A lot is made of Orson Welles as a brilliant film maker: someone who does amazing things on the micro-scale like the amazing tracking shot at the beginning of Touch of Evil or the hall of mirrors climax in The Lady from Shanghai. But it is better to think of Welles as a great storyteller. I always remember a quote from D W Griffith. When asked about his exceptional use of cinematic technique, he replied that he was just solving the problems that came up in trying to tell his stories. That’s also true of Welles. In fact, I often wonder if he would have been as innovative if he had been given greater resources to make his films.
Last week, I heard that The Immortal Story was available on Hulu-Plus. It was the only Welles film that I had never seen. So I quickly begged a friend who had Hulu-Plus and watched the film. And then again and again and again. It was made for French television back in 1968 — based upon the short story by Karen Blixen (under her pen name Isak Dinesen). It’s just an hour long (apparently, the French version 48 minutes). And it isn’t flashy. It’s just a simple story rendered beautifully.
The story is simple. Welles plays Mr Clay, an old rich man who spends his free time having his assistant read to him from his account books as though they are stories so he can relive his glory days. But one night, he asks about other kinds of books. His assistant reads to him from Isaiah 35, “Then the lame will leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute will shout for joy. For waters will break forth in the wilderness and streams in the Arabah…” Clay doesn’t want to hear it. He’s only interested in stories — like his account books — of things that have actually happened or are happening.
Clay then starts to relate a story he heard on his original trip to Macau about a rich old man who pays a sailor to come to his home and impregnate his young wife so that the old man will have someone to leave his fortune to. The assistant interrupts him, explaining that it isn’t a true story, but one he has heard from dozens of sailors in his travels. Clay then decides to recreate the events so that at least one sailor will be able to tell the story and have it be true.
There are no twists in the story. We simply find out more about the characters. The woman hired to play the wife is the daughter of Clay’s old partner who he bankrupted and caused to commit suicide. The sailor chosen recognizes immediately what is going on because he too has heard the story many times; he ultimately provides the real meaning of the film. We find out much more about the assistant and the daughter — both beaten down by personal loss. And we get to see Clay perform the only meaningful act of his entire life.
As a film, it is deliberately plotted. It draws the viewer in — becoming more and more interesting as we get to know the four characters. And this is probably Welles’ greatest strength — although one not commented on. He was a great director of actors. He always got excellent performances from his people. And that’s especially true here. Jeanne Moreau, Roger Coggio, and Norman Eshley are all excellent.
The Immortal Story was the first film where he used color film. And it is beautiful in an exaggerated way. Apparently, cinematographer Willy Kurant was trying to compensate for the limitations of televisions in France at that time. The result is slightly otherworldly. The shots look about what you expect from Welles. People focus on the low camera angles. That’s not so much true of Welles’ work overall. What he didn’t like were high angles. I agree with him. High angle shots tend to call attention to themselves and pull the viewer out of the story. Welles is careful in this film to never distract from the delicate narrative he’s created.
There are a couple of problems with the film — neither of them Welles’ fault. First, it isn’t available on home video. It doesn’t look like it was ever released on VHS. And the only DVD I’ve found is Region 4 (Australia). Second, the version on Hulu-Plus has terrible sound quality and no optional subtitles. There were a number of lines that I just couldn’t understand — even after multiple viewings. This is all an outrage. The Immortal Story was the last narrative film that Welles finished in his lifetime. And it is a wonderful film. It deserves much better. But I’m glad that at least Hulu-Plus is offering it. If you have access to it, you will be rewarded by spending an hour with it.
The Immoral Story is now available on DVD. And it is available on line. After watching it, you might want to buy it. I’m going to right now.