The Immortal Story (Orson Welles, 1968)
It’s the nineteenth-century, and in the port city of Macao (otherwise known as the wickedest city in the world, as Welles’ Michael O’Hara in The Lady from Shanghai told us), the infirm and dying merchant Mr Clay, in a last gasp, final gesture at making some creative mark on the world, for this cruel businessman who has built his life on stubborn practicality, decides to manipulate into existence (including paying a nameless woman to act as his wife for a night) the ‘immortal’ seductive tale that gave many an ever-travelling ship’s mate hope, told on ships across the world, of the unknown sailor, while on leave in some port (with the city’s location changing with each telling), having seduced the incomparably beautiful wife of a wealthy merchant.
With one gorgeously shot image following the next, captured in lush autumnal tones (fascinating to learn the reluctant Welles was contractually forced for the first time in his career to shoot in color!), carefully crafted compositions and finely-tuned performances working meticulously within a consistent, staid, formalistic style… well, if all that didn’t make for some deeply satisfying viewing in itself, what’s even more awe-inspiring about this gracefully-sculpted work of maturity is to consider the wild divergence of Welles’ next film — also from the later, post-Hollywood exile phase of his career – which also swirled fascinatingly around similar themes (though from a drastically different narrative template) on the creation and meaning of art (with tons of creatively personalized touches, in both cases, bringing it directly home to Welles’ own particular plights and points of interest); namely, the cheeky and playful, much more free-form experimental smorgasbord of an essay film, F for Fake.
While it’s hard to put either of these works up there with Orson’s greatest cinematic achievements (at only 60 minutes, Immortal Story doesn’t aspire to the full weight and breadth of his great features, and F for Fake is more cleverly-conceived diversion than movie, a bricolage made up mostly from another director’s documentary footage), together they provide some wonderfully compelling evidence – as if any more was needed — of just what a true filmmaking master Welles was, one in complete control of the medium, even when stripped of the high-end Hollywood movie-making apparatus with which he practically redefined American cinema through his sheer inventiveness.
With Orson himself buried in his de rigueur fake nose and rubber face makeup (though looking a bit more authentic than usual – not that ‘authentic’ is a necessity in a Welles film, where a showy, meta-awareness is part and parcel of the presentation from this theater-minded director – just take a gander over at the near-histrionic and openly theatrical execution of his 1955 film Mr Arkadin for the most overt example of that conceit – in fact, just thinking about the abundantly stimulating joy of that film is making me consider pulling the Criterion blu down from the shelf and revisiting), that the actor brings just the perfect modulated sense of sad longing and regret hanging down upon the dying figure of Clay is not surprising, with the character just one more in the long-line of larger-than-life, ultimately tragic figures that obsessed Welles from the start of his cinematic career, with the towering realization of one Charles Foster Kane being his first (created by Welles at the tender age of 27!), doomed men who aspire to great heights but are left in exile and/or ultimate isolation as punishment for their inability to recognize the limits of their small-minded desires (with resonant parallels drawn, as has been well-documented, to the actor/director’s own fate, left spending the last phase of his life as a Hollywood exile, a veritable gypsy, morbidly obese from his indulgent food intake, still scrambling desperately all over Europe for paltry sums of money with which to continue making his movies).
The aging, still entirely captivating French superstar Jeanne Moreau brings a presence and performance that fits like the most elegant of gloves within the particularly European-style milieu Welles crafts for the film, playing the struggling woman, long haunted by the death of her father, driven to suicide by the machinations of his partner, none other than Welles’ Mr Clay (get the name… you know, ‘sculpting in clay’?), who stole away all of his money through shady dealings, leaving her destitute (and likely prostituting herself for survival), now finally getting the opportunity to enter the castle, meet this hermit-like figure that destroyed her life, and get her revenge.
Norman Eshley, the stranded sailor chosen from the teeming streets of Macao to unwittingly join in this erotic parlor-game, though with no fear of the indulgent rituals of the wealthy, quite willing to take part and take what he can get (with the underlying assumption, one which the sailor accepts with no hesitancy, that he’s quite certain he’s being sexually propositioned by Mr. Clay – and assuredly not for the first time — in exchange for a free dinner at his castle), is a bit of an astonishing discovery. With strikingly androgynous features, intense blue eyes, and a kind of natural depth as a performer (and certainly capable of delivering lines with resonance), Eshley reminds of a cross between a young Terence Stamp and (one-time boy-toy street hustler himself) Udo Kier, making it a surprise he never went on to bigger things.
International star Fernando Rey shows up for a quick cameo as a merchant on the street filling in some business associates (and us, the audience) on the tragic circumstances surrounding the passing-in-horse-carriage Mr. Clay. It’s only a small part, likely a favor for Welles, though he provides a welcome face, adding additional class to the production. Roger Coggio, as Clay’s only companion and book-keeper, the Polish Jew Levinsky, is fine in the part… but, I have to admit, I kept wondering why he didn’t try for director Roman Polanski in the part, as it seems Coggio is channeling, through mannerism and accented line deliveries, the very essence of the notorious — entirely brilliant — devilish Euro-imp director.
While The Immortal Story is based on a Karen Blixen short story (apparently a favorite author of Welles), thematically, and story elements aplenty, it plays as pure Welles (though I’ve never read the short story so I have no idea where the adaption diverges). A fable told in impressively classic and elegant style, The Immortal Story remains a rich and magical charm, brought to us by the late great giant (figurative and literal) Orson Welles.