Friday, March 24, 2006

Let's Drink to Scholarship

In yesterday's mail, I received an advance review copy of a new DVD box set I have been eagerly awaiting: Criterion's THE COMPLETE MR. ARKADIN. As the author of two revelatory articles detailing the differences between various different versions of the film, I had hoped that my contribution to Orson Welles scholarship would be remembered on this occasion by Criterion -- especially since my articles could be said to have proposed a veritable floor map for this set, which includes three different versions of the feature, along with alternate scenes and outtakes from other versions.

But the accompanying booklet credits only an article by Jonathan Rosenbaum ("The Seven Arkadins," FILM COMMENT, January-February 1992) with having "explicated seven different texts and ur-texts" of MR. ARKADIN. Rosenbaum's seven included three different episodes of the radio series THE LIVES OF HARRY LIME, a 1953 screenplay draft titled MASQUERADE, and the MR. ARKADIN novel signed, but not truly written, by Welles. The radio shows and the novel are among the extras included with Criterion's lavish new set.

My articles "Will The Real MR. ARKADIN Please Stand Up?" (VIDEO WATCHDOG #10, pp. 42-59) and "MR. ARKADIN - The Research Continues" (VIDEO WATCHDOG #12, pp. 26-29) also appeared in 1992 -- the first in March, the second in July. Between them, they amass a total of 22 double-columned pages on the subject.

The first article painstakingly compared the version of MR. ARKADIN then extant on so many public domain video labels to the alternate version known as CONFIDENTIAL REPORT, which Criterion had just issued for the first time on laserdisc. It also included, possibly for the first time anywhere, photographic documentation of the alternate casting of Sophie in the Spanish version, where the role was played not by Katina Paxinou, but by Irène Lopez Herédia. My second article was prompted by a bargain bin discovery of a completely different, and more satisfying cut of the film, also under the MR. ARKADIN title, on the Corinth Video label. Collectively, these studies not only pointed out the points of variation between these versions, they explained that the ideal version of MR. ARKADIN could exist only in the viewer's collective experience of the three. (The most compelling facet of Criterion's definitive box set is a brand new "comprehensive" cut of MR. ARKADIN assembled from the other extant versions.)

I remember it coming as quite a shock, opening that issue of FILM COMMENT and seeing Jonathan's article, while my own initial ARKADIN piece was still at the printer. But our respective articles were actually quite complimentary; his article got the "scoop," so to speak, that the film existed in different versions, but my articles explained in great detail why they were different, how they differed from one another qualitatively, and they also told people where to find the alternate versions on video. The coincidence that we both happened to be mining this obscure ground at the same time was too striking to ignore, and I used my contacts at FILM COMMENT to get in touch with Jonathan, whose work as a critic and scholar I'd long admired. We spoke by phone several times. I told him about my article, sent it to him when it appeared, told him about the availability of the Corinth Video version once I discovered it (I also made him a copy), and arranged for him to receive my follow-up piece. (I'm interested to see that Jonathan, who wrote in his original liner notes to the Criterion laserdisc that "the superiority of CONFIDENTIAL REPORT... over the various public domain versions... really cannot be quarrelled with," now favors the Corinth version, as I did and do, in his essay for the Criterion DVD booklet.) Jonathan was very complimentary about my articles after receiving them, and kindly mentioned them on page 515 of his notes for the Peter Bogdanovich book THIS IS ORSON WELLES, which he edited.

Those two MR. ARKADIN articles of mine represented, for me, a major step outside my usual genre film perimeters into the arena of serious international cinema. They stretched me, and they also constituted a significant early stretch for VIDEO WATCHDOG. Having written what I believe remains the lengthiest, most detailed reportage extant (at least in English) on the minute differences between the variants of this film, and to have helped bring these differences to public attention in the first place, I regret that I wasn't approached to participate somehow in this Criterion set. But even moreso, I'm disappointed to find my thorough mapping of this terrain overlooked by the various international Welles scholars who contributed to Criterion's booklet.

Of course, Criterion's box set has only just arrived, and I'm in the midst of other duties. I haven't yet had a chance to watch its various cuts of the movie, or to delve into their audio commentaries, so it's possible my work is noted elsewhere. As a writer who feels a sense of personal investment in things Arkadian, I sincerely hope so; I would hate to be the little detail that makes THE COMPLETE MR. ARKADIN incomplete.

Incidentally, VIDEO WATCHDOG #s 10 and 12 are still available, though #10 is in very low supply. These can be ordered from the Back Issue department of our website (click on the VW link above) or by calling our offices toll-free at 1-800-275-8395. My ARKADIN articles may be 14 years old, but the release of this new Criterion set makes the ink on them seem fresh again, and their method of approaching Welles' baroque masterpiece seem absolutely prescient.

Thursday, March 23, 2006


Sorry to have been so incommuiqué this week, but rest assured, I'm writing full-time elsewhere. We've only got another week or so to work on the Bava book before production on the next issue of VW is due to commence, so I'm on call for that -- Donna rings the intercom once in awhile to ask, "Is it 'I wurdalak,' 'Il wurdalak' or 'I wurdulak'?" and questions of that ilk -- while viewing and reviewing as much material for the next issue as possible in the meantime. Right now, I'm in the midst of reviewing three different Del Tenney movies out from Dark Sky Films, Peter Jackson's KING KONG, and writing a feature about Edgar Wallace's involvement in the original KONG.

While decompressing at different times of day, I've managed to pop up in a thread or three over at the Classic Horror Films Board and Mobius Home Video Forum. But whenever my thoughts have turned to this blog, my brain has felt like six inches of well-stacked cigar ash. At least there's not a SIGHT AND SOUND deadline this week!

Monday, March 20, 2006

A Whale of a Tale

This morning, Turner Classic Movies ran an interesting lineup of antiquities: THE PHANTOM OF PARIS (1931), an MGM adaptation of one of Gaston Leroux's Chéri-Bibi novels, starring John Gilbert; Tod Browning's FAST WORKERS (1933), a light drama about construction workers caught in romantic rivalry, starring Robert Armstrong (not his biggest film of '33) and a miscast Gilbert; Browning's final film MIRACLES FOR SALE (1939), starring a young Robert Young; and James Whale's Fitzgeraldian whodunit REMEMBER LAST NIGHT? (1935), starring a younger Robert Young, Constance Cummings (the Pippa Scott of her day), Edward Arnold (the James Gandolfini of his day), and a sexily dressed Sally Eilers.

I don't usually permit myself to watch television in the daytime, but my breakfast happened to coincide with the showing of REMEMBER LAST NIGHT?, so I watched it as it was being broadcast. It's the story of a group of rich-and-pretty folks, permanently tight in the giddy days following the repeal of prohibition, who awaken in a fancy mansion the morning after a gay (in the old sense of the world) party to find the host dead in his bed, shot through the heart. Everyone was so smashed the night before, they can't remember the party much less the murder, so the police (in the stout personage of Edward Arnold and a nutty sidekick) arrive to investigate... but the pieces must ultimately be put together by the likeable Robert Young and Constance Cummings, who manage to do so while out-drinking and out-wisecracking Nick and Nora Charles. Or trying to.

It's a cute movie, with some Cracker Jack prizes for the auteurists (Robert Young parading around in his wife's fluffy dressing gown, the idle rich being mocked by the snotty working class asides of the cops and even Arthur Treacher's snooty butler, dialogue references to Dracula's Daughter, The Black Cat and the Bride of Frankenstein, and a hypnotism gadget that is only slightly less spectacular than all the crackling Kenneth Strickfaden devices that brought corpses to life in Whale's Frankenstein pictures), and jaw-dropping sets by Charles D. Hall that make the actors look like ants running around through a limited edition book with Lynd Ward endpapers. There is an entire wall in one room made up of cubed glass, which looks as though it was actually left over from Edgar Ulmer's THE BLACK CAT, made the year before. The sets and the costumes actually dominate the film to such a degree that I found myself watching the backgrounds more than the foregrounds, and laughing especially hard when Young and Cummings exclaimed "What a beautiful room!" when they happened to find themselves in a dingy, ugly cellar lined wall-to-wall with untapped liquor bottles.

It's been awhile since TCM has shown some of these, and I'm grateful. Thanks to this morning's schedule, there are about five old Beta tapes in my attic that I can now throw out.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Bava's Casanova

Please note that the Bava book blog has been updated with a new, detailed progress report.

On a related subject, Steno's Le avventure di Giacomo Casanova ("The Adventures of Giacomo Casanova," 1955) -- the first film photographed in color by Mario Bava -- was recently released on DVD in Italy by Ripley's Home Video, a label dedicated to resurrecting the Italian popular cinema of decades past. I don't know whether the disc has English subtitles (on the basis of previous Ripley releases, it's doubtful), but Casanova is a movie of incalculable importance to any study of Bava's developing aesthetics as a visual filmmaker -- and also a delightful entertainment.

It was Ursula Andress' screen debut (her hair's still dark, and she appears in the last scene of the movie as the last of many women to turn Casanova's head), but more importantly, it's a surprising film in terms of its sexual candor. There is absolutely no trace of the self-conscious, self-restricting neuroses that one would encounter in a similar film if made in the United States or Great Britain during the same period, and that's what's so refreshing about it. It treats sex as a normal human appetite, perhaps extraordinary in the case of Casanova (played by Gabriele Ferzetti -- "Mr. Choo-Choo" of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST), but his courage to pursue and quench his impulses makes him all the more likeable as a protagonist.

The film was a French-Italian co-production, and long before this once-thought-to-be-lost picture was rediscovered, it was surmised that the French version might have included some alternate scenes disclosing female nudity. The Italian version of the film I saw contained a brief instance of breast nudity, but in the time that has passed, another print was found (alas, a black-and-white print) which included some additional nude footage. This bold pageantry has been included on the DVD, I am told.

A copy is on its way to me, so I should be able to share more details once it arrives.