The filmography of Orson Welles is usually split into two categories: “Citizen Kane,” and everything else. While two more films, “The Magnificent Ambersons,” and “It’s All True,” were made under Welles’s contract with RKO, only “Citizen Kane” was made the way he wanted, and finished and released as he intended. There remains only one version of “Citizen Kane,” and that is the vision of its director, co-writer and star.
This distinction is critical when discussing Welles’s films, as in most cases, especially 1955’s “Mr Arkadin,” you must clarify which version you watched. A French-Spanish production, filmed across Western Europe, “Mr Arkadin” was taken out of Welles’s control by the producer when the original release date was missed – after four months of editing, only the first third of the film had been pieced together. There now exists about five different versions that are available to view, cut together in vastly different ways, and the version I watched had a different name, “Confidential Report.”
The story is the same across all versions: played by Welles, Gergory Arkadin is a billionaire businessman and socialite, who claims to have amnesia, with no memory of his life before 1927. Arkadin hires a man named Guy Van Stratten to produce a confidential report that fills in the missing time, except each person Van Stratten consults winds up dead, as Arkadin ties up the loose ends of his former life as a gangster in the years following the First World War – a race to Spain ensues as Van Stratten becomes the last target. If it sounds like the search for Charles Foster Kane mixed with “The Third Man,” it is because it was based on a script Welles wrote for a Harry Lime radio series.
Welles took so long to edit “Mr Arkadin” was because he wanted the story to jump around in time, as Van Stratten discovered new information. Non-linear plots were less common in 1955, but Welles was also trying to alienate the viewer from the characters – instead of easily allowing the audience to identify emotionally with the characters, the performances, direction and editing are intended to make you look at everything more critically. However, what worked for this effect’s originator, Bertolt Brecht, didn’t work so well for Welles – all the characters are spiky and unlikeable, even Van Stratten, the nominative hero. Even worse, the dubbing work found in the film, mainly to rewrite lines, sounds more convincing in a cheap ninja action flick, mainly down to the small budget Welles was working with.
“Confidential Report” was the name given to “Mr Arkadin” when it first premiered in London in 1955. The more well-known title came when it was eventually given a US release in 1961 – there had been legal action between Welles and the producer, but the film was not copyrighted properly, meaning US law counts the film as existing in the public domain. A couple of versions begin with an unexplained dead body on a beach, as Welles intended - the version I saw put that shot in the middle. I got voiceovers from Van Patten explaining what his intentions are, which other versions do not have. My version had the credits at the beginning – they should be at the end. My version had events presented out of order, which varies in intensity and editing between versions - the most common public domain version was recut for television and home video, presenting everything in chronological order. You may have to watch more than one version of “Mr Arkadin” to get the full story, which is fitting for the story it tries to tell, but not very helpful if you want to be satisfied at the end.