ORSON WELLES on “MR. ARKADIN”
It is quite remarkable that other than Peter Bogdanovichs indispensable interview book, This Is Orson Welles, there were so few important English language interviews done with Welles during his lifetime. Admittedly, Welles was often not on American soil when a film like Mr. Arkadin came out, but it would seem like some enterprising entertainment reporters might have tried a bit harder to corral Welles, especially when his final completed film, F For Fake, was released in 1977. In retrospect, F For Fake had probably the least amount of Welles comments in print, than any other, even than a film like Mr. Arkadin that he didnt care to talk about. So we can be thankful that Welles talked with such great enthusiasm to Cahiers du Cinema and all the other European magazines, where he was treated with the intelligence and respect he deserved. In America, Welles seemed to be relegated to doing magic tricks on Johnny Carsons talk show, instead of talking about his work, but even those appearances where done with the élan of a master magician. At any rate, several of Welles best interviews where given to Cahiers du Cinema, and below I have combined Welles fairly extensive comments on Mr. Arkadin from two different 1958 Cahiers interviews, so it reads as one comprehensive whole.
Interview conducted by
Andre Bazin, Charles Bitsch and Jean Domarchi
CAHIERS: While speaking of Mr. Arkadin Herman G. Weinberg said, "In Orson Welles' films, the spectator may not sit back in his seat and relax; on the contrary, he must meet the film at least half-way in order to decipher what is happening, practically every second; if not, everything is lost."
ORSON WELLES: All my films are like that. There are certain cineastes, excellent ones, who present everything so explicitly, so clearly, that in spite of the great visual power contained in their films one follows them effortlesslyI refer only to the narrative thread. I am fully aware that, in my films, I demand a very specific interest on the part of the public. Without that attention, it is lost.
CAHIERS: You said that Arkadin was not an especially detestable man. What is your conception of the character? Is he like Kane?
ORSON WELLES: No, Arkadin is closer to Harry Lime, because he is a profiteer, an opportunist, a person who lives off the decay of the world, a parasite that feeds off the universal corruption of things, but he doesn't attempt to justify himself, like Harry Lime, by thinking himself a sort of "superman." Arkadin is a Russian adventurer, a corsair.
CAHIERS: Basil Zaharoff?
ORSON WELLES: Better. Zaharoff was a shabby character. Arkadin is a person who has made his way largely in a corrupt world; he doesn't try to be more than that world, he's trapped in it and is the best he could be within that frame of reference. He is the best possible "expression" of that universe.
CAHIERS: So seen in that way, Arkadin is the hero of a world...
ORSON WELLES: No, he's a character, not a heroI've never played a hero in the cinema. I have in the theatre. I'd like one day to play a great heroic role in a film, but it's difficult to findArkadin is the expression of a certain European world. He could have been Greek, Russian, Georgian. It's as if he had come from some wild area to settle in an old European civilization, and were using the energy and the intelligence natural to the Barbarian to make a good living from it. He's the Hun, the Goth, and the Savage, who succeeds in conquering Rome. That's what he is: the Barbarian out to conquer European civilization, or Genghis Khan attacking the civilization of China. And this kind of character is admirable; it's only Arkadin's ideology, which is detestable, but not his mind, because he's courageous, passionate, and I think it's really impossible to detest a passionate man. That is why I detest Harry Lime: he has no passion, he is cold; he is Lucifer, the fallen angel.
CAHIERS: It seems to us as though you are divided between two conceptions of the world: a Renaissance conception and a Puritan conception.
ORSON WELLES: Certainly not. Neither Renaissance, nor Puritan. I'm a man of the Middle Ages, with certain implications due to the barbarity of America. I am Arkadin to the degree that I belong to a wild nation which is also a new nation and ambitious to get ahead. But Puritan, certainly not.
CAHIERS: Does that shock you because in America the word Puritan has stronger connotations than it does here?
ORSON WELLES: A Puritan is someone who refuses one permission to do something. The essential definition of PuritanismI've made a study of itis that it assumes the right to forbid someone to do something. For me that's the perfect definition of everything I'm opposed to. A moralist is not a Puritan.
CAHIERS: Well, let's put it another way: that you are divided between the moral judgment made by your head and the moral judgment made by your heart.
ORSON WELLES: No. I believe that I am divided between my personality and my beliefs, not between my heart and my mind. Have you the least idea, gentlemen, what I'd be like if I just followed my personality?
CAHIERS: We've been very struck in your work, from The Lady from Shanghai to Mr. Arkadin and a little less explicitly, perhaps, in Touch of Evil, by the theme of character. Doesn't the scorpion say, "It's my character"? Is that an excuse that the scorpion makes to the frog? We would like to know how your own ideas relate to the story of the scorpion, because basically what we have been talking about does pose, does it not, the problem of the frog and the scorpion?
ORSON WELLES: Oh yes, well, there's a lot to say about that. Point number one: the frog was an idiot.
CAHIERS: So you think there was culpable stupidity on the part of the frog?
ORSON WELLES: Yes indeed!
CAHIERS: And do you consider that the scorpion was evil?
ORSON WELLES: Neither of them was any good. But seriously. I must insist that I was very serious when I said that I not only put forward the best possible arguments for my enemies being as they are, but I also put into their mouths the best possible justifications I can find for their point of view. Nevertheless I do not feel that one can justify one's acts by saying it is one's character, although I admit that it is very tempting to do so. There is nothing more attractive than a bastard admitting he's a bastard. A man can be anything, a swine, a murderer, he can admit to me that he's killed three peoplethe moment he admits it he's my brother, because he is frank. I believe that frankness does not excuse crime, but it makes it very seductive, gives it attraction. It is nothing to do with morality; it's a question of what is and is not attractive.
CAHIERS: That's a feminine view of life.
ORSON WELLES: The only good artists are feminine. I don't believe an artist exists whose dominant characteristic is not feminine. It has nothing to do with homosexuality; but intellectually an artist must be a man with feminine aptitudes. It's even more difficult for a woman because she must have masculine and feminine aptitudes and then it gets very complicated. For a man it's quite simple.
CAHIERS: And so the scorpion is half forgiven?
ORSON WELLES: The point of the story is that the man who declares to the world "I am as I am, take me or leave me as such" has a kind of tragic dignity. It is a question of dignity, of stature, of attractiveness, of breadth of personality, but that doesn't justify him. In other words this story ought to be understood as a part of the drama, but not as a justification of Arkadin or of murder in general. And it's not Puritanism that makes me against crime. Don't forget I'm against the police too. As I see them, my ideas are more anarchic and aristocratic. Whatever judgment you may pass on the morality of my position, you should see its anarchic and aristocratic sides.
CAHIERS: You are against evil, yet you believe that character...
ORSON WELLES: Is the essential thing. That is the traditional aristocratic viewpoint.
CAHIERS: Would you go so far as to say that it is better to have character than to do good?
ORSON WELLES: No. No. "Character" has two meanings in English. If I talk about my character, that means that I am made like that, it is the equivalent of the Italian "sono fatto cosi." But in the story of the frog, it's the other meaning of the word that is not only the way one is made, but also how one has decided to be. It's above all the way you behave in the face of death, because one can only judge people by their attitude to death. It's a very important distinction of meaning, because the term, used in this sense, can only be explained by the use of anecdotes.
CAHIERS: Could it be translated by personality?
ORSON WELLES: No
CAHIERS: Or temperament?
ORSON WELLES: Not exactly. I don't think there is an exact equivalent in French. It's not "the character" but just "character." Your character, my character: we understand what that means. But "character" can only be properly understood in an aristocratic context; I don't mean that only the nobility, people with titles and houses and lands can understand the meaning. I don't want to look like a snob. But "character" is an aristocratic concept, just as "virtue" is a bourgeois concept. We don't care about virtue. But what is character? For example: when the Germans came at six in the morning to take away and deport Colette's husband, who she loved desperately, instead of a dramatic farewell all she did was to give him a little pat and say "Go along with them at once!" That's character! I don't mean especially Colette herself, not anything in general about her, but just what she did at that moment; it need only be a second. That scorpion story is Russian in origin.
CAHIERS: In The Lady from Shanghai Michael O'Hara says that when he does something stupid he does it all the way. It's therefore his character too: so isn't he the scorpion of the story?
ORSON WELLES: Him? He's the frog. Oh yes, but completely! And more: he's a poetic frog, but a frog all the same! "Character" is the way one behaves when one denies the laws one should obey, and refuses to act in accordance with the emotions one feels; it's the way one behaves in the face of life and death. And the worst criminals, the most hateful, can have "character."
CAHIERS: Macbeth, for example?
ORSON WELLES: Not to that degree. Macbeth is much more a great play than the study of a great man. Othello has "character" but not Macbeth. The great moment, you know, the great flash of "character" in Shakespeare is in one of the least good of his plays, Romeo and Juliet: it is when Romeo learns Juliet is dead. He says then, "Is it even so? Then I defy you, stars." At that moment, it's Shakespeare talking, not Romeo.
CAHIERS: From your point of view, is Othello a detestable man too?
ORSON WELLES: Jealousy is detestable, not Othello. But insofar as he becomes so obsessed by jealousy as to be the personification of it, he's detestable. All of these noble characters: Lear, for example, insofar as he's cruel, is hateful. One of the very great themes in Shakespeare is that all his most interesting characters have a nineteenth-century morality; they are all villains. Hamlet is a villain, without doubt, because he wants to kill his uncle without allowing his soul to be saved. Think of the relish with which he describes the murder of Rosencrantz: he's a villain. Despite everything else he may beRenaissance man, etc all the things that have been written about him, he is nonetheless a swine. All Shakespeare's great characters are swine. They are forced to be.CAHIERS: One could say the same about your characters.
ORSON WELLES: I think one can say it about all dramatic writing that attempts to be tragic inside the framework of the melodrama. Ever since melodrama has existed, the tragic hero has a tendency to be a swine. Only the Greeks and the French classical writers were able to have heroes who were not bad men because they were tragic in the abstract. But as soon as you get mixed up with any kind of melodrama, the tragic character has to be a villain, one way or another, quite simply because a hero, in a melodrama, is nothing at all. A hero is insufferable except in a real tragedy. It is impossible to write a real tragedy for the general public; at least it has not been done since the Greeks or since the age of the classical French poetic drama. Shakespeare never wrote a pure tragedy; he couldn't. He wrote melodrama which had the stature of tragedy, but that did not stop them from having melodramatic stories. And since they are melodramas the heroes are villains. The pure heroes, the true heroes, like Brutus, are all bad parts, nobody wants to play them, nobody cares about them, nobody is interested in them. Brutus is a tremendous part, there are some wonderful speeches in it, but not one actor particularly desires to play him.CAHIERS: And in Julius Caesar, Caesar is a swine.
ORSON WELLES: Totally. They all are in Julius Caesar. It's a very interesting play because Shakespeare has feelings for and against everyone in it. And in general, it's Shakespeare's great quality never to be prejudiced one way, either morally or politically.
CAHIERS: I suppose, from your point of view, Arkadin is no nicer than the rest?ORSON WELLES: No, Arkadin is better, because he is much rather a pure adventurer. In fact, I find him completely sympathetic.ORSON WELLES: No, Arkadin is better, because he is much rather a pure adventurer. In fact, I find him completely sympathetic.CAHIERS: What about the character played by Robert Arden?
ORSON WELLES: Oh, he's terrible. He's the lowest of the low.ORSON WELLES: No, Arkadin is better, because he is much rather a pure adventurer. In fact, I find him completely sympathetic.ORSON WELLES: Oh, he's terrible. He's the lowest of the low.CAHIERS: Which is doubtless why, when they are in conflict, Arkadin seems so noble and impressive.
ORSON WELLES: Yes, Arkadin is not a skunk. He does, and has done, a lot of unpleasant things. Who hasn't? He's an adventurer. He's what Stalin would have been if Stalin hadn't been a Communist. The sympathetic side of StalinStalin as a man, not Stalin as an historical factthats the pity in the Russian temperament, the great sentimentality over certain things, that curious, typically Slav characteristic; I like that very much.ORSON WELLES: No, Arkadin is better, because he is much rather a pure adventurer. In fact, I find him completely sympathetic.ORSON WELLES: Oh, he's terrible. He's the lowest of the low.ORSON WELLES: Yes, Arkadin is not a skunk. He does, and has done, a lot of unpleasant things. Who hasn't? He's an adventurer. He's what Stalin would have been if Stalin hadn't been a Communist. The sympathetic side of StalinStalin as a man, not Stalin as an historical factthats the pity in the Russian temperament, the great sentimentality over certain things, that curious, typically Slav characteristic; I like that very much.CAHIERS: If, as you say, your characters are not detestable in the human sense, this word "human"even if it doesn't imply approval of a world view, must imply some sort of positive value for you.
ORSON WELLES: Well, the only positive value is that it's the best I can say of my enemies. Also, when I get inside a character's skin, as actor or author, when I become that character, I draw upon the best of myself within the framework of the role, so that the character does absorb some of the best in me.
ORSON WELLES: No, Arkadin is better, because he is much rather a pure adventurer. In fact, I find him completely sympathetic.ORSON WELLES: Oh, he's terrible. He's the lowest of the low.ORSON WELLES: Yes, Arkadin is not a skunk. He does, and has done, a lot of unpleasant things. Who hasn't? He's an adventurer. He's what Stalin would have been if Stalin hadn't been a Communist. The sympathetic side of StalinStalin as a man, not Stalin as an historical factthats the pity in the Russian temperament, the great sentimentality over certain things, that curious, typically Slav characteristic; I like that very much.ORSON WELLES: Well, the only positive value is that it's the best I can say of my enemies. Also, when I get inside a character's skin, as actor or author, when I become that character, I draw upon the best of myself within the framework of the role, so that the character does absorb some of the best in me.CAHIERS: You play the devil's advocate to yourself?
ORSON WELLES: More than the devil's advocate. More. Because, confronted with these characters, I transfigure them by giving them the best of myself, but all the same, I detest what they are.
CAHIERS: What do you think of Robert Browning's remark that he personally had such an elastic conscience that it would stretch to encompass the point of view of his enemies?
ORSON WELLES: Oh, he was an actor. All great writers are actors, even merely competent ones are. They have the actor's capacity for getting inside the skins of their leading characters and transfiguring themwhatever they may be, even murdererswith what they can give of themselves. They do that quite is much as actors do. And so it happens that quite often the protagonists of a story seem to be speaking for the author, whereas really all they are demonstrating is his talent, not his opinions. In other words, when Arkadin talks about cowards, he is being humorous, which is something of mine, but I'm not, for all that, Arkadin, and I don't want to have anything to do with all the real Arkadins there may be around.
CAHIERS: But you can't make us believe that the remarkable consistency in your choice of "detestable" characters doesn't imply more than sympathy. You are against them, but you do more than simply plead for them; you'd have difficulty in making us believe that besides condemning them you don't in some way admire them, and want to stand surety for them, give them some sort of chance of redeeming themselves. You do give the devil a chance to redeem himself and that's surely important.
ORSON WELLES: All the characters I've played and that weve been talking about are Faustian, and I'm against the Faustian outlook, because I believe it is impossible for a man to be great unless he acknowledges something greater than himself. It can be the Law, it can be God, it can be Art, or any other idea, but it must be greater than man. I've played a whole line of egoists, and I detest egoism, the egoism of the Renaissance, the egoism of Faust, all of them. But it goes without saying that an actor is in love with the role he is playing: he is like a man embracing a woman, he gives something of himself. An actor is not the devil's advocate, he is a lover, somebody in love with someone of another sex; and Faust, for me, is another sex. I believe there are two great human types in the world and one of them is the Faust type. I belong to the others, but in playing Faust, I want to be just and loyal to him, give him the best of myself, and put forward the best arguments that I can in his favor, because after all we live in a world that was built by Faust. Our world is Faustian.
CAHIERS: There are actors who will play any kind of character, but we have noticed that throughout your films, on whatever pretext, even if the scripts have nothing in common, your characters all have something in common. So one could deduce that in spite of what you say, you may indeed intend to condemn these characters, but it is a condemnation which...
ORSON WELLES: I don't say I condemn them necessarily in the cinema. I only condemn them in life. In other wordsand it's very important to make this distinctionI condemn them in the sense that they are against the things that I am in favor of, but I don't condemn them in my heart, only with my mind. The condemnation is cerebral. And that is complicated by the fact that I play the parts of the people I condemn. Now you are going to tell me that an actor never plays his own role; but when one sets about acting a part, one begins by taking away everything that is not oneself, but one never puts in anything that isn't there already. No actor can play anything but what is in him already. And so, of course, there's Orson Welles in all these characters. I can't help it; it's me who is playing them, not only physically, but Orson Welles. So, I don't bring in part of my political or my moral beliefs, I put on a false nose, I do all that, but it's still Orson Welles. I believe a lot in the qualities that were involved in chivalry, and when Im playing the part of someone I detest, I try to be very chivalrous in my interpretation.
CAHIERS: Your mise-en-scene is very lively: it is the meeting of two movements, that of the actors and that of the camera. Out of this flows an anguish that reflects modem life very well.
ORSON WELLES: I believe that that corresponds to my vision of the world; it reflects that sort of vertigo, uncertainty, lack of stability, that mélange of movement and tension that is our universe. And the cinema should express that. Since cinema pretends to be an art it should be, above all, film and not the sequel to another, more literary medium of expression.
CAHIERS: You prefer then to keep your actors moving, you don't like so much having them sitting down, discussing endlessly, etc.
ORSON WELLES: In Mr. Arkadin, Akim Tamiroff sits down on a chair and doesn't move from it for eight minutes. Katina Paxinou is also seated, and she doesn't move either, except the gestures required for a game of cards. In Touch of Evil it was different; I had a lot of young actors, I was very pleased and I had them move about a lot.
CAHIERS: Othello is made up of mostly short takes.
ORSON WELLES: Yes, because I never had all the actors together at the same time. Anytime you see someone from the back, with a hood on their head, you can be sure its a stand-in. So I had to do the whole thing in shot, reverse shot, because I never could get lago, Desdemona, Roderigo, etc. in front of the camera at the same time.
CAHIERS: It seemed to me that this is also the case in Mr. Arkadin, but after seeing it again, I dont think so. The link scenes are quite precise.
ORSON WELLES: The link scenes are precise in Othello too. I simply filmed them on different types of emulsions. The link scene can be as exact as you will, but if youre filming on Dupont, on French or American Kodak, or on Ferrania, you will have fatal jumps in the tone when you mix them in the edit. For Mr. Arkadin, once again I didn't use long takes, because a long take requires a large and capable technical team. There are very few European teams competent to successfully carry out a long take, very few technicians who can manage it.
LESLIE MEGAHEY: Shall we go on to Mr. Arkadin.
ORSON WELLES: That's a real flawed one, yes.
LESLIE MEGAHEY: Is it?
ORSON WELLES: Oh, yes, that's a disaster. It's a story about curious forms of vanity because here's a man who commits these terrible murders because of his interest in his image. In other words, nothing will happen to him. If any of the things, which are found out about him, are printed, nothing will happen to Arkadin. It's really about vanity and about people's preoccupation with their image. Even somebody as powerful as Arkadin, you see. But that film was taken away from me completely, and was totally destroyed in the cutting. That is the real disaster of my life, that one. There's your flawed masterpiece. It's Mr. Arkadin. I hate to think about it.
LAVANT-SCENE DU CINČMA: Did you think your version of Mr. Arkadin would have been a success?ORSON WELLES: I thought it could have made a very popular film, a commercial film that everyone would have liked. In place of that... I'm afraid to see it! I wanted to make a work in the spirit of Dickens, with characters so dense that they appear as archetypes... It's terrible, what they did to me on that. The film was snatched from my hands more brutally than one has ever snatched a film from anyone... it's as if they'd kidnapped my child! They brought in another cutter who pretended to have "saved" the film!