The Immortal Story (1968, Orson Welles)

Hour-long, splendorously Wellesian, elegant little movie about storytelling, made between Chimes at Midnight and F for Fake. Why does nobody ever talk about this one? A French production (I watched the English-dubbed version) based on a novel by Karen Out of Africa Blixen and shot by Willy Les Creatures Kurant.

On Macao (a Chinese island then controlled by Portugal), Welles is a fat rich man who takes things very literally, cares only about his accounts, which his accountant (filmmaker Roger Coggio) reads to him every night. One day, Coggio reads his boss the prophecy of Isaiah instead. Welles doesn’t like prophecies, things that are not yet true, so he counters with a “true” story he heard about an old man who hires a sailor to sleep with his young wife, to produce an heir. He’s enraged when the accountant tells him this is a fable, retold by many sailors with variations, and Welles insists that they perform the story for real so that somebody in the world will be able to tell it truthfully. He’s got the old eccentric rich man part covered, now just needs someone to play the young wife and poor sailor.

A poor sailor:

In the town square, the great Fernando Rey (a couple years before Tristana) gives some back-story. It seems that Jeanne Moreau (same year as The Bride Wore Black) grew up in the house Welles now occupies, until her dad killed himself over a 300-guinea debt to the old man. Coggio talks her into playing the wife out of curious revenge – she agrees for a price of 300 guineas. They pick up an honestly down-and-out, recently-shipwrecked sailor (Norman Eshley of a few 1970’s murder films – one thinks of Welles’ own role in The Lady From Shanghai) and pay him five guineas to play the role (he doesn’t seem familiar with the fable).

Coggio awaits Moreau’s reply:

– “Now you can tell the story”
– “To whom would I tell it? Who in the world would believe me if I told it? I would not tell it for a hundred times five guineas.”

And the accountant finds Welles dead in his chair.

This Is Orson Welles reveals that there were supposed to have been a series of short films based on Karen Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen) stories. The Heroine was canceled after a single day’s shoot, and A Country Tale was to star Peter O’Toole. Welles would later adapt another Blixen story into The Dreamers.

PB: You were interested in the idea of power…
OW: No. He doesn’t have the power – you show that it’s meaningless.
PB: He fails-
OW: It doesn’t even begin to work – it’s a dream. That’s the whole point of the story. He has no power: not that he does have it, but that he pretends that he does. It all turns to ashes.
PB: Why does he die?
OW: He’s getting ready to die when the story begins. And he dies when the thing can’t work. He dies of disappointment, in his last gasp of frustrated lust.


Welles was only in his early 50s when he made The Immortal Story for French television, but it appears as an almost too perfect summary of his career; a metaphorical tale of impotence, memory, power and mortality made on a tiny budget in Europe it both chases its own tail and is a deeply felt film of melancholy mood and sensibility. The film has the quality of a miniature; short in length and minimalist in design. It also appears depopulated, as if the product of a fragmented dream or imagination.