Sunday, February 8, 2015

Don't Make a Scene: Mr. Arkadin

The Story: "Tell Me a Story." During the month of February, we'll be showcasing scenes that feature a story in the midst of the narrative. That story may couch the plot in a new light; it may illuminate themes or present a back-story. It may be just a distraction. It may be a side-story that resonates throughout the film and casts its teller in the affections of the audience, making him immortal no matter how short his amount of screen-time.

The story is "The frog and the scorpion."  You know it.  You've probably heard it in movies, lots...and lots...of television, even comic-books.* It's become a cliche, a much-retread and purloined trope for writers who are looking for color and metaphor. Look around the internet and you'll see a lot of videos retelling the scorpion/frog story, some claiming it as an Aesop's fable—no, that was "The Frog and the Mouse" and another variant, "The Frog and the Turtle" comes from the Indian Panchatantra. They have different outcomes and different lessons.

No. Evidently (and surprisingly) this folk-tale originates with the 1955 Mr. Arkadin and its writer-director Orson Welles, especially in its darkly whimsical lesson of the immutability of "character."

A more mysterious and vindictive version of Citizen Kane, Mr. Arkadin tells the story of an international magnate and financier who hires an investigator to discover his secret past, and, by following his trail, eliminates all the bread-crumbs and witnesses that might reveal his identity.

The origins of the story of Arkadin the film (alternatively called Confidential Report in some releases) stems from a story Welles co-wrote for the radio series "The Lives of Harry Lime" (after the character Welles played in Carol Reed's The Third Man) called "Man of Mystery." This fable does not appear in it.

So, why this tale with this lesson  that seems to have been conjured and adapted in the latter half of the Twentieth Century? And why has it proved so popular and appropriated by so many diverse places, even web-sites and video's (some pretty crack-pot).

Well, Mr. Arkadin is obscure enough and well-thought of enough (and available enough for falling into public domain) that it made for a nicely untraceable and simple tale to make its point.

That being? People can't, don't or won't change, due to intractable nature of "character." This is not some Aesop's Fable with a life lesson or moral that can be used to teach and improve behavior, it is, in fact, amoral, eliminating any sense of good or evil or any chance of improvement. It completely negates any Christian or Judaic sense of redemption and the Indian belief in renewal. It is a deeply cynical view of the world and Nature that permeated the world after the ultimate realization of the evils perpetrated during the second World War, whether in the human abattoirs of the Nazis or the uncaring rain of fire and fission by the Allies. It is like in the ovens of Europe and white hot flash of Japan, humanity was confronted with the worst it could become. The concept of redemption became so much smoke and ash.

"The Scorpion and the Frog" is hardly a fable and not for children. In its story of mutual murder and self-destruction, it seals Fate as being set in sinking stone...and unavoidable. It could not have come from the imaginations of the ancients, but only from our oh-so-sophisticated modern world. Lucky us.

If there is a moral, it's a cautionary one—be careful for whom you do favors, "watch your back."  As the line goes in Gone Baby Gone: "You are a sheep among wolves. Be wise as serpents, yet innocents as doves." 

The Set-Up: Guy Van Stratten (Robert Arden), a money-grubbing cigarette smuggler, happens upon a dying man in Naples, and he mentions a name that he says is "worth millions"...Gregory Arkadin (Welles). Van Stratten pursues the multimillionaire, but can't get close to him due to his many bodyguards and go-betweens, except through his daughter Raina (Paola Mori). In Segovia, Spain, Van Stratten is invited by Raina to Arkadin's castle for a masquerade ball.


Doorman: Oh, Von Stratten, Mr. Arkadin is waiting.
Von Stratten: Thanks. 
(Laughter is heard inside)
Gregory Arkadin: And now I'm going to tell you about...
Gregory Arkadin: ...a scorpion. This...
Gregory Arkadin: ...scorpion wanted to cross a river, so he asked the frog to carry him. 
Gregory Arkadin: No, said the frog, no, thank you. If I let you on my back, you may sting me and the sting of a scorpion is death.
Gregory Arkadin: Now where, said the scorpion is the logic in that?For scorpions always try to be logical (laughs) If I sting you, you will die. And I will drown. 
Gregory Arkadin: So the frog was convinced to allow the scorpion on his back. 
Gregory Arkadin: But just in the middle of the river, he felt a terrible pain and realized that, after all, the scorpion had stung him. 
Gregory Arkadin: "Logic!" cried the dying frog as he started down, bearing the scorpion down with him. "There is no logic in this..." 
Gregory Arkadin: I know, said the scorpion, but I can't help it - it's my character.
Gregory Arkadin: Let's drink to character.

Mr. Arkadin (aka: Confidential Report)

Words by Orson Welles

Pictures by Jean Bourgoin and Orson Welles

Mr. Arkadin is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Criterion Home Video.

* In a recent issue of "Justice League," Bruce Wayne (Batman) invoked the story in a discussion with Superman villain Lex Luthor (who's trying to convince the superhero club he's a good guy, too) only Wayne puts in a pointed alternative conclusion—a bat flies down and kills the scorpion before it can attack.  Bruce has no sense of humor, or any tolerance for the excuse of "character" or nature.  Bruce, as he always does, is constantly re-writing the story with him as the hero.

No comments:

Post a Comment