“I have heard it before… long ago… but where?”
I first encountered Orson Welles’ The Immortal Story on Turner Classic Movies in the wee hours of the morning. I was tired and bleary-eyed, but was quickly pulled into the film’s strange, hypnotic current. When I woke up the next morning, I briefly wondered if my memories of the film were accurate or if I had dreamed parts of it. That seems to be the effect Welles is going for: this is a film that deliberately attempts to blur the lines between reality and fantasy; a dream about a man attempting to transform a folk tale into history.
Welles plays Charles Clay, a wealthy merchant who lives in the Portuguese colony of Macao. He is the wealthiest man in town; a man who is frequently spoken of but rarely spoken to. He has eyes that are simultaneously tired and fierce, and you get the sense that a smile has never crossed his face. He lives alone, and his only companion is his eternally loyal bookkeeper Elishama Levinsky (Roger Coggio, Before the Deluge).
One evening, Clay decides to tell Levinsky a story a sailor had told him years earlier. Allegedly, a rich old man had offered the sailor five guineas to sleep with his beautiful young wife and impregnate her (as the old man was no longer capable of handling such things). Levinsky says he’s heard the same story from a host of other sailors: it’s nothing more than a common sailor’s fantasy. Most men would simply laugh and shrug it off, but Clay is deeply bothered by this revelation. He doesn’t care for fiction, and thus wishes to transform this particular fiction into fact.
There’s one obvious problem with this plan: Clay doesn’t have a wife. So, he tasks Levinsky with persuading Virginie (Jeanne Moreau, The Bride Wore Black) – the daughter of one of Clay’s business associates – to play the leading lady in this scheme. Virginie has no affection for Clay or his idea, but the money is too good to pass up. Once all the arrangements are made, Clay finds a sailor (Norman Eshley, The Confessional) and makes his offer. The sailor has heard the story before, too, and knows exactly where this is going… but he goes along with it anyway, eager to play his part.
The Immortal Story was the last fictional film that Orson Welles managed to complete, and it’s easy to see why many have interpreted it as a painfully self-aware metaphor for his career struggles at the time (for every project he completed, there were several others that never made it to the finish line). It’s about the difficulty of telling the story you want to tell, the greater difficulty of making that story truthful and the hard truth that telling your story successfully may require enormous sacrifice. It’s a film about the crudeness of using money to create art; the way it corrupts and compromises the purity of an endeavor. When the sailor suggests altering the tale’s ending, Virginie swiftly shuts him down: “You took his money.”
The film was made in 1968, but marks the first time that Welles worked in color. He had wanted to shoot the film in black-and-white, but the financing deal he had set up prevented him from doing so (ah, the limitations of money). The movie isn’t quite as visually stunning as Welles’ best work, but that’s hardly an insult: even a “lesser” Welles effort like this is full of striking angles, interesting visual ideas and impossibly elegant sequences. It seems fitting that the film grows more stylish as we get closer to the completion of the story: the film gets orgasmic around the same time the characters do.
The film is anchored by long, absorbing dialogue scenes that gives us the clues we need to sort through the puzzle pieces in our head that remain after the credits roll. Levinsky reads a passage from the book of Isaiah, leading to Clay’s declaration that people should forget about prophecy and focus on history. The conversation between Levinsky and Virginie has such sadness beneath the surface: both of these people recognize that that they’re under Clay’s thumb, albeit willingly. The sailor is chattier and more eloquent than you might expect, too, and delivers some of the film’s most potent lines as he departs.
The Immortal Story (Blu-ray) Criterion offers a handsome 1080p/1.66:1 transfer. There are a few moments where the movie looks a little soft, but that largely seems to be by design. Detail is excellent (perhaps a little too excellent when it comes to close-ups of Welles’ make-up), colors are rich and full and depth is strong. The LPCM 1.0 Mono track is very spare, but effective, capturing the quiet dialogue and the Erik Satie piano cues with clarity. Supplements include an alternate French-language version of the film, an audio commentary from film scholar Adrian Martin, a documentary on Welles from 1968 (Portrait: Orson Welles), plus interviews with actor Norman Eshley, cinematographer Willy Kurant and Welles scholar Francois Thomas. The package is rounded out by a booklet featuring an essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum.
This is a curious movie: brief (it was initially supposed to be the first half of a two-part anthology film), elusive, elegant and absorbing. It’s not for everyone, but I keep drifting back to it. It’s a cold, emotionally distant film, but there’s something so strangely affecting about it. Give it a shot and see what it does to you.