Monday, May 04, 2015

Here's to Character

What should have been the eighth film in the Orson Welles retrospective I planned on seeing was projected in 35mm, but I missed it because I had to work and so I'm writing about it based on the Criterion dvd I watched at home.


Confidential Report (1955, Orson Welles) is the most fun to watch of any of Welles's films. It's very light due to its lack of any of the layers in his other films--philosophical, existential, political, introspective, romantic, or temporal--it's just about an ordinary low class would be blackmailer Van Stratten (Robert Arden) and his brush with the elusive, enigmatic Gregory Arkadin (Welles).

This film has a cheap, something you would stumble across on late night tv quality, and I mean that as a compliment. The whole thing feels casual. It's one of the only of Welles's films that don't require paying too much attention. It's like a stretched out anecdote, that happens to be more baroque than Citizen Kane (1941, Welles) and stumbles across the globe and back featuring a ton of deep focus picturesque locations that string, from as I can best remember: Italy to Switzerland to Poland to Mexico to Germany.

The pulp crime novel plot hardly makes sense if you think about it too much. But the setup has Van Stratten conned from blackmailing Mr. Arkadin into snooping across the globe to find out the answer to the mystery: in 1927, Switzerland, Arkadin found himself with 200 Swiss francs and no recollection of where they or he came from, who he was, or any details of anything before that event. And on his way to meeting Arkadin, the wiseguy-uneducated-accented playboy Van Stratten happens to begin pursuing an affair with Arkadin's alluring daughter Raina (Paola Mori).

The script isn't that good. It feels clumsy and ambles through a bunch of episodes of Van Stratten uncovering clues about Arkadin. And the soundtrack is poor most of the time. But these only enhance this film's aura of mystery it itself possesses. And I'm sure this wasn't intentional, but it works. Yet it does fit in the chronology of Welles's International Independent phase. And while not really as low-key as the lighting on most of Welles's other films, the wall to wall landmark backgrounds are interspersed with heavy use of canted angles. Mr. Arkadin seems almost exclusively filmed canted and from slightly low angles. The first confrontation triangle between Arkadin, Van Stratten and Raina features a wonderfully memorable push into CU on the canted angled Arkadin.

Welles as Mr. Arkadin speaks in a thick Eastern European accent, which recalls his performance from Journey Into Fear (1943, Norman Foster) as Colonel Haki--both figures are either from Georgia or Russia. And Welles also wears the modern wardrobe of a decadent millionaire, has an elaborate wig, fake beard and a fake nose. Like I said, this movie is a lot of fun.

If most of the story arch and character motivations are awkward, make no mistake, the climax is well plotted. Some big gaps are plugged. And the long tracking shots of Van Stratten through the Munich Christmas party are frivolously unrestrained (slot car racing and archery in the BG) and what I mean when I say baroque; also of course the earlier masquerade ball with the Goya inspired grotesque masks that would later be redone in Eyes Wide Shut (1999, Stanley Kubrick). This followed Othello (1952, Welles) and really hits home how big of a thing Welles had for masks around this period. And also like Othello Welles repeats the motif of a funerary march of mourners in black robes--though technically here in Confidential Report, it's a procession of penitents, and umm, pretty much gratuitous.

Arkadin spouts some Wellesian anecdotes throughout Confidential Report like the frog and the scorpion, and the graveyard with brief dates on the tombstones ones; but his final riddle to Van Stratten most characterizes the conflict of the film:

In this world are those who give and those who ask;
those who do not care to give;
those who do not care to ask.

Confidential Report is Welles the magician pulling a slight of hand and like a true showman, giving the audience what they want. This is the one Welles movie I'd watch again in an instant. Although I don't think he ever really tried to cater to the highbrows.


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