Mr. Arkadin, The Novel, Is One Sorry Mess

May 20, 2010 § Leave a comment

By Lars Trodson

I don’t think I have ever come across a book or perhaps a publication of any kind that has pissed me off more than this novel, called “Mr. Arkadin”, that was supposedly but maybe not written by Orson Welles.

Welles of course has a movie by the same name. The movie was accompanied by a novelization of the screenplay that was published in the 1955, ostensibly to support the film.

A new edition of the novel, published by icon!t, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, has just come out, and I decided, dupe that I am, to pick up a copy at the local Barnes & Noble.

The subtitle of the novel, at least for this version, is “The Secret Sordid Life of an International Tycoon.” The cover is a pretty miserable affair, black and yellow with a hand-lettered title. The perfunctory introduction is by someone named John Baxter. The text on the back promises as “witty, madcap, pulp-noir adventure.”

The back cover also describes the film version of “Mr. Arkadin” as “controversial” — a term so broad as to mean everything and nothing. “Mr. Arkadin” is not a “controversial” film in any way it may be the one film in the Welles canon, however, that cannot be redeemed in any way. It’s a shoddy, lumpen affair.
So is the introduction. In that introduction, Baxter writes that Welles described “movies” as the “biggest electric train set a boy ever had”, but Welles was actually describing a movie studio. Baxter also introduces the notion that Welles, despite having his name prominently displayed on the cover, didn’t write the book.

When funding for the film version of “Arkadin” ran out, Baxter writes, “Welles tried to salvage something from the wreck by selling a ‘novelization’ of the story. Selling — but not writing. Credit for that goes to his assistant at the time, Maurice Bessy. ‘I think it is impossible to wait for Orson doing a novelization for his story,” Bessy told (“Arkadin” film producer Louis) Dolivet. “The best thing to do…would be that I write the adaptation, which, of course, would be signed by him.”

Baxter seems to imply that maybe Welles wrote the English translation, but at this point, on page 13 of the introduction, the entire enterprise is wearing thin.

This did not stop me, however, from doing a little digging into what this business about who actually wrote what was all about.

In a published conversation with Welles, director Peter Bogdonavich brings up the subject of the novel:

PB: When you wrote the novel of Mr. Arkadin —

OW: Peter, I didn’t write one word of that novel. Nor have I ever read it.

PB: How could they publish it with your name on it?

OW: Somebody (Maurice Bessy) wrote it in French to be published in serial form in newspapers, you know, to promote the picture. I have no idea how it got under hardcover, or who got paid for that.”

Let’s be direct: at this point, when the novel and film version of “Mr. Arkadin” came out, Welles was 40 years old and was a veteran of show business for 25 years. His career had spanned the Dublin Gate Theatre, traveling theatrical productions, innumerable radio broadcasts, journalism and other writings, television and five or six feature-length films. By 1955, Welles had also won an Academy Award, had a second film nominated for Best Picture and yet… and yet… here he is talking to Bogdonavich as though he is some kind of naif, a dupe, a victim of some sleight of hand.

How could that be, Orson? Maybe we have overestimated you, at that.

In the various Welles biographies, the stories about the origins of the novel differ.

In David Thompson’s book, “Rosebud”, which is both interesting, insightful and infuriating (he injects a bit too much of himself into the writing, for my taste), Thompson writes that when Welles spent the summer of 1951 at Notley Abbey, the home of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, Welles “was noticed there to be typing up a novel, a story about a great European tycoon who hires a man to investigate his own past…The novel had taken off from one of the (Harry) Lime radio plays, ‘Greek Meets Greek’, written by Welles himself.”

Thompson later notes that Welles at the time was writing scripts for producer Alexander Korda “and one of those turned into a French novel, ‘Une grosse legume’, (The Large Vegetable), and adapted by Maurice Bessy, an important aide in those days.”

This at least gives credence to the idea that Bessy was able and willing to take a Welles idea and flesh it out.

Bessy by the way, was an accomplished writer. He wrote two books on Welles, a biography of Charlie Chaplin, and is the credited screenwriter for the 1962 film, “Le diable et les dix commandements” and was given an “idea” credit for the Phillipe de Broca classic, “Le roi de coeur” (“The King of Hearts”) in 1966.

So, in 1955, the novel of “Mr. Arkadin” is published by Gallimard in Paris, though Thompson notes that the French and English versions, credited to Welles, appeared “without a copywright line.”

Barbara Leaming, who wrote a well received and largely uncritical version of Welles’ life that came out the year he died, 1985, seems to take it for granted that Welles wrote the book.

“In between acting jobs, Orson threw himself into writing the libretto for a ballet, ‘The Lady In the Ice’, which was performed by Roland Petit’s Ballet de Paris in London, as well as two slender novellas, ‘Une grosse legume’ and ‘Mr. Arkadin’, the latter of which he would adapt for a film of his own,” writes Leaming.

Frank Brady, in his book, “Citizen Welles” (what a title!), writes that Welles “wanted no credit when he discovered the book was advertised as ‘a skillful, bizarre novel of white slavery, corruption and contraband spanning the underworld of two continents…with larger-than-life characters as unforgettable as their creator.”

This seems to indicate that Welles disowned the book after he wrote it. But if Welles rejected the book for the reasons stated above, he’s even more foolish than I thought.

“Mr. Arkadin” is indeed the story of a mysterious tycoon named Gregory Arkadin, of slavik origin, who made his money doing…ahhh, what exactly?

We are quickly introduced to Guy Van Stratten, the hero of our story. He’s the one who is going to investigate Arkadin’s life.

I can’t vouch for its accuracy, but the book certainly seems like an authentic portrait of postwar Europe. Its packed with details of everyday European life, including peasant rituals, religious celebrations, and regional affectations. The hotel in San Tirso, Spain, has its charms: “The fonda hadn’t been too bad; nor had I, as I feared, been eaten alive by bugs.” These little details certainly feel right.

The religious celebration in San Tirso is described like this: “Holy images, too, were brought out of doors, statues of saints, bleeding Christs, Saint Isidore in his workman’s tunic, the Madonna with her seven pierced heart, and of course countless reproductions of the local saint, falling straight as a candle down the castle wall with our Lady of Despair hovering at his side.”

This is not bad writing.

And this: As the procession makes its way through the village: “The men were barefoot, and the pebbles cut the feet which crushed the rosemary and the scattered petals.”

And this: which is a description of Arkadin’s castle: “I saw the castle, high on its rocky pinnacle, its windows alight and its white walls glistening softly like a lantern in the darkness.”

These instances of elegance are all too infrequent though.

It seems hypocritical for Welles to reject ownership of the book because of the way it was advertised if he was actually capable of writing the following sentence, about Van Stratten’s girlfriend, Mily: “She’d been done, good and proper, over that pure silk lingerie. And how!”

At the beginning of the book, Van Stratten is on the outs with his fence, someone named Tadeus, because he had lost a load of black market cigarettes. So we’re in Tangier, or Marseilles, and Van Stratten is walking aimlessly along the docks when he sees the police chasing down a one-legged guy, Marcel Bracco, who has been stabbed.

He’s dying, and he whispers a name into the ear of Van Stratten’s girl, Mily: “Arkadin!”

Now, Arkadin is supposedly the world’s most famous tycoon. So this is like me running into a guy in a back alley in New York and he blurts in my ear, “Donald Trump!”, and that alone gives me a pass into Trumps’ fabulous world.

But that’s what happens to Van Stratten. Armed with the magic password of “Arkadin”, Van Stratten, a two-bit criminal and blackmarketer, instantly is thrown into the world of high finance and the glamorous world of Arkadin. (And not to mention into the arms of Arkadin’s beautiful daughter Raina!)

“Everyone had heard of Arkadin,” says our narrator. So what good is knowing it?

But the plot, or lack of it, isn’t the only problem. This other problem is what Welles should have objected to. Our friend Bracco, dead and dying, is described as “a rather pathetic smalltime crook who dealt in cocaine and women.”

This is the beginning of a long line of descriptions of the people who are so disgusting as to almost defy imagination. If Welles was unhappy with the advertising, he should have personally repudiated the way this novel portrays humanity. There isn’t an empathetic, sympathetic figure in the whole mess

By the time I reached the end of the book I was disheartened. Not just by the poor writing, but for the lack of any kindness. Nothing. I know that noir is supposed to be tough, but it also has to have a little heart, even if that heart is black. This is just a parade of physically ugly people with repellent habits who do nasty things.

If he didn’t write it, or didn’t want to acknowledge it, then Welles should have taken his name off it in his lifetime. The fact that he claims to have no real knowledge as to how it came to be published isn’t a very flattering incident, in and of itself.

Welles certainly seems ascendant these past few years. I hope that continues, but the presence — the existence — of this book is an obstacle that his reputation will have to overcome because it certainly won’t enhance it.


Liberty Under Attack

August 7, 2007 § Leave a comment

By Mike Gillis

The new teaser poster for “Cloverfield,” the top-secret movie project from J.J. Abrams, has been circulating for a few weeks. As a piece of premature promotion, it’s not that impressive. (See our earlier take on “Cloverfield.”)

What is it with blockbusters all wanting a piece of the Statue of Liberty? The teaser trailer for “Cloverfield” features a quick shot of the head of the statue rolling down a New York street.

But who is shocked or even offended at the sight of a defiled Ms. Liberty these days? After all, she’s fallen victim to a host of sinister plots over the course of cinematic history.

Certainly the statue has figured into some finer cinematic moments, such as Hitchcock’s “Saboteur,” and even as a sign of hope in Charlie Chaplin’s “The Immigrant.”

But it’s more often been a target of the blockbuster.

Here are some other clips and movie posters featuring the Statue of Liberty.

“Escape from New York”

“Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins”

“The Day After Tomorrow”

“United 93”

“Planet of the Apes”


For more on the Statue of Liberty in popular culture, see this page:

Eating the Old

July 7, 2007 § Leave a comment

By Lars Trodson

It is axiomatic that when someone famous dies, particularly an actor, someone will invariably pay tribute to the recently deceased by declaring their “work will live on forever.”

I’m not so sure this is true any more; I’m not sure we have the discipline of mind or enough forbearance of history to hold on to those whom John Cheever so accurately called figures “from the enduring past.”

Take two giant cultural figures from the 20th century: Bob Hope and Katharine Hepburn. While Hepburn still weighs in with her angular features and Bryn Mawr accent on occasion, Hope has disappeared. They lived 196 years between the two of them, made countless movies, plays, television shows, radio shows, vaudeville acts, records, live acts, USO shows, you name it — Hope was as American as John Wayne — and you’d be hardpressed to find him anywhere on today’s cultural landscape, save for a movie shown once in a while on Turner Classic Movies. Even his partner Bing Crosby was once one of the most famous Americans on the planet, and you only hear him these days at Christmas. He’s vanished.

I remember when Charlie Chaplin died. It was on or about Christmas Day, 1977 — and if memory serves Groucho Marx died nearly at the same time. Chaplin was the first global movie star, the first mass marketed commodity, and he made some of the most memorable and famous films ever crafted. Aside from a nod in an Apple computer campaign, where is Chaplin today? Has he been relegated to the chatter among esoteric film societies and academics? Are silent, black-and-white films so difficult to access they can no longer be seen on TV? I doubt it. I find young people today so curious about everything that Chaplin, and Keaton and the work of D.W. Griffith could easily find a comfortable home within a huge segment of today’s youth. It doesn’t have to be shown in the dark, hushed reverent halls of the film class.

I understand the impulse of trashing the old to make room for the new. When the Sex Pistols came on the scene in the late 1970s, part of their act was to talk about how fat and bloated the ex-Beatles and Rolling Stones and all that had become. It wasn’t just that we had to sweep away the past, it had to be subsumed, eradicated, obliterated.

That radical cultural shift has now become mainstream thought, but what it has managed to do is ratchet down the length of what we used to call a “career.” Careers now seem to get derailed even before they get started. Look what happened to the show “The O.C.” That’s because the new kid is all too willing to replace the old codger, whose career spans all of three years and two CDs. People have been ready to write an bit for “Desperate Housewives” since the day it first aired.

This would be fine, except that it is a cycle that is destined to be repeated, and those who benefit from it will also be devoured by it. It will affect both those things we like and don’t like. If we are frustrated because of something we admire has vanished that’s because there are probably more people out there who don’t like it and want it wiped off the face of the map. And the majority undoubtedly succeeds.

So the carousel continues, at a feverish pace. TV shows, movies, actors, singers, and comedians all spin around us and we’re basically trying to pluck one of these blurs out of the air, hoping that we’ll like it once we’ve had a moment to see what it looks like. And some of us, remember, are on the lookout now for what might be the next big thing tomorrow, never mind what’s going on today, if only to be able to say that we had heard of it long before anyone else.

One of the ways in which we can better understand the times in which we live is if there are fixed points within that universe. We used to be able to pinpoint moments in time because of the TV shows we watched, or the album covers we stared at, or the movies we waited in line to see (movies that lasted more than a month in the theaters). We could say, oh, yeah, that was 1972, or 1987, or 1991. But now everything is revolving. You can watch your TV show at any time, whether it’s old or new, there are no album covers, and you dictate which songs you want to listen to. You’re not necessarily part of a national cultural wave. So I wonder if we’ll look back from now on and have trouble remembering just when specific things happened? With everything floating, tumbling around us — will we really be able to look back and say, oh, yes, I remember the summer of 2007 like it was yesterday?

I don’t know. But if Chaplin and Hope and so many other titans of 20th century culture are having trouble staying afloat, one wonders if anything made today will make it into next year.

It could be we’ve started a terrible, vicious cycle: If nothing is going to last, why bother to make anything that will endure?

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