More than 60 years after Citizen Kane carved a uniquely American cinema out of radio plays, magic shows, Brecht's Epic Theater, and comic strips, Orson Welles' life and work continues to re-jigger ideas about what constitutes a completed work of art. Welles defies the need for closure, since so many of his post-Kane directorial efforts were compromised by scattershot shooting conditions, outside editorial interference, and Welles' own intemperate cocktail-party chat, which left conflicting accounts of his intentions. He even spawned his own version of the Jesus Seminar—a collection of scholars who comb through his movies and personal papers, listening for his true voice.
The Criterion Collection thrusts itself into the debate again with the lavish three-DVD set of Mr. Arkadin, a much-butchered 1955 Welles adventure also known as Confidential Report. (Criterion's first leap into the fray was last year's F For Fake DVD, which included a controversial documentary about Welles' "unfinished" projects.) The three discs each contain a different version of the film: the European cut, which streamlines a narrative that has American schemer Robert Arden investigating the past of an amnesiac millionaire played by Welles; the so-called "Corinth" cut, which tells the same story through a series of jumbled flashbacks; and a new "comprehensive" cut, which retains the flashback structure, but includes some scenes that make it earlier to follow. All the versions riff on post-war corruption while introducing a string of colorful characters anchored by the relentless Arden, a shiftless Yank trying to find a place in the Old World.
Mr. Arkadin contains some of the weakness of later Welles, including the obsessive rehashing of past triumphs (in this case, Citizen Kane and The Third Man, both of which Arkadin practically spoofs), and Welles' insistence on burying his powerful voice and face beneath heavy accents and costumes. But the film has a zany energy, a couple of stunningly elaborate setpieces, and more Dutch Tilts than a poorly hung Vermeer exhibit. It's hard to say which of these three versions is the best, but taken together, they prompt a fruitful discussion about whether the art of cinema is in the script, the performance, the shooting, or—as so many Welles fans would have it—the final cut.
Key features: An insightful commentary track by Jonathan Rosenbaum and James Naremore, three episodes of the Harry Lime radio show that inspired Arkadin, the novelization that Welles signed his name to (but didn't write), and an invaluable featurette that compares the versions.