The Macao of the nineteenth century shown in The Immortal Story looks like a De Chirico painting from the early twentieth. With its stone arches, people photographed from a great height as if they were ants spotted from a bell tower, and plazas covered in dust, Orson Welles’ adaptation of the Isak Dinesen short story insists on a mingling of what T.S. Eliot called time present and time past. While it lacks the curve of a major film and dodders when it explores a mythopoetic vein antithetical to Welles, The Immortal Story deserves appreciation. Most importantly, it’s out in a typically excellent Criterion DVD and Blu-Ray. Welles aficionados can stop searching YouTube once a week for terrible prints.
Shades of Welles’ past haunt The Immortal Story‘s plush sitting rooms. In the first sequence townsmen gossip about Clay as if he were one of the Ambersons. Welles plays Clay, a local mandarin of considerable wealth, contemptuous of the airy-fairy (“He hates prophecy,” a character says), porcine with boredom; he could be Charles Foster Kane, surrounded by half-completed jigsaw puzzles, aware of little except the memory of unsated appetites. Instead of Raymond the butler, who maintains his sardonic equipoise, Clay is attended by solicitous, blank bookkeeper Levinsky (Roger Coggio); he’s the auditor of the story that springs the movie to action: an old rich geezer who offers a sailor five guineas to knock up his wife. Insofar as anything can excite Clay the idea of making the word flesh does: “I want the story which I told you last night to happen in real life to real people.” He orders Levinsky to fetch him a sailor, a blond tow-headed piece of gay bait named Paul, played by Norman Eshley in the dumbfounded manner of a man dropped off at the wrong address. Virginie (Jeanne Moreau) plays the part of Clay’s fictional wife. Complicating matters is the knowledge that Clay bankrupted her father and drove him to suicide. Five guineas is a lot of money for a sailor — and he gets laid too! For Virginie the offer is too tempting: three hundred guineas. What follows is an evening in a four poster bed, during which Virginie and Paul realize their tenuous bond of affection.
As noted, this sequence is the film’s least interesting – Welles isn’t the director for whom one goes for oneiric argle-bargle – although thanks to Jeanne Moreau’s hooded, melancholy eyes and suppleness of gesture it has a charge (if Virginie could like Paul, then he might earn a second look). For Welles, though, the voyeurism — not a suggestion or undertone but the plot point — is new to his work. What does remain a suggestion is the homosexuality. Although the lineaments of the sailor/pregnant wife story remain clear, there is a long moment when the offer of money for sex is devoid of feminine fulfillment; according to what Welles shows on screen, Paul shows indifference about being bought by an older man. Call it Eshley’s inadequacy as an actor. Nevertheless, filming in 1966 allowed Welles a few liberties he couldn’t take in the forties. After all, Welles’ men are men without women. Kane has two wives to whom he seems barely to have been introduced (I can believe that Kane genuinely liked nothing more than to sit in Susan Alexander’s rooming house parlor to listen to her sing badly). Chimes at Midnight‘s Falstaff loves Prince Hal, for whose sake he plays the fool and the rapscallion, for whom he dies heartbroken. When Welles shows Clay spying Paul on the bed and exclaiming afterwards, “He’s full of juice!” I’m not sure my laughter was unintentional but the scene is touching just the same; it’s impossible to imagine his saying it about Virginie.
Finishing two minutes short of an hour, The Immortal Story has an Old World sadness. Welles could not have known that it would be the final film he’d complete. He disliked working in color. The concept for a filmed Dinesen omnibus was scrapped after, Welles told Peter Bogdanovich, the English backer demurred. His preference was for “A Country Tale” (“It’s about aristocratic obligation to the land, and the peasant’s feeling about the land. And it’s the story of a changeling. Peter O’Toole was going to play in it” — Welles was expert at describing films that would never be). The title wasn’t even his first choice: he liked The Guinea Piece, which has a specificity that Clay might have approved. David Thomson avers that the sequence of The Trial, Chimes at Midnight, and The Immortal Story surpasses the sequence from The Stranger to Touch of Evil. Because the second trio have only recently become widely available (Chimes at Midnight also got a Criterion release), it’s possible consensus might swing Thomson’s direction in a few years. I’m willing to be persuaded. Add 1974’s F For Fake and you have a filmmaker mastering new kinds of comedy: elisions for wit’s sake, sense of rhythm.
Let the reevaluations begin. Every rerelease of a Welles film triggers exaltation and the same kind of faint, undefined melancholy emitted by The Immortal Story. Perspicacious critic and reader that he was, Welles might have preferred to spin fictions about unfinished masterpieces and unrealized projects — “might.” He didn’t. The story of George Orson Welles is the story of Orson Welles making and trying to make movies.