Orson Welles Tom Milne - Essay

Tom Milne

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Time past and past glories: it almost sums up Welles, from the splendour of the Ambersons to the chimes at midnight tolling the death of Merrie England, by way of the touch of evil which once was truth—and it recurs again in The Immortal Story [adapted from a story by Karen Blixen, written under the pseudonym of Isak Dinesen]. The original creators, I do not forget, are Franz Kafka, William Shakespeare and Karen Blixen; but the magnificence as film (of the last two, at least) belongs to the mind, the mise en scène, and above all the presence of Welles.

Not that The Immortal Story—for all its air of fairytale and its setting in a Chinese Xanadu—is so much about time past or time regained as about time created….

The beauty of Karen Blixen's original story is that it fuses perfectly at all levels, opening out layer after layer into, precisely, a story of immortality, of how time past, present and future, fiction and reality, can be re-shaped to create a new time and a new legend. The beauty of Welles's adaptation, despite the slenderest of means … and barely adequate colour and lighting effects …, is that it manages to encompass, even add to, the delicate tracery of the original. Not merely the visual allusions—the cell-like room in which the clerk secretes himself "with the certainty that here no one could possibly follow or disturb him"—but the curious sense of timelessness which springs from the fact that Mr. Clay, in trying to bring the world of imagination under control, merely succeeds in lending wings to whatever facts he already possesses. (p. 31)

Tom Milne, "1968 London Festival: 'The Immortal Story'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1969 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 38, No. 1, Winter, 1968–69, pp. 31-2.