The Immortal Story has a reputation of being “lesser Welles,” but being a “lesser” film by Orson Welles, arguably the greatest director of all time, is sort of like having a triple-double where you only score 10 points. It’s tough to complain.
Welles was famously not a fan of color, stating in 1989 that “today it is impossible to name one outstanding performance by an actor in a color film,” but contractual obligations with his financier forced him to shoot The Immortal Story in color. The resulting film is indeed weakened by its performances, by no one more than Welles himself, whose powerful, dying Mr. Clay is too stagnant and uninterested to provide an emotional punch to the story.
The Immortal Story, which is based on a novel by Karen Blixen (best known for Out of Africa), lends itself well to the cinema, although there are a few lengthy voiceovers that could have been removed and suggested elsewhere through dialogue and performance. Still, the story, about Mr. Clay’s determination to make an apocryphal maritime story come true, is a potent allegory for the cinematic creative process, reinforced by Welles casting of himself as Mr. Clay. His one time on a boat, a sailor told him that was paid five Portuguese Guinea by a rich man to impregnate his wife. Levinsky, Clay’s faithful servant, tells him that he has heard the same tale many time, and that “all sailors tell it” despite its presumably fictitious nature. Not a fan of dubious stories, Clay tells Levinsky to find a beautiful woman to pay to be a temporary wife and a poor sailor who will perform his end of the task for five Guinea in an effort to make this story come true.
At first, this can be seen almost as a parallel story to Citizen Kane, about the reaches of power and the loneliness that comes along with it; at the same time, however, Mr. Clay’s reasoning is one that could be shared with a great deal of creators. His desire to make a story that is told in slightly different ways by many people come true harkens back to filmmaking itself, which does very much the same thing that Mr. Clay is doing. A director, determined to bring a story to life—a metaphor best suited for the cinema because of the indexicality of film itself—gets together a cast that plays pre-determined parts in exchange for money. The woman that Levinsky finds, Ms. Virginie (Jeanne Moreau), even refers to Mr. Clay as creating a “comedy,” further reinforcing the links to filmmaking.
The “comedy” contains a few surprises, as Ms. Virginie gets more out of her role than she ever could have expected, which parallels the creative fulfillment of actors in general, and there is a backstory about her father’s relationship with Mr. Clay that aims to provide motivation, but the film’s short running time causes this point to be rather uninspired. Still, Moreau’s performance is by far the film’s strongest; her scenes allow invested interest in character and plot and keep the film moving where others seek to turn it exclusively into a heavy metaphor. In the end, though, irony prevails, and the sailor’s words as he leaves the house provide a twisted irony that defies simple explanation.
As an allegory to filmmaking, The Immortal Story is fulfilling and intelligent, but as a full-blooded piece of filmmaking itself, it occasionally falls short. In addition to the performances and streaks of voice-over, there is a too-obvious attempt by Welles to hide his size with the camera, and the film does not have enough time to fully address all the questions it raises. Still, it’s filling out all the nooks and crannies with ideas, with several addresses of internationality and an emphasis on 18th century Macau that seems analogous to Cold War and globalization tendencies in the late 1960s. If this is what “lesser Welles” looks like, there is nothing to be afraid of.