Newly released on Blu-Ray by The Criterion Collection comes The Immortal Story, the first color production directed by Orson Welles (Citizen Kane, Touch of Evil). As can be expected by the curators at Criterion, this release has been cleaned up, freshly transferred and given a ton of love by way of commentary, interviews, an included documentary about Welles, and an essay on the film. If, like myself, one is met with the thought “The Immortal Story? I have never heard of that,” then what a delightful opportunity to discover something worth treasuring we have been given.
The Immortal Story opens with narration from Welles detailing the life of an old American businessman living in Macao in what appears to be the 19th century. This businessman, Mr. Clay, played by Welles, has fallen ill and is mostly confined to his mansion, where he is accompanied by his loyal accounting clerk, Mr. Levinsky, played by Roger Coggio, who reads Mr. Clay the accounting ledgers each night. When Mr. Clay asks Levinsky to read him something else, a discussion about stories takes place wherein Mr. Clay recounts a tale he heard on a passenger ship about a sailor being asked by an old wealthy man to bed the man’s young wife for a night and would receive a gold coin. When Mr. Clay is told that this is just a story that sailors tell and there is no truth to it, he becomes determined to recreate the scenario and make the story true, because he can’t stand fiction. The film plays out with Mr. Levinsky setting pieces in motion to help make the sailor story into a true one for at least one person, which requires him to hire a courtesan, played by French actress Jeanne Moreau (The Bride Wore Black, Jules et Jim), find a sailor, and guide the evening’s events as Mr. Clay sees fit.
At only 58 minutes, it could seem like this French-public-television-produced film would end up being unsatisfyingly short, but it is actually incredibly well-paced and tells its entire story very well in the time it has. If anything, it seems like a director without as much need for complex framing and some longer takes could have fit the story into half an hour if it needed to be. Though, it is great that Orson Welles loved the work of Isak Dinesen (pen name of Karen Blixen) – who wrote the short story upon which this film is based – so much that he gave immense care to this production and made it into the gorgeous, dreamy thing that it is.
There are a number of excellent elements that stand out in The Immortal Story. The four principle characters, Mr. Clay, the clerk, the courtesan, and the sailor, played by newcomer-at-the-time Norman Eshly (See No Evil), are all well developed and deftly acted. The feature speaks the language of film quite fluently as well, with lighting, framing, and editing coming across as having been done to show exactly the precise way to use the medium of film with the greatest effect. Lights are soft and almost hazy throughout the film, giving it a near-fairytale quality that enhances the feeling of being thrown into a sailor’s story. The framing is incredibly complex, with actors placed perfectly in the shot to convey the right amount of distance or trust or intimacy or foreboding. And the edits vary from some minute-long takes, to brief millisecond flashes used so wonderfully to shift the pace up or down when needed. This is a brilliant film, from a master director.
One of the themes that stands out the most in the film is this sense of solitude from each of the characters. All four characters, even if they eventually get a chance to interact with one another, seem like they are people all to themselves. Mr. Clay is an old, sick, wealthy American in a foreign country who is gossiped about by the people of the town because of his ruthless business practices. He spends most of his time alone in his mansion being very serious and mirthless. Mr. Levinsky, while seemingly Mr. Clay’s only confidant, is also found to live in solitude in a single room near the docks and spends most of his time fulfilling the requests of his boss while never really indulging in anything for himself. The courtesan is the daughter of a deceased, formerly-prominent man in town, who used to live in the house that is now occupied by Mr. Clay. She is consumed by disdain for the wealthy businessman and, prior to being paid to take part in the story, mostly caters to accountants from Mr. Clay’s company. She doesn’t know love and sex has appeared to have lost its intimacy for her. The sailor reveals that before he found himself on Macao, he was stranded on an island for nearly a year. He spent that time longing for a woman to call his own and hoping to be rescued and returned to society. When the viewer first sees him, he is sitting alone on the street of the town, wearing ragged clothes with his head sunk down.
The way that Welles and crew use the interplay of these four lonely characters with his masterful cinematography, a sparse and simple piano score, soft lighting with sometimes hard contrasts, and cramped interior locations makes for an incredibly enjoyable movie-watching experience. The Immortal Story is short, but ripe with outstanding acting and filmic value. It is very much worth seeing this Criterion Collection Blu-ray.
Encoding: MPEG-4 AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1
Clarity/Detail: This transfer comes from a film shot on cameras that were old in 1968, while it is as clear as it can be, there is still a noticeable graininess.
Depth: Gorgeously deep, with plenty of well-framed shots that help to give a sense of being there.
Black Levels: Black levels look good and solid for a film of its time.
Color Reproduction: The colors pop and glow. This is a Criterion release and they rarely disappoint when it comes to nailing the colors
Flesh Tones: Fleshy and toned
Noise/Artifacts: There is the graininess mentioned above, while this might normally seem like video noise, it is more likely just part of the film process. No noticeable artifacting.
Audio Format: Uncompressed Monaural
Subtitles: English SDH, English (on French-language version of film)
Dynamics: This isn’t really the kind of film ones watches for dynamic sound. Also, it is a mono sound track, so it is kind of non-dynamic from the start. Though, the music and sound effects never overpower the voices, unless intentional, so the design is still good.
Low Frequency Extension: N/A
Surround Sound Presentation: N/A
Dialogue Reproduction: Dialogue comes through clearly and accurately.
Alternate French-Language Version of the Film (HD, 53 Minutes) – This is the entire film done with the two French-speaking actors (Jeanne Moreau and Roger Coggio) speaking their dialogue in French while the other two parts are dubbed over. This is actually a different film in many ways. It is a bit shorter than the English-language version and some of the scenes have been staged differently. This can often affect how the scene feels when comparing versions. It is fascinating to feel the differences between the two.
Audio Commentary (58 Minutes) – Commentary on the English-language version of the film done by film scholar Adrian Martin. He talks about the production challenges of filming in both France and Spain, the often gruff demeanor of Orson Welles, the themes and beauty of The Immortal Story and the importance of the film. This is never dull and very much worth a listen. Since the main feature is only an hour long, it isn’t too taxing to then watch it again with the commentary.
Portrait: Orson Welles (55 Minutes) – A documentary on Orson Welles shot after The Immortal Story finished and aired back-to-back on French public television with the film. This is an intriguing look at a frequently-laughing, unique person behind the film. Shot with some interviews and some stock photos, it gives a simple, but compelling view of older Orson Welles as he regales the interviewer with stories about his youth and thoughts on film.
Actor Norman Eshley (HD, 14 Minutes) – The man who played the sailor in the film talks about his role, his surprise at receiving it, and his relationship with Orson Welles. Eshley is very candid and gives some fun details about what it would have been like to be a new actor working with Welles at the time. There are a few touching moments in this short interview that really make it the more impressive of the special features on this Blu-ray.
Director of Photography Willy Kurant (15 Minutes) – Mr. Kurant discusses his first meeting with Welles to talk about the film just after Welles had gotten rid of the first cinematographer as well as how he made decisions about lighting and film processing to give the film the look it has. This is a nice look at the technical side of making a film that appears as beautiful as The Immortal Story does. Kurant is knowledgeable and interesting throughout the interview.
Welles Scholar François Thomas (HD, 25 Minutes) – Thomas tells the story of the film’s production, with notes on difficulties in terms of time, money, location, technical things, and Welles himself. This is a great addition to the Blu-ray as Thomas clearly knows the passion that Welles brought to the production of the film and outlines it all with a witty adeptness.
Essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum – Contained on the booklet inside the Blu-ray case, this essay, titled “Divas and Dandies,” outlines Welles’ love for the writing of Dinesen that led him to make the film, the pacing of the film, and some details about production and the film’s importance. While there is barely anything here that can’t be learned from the commentary or the interviews, it is a quick and fine read that has some choice quotes from Orson Welles and Isak Dinesen.
It isn’t at all surprising that the Criterion Collection put together a terrific treatment of this film. What is surprising, and continues to be so, is that there are so many films released by Criterion that just haven’t been seen or appreciated by enough people. Luckily, The Immortal Story was handled with care and reverence for people to watch and cherish it many times over. This film is superb; with excellent acting and cinematography that makes one drool. The extras on the disc and in the package round out another solid release. Orson Welles is awesome and a great way to celebrate him would be to watch this blu-ray.