“I don’t like pretense. I don’t like prophecies. I like facts.” -Mr. Charles Clay
Orson Welles had one of the most paradoxically exciting and tragic careers in the history of cinema. After essentially changing the language of filmmaking with his debut Citizen Kane, his subsequent career was one of constant struggle, humiliation, and compromise. Any movie he made in Hollywood was taken away from him and tampered with. Any film that he made independently was self financed and cobbled together through a mix of ingenuity and compromise. He still did great work, but his career remains a great “what if” with all of his finest accomplishments either difficult to find or requiring a somewhat apologetic audience to appreciate. His final fiction feature was actually produced for French television and has been incredibly difficult to find until now, when it received an unexpected Criterion release. At a trim 61 minutes, The Immortal Story isn’t exactly a lost masterpiece, but it does boast the combination of fascinating filmmaking an odd autobiography that Welles aficionados have come to love.
Based on a short story by Karen Blixen, The Immortal Story is essentially a film about storytelling. Welles himself stars as Mr. Clay, a wealthy businessman in 19th century Macao nearing the end of his life. A conversation with a bookkeeper and Clay’s only friend (Roger Coggio) leads to the old man declaring that the only stories worth telling are those that are already written. He then launches into an old tale about a sailor who a merchant hires to impregnate his wife that is one of his favourites. When the bookkeeper declares that is but a myth for sailors, Mr. Clay insists that they hire people to live out the old tale in real life. That leads Coggio to hire a courtesan (the great Jeanne Moreau) and a sailor (Norman Eshley) to enact the tale and much to everyone’s surprise they both fall in love, leading to a rather unexpected outcome.
Essentially, the film is about the ways in which stories never quite play out the way that their creators intend, especially when the unexpected virtues of reality come into play. It was a subject that fascinated Orson Welles for many years before he made the movie and it’s easy to see why. Quite apart from the fact that so many of his films notoriously changed and mutated over production and editing, Welles’ life certainly never conformed to any plans that he made. So there’s an achingly personal tone to the short film that often becomes a painful to watch. The performances are surprisingly grounded and human for the theatrical filmmaker, which feels oddly appropriate. The visuals are of course stunning, but working with limited resources and time,
Welles drops his usual meticulous construction in favour of something more loose, influenced by the style of The French New Wave. It was the director’s first color feature and hints at a new more playful and mobile aesthetic that he would apply to all of his subsequent directorial efforts, even though sadly only one of them was ever completed and released (the odd n’ self-conscious docu-fiction feature F Is For Fake). The Immortal Story is essentially only of interest for those already infatuated with the unique career of the great Orson Welles, but those folks should consider it a brilliant lost piece in his intriguing puzzle. As with any Welles feature good or bad, his talents are so clear and immense that you can’t help but feel melancholic about all the great films that were lost when his career diverted out of renegade success into wandering inconsistency.
The Immortal Story looks absolutely stunning on this new Blu-ray. Clearly the French production company responsible took great care in archiving the original materials over the years and Criterion have ensured that it pops off the screen with the depth and vibrancy of films with ten times the budget. It’s a sumptuous piece of work all too easy to get lost in. The disc contains both the English and French language edits of the movie, which contain a variety of different edits and takes in addition to the differing dubbing. Both versions aren’t so different as to play as separate films, but they are fascinating to view together as an exploration of the major differences that subtle shifts in editing can make.
There are some excellent special features as well. Chief among them is Portrait: Orson Welles, a 40-minute French documentary about the filmmaker that was supposed to air alongside The Immortal Story during it’s initial broadcast. Filmed in the freewheeling style of the French New Wave, it’s an intriguing bit of filmmaking all its own, with some wonderfully candid interviews with Welles featuring anecdotes including a mockery of Winston Churchill’s cinematic tastes as well as a bizarre aside of him working in the kitchen. Best of all the doc features footage of Welles at work on the set of The Immortal Story and it’s a treat to see the great man ply his craft, if only for a few fleeting moments. Oh and his laugh rings loud and true throughout, which is infectious.
There are also contemporary interviews with cinematographer Willy Kurant and actor Norman Eshley who both speak with great reverence about the mixture of anxiety and elation they faced while working with Welles. Finally we get an audio commentary by film scholar Adrian Martin and an interview with Welles scholar Francois Thomas about the film that places it in the proper context of the filmmaker’s career. Both are interesting, but perhaps a bit dry given the subject matter. Still Criterion have delivered quite an impressive extras packed disc for a movie that has until now been little more than a curiosity for Orson Welles completists.
Does it deserve a spot on your Dork Shelf?
It’s well worth seeking out for those who love the big guy and would prefer to remember him for more than his final performance as the voice of a planet in Transformers: The Movie. He was a great artist beyond that vital contribution to 80s trash culture, after all.