Based on a story drawn from Isak Dinesen‘s collection Anecdotes of Destiny and originally produced for French television, which explains its abbreviated c. 58 minute run-time, Orson Welles‘ The Immortal Story originally played in stateside theaters as one half of a double feature, along with Luis Buñuel’s Simon of the Desert.
Story has all the earmarks of a literary adaptation–static, almost lapidary pacing, ponderous quasi-poetic voiceover narration, a limited number of sets, scenes and actors–and, at the same time, exhibits Welles’ mature stylistic quirks–extensive wide-angle/fisheye lens distortion, murmured dialogue (Welles chews his own lines to near inaudibility)–even introducing a novelty in Welles’ oeuvre–the use of vibrant primary colors. Welles was not in fact a fan of color cinematography, going so far as to say in interview: “Color enhances the set, the scenery, the costumes, but mysteriously enough it only detracts from the actors. Today it is impossible to name one outstanding performance by an actor in a color film.” Agree or disagree with the broader implications of this statement, The Immortal Story, suffice to say, does nothing to disprove its writer/director’s hypothesis.
Set in the port of Macao–but filmed in and around Welles’ Madrid residence–sometime in the 19th century, the film is, in effect, a story about a story, a fairytale for adults that has been told in numberless variations on countless ships since time immemorial, concerning a rich merchant, his lovely young wife and one lucky seaman. Events are set in motion when fabulously rich Mr. Clay (Welles) decides to make the story come true. A fastidious man–he has his major-domo Levinsky (Roger Coggio) read his account books aloud at bedtime rather than submit to fictitious fabrications–Mr. Clay cannot conscience the idea that the story, which he heard for the first time as a young man sailing out to the Far East, should not at last attain actuality.
Levinsky procures a winsome young lady, Virginie (the not-quite-seventeen-as-the-script-suggests, though still-lovely, Jeanne Moreau), the daughter of Clay’s former partner, who was swindled out of his share in the business and driven to commit suicide. Now reduced to a clerk’s mistress, she secretly plots to use the sham night of love as an act of revenge on the man who ruined her father.
Further complicating matters, the shabby sailor, Paul (Norman Eshley), Clay hires to provide stud service–not quite the “fine young man” of the story–had been shipwrecked for many months prior to his recent rescue. When Virginie rejects his offer to continue their ersatz affair after the first night, he decides he prefers the solace of solitude.
The arc of the story is slight: Life fails to live up to art. Reality insistently diverges. The impact of the word made flesh is far from advantageous to Mr. Clay. Unsentimental and elliptical, The Immortal Story suggests plenty about the life/art dialectic, even if ultimately its “moral” remains hazy, not owing so much to the lazy, unproductive sort of ambiguity lesser directors often fall prey to, as to the cost of fidelity to words on a page, even when those very words caution the unwary about the high price that must be paid in order to bring them to life.