Many cineastes feel ambivalent about Orson Welles. Looking over Welles’ early career in radio, theater, and film will reveal a troublemaking wunderkind, a naughty and depthlessly talented artist who wished to provoke and prank and actively alter the artistic landscape about him. He could get away with it too, as he was good at what he did; there’s a reason a certain 1941 Welles film has the reputation it does.
However, after a certain point, and without much in the way of dramatic explanation, Orson Welles vanished from the public eye, moved to Europe, gained weight, and eventually became a parody of his former self. He started to make unpopular and oblique art films which are, only now, beginning to gain a larger amount of critical attention. Many, however, lament an alternate version of the Welles story, wherein he was able to stay artistically daring while still staying in the Hollywood limelight; think of a more aggressive and theatrical version of Alfred Hitchcock.
In a (rather excellent) article published in The New Yorker in December of 2015, author Alex Ross, to celebrate Welles’ centennial, pointed out that Welles’ career should perhaps not be divided into “early” and “late,” as his films have bore a similar aesthetic thrust throughout his career. The late-era parody-of-himself version of Welles that many have come to accept is, indeed, a fallacy, and Welles has, in actuality, spent his career experimenting with new ways of telling stories while endlessly commenting on the way stories are held and told. His final masterpiece, 1973’s F for Fake, even bothers to fold fact and fiction together in an unexpected way. Welles’ films have very often been about the way we tell stories, the function stories have in our lives, and how our minds often blend the real with the unreal. Ultimately, the two are chummier than we realize.
Orson Welles’ 1968 film The Immortal Story – now available on a Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection – may serve as the linchpin to this thematic arc to Welles’ 13-film career. Welles made The Immortal Story in France, after he had more or less ousted himself from the Hollywood scene. This allowed him a great deal of creative and thematic freedom, and his film, perhaps as a result, feels very much like a piece of aged European literature; indeed, it is based on a Danish short story by Karen Blixen.
In The Immortal Story, Welles plays an ancient sour-faced miser named Clay who has no friends and no interests beyond the days’ accounts. He is Ebenezer Scrooge, but without the romance. One evening, when Clay has tired of the account, his soulful aide Levinsky (Roger Coggio) reads him a passage from the Book of Isaiah. Ha announces that it is a fiction, and his only interests are in true stories. Like the story he heard about a sailor who was once paid by a rich man to bed the rich man’s wife and produce an heir. Levinsky points out that this is a fictional story many sailors tell to one another. Rather than be hoodwinked by the tale from horny sailors, Clay immediately resolves to make the story come true for at least one sailor.
The quest is a tragic one. The final act of a delusional old man who is exerting a small piece of power over a world beyond his understanding, right as he teeters unsteadily at death’s door. Levinsky is asked to hire a local woman (Jeanne Moreau) who reluctantly plays along. The sailor he finds (Norman Eshley) is surprisingly introspective about what’s happening, understanding that he is trapped in a well-known fairy tale. The film closes with a mournful contemplation on the futility of the enterprise, but a final realization by Clay as to the importance of stories to the human soul.
Although only 58 minutes ling The Immortal Story is wide and deep in its ideas. It’s also surprisingly timely; scooting around online forums and other such unseemly places has revealed a class of denizen (i.e. internet commenters) that seems to be shockingly low in subtlety and simple reading comprehension. Or to put it in more strident terms: Everyone takes everything so literally. There is little place in the world for ambiguity and nuance. The Immortal Story is about a man who cannot help but take things literally. He does not comprehend humanity in any sort of subtle, emotional, artistic way. When he finally realizes the function of emotional complexity and the purpose of storytelling, it’s too late for him.
Additionally: Perhaps Welles, in playing a man who doesn’t understand art, was embodying his more vitriolic critics. We was presenting ever more complex art to critical agents, and was constantly met with confusion and literal interpretations. It’s possible that Welles was trying to criticize critics. And in a modern age where everyone’s a critic, this is especially damning and incredibly important.
There are two versions of The Immortal Story included on the Blu-ray. One is the English language version wherein no actors are dubbed, and wherein Moreau and Coggio speak with French accents. There is also a French language version wherein Welles and Eshley are dubbed in French, but the scenes between Moreau and Coggio are spoken in French. The English version is the preferred version, although the natural pacing of the French-only scenes to make those scenes more realistic and earthy. Either version, however, will provide Welles’ complex message, and reveal that he was being far more thoughtful about aging and storytelling than he often gets credit for. The Immortal Story lets us reevaluate the late work of an artist we often brush aside. It’s ripe for reconsideration.
Top Image: Altura Films
Witney Seibold is a longtime contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon. He also contributes to Legion of Leia and to Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.