The Immortal Story (Welles) - visual style
- Notes on visual style in "The Immortal Story" (Orson Welles, 1968):
The title shot shows two sails of a boat in the foreground, and a deep focus
stair between two buildings. This is similar to the first shot of Mr. Arkadin,
which shows two large pieces of machinery in the foreground, and a deep focus
outdoor passage between them. The Mr. Arkadin shot is all on one level,
whereas here we already have one of Welles' staircases. This title shot already has
two series of Chinese banners, which will play a major role in many of the
The film's second shot shows a panorama of buildings and balconies. These are
full of Chinese banners, shutters, balcony regions, windows, and other
rectangular regions, arranged in a series of horizontal bands across the screen. The
effect is like a work of abstract painting. Its rectilinear qualities evokes
Mondrian. Its bands of abstract images recalls paintings by Klee and
Kandinsky. Welles' filmmaking in Citizen Kane recalled German Expressionism, including
Fritz Lang. Here he is evoking German abstract painting of the same era.
When the businessmen come out to discuss Mr. Clay, they are shown against
another set of buildings with balconies. These too furnish a series of
rectilinear regions arranged into a broader grid. Here, many of the regions consist of a
series of repeated bars or slats - shutters, staircases, partitions,
undersides of balconies. These echoes between the various kinds of repeated bars give
a visual unity to the design. It also suggests an ingenious, fascinating world
behind the characters - a sort of visual fantasy land in which the eye can
wander delightedly. The multi-storied nature of the buildings recalls a bit the
multi-storied staircase in The Magnificent Ambersons. Like the staircase in
that film, the buildings in The Immortal Story contain angles, including
sections which join together at other than 90 degrees. Welles juxtaposes shots of
these building sections, stressing the angles between them, and the heads of his
players. It gives a complex background to the dialogue. The buildings also
recall the balconied, many-storied courtyard of the building housing Akim
Tamiroff at the end of Mr. Arkadin.
Welles has a series of repeating mirrors in Mr. Clay's home. These allow
reflections to infinity, as in Citizen Kane. They also recall the fun-house
mirrors in The Lady From Shanghai. In The Immortal Story, a second mirror is placed
at right angles to the infinite repeating mirrors. One can see its frame
reflected inside the frame of the repeating mirrors, and vice versa. These mirror
frames extend the imagery of box-like rectangular regions, that run through the
early sections of the movie. The frames are at right angles to each other,
something Welles frequently uses for complex effects in his films: see the
famous opening of Touch of Evil, for example. Later in the film, we see the sailor
in the mirrors, walking past, while the early shots show a seated Mr. Clay,
eating. The sailor shots are staged so that his reflections come in close pairs,
with longer gaps between the pairs. The shots show Welles' delight at
experimenting with different kinds of mirror effects in his movies.
In Mr. Clay's home, we see a series of repeated arches. These echo other
repeated arches in the street. Both sets recall downtown Venice in Touch of Evil,
and its colonnades of arches, . Here, the arches are more than one level deep,
however: we see arches framed within arches, including a door in deep focus
in the background. The arches are echoed by the arch of Mr. Clay's chair. This
is one of the most striking images of the film, with the chair arch being the
mirror image of the room arches. The double level of arches recalls the
Mexican arcade in Mr. Arkadin, and Katina Paxinou�s home, in which one
parabolic-arched doorway is seen at right angles within another, to highly unusual effect.
The file drawers recall the huge filing room in Touch of Evil. Each drawer
here is of a different color of wood. They make another series of varied
rectangles arranged in horizontal rows, like the opening shots of the film. However,
they are stretched out at an angle behind Mr. Levinsky, giving a 3D effect.
Mr. Clay's home has one of the most complex staircases in Welles. This
recalls a long tradition of staircase shots, both in Welles, and in the film noir
that Welles influenced. Here, pairs of people encounter each other on the
stairs, also a Welles tradition. The stair has vertical bars, like the doors in the
house, and the balconies outside early in the film.
The moving camera shot in which the heroine first walks along with Levinsky
is perhaps the most dazzling in the movie. They pass by and under a series of
hanging Chinese signs and banners. The shot recalls Josef von Sternberg, who
frequently employed tracking shots along paths in which many objects hang in the
foreground. However, these signs are more solid than Sternberg�s typical nets
or curtains. The shot�s brilliant use of varied colors for the signs is also
The heroine and Levinsky pass by a huge Chinese umbrella, the start of a
series of circular forms that will gradually invade the picture. Next, they are in
a beautiful shot with mist, also a Sternberg-like effect. They wind up by a
building whose step-like, zigzag border is echoed by a series of step-like
seats underneath a tree.
The sailor is in an alley, near the shadow of a palm tree when introduced.
The last shots of him leaving the grounds also contain palm trees. Similarly,
when the sailor gets out of jail near the start of Mr. Arkadin, he is seen near
a palm tree on a Mediterranean street. While on the porch at the end of The
Immortal Story, the heroine is shown surrounded by vines, just as she was
surrounded by flowers earlier in the bedroom.
The dinner scene with the sailor recalls the paintings of Vermeer. There is a
huge gold chandelier, much like those that appears in Vermeer's paintings.
And we see wine in a crystal glass and bottle, also a favorite study of Dutch
still life painting. The flaming red background here is not Dutch-like, but it
does underscore the painterly quality of these shots. Both the glass and the
base of the bottle have spherical shapes, and are filled with red wine. Soon, we
will see the candles in the bedroom surrounded by spherical red guards. This
shot, in which the candles, candelabra, and the spherical guards are all
partly reflected in the mirror, is one of the most complex in the film.
The porch at the end has a peaked roof, like the train station to come in F
for Fake. An early shot here contrasts the tall vertical rectangle of a doorway
to the left, with a squarer region behind Mr. Levinsky to the right. The two
regions are in dynamic balance. Later, many shots of the porch will stress
that it is partly screened in by lattice work, and partly not, an odd effect.
This too will be used to give a sort of balance between two different regions of
Welles' chair in the finale has a spherical head. It adds curves to the
otherwise rectilinear porch. So does the spiral shell.