Mr. Arkadin’s decadence looks like vitality now; its poverty looks like riches; what William S. Pechter called its “half-baked profundities” don’t jar and clash so much as fall like snow falls in the film. If Mr. Arkadin once seemed sad because it seemed amateurish and a like come down for Welles, what is sad about now settles into it like the cold. If for some people the film used to be terrible, now it points in the direction of something terrible outside of it.
The film has had defenders since it came out in 1955, but misgivings accompany their praise. In 1958 Cahiers du cinéma called Mr. Arkadin Welles’s greatest film and one of the 12 best films ever made, but for André Bazin it was “a film of only secondary importance.” We owe Jonathan Rosenbaum a debt of gratitude for all the work he has done in bringing the various versions of Arkadin to light, but for him the film’s problem is Welles himself. Welles’s performance in the title role is “debilitating,” defined by falseness, variability, and silly moments. Richard Brody, in The New Yorker, has recently been “struck by the anguish and self-loathing the film displays” and identifies “the film’s intense confessional pathos, the drama of a man who doubts that he could be loved for the person he knows himself to be.” These key observations bookend the comments of another New Yorker writer, who, between the two Brody write-ups, called Mr. Arkadin “Welles’s unfinished botch of a film.”
In contrast to glossier Cold War paranoias that came later, like The Manchurian Candidate, Welles’s version is sewn by hand or nailed together; it’s crafty. Arkadin’s black-and-white images, shot through an 18.5mm lens, pop big heads into the frame. The 18.5mm lens provides great depth of field in vistas with Spanish castles in the background and in small rooms that are extra-cluttered or that house only one old chair. The most modern things—airplanes, telephones, speakers, sunglasses—compete with the junk-shop detritus of a broken Europe more splintered and random than The Third Man’s Vienna.
A typical camera move follows a worn-out character—one of Arkadin’s old friends–and reveals a bed pole capped with a swastika across from an upside-down portrait of Hitler. Welles doesn’t linger over these things yet he makes us expect them. Then he gradually removes them until, at the end, he disappears, too, a bulky mannequin thrown overboard so that the film can rise into an empty gray sky.
The film is self-consciously a fable; Arkadin is a king. The fable goes like this: Gregory Arkadin, an international financier with shady past and a beautiful daughter, sits atop a fortune. He claims he can’t remember anything that happened to him before a night in 1927 when he woke up in a Zurich street with pockets full of cash. He hires an American grifter named Van Stratten to dig into his past, telling him he wants to find out who he is and where he’s from. Traveling the globe, Van Stratten uncovers a frowsy network of aging criminals living quiet, sometimes weird lives—Arkadin’s ex-cronies. Murdered by Arkadin one-by-one as Van Stratten locates them, the detective realizes his investigation is a manhunt Arkadin has started so he can eliminate anyone who knows his secret; Van Stratten will be his final victim.
The tragedy, or the joke, is that Arkadin’s old friends and ex-lovers are past caring; ignoring them would have been enough. Arkadin laughs when he finally comes face-to-face with the last survivor. Akim Tamiroff’s tragicomic Jacob Zouk, an ex-con hiding in a bed in his underwear, shivers alone in a small room, Arkadin’s whole world shrunk down to a pinpoint, a black dot like a flea in the flea circus we visited earlier. “So what’s funny?” asks Zouk. “Old age,” Arkadin answers. “Old age,” he says again as he glides out Zouk’s door. Which doesn’t stop him from killing Zouk later.
Time has added a new layer to this film’s encrustations. Mr. Arkadin looks different in the age of digital social networking. We don’t lose track of people from our pasts like Arkadin did, and if we have lost track we can find old friends just by typing in their names and “friending” them, and they can find us, too. If we want to eliminate them we can de-friend them and with a keystroke they disappear. The Internet has replaced the need for a Van Stratten to find people for us, and we can get rid of them by ourselves. It’s a form of “murder by remote control,” as Humphrey Bogart says in The Big Sleep, describing a hired gun. Where Gregory Arkadin needed a vast system of spies with binoculars hiding being trees and on parapets, and a staff of secretaries to keep files in rows of black file cabinets, the Internet has eliminated the need for a staff and made us all into little Arkadins.
In Mr. Arkadin we can feel Welles trying to do away with a younger version of himself, embodied in the “cornball” Van Stratten and in the way Welles disguises himself as the Neptune-like Arkadin. This basic Wellesian theme starts in Citizen Kane. The over-confident Wellesian protagonist forgets his younger self even as this earlier version is always present; tragedy strikes; surrounded by doubles and mirrors he ages before our eyes; the past catches up with him and engulfs him. “I drag my myth around with me,” Welles told a critic, explaining why he could never make a new start, why preconceptions and misconceptions about him hurt his career.
“Oh, I’ve been photographed,” Arkadin explains to Van Stratten. “But usually I break the photograph.” What does the mean, to “break the photograph”? To break the photograph instead of the camera? We accept that without thinking about it when Welles says it in Arkadin’s Russian accent. His accent deflects the strangeness of the phrase break the photograph. Is it some king of crypto-allusion to film editing, to cutting out of the scene?
We see a couple of photographs of Arkadin before he was Arkadin, when he was still Waclaw Athabadze, young-ish criminal on the make. These photographs come back to haunt Arkadin like the high-school photos people post of us on Facebook, or ones from last night’s party. The photos they post give the lie to whichever photo we choose for our profile picture just like they do to the carefully constructed face of Arkadin—one constant of Arkadin criticism is how phony Welles looks in it. We drag the past around with us whether we want to or not, getting tagged like in Mr. Arkadin’s game-of-tag plot. Until we do, we sit there unknowing, waiting, shimmering somewhere in cyberspace without names to go with our faces.
It makes sense that in the age of social networking, vampire movies would become popular again. When we accept these email requests from the people who have found us, we become members of a new clan. Poor Bella Swan, who frets about aging while her boyfriend stays 17 forever, is like someone who can’t decide whether to join Facebook or not, because quitting would be awkward. The teenage vampires of the Twilight saga aren’t carriers of evil infections like the vampires of the past. Today’s vampires are more of an after-school club that has lots of rules and regulations about membership. They confer a kind of Facebook immortality on each other and get defriended not with stakes through the heart so much as by not observing social cues and being careful about boundaries.
New Moon, the second movie in the Twilight series, gurgles with an unintentional Wellesian undercurrent. The characters recite Shakespeare and wander moors. The film is moody, self-conscious and aimed at the arty kids. There’s even a Arkadinian jet plane to Europe in it. It could use more Mercury Theatre and less X-Men, however, because it lacks drive and purpose. Arkadin is eventful. It’s filled with commentary, quips, maxims, stories within stories; the camera follows Van Stratten and Raina, Arkadin’s daughter, along fences and past ruins like it has somewhere it has to be. New Moon’s emo-gotho-depresso pop-hits soundtrack replicates the experience of someone listening to music while working on a computer who isn’t really concentrating on anything, just updating her status to read: “It’s raining outside. Dating a monster is hard. I am sad right now,” like maybe the movie is based on a haiku, not a 600-page novel. It’s unformed characters lack the sweep of any kind of history, even though some of them have supposedly been around for hundreds of years. They are tied to dreary Forks, Washington, even though they can defy space and time.
Around the time I saw the Twilight movie and rewatched Mr. Arkadin I was reading a book I found on the street, a book by Rsyzard Kapuscinski called Travels with Herodotus. Near the end, Kapuscinski quotes a passage from T. S. Eliot’s 1944 essay on Virgil. For me it summed up the link between New Moon and Mr. Arkadin in the Facebook era, so I’m ending with it too: “In our age, when men seem more than ever prone to confuse wisdom and knowledge, and knowledge with information, and to try to solve problems of life in terms of engineering, there is coming into existence a new kind of provincialism which perhaps deserves a new name. It is a provincialism, not of space, but of time; one for which history is merely the chronicle of human devices which have served their turn and been scrapped, one for which the world is the property solely of the living, a property in which the dead hold no shares. The menace of this kind of provincialism is, that we can all, all the peoples on the globe, be provincials together; and those who are not content to become provincials, can only become hermits.” Arkadin jumped from his plane, Bella Swan will become a vampire, I’m posting this link to Facebook.
A. S. Hamrah