Immoral Story, The (1968): Orson Welles’ Version of Isak Dinesen Short Story, Starring Jeanne Moreau and Himself

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Orson Welles directed the French feature, The Immoral Story (French: Une histoire immortelle), starring Jeanne Moreau. The film was originally broadcast on French TV and was later released in theatres

It was based on a short story by the Danish writer Karen Blixen (known by pen name Isak Dinesen), whose life was made in an Oscar winning epic biopic in 1985, Out of Africa, Starring Meryl Streep in the titular role.

Claiming a runtime of 60 minutes (actually 59), it’s Welles’ shortest feature.

Welles admired of the writing of Karen Blixen and, at one point, planned to make a series of films based on her work.

The Immortal Story was first published in Blixen’s 1958 collection Anecdotes of Destiny. Originally The Immortal Story was meant to be half of two-part anthology, with the second half based on the Blixen story The Deluge at Nordenay. However, the second film was cancelled when Welles raised concerns about the professionalism of his crew in Hungary, where production was set.

Welles received financing from Organisation Radio-Télévision Française to create The Immortal Story, to be followed by theatrical release in France and other countries.

Welles was contracted to shoot the film in color, of which Welles was not a fan, claiming (erroneously): “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.”

Much of the film was shot in Welles’ home, outside of Madrid.

Exterior scenes depicting Macao were shot in Pedraza, Brihuega, Valdemoro and Chinchón, near Madrid.

Welles cast Chinese rwaiters from Madrid as extras to recreate the setting for Macao.

In 19th century Macao, Mr. Clay (Orson Welles) is an old and wealthy merchant. His only companion is his bookkeeper, the Polish-Jewish emigrant Levinsky (Roger Coggio).

One evening, while reading to Clay before bed, Levinsky recites  prophecy by Isaiah. Clay declares his hatred of the genre and begins to tell a story he heard on a ship of a rich old man who offers a sailor five guineas to impregnate his wife, however Levinsky completes the story, having heard it himself from other seamen.

Clay becomes obsessed in making that legendary tale come true, and Levinsky is dispatched to find a sailor and a woman to play Clay’s wife.

Levinsky approaches Virginie (Jeanne Moreau), daughter of Clay’s one-time business partner. Clay’s ruthless dealings drove Virginie’s father to bankruptcy and suicide, and she is now eager to get her revenge.

The destitute sailor, a young Dane named Paul (Norman Eshley) rescued from a desert island, is discovered and recruited. Having heard the story himself as well, Paul refuses to participate, but agrees when Clay reminds him he needs money.

Virginie and Paul find an emotional bond in their brief union, but go their separate ways – Virginie is exorcised of her bitterness against Clay while Paul disappears into Macao’s streets.

Before that, he asks Clay to give Virginie a shell he found on desert island, which plays “song” if hekd to her ear. Levinsky goes to inform Clay, but discovers the old merchant has died. He puts Paul’s shell to his ear, and remarks to Virginie that he has heard the song before but cannot remember when and where.

The Immortal Story played at the 18th Berlin Film Festival in June 1968. The film had its U.S. premiere at the 1968 New York Film Festival.

In February 1969, it had its U.S. theatrical release on a double feature bill with Luis Buñuel’s Simon of the Desert.

On August 30, 2016, The Immortal Story was released on DVD and Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection.

Jeanne Moreau as Virginie Ducrot
Orson Welles as Mr. Charles Clay
Roger Coggio as Elishama Levinsky
Norman Eshley as Paul, the sailor
Fernando Rey as Merchant


TCM showed this rarely seen short film on August 5, 2022, as part of whole day tribute to Orson Welles (Summer Under theStars)