2 July 2015

DVD Review - The Immortal Story (1968)

Rounding off the quartet of the more obscure Orson Welles films recently released, we have The Immortal Story. It was originally made for French television, but eventually found its way into cinemas. Bit of pub quiz trivia for you - The Immortal Story is Welles' shortest film, clocking in at a brisk hour.

19th century Macao. Welles plays Mr. Clay, a wealthy merchant near the end of his life. Clay has no family or friends. His only companion is his accountant named Levinsky (Roger Coggio). One night, Levinsky tells an apocryphal tale of a rich man paying a handsome sailor five guineas to impregnate his wife so the rich man can have an heir to his fortune. Clay fixates on this idea and decides he wants to make the myth a reality. He sends Levinsky out to find him a woman to play his wife, whilst he focuses on recruiting a sailor to his cause.

The Immortal Story is a film about storytelling itself in one way. Clay is strangely angered when Levinsky tells him myths and prophecies and endeavours to make hearsay real and tangible. There's a fairytale quality to it all, but it's intentionally stripped of nearly all of its warmth and heart. What we're left with is an awkward encounter that's more business transaction than anything else, at least at first. It's a really interesting and unique angle of approach and I dug it.

Welles' Mr. Clay is a semi-tragic figure. There are little details that do make you feel for him, despite being very close to a standard old, ill-tempered rich man. I found the fact that he dines alone opposite a portrait of himself to be quite affecting. Same for the added detail that he has Levinsky read him his accounts as his usual form of relaxation. It's an interesting, nuanced performance by Welles.

The film is tightly focused on its small cast and they are all excellent. I really liked Coggio's turn as Levinsky. He's a loyal servant with plenty of interesting quirks. Most of the dramatic heavy lifting however, is done by Jeanne Moreau who is definitely the film's MVP. Virginie Ducrot is a fascinating character and Moreau makes her deeply sympathetic and likeable. It would be rude not to mention Norman Eshley as the young sailor, Paul. He's naïve, but also affable and his emotional connection with Virginie is genuinely touching.

The Immortal Story is a curious entry in Welles' back catalogue. It's a simple tale elevated by Welles' inimitable way with the camera and masterful performances all round. It's definitely not the best of Welles' films, but when you have heavy-hitting entries like Citizen Kane in there, that's no real problem. Definitely recommended.

Ben Browne

The Immortal Story | Genre: Drama | Director: Orson Welles | Cast: Orson Welles, Jeanne Moreau, Roger Coggio | Buy: Immortal Story [DVD]

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