Orson Welles

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Penelope Houston

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Orson Welles casts such a gigantic shadow that it becomes difficult to realise that in fact only six films (five if one chooses to discount the equivocal Journey into Fear) stand between the dazzling pyrotechnics of Citizen Kane and the choked and spluttering deadwood bonfire that is Confidential Report…. Fuelled with reminiscences of Kane—the fascination with the mystery and the apparatus of power, the involved flashback structure—and stoked up with bits from [Carol Reed's] The Third Man, from the spectacular seediness of the world of Harry Lime, this is a grandiose and ornate melodramatic construction. But beneath the baroque extravagance of its style, and the characteristic romantic retreat from reality into another Xanadu, the film crumbles emptily away. With Kane, Welles' especial genius was to persuade us that he was telling the story in the only way possible. Here, one early develops the uneasy conviction that the film-maker is saying nothing in particular, for all that he is undeniably saying it at the top of his voice. (pp. 86-7)

Welles, inevitably, embroiders this with all the hocus-pocus of the practised illusionist. The elaborate maze of flashbacks; the tilted camera and the extravagant camera angles; the huge and shadowy sets, transforming the castle in Spain into an ogre's gothic palace; the broken sentences, the overlapping dialogue, the sudden jagged burst of sound at a party, are all by now familiar elements in the Wellesian sleight of hand…. Where the material is second-hand, though, all this obsessive technical display can merely expend itself purposelessly, and the story disintegrates under it.

As Lady From Shanghai (a more substantial and entertaining film than this) has already sufficiently demonstrated, Welles' attitude to melodrama is fundamentally at the opposite extreme from that of Hitchcock. Where Hitchcock turns the commonplace upside down, allowing charwomen to carry revolvers and commercial travellers to dismember their wives, Welles appears to be drawn to melodrama by the opportunities it affords for eccentric and romantic characterisation…. That he does not himself make a great deal of Arkadin is perhaps inherent in the conception of the character; conscientiously a man of mystery, Arkadin remains for most of the film a formidable shadow, a man figuratively, if not after his first appearance actually, behind a mask. That, ultimately, is rather the impression that these restless and baffling melodramatics give one of Welles himself. The talent itself is still one immensely to be reckoned with; it remains for the heavyweight director again to take on something his own size. (p. 87)

Penelope Houston, "'Confidential Report'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1955 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 25, No. 2, Autumn, 1955, pp. 86-7.

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