Orson Welles’s 1955 picture Mr. Arkadin, which turns 60 this year, rarely makes lists of classic Christmas movies. Sometimes called Confidential Report (the title it went by in England), Mr. Arkadin isn’t typically regarded as holiday fare, and isn’t even one of Welles’ better-known efforts. It lacks the iconic status of his first feature Citizen Kane (which tends to top lists of best movies) and the infamy of his War of the Worlds radio broadcast (which convinced many voting-age Americans that Martian spacecraft had put down in Grover’s Mill, NJ). It’s certainly not as memorable as The Third Man, which Welles didn’t direct, but which contains his turn as the charismatic Harry Lime, a cameo so brilliant it throws all surrounding performances into chiaroscuro.
In fact, Mr. Arkadin, shot throughout Europe during Welles’s nomadic exile from Hollywood, wasn’t even really finished. It was wrested away from the director after he took too long editing it. The result was different rogue cuts and no definitive version. The movie posits a mystery, but is itself a puzzle, a completist’s nightmare that has busied film scholars. And yet it’s also a great, dark Christmas movie, with gorgeous shots of snow-blanketed Munich and the saddest version of “Silent Night” ever recorded.
Mr. Arkadin follows a petty smuggler named Guy Van Stratten, played by Robert Arden, who comes into the employ of Gregory Arkadin, a wealthy tycoon. Modeled after an actual arms dealer, Arkadin has acquired a fortune, a daughter to dote upon, and a case of MacGuffin-grade amnesia; he can’t remember his past before the winter of 1927, when he found himself on the streets of Zurich. All he had was a suit and, inside the suit’s wallet, 200,000 Swiss francs, the capital with which he would eventually build his empire. So Arkadin assigns Van Stratten a job: see if anything incriminating can be discovered about his life pre-1927. The movie is a kind of Cold War Kane, a low-budget reboot of Welles’s debut, in which a journalist attempts to piece together the life of a newspaper magnate.
Arkadin, we discover, is a front for a dark criminal past, but also for Welles, who plays the tycoon, Wizard of Oz-like, behind a false nose and arras-thick accent. (Welles had a weakness for melodrama and makeup.) It turns out Arkadin doesn’t have amnesia; he puts Van Stratten on the trail of his former associates so that he can flush them out and kill them off, thus insulating his daughter against his earlier misdeeds.
When the movie starts, Van Stratten has just figured out his boss’s murderous motives, and tracked the last surviving member of Arkadin’s one-time gang, Jakob Zuk, to an apartment in Munich. It’s Christmas Eve, and Zuk has just been released from prison. Van Stratten is desperate to save Zuk, his only living proof of Arkadin’s malevolence. Zuk, for his part, couldn’t care less if he’s rubbed out. A plate of goose liver, however, might persuade him to stay alive—it’s the only thing the existentially indifferent ex-con dreamed about while locked up. Thus Van Stratten takes to the streets of Munich: a last-minute shopper looking for the insurance that will keep Zuk (and himself) alive.
There’s a lot more that’s deeply odd about Mr. Arkadin: a visit to a flea circus, a set piece on a tilting yacht that sends the actors pitching across the frame, a near-orgiastic Christmas party in which Arkadin wears a ghoulish Santa mask, and so on. Much of the movie is explained in flashback, as Van Stratten brings Zuk up to speed, the picture toggling between present and past. Adding additional torque to the vertigo: Welles sometimes dubbed his actors’ voices, which don’t always synch perfectly with the corresponding pairs of lips. At times, he even swapped in his own baritone, and in the case of Arkadin’s daughter, an entirely different actress’s voice. As a filmmaker, he stubbornly refused to be hemmed in by the images he committed to film, even if the audience couldn’t help but notice the soundtrack meandering ever so slightly away from the actors’ mouths.
But it’s the scenes of Christmas that give this weird movie a heartbeat, however irregular. Welles films winter with a lot of warmth. He frames beautiful, snow-speckled shots of Van Stratten trudging through Munich. Elsewhere, he shoots a Salvation Army band from a characteristically Wellesian angle—low—inflating the musicians with weight as they blow “Silent Night” up into the sky, a pathos-plump rendition that manages to reach the hopeless Zuk. (“I ain’t heard that piece in fourteen years,” he sighs.) Akim Tamiroff, who would later become a Welles regular, is magnificent as the ex-con, especially in close up. He wears a bowler, a stratum of semi-permanent stubble, and a scarf so threadbare it could be a gnawed-off noose. He’s one part Tiny Tim (if Tiny Tim had done hard time), one part Waiting for Godot.
For all its charm, however, Mr. Arkadin is an acquired taste, rarely acquired. In 1956, the magazine Cahiers du Cinema named it one of the top ten movies of the year, and in 1958, one of the twelve greatest movies ever, which was received more as provocation than endorsement. More recently, in 2012, Japanese director Shinji Aoyama made a point of preferring Mr. Arkadin to any other movie by Welles, placing it among his top films of all time. (This was for the decennial Sight and Sound list, a cinephile’s comet that streaks by once a decade, when the magazine polls critics and filmmakers.) For super fans like Aoyama, a feast of a box set stuffed with three different versions—including a comprehensive edit that attempts to honor Welles’ intentions—came out in 2006.
As one of the super fans, I can’t help but revisit Mr. Arkadin every winter—for Tamiroff’s tragicomic turn as Zuk, for that sluggishly beautiful “Silent Night,” and for the movie’s many memorable set pieces. Welles, who would’ve turned 100 this year, couldn’t help but call Mr. Arkadin his “biggest disaster”—when he could stand talking about it at all. Like The Magnificent Ambersons or The Lady from Shanghai, it represented yet another production he had lost control of. Especially poignant, then, is the shot of Arkadin’s small plane, flying empty on Christmas morning. His secrets revealed, the tycoon has hurled himself out of the cockpit, into oblivion. What’s left is a sort of Santa-less sled, flying solo—out of control, yes, but buoyed, like Welles’s movie, by its own wonderfully imperfect wavelength.