Orson Welles’ French TV show with Jeanne Moreau is a near-masterpiece, directed with assurance and style. It’s the filmmaker’s first color feature, and his last completed fictional feature.
The Immortal Story
The Criterion Collection 831
1968 / Color / 1:66 widescreen / 58 min. / Histoire immortelle / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date August 30, 2016 / 39.95
Starring Jeanne Moreau, Orson Welles, Roger Coggio, Norman Eshley, Fernando Rey.
Cinematography Willy Kurant
Film Editors Yolande Maurette, Marcelle Pluet, Françoise Garnault, Claude Farny
Music selections Eric Satie
Based on a novel by Isak Dinesen
Produced by Micheline Rozan
Written and Directed by Orson Welles
The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of The Immortal Story took me completely by surprise. I bailed out of a viewing long ago on Los Angeles’ ‘Z’ Channel cable station, mainly because it looked terrible — grainy and washed out. I thought I was watching a faded print that had been blown up from 16mm. Later when I learned that many European and especially French TV movies were filmed on 16mm, I made up my mind not to seek the movie out. I think I even split from a double bill with The Trial once, before The Immortal Story came on. Oh, ye of little faith.
Now on Blu-ray, Orson Welles’ first film in color since some segments for the abandoned It’s All True, is quite a wonderment. The 35mm widescreen cinematography looks terrific. Better yet, Welles has applied himself fully to an erotic-philosophical short story, giving it a look and feel quite unlike his earlier work. Had he the opportunity to make a film a year, he would surely have given us dozens of near-masterpieces instead of a handful of delights and two-score broken and unfinished projects. Through Criterion’s special edition we catch sight of a different Orson Welles, devoted to the short stories of Isak Dinesen. The Immortal Story was conceived as a first TV production for French star Jeanne Moreau, to coincide with the first French TV broadcasts in color. Welles took acting jobs for granted but never a directing opportunity. Moreau’s agent-turned-producer allowed him to direct a favorite tale, one with many curious tangential connections to his own personality and career.
Writers and filmmakers often enclose plays within plays, but Dinesen’s story sees a wealthy, misanthropic recluse try to to control reality and fiction by bringing an old tale to life. Failing in his health and mostly restricted to his mansion in Macao, Mr. Charles Clay (Welles) and his accountant Elishama Levinsky (Roger Coggio) discuss a much-repeated sailor’s tale about a lonely seaman who is hired by a rich old man to impregnate his wife. Clay believes only in financial facts, and makes guesses about the future only in the form of lies told to investors. Irritated at the mere existence of prophets and prophecies, he entreats Levinsky to help him make the sailor’s tale come true. Levinsky hires Virginie Ducrot (Jeanne Moreau), a sometime prostitute, and Paul (Norman Eshley), a ragged sailor found in the street, to enact the story in his own house, as if he were the impotent old man of the story. Every sailor in the world tells the apocryphal story, but Paul will be able to say it happened to him,. Clay will be able to call himself its author; he will possess a myth.
Ironic tales in which we can see a philosophical thesis coming a mile off, don’t always make good movie stories. Orson Welles upends any doubts on that score with his masterful storytelling skills. The artificial aspects of the tale become believable as we meet the four main characters and understand their motives for playing out the strange charade. The dialogue is measured and precise; Welles enforces a pace that gives all of it gravity. He needs neither visual fireworks nor dynamic cutting to keep our interest; the spare but handsome color cinematography gives the show a classic look. Portuguese Macao is faked in several towns in Spain, with the kind of offhand simplicity that Welles gets away with when he wants to create an effect. The story is intimate yet we always have a feeling of context. It’s a case of brilliant technique applied to a unique situation.
Better yet, no stain of compromise sticks to this picture. This is one of the few finished as Welles made it — two pictures actually, as the disc contains a French version that’s a slightly different cut. Working for TV and therefore released from most commercial concerns, Welles was able to concentrate on pure storytelling. Perhaps he was more relaxed at this particular time: although it wasn’t being distributed, he knew that his recently completed Chimes at Midnight was a worthy accomplishment, and that The Immortal Story might be a reboot of his directing career.
The Immortal Story sees Welles choosing a special style. A street scene with three Macao businessmen is blocked like similar dialogue scenes in Touch of Evil, with the unbilled Fernando Rey sitting in for Joseph Cotten. But Welles doesn’t use his customary wide angle lenses for this period picture, which gives it a more formal look. His camera moves are more deliberate, with no showoff acrobatics. A couple of moments break up the pace with faster cutting, but nothing too frantic. The movie gives us four characters that have contracted to carry out a strange formal ritual. Jeanne Moreau is marvelous as a woman who retains her pride no matter what. Her Virginie hopes that her acquiescence to Clay‘s improper wishes will finish in a kind of revenge. I haven’t seen Roger Coggio in anything else. He’s perfect for The Immortal Story’s audience surrogate, the factotum who puts the ‘play’ together. Norman Eshly is appropriately blank and forthright as the sailor who eventually sees no reason not to follow through with the play-acting. He and Virginie place themselves in a weird situation, feeling real feelings and creating a real relationship within a framework that kills any future relationship outside of the ‘play.’
Audience-wise, this movie has an advantage over some of Welles’ other work — all the characters save for Mr. Clay are basically likeable. The unappetizing menagerie of Mr. Arkadin is entertainingly weird, but there’s nobody that we actually care about. In this show, we care quite a bit what happens to Virginie and Paul.
Welles’ direction and the intensity of his players bring life to what on reflection becomes an intellectual puzzle. All four players are isolated for different reasons — shaky health, loss of one’s family and heritage, and the literal isolation of being marooned on a desert island. All four reflect aspects of Orson Welles’ life. He lost his family when young, he was expelled from the center of his vocation and lived like a ‘wealthy beggar’ scraping for funds. Like his characters Welles has his pride, but all of them have made big ‘life compromises’ for different reasons.
The last dialogue exchange with the departing Paul sets up an even stronger parallel to Welles. Clay thinks he can create something real from a fantasy by physically ‘producing’ a myth, the way one might capture a story by putting it on film. Every sailor on the sea tells the same apocryphal story, which can’t be attributed to a particular sailor and therefore is only half-believed. But Levinsky thinks that Paul will gain something by ‘starring’ in the myth. The sailor instead gives a very good reason why he isn’t going to tell anyone about his experience. The immortal story within a story, Clay‘s ‘movie,’ will go unheard just as so many of Welles’ movies will go unseen.
Moreau looks like a million bucks, Coggio and Eshley are likeable, and Orson Welles’ character works even through the theatrical makeup he has given himself. This may be Welles’ rubber nose number 25, but it’s one of his better ones; if you need a good laugh see The Long, Hot Summer. The music by Eric Satie and the interesting color cinematography by Willy Kurant are big plusses as well. The Immortal Story and Chimes at Midnight are two Welles pictures that don’t need defensive excuses.
The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of The Immortal Story will be a major addition to the Orson Welles discography. A lot more fans have seen this title than have seen Chimes At Midnight, but how many have seen it looking this good? The picture is sharp and stable in all but two or three shots, one of which would seem to be an optical blow-up (my guess). The 1:66 widescreen framing is a surprise, as I’m sure what I saw on cable TV was flat. French television in 1968 was surely flat as well, so did it look any better there? One of the visual essays shows the widescreen frame line being used precisely in the very first shot. A mockup with sticks convinces us we’re looking at a ship in the Macao harbor, with a wall standing in for a stone wharf. If more image were visible below, the illusion of a harbor would be lost. In my experience that means that The Immortal Story was filmed with a hard matte. French broadcasts may have been letterboxed (in 1968) but zooming in on the picture for the ‘Z’ Channel cablecast would throw off the compositions and degrade the image, making the movie look like 16mm — which is what I thought when I saw it. Does this explanation make sense? The bottom line is that The Immortal Story on this Blu-ray now looks like a full-quality feature, without caveats or apologies.
Criterion presents both versions, in English and French. It looks as if it were filmed in English. The dubbing sounds fine on each. Curiously, I heard no rubbery dialogue for anybody but Welles, and on those occasions he seems to be rewriting his dialogue in the dubbing room. It’s not a mismatch, just rubbery.
The extras really make The Immortal Story jump to life. Norman Eshley’s new interview gives us the story of a tyro actor flung into a film by a world-class director, playing opposite one of the most experienced and famous actresses of the day. Norman offers some ribald tales for the bedroom scene, and tells us that he turned down an offer to apprentice with Orson, as an adopted filmmaker/son. The other new interview is a film analysis by François Thomas; his observations are balanced by a full commentary from Adrian Martin.
A 2004 interview with cinematographer Willy Kurant is fascinating, as he goes into detail on the reasons he was hired, how he approached the job and how and why he achieved certain effects. He talks quite a bit about creating spatial depth with color, not contrast, a concept that seems fuzzy until one sees his examples. In Kurant I think Welles got an art director and designer as well. The insert essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum has a lot of overlaps with the other experts.
Another nice surprise is a 1968 French docu that uses a lot of BTS footage of Welles, much of it of high quality and in color. It’s smartly directed, often using Welles’ own words, and is cut in a style we associate with much more current free-form docu work. The only drawback is technical — like a lot of film-based TV programming before the video editing age, it looks as if the docu were made by hot-splicing work print material and transferring that to video. The Immortal Story is only an hour long, but Criterion has made up the difference with excellent extras.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Immortal Story
Supplements: Alternate French-language version of the film; Audio commentary from 2005 featuring film scholar Adrian Martin; Portrait: Orson Welles, a 1968 documentary directed by François Reichenbach and Frédéric Rossif; new interviews with actor Norman Eshley and Welles scholar François Thomas, 2004 interview with cinematographer Willy Kurant; insert flyer essay by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 21, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson