Brendan’s Log: CONFIDENTIAL REPORT (1955)
November 5, 2013 § Leave a comment
Orson Welles’ Confidential Report is one of cinema’s great mystery stories, a picture with nine existing cuts and none of them definitive, with the great auteur never officially finishing an edit or sanctioning any of them as the correct one. The obvious path to understanding the film, also known as Mr. Arkadin, is to work inward toward the figure of Welles, who plays the enigmatic and threatening Arkadin as well as dubs the voices of many characters himself. It is a process which he knowingly diverts, burrowing into the character like some great unknowable cavern lit with his characteristically expressionist shadows and visible only from canted angles. In the film’s conclusion, Arkadin seems to disappear altogether, his departure from the realm of the film depicted only by the hiss of an airplane radial gone silent.
The same plane, passengerless, descending rapidly toward oblivion, hovers over the narrative in the opening flashforward of the European cut known as Confidential Report, (viewed for this essay). Welles’ narration tells us that the film tells how that plane came to be there, but we never actually learn how it came to be empty. With the added detail that the plane’s presence nearly starts an international incident, this first image captures something of the romanticism of the twentieth century. Arkadin’s story is full of pulp characters, circuitous plotting, an askance approach to melodrama, and high camp. Relevant points of comparison include innovators of genre: the writings of Borges and Pynchon, the films of Jacques Rivette.
But we open with the airplane much like the opening of the century, and after all Arkadin is frightfully concerned with beginnings. At the peak of his wealth, he hires the thoroughly unlikeable Van Stratten to track down his own origins, so that they can be eliminated. The shape of the plot is rigidly geometric, an ellipsis that must be closed. In Arkadin’s final disappearance from the plane, the circle suddenly completes itself, a definitive yet illusory ending in the fashion of – what else? – mathematics. Once made whole, the point we followed on the ellipsis vanishes. All segments now exist in continuity, with no visible way to reenter the loop.
Like so many great films featuring Welles the performer, the act of the narrative is the act of circling around his character, always an object which changes shape and dimension from different points along the journey. The map is not the territory, it may not be a map at all, and the central figure of the landscape merely a diversion. The diversion reveals itself most cleverly in the grant twist of The Third Man, where Welles’ Harry Lime has fables and cynicism to offer but ultimately little mystery. His Arkadin is also not the great obelisk of Kane, whose identity accumulates detail in the style of a few blind men with an elephant.
Rather, Arkadin has something of a patchwork quality to begin with, a more obvious comment on Welles’ fascination with identity and the process of breaking down such, to either obscure or to comprehend. Arkadin’s stated goal is the stuff of melodrama; at first, he tells Van Stratten that he truly does not know his origins. Amnesia! Suddenly, we’re in a television serial, and his true motive keeps us in this territory: to preserve the truth of his criminal past from his daughter by using Van Stratten to locate those who knew him and have them eliminated.
The sneery Van Stratten doesn’t totally buy the amnesia gambit, to his credit. “How do you know your name’s Arkadin?” I think this is another of Welle’s flourishes, in the vein of another genre: fantasy. His characters place such stock in their own mystery that it achieves a kind of magical significance, like the fantasy trope of learning one’s true name to control them. It is once Van Stratten has raced far enough ahead of his benefactor and nemesis to gain this knowledge that Arkadin becomes panicked, pleading over the radial in the climax to keep his mystery secure. Van Stratten’s spite instead ensures his disappearance, creating a far greater enigma.
Van Stratten’s character proves essential to Arkadin’s narrative. Played with grating, streetwise smarm by radio star Robert Arden, he is a character so banal and familiar that the eyes glaze over almost the second he opens his mouth. Once Welles enters the proceedings, the gravitational pull of Arkadin is stronger not just for his charisma or mystique but merely for the lack of a likeable or interesting guide through the labyrinth of enigmas and stolen identities that make up Confidential Report.
One of the picture’s defining images is an old man who appears so weary and beaten he must surely be dead. Twice we see his face at the start of a scene, only to discover that he’s half asleep. His last appearance also begins with a closeup, before he falls over with a knife in his back. In Confidential Report, death exists in the same space as life, in the same bodies and objects, simply waiting to be revealed from another angle.
If it’s not Welles’ greatest film (and few would argue so, though I wish I could), it is perhaps his most revealing, with Arkadin a calculated summation of his most memorable screen incarnations. It flays away the baroque trappings of a Kane or The Trial and exposes something of a Vitruvian man, making the subtext of his narratives into text in a bit of generic man-to-man gamesmanship between Van Stratten and Arkadin. Wonderfully, without a definitive cut, it can even be realigned into multiple versions of the same film, as if we were watching the very substance and beating heart of Welles’ cinema.
That’s the power of its bookending images, of the plane without a pilot, descending rapidly: through Welles, there are infinite ways to view even an empty space. – Brendan