992) his own personal version of the incomplete Welles project, which was almost universally disdained by Welles scholars (more on this in a future blog). If you love cinema you probably love Orson Welles. If you love cinema and you love Orson Welles you need this DVD. Welles wrote, directed, produced, starred in and novelized this 1955 international thriller but that's only a small part of the story.

Filmed on the fly with tenuous resources, the mostly Spanish lensed project was not plagued by Hollywood interference, Welles did exactly as he pleased, but would later emerge in several versions which didn't exactly conform with Welles' ultimate vision. MR. ARKADIN is perhaps best described as Welles' personal commentary on the Film Noir rather than an actual noir or a spy film or a crime story. It's perhaps a deconstruction of the the kind of Film Noir best represented by his own earlier THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI, which was butchered by his Hollywood bosses. A free-form essay on the possibilities of a new genre, the neo-noir which Godard and Truffaut of the Nouvelle Vague would make in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Just try to watch any of the three versions presented here back to back with BLADE RUNNER. It's also Welles looking in the mirror and seeing both his past and the future of cinema. It's CITIZEN KANE and ALPHAVILLE, F FOR FAKE and THE PASSENGER. It contains some of the best sequences Welles would ever manage. The masked ball scene is a masterwork in itself and anticipates similar Masques in Jess Franco's DEATH WHISTLES THE BLUES(1962)[which impressed Welles] and Stanley Kubrick's EYES WIDE SHUT. MR. ARKADIN may be a cut below KANE and TOUCH OF EVIL but it has moments of equal greatness.

"Let's drink to character."

The Criterion Collection's THE COMPLETE MR. ARKADIN is a boxed set containing 3 discs over which are spread 3 distinct versions of MR. ARKADIN: CONFIDENTIAL REPORT, the Louis Dolivet-Producer's Version, which is the most linear; the Peter Bogdanovich-discovered Corinth Version; The Comprehensive Version, which is the longest [105m!] and most daringly nonlinear, with new opening and closing scenes not in the other versions, painstakingly assembled by film historians Stefan Drossler and Claude Bertemes. I don't know if I have the time and energy to describe all the supplements in this set, but they are awesome, definitive and overwhelming.

All of the eight MR. ARKADIN's are here, including three radio plays ("This is Arkadin Speaking!") produced by future Jess Franco writer-producer Harry Alan Towers (COUNT DRACULA); a paperback of Welles' own novel, ghosted by Maurice Bessy; outtake, rushes and alternate scene reels which are rare, fascinating records of Welles at work and are alone worth the price of admission; amazingly extensive stills galleries; documentary interviews with Harry Alan Towers, Simon Callow, actor Robert Arden (audio), Drossler, Bertemes, and perhaps the ultimate Welles expert--his friend, literary and cinema collaborator, Peter Bogdanovich. Bogdanovich seems as impressed by the Comprehensive Version as I was and it certainly seems the closest to Welles' intentions, which were never fully articulated during his lifetime. And there's much, much more.

The obligatory commentary track features Welles scholars James Naremore and Jonathan Rosenbaum, both of whom I respect and have written books about Welles. They know their facts and keep up with some wit...but guys, DEAL WITH THE FILM! I'm getting rather tired of these let's rattle-off-the-facts commentary tracks which seem out to impress other scholars rather than illuminate the film at hand, place it in cinema history or are simply as entertaining as even a second level Welles film like MR. ARKADIN. Listen to Tom Weaver, who can be scene-specific, go off track, return, and never forgets the big picture while building a delightful construct of informed imagination. Facts are fine, but I want context and vision. I would have perferred the commentary had been done solo by Bogdanovich, who can deliver his first-hand Welles experiences, observations on film technique (he's an accomplished director himself) and informed insights with an elan few can match.

If even second level Welles is vastly preferable to %99 of other filmmakers best efforts and all contemporary mainstream Hollywood films, then MR. ARKADIN is a great film and has had great influence on many more highly regarded films.

It's also a perfect Christmas film, with Arkadin as the most sinister Santa Claus in cinema history.

(c) Robert Monell: 2006

[More of my Best DVDs of 2006 will appear in future blogs]


Damian P. said...

After reading your post I feel a need to own this set. I suppose I have been reluctant to purchase it because I already purchased Criterion's laserdisc release of CONFIDENTIAL REPORT. I also own a MR. ARKADIN variant on VHS. I no longer have the laserdisc but I do have a VHS dub.
Perhaps it's the idea of spending close to $100.00 (all formats combined) on one film that was getting to me. But at this point I feel like I am just punishing myself by not getting the DVD release. I sure have dropped a lot of bread on Mr. Welles over the years. Not that I'm complaining.

Though I have not heard the commentary track I know the type and I fully agree with your criticism. Weaver is a fine example to follow.

Well, I know what I will be giving to myself this year for Christmas. Thanks!

Robert Monell said...

It's very much worth whatever price you have to pay if you are a serious Welles fan. I can't imagine a richer DVD presentation of any film.

Alucard said...


Very Nice review of Mr. Arkadin.

As you note, I don't think Mr. Franco did Orson talent justice regarding DON QUIXOTE, but as Orson would say, "let us raise our glasses from the other side of the isle."