In the Portuguese-run Chinese island of Macao in the 19th century, there was a powerful but isolated millionaire named Charles Clay (Orson Welles), who had the fearsome reputation of ruining all those who stood in his way, and that included his business associates. But now Clay was in the autumn years of his life and feeling his loneliness, so much so that he had his manservant cum accountant, Levinsky (Roger Coggio), read out the details of his financial ledgers of an evening simply to have someone to talk to. But when one night he mentions an old sailor's story to him, the reaction is not something either could have anticipated...
The Immortal Story was the first film directed by Welles in colour, and had originally been intended to be shown on French television until international interest decreed it be released to cinemas around the world. Even so, it is probably the least known of Welles's works, and running at just an hour long it's tempting to judge it as his least substantial, but there were interesting aspects to the narrative, based on a story by Isak Dinesin (a pseudonym for Karen Blixen), that proved worth paying attention to. Yes, it featured another of this filmmaker's powerful men heading for a fall, but it was the nature of storytelling that most concerned him here.
What happens is that Levinsky mentions he has heard an old seadog's tale of a sailor who, when on shore leave, was invited to spend the night with the wife of a rich merchant because the old man couldn't satisfy her himself, but Clay has heard it too and us dismayed to learn that it might well have been made up. Thus it starts an obsession in his mind where he determines to ensure the tale has basis in truth, and the only way he can do that is to recreate the circumstances of what even in the context of the film is a slight and flimsy yarn. Clay is not married, so hires the daughter of his old business partner who he drove to suicide as a stand in.
She is Virginie (Jeanne Moreau, aged forty so failing to convince as a seventeen-year-old), and feels she can get the upper hand on Clay if she exposes his corruption by going along with his scheme. Now they need a sailor, and British sitcom fans of the seventies will be pleased to see Norman Eshley, the neighbour of George and Mildred, in that role even if he is hopelessly dour for the duration. But the sailor has a story of his own to tell, one of tragedy and loss, which finally confounds the millionaire's designs on manufacturing a new truth, as after all, so many people will have heard the story second hand that they wouldn't believe the sailor even if it did indeed happen to him.
There's certainly a very literary sense to The Immortal Story, which is fitting as you recognise the mechanics of the perpetuation of stories is what preoccupies it, but the lightweight nature of the myth in the centre of the film translates to the surroundings as well. It's also very humourless, and for a trickster's view of its subject that does not do it any favours, but to compensate for that lack of a twinkle in its eye the photography is sumptuous in spite of being shot on an obviously low budget. Welles shows his love of raiding the dressing up box again to conceal his features under yet another old man guise, which might be seen as odd as he was no spring chicken when he made this. As an examination of how one man's truth is another man's fanciful invention, this is not bad, but reports that Welles was planning to film the poodle in the microwave or the pet snake that measures its victims while they sleep are unfounded. Music chosen from Erik Satie.
[Mr Bongo has put The Immortal Story out on a DVD with no extras, but does at least offer fans and interested parties a chance to see a nice, restored print of one of Welles' rarer efforts.]