Smoke & Mirrors

On Citizen Kane and why it is often dubbed "The Greatest Film Ever Made".

There are some who say they get something different out of €œCitizen Kane€ every time they watch it. On a technical level, there€™s no end to the distractions; the deep focus, matte shots, lighting, low angles and complex transitions (remember the scene when the journalists in the photo come to life?) can be picked apart forever, and I€™ve done it as much as anyone. If you€™re a fan of Kane, and you haven€™t heard Roger Ebert€™s DVD commentary on the Region 1 disc, you€™re missing out on a masterclass in this stuff: he even points out the way a top hat on a table wobbles slightly as it enters the corner of the frame during a camera pull back, indicating the table was slid in front of the camera after it pulled back, just out of frame. I saw Kane last week in the Filmhouse cinema in Edinburgh, where it€™s on re-release in a season of Orson Welles€™s movies. I saw it for the first time in the same cinema, on the same screen (and in the same format; as yet the new prints are still being made on 35mm, not digital), almost 10 years ago. That was a fundamental step towards me becoming as fixated with the medium as I am, and I think about that evening often, though not as often as Mr Bernstein thinks about the lady in the white dress. I won€™t go into the technical prowess in any detail because about as much as can be said on the subject has been said. But here are a couple of thoughts that occurred to me on this viewing, only the second time I€™d seen it projected on film, but perhaps the 30th time I€™ve seen it overall: 1. As a portrait of a person, it doesn€™t remotely satisfy, yet it€™s an immensely satisfying movie regardless. Of Rosebud itself Roger Ebert has pointed out, €˜
it explains nothing, but it is remarkably satisfactory as a demonstration that nothing can be explained.€™
It works in tying the movie together because it feels symbolic on one level and trivial and meaningless on another. But that€™s not all that is left unexplained. With Charles Foster Kane we have a man who inherits a fortune, tries to stand up for justice as a young man but gets lost in €“ what? Consumerism? He never seems like a particularly greedy man but he buys statues and diamonds and every meaningless thing he can pick up, so at the end we are left with the great image of a life reduced to a warehouse full of left-behind trinkets and artifacts. €˜No word can explain a man€™s life€™ €“ and no statue, sled, or movie can either. We just get glimpses at the man, always through the eyes of another person; the sum of their memories adding up to nothing more than an idea of a person, intangible. It is significant that the first and last words we see in the movie (other than credits) are €˜No trespassing€™, written on the sign outside Xanadu. If there is a lack of real depth to Kane, it could be indicative (when compared with, for instance, €œThe Great Gatsby€) of the inherent differences between the film medium and the written one. In her famous €“ and contentious €“ extended essay €˜Raising Kane,€™ Pauline Kael described the movie as a €˜shallow masterpiece,€™ which from Kael was certainly a compliment. It€™s a movie made up of surfaces, outlines and hints, and the camerawork could be described almost as playful. 2. It€™s a fun masterpiece, and primarily that credit should go to Orson Welles. Not for his directorial or writing abilities, but for his performance. We only get glimpses of Kane at the beginning of the movie (and in a sense we only ever get glimpses of him) and watching it again with an audience there€™s a sense of anticipation about the fact that the central performance is being held back. The energy that the start of the movie has comes from the camerawork, the music, the round-about way the camera takes to get to Kane€™s deathbed in Xanadu followed by the bold, tongue-in-cheek €˜March of Time€™ sequence, designed to give us our first oversight of the life of Kane, indicating every major event that will happen to him so, when the time flips about later on, we have a sense of where we are chronologically. But when the more traditional narrative does kick in it€™s the charisma and charm of Orson Welles that carry the movie; it€™s impossible to imagine it without him. He wasn€™t a modest person (Herman Mankiewicz once quipped as he walked by, €˜There, but for the grace of God, goes God€™) but he was modest as an actor; he never seemed to believe it was where his real talent lay. Perhaps he was never a great stage actor, but with cinema things like charisma and facial features €“ things which an actor has little control over €“ are far more important (think of how fundamental he is to €œThe Third Man,€ and how no other face in the doorway would have elicited the same response). 3. Like all great movies, it demands to be seen on a big screen. I€™ve seen Kane so many times on video and DVD that I€™d forgotten how the scale of the picture really needs to be shown off on a cinema screen. This isn€™t just because it takes a fairly epic swipe at a man€™s life, but also for more intimate reasons. Famously the movie used a lot of low-angle shots (requiring ceilings, unusual at the time, to be added to sets); on the small screen these may go almost unnoticed but in a cinema it means Kane and Leland loom over the audience like giants. You spot details that might be missed (like the fact that the snow globe is first seen, chronologically, in Susan€™s flat); it€™s worth it alone for the packed shots at the end of the movie, where keen eyes can spot things that popped up earlier in the picture. It€™s easy to forget nowadays that movies made, for instance, in 1941 were only ever intended to be seen on big screens. 4. Credit doesn€™t just go to Welles. Thanks in part to the popularity of the Auteur theory, which made Welles (who by that point, said Kael, was €˜the biggest loser in Hollywood€™) into one of its Gods, people often overlook the various other talents that go into a picture. Famously Kael argued that the screenplay was really the work of Herman J. Mankiewicz, a personal acquaintance of William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies, who the film was, it€™s safe to say, inspired by (much to Hearst€™s anger). Among the critics of Kael€™s book are film director Peter Bogdanovich, who also provides a DVD commentary on the American disc and who was a personal friend of Welles; whichever you believe, any fan of Kane should read Kael€™s essay at some point. The question of the screenplay€™s authorship is not likely ever to be resolved (the earlier mentioned €˜lady in the white dress€™ speech is the one thing that Welles unabashedly ascribed to Mankiewicz), but certainly the screenplay could barely have existed without Mankiewicz€™s knowledge of Hearst. Also deserving of credit are the cast €“ again, because of its technical prowess the cast is often forgotten, but Welles surrounded himself with great actors from the stage €“ the cinematographer Gregg Toland, whose deep focus work on the movie is by now famous (he pops up in a cameo as the guy interviewing Kane in the opening news footage), and Bernard Hermann, who wrote his first movie score for Kane. The editor, Robert Wise, went on to become a successful director in his own right, and where would Kane be without its canny editing? (Remember the famous breakfast montage, where the disintegration of a marriage is shown through scenes of Kane and his first wife at breakfast, growing increasingly apart until she sits silently at the far end of the table, reading a rival newspaper). 5. Welles loved magic, and €œCitizen Kane€ is an epic story made out of smoke and mirrors. Some of the sets are made up of almost nothing, like the library where Mr Thompson (the audience€™s almost faceless doppelganger, almost always leaning in from the bottom-right corner of the screen) begins his investigation. We see a statue of Mr Thatcher (a miniature fake), then tilt down via an invisible wipe to a real set (the camera never tilts back up or it would reveal there to be no statue on top of the base). All we see are Thompson and the secretary, her desk, and a wall in the background with a door in it. We move through the door to reveal a far wall and a long table. Two walls, a table, and a desk: and yet between the camera work, the music and the sound effects it€™s one of the most evocative sets in the movie. Similarly consider the fact that we never really get a sense of Xanadu as a whole; we see lots of different shots and angles of it that never seem quite to fit together. This is of course because it didn€™t exist, the exterior shots being made up of models, mattes and stock footage of other buildings. Welles uses limitations like this to his advantage; Xanadu, Kane€™s never-finished pleasure dome, is like Kane: lots of little parts that don€™t seem to fit into a whole but that satisfy nevertheless. 6. Finally, are there any flaws in €œCitizen Kane€? I think it€™s pretty close to perfect: in a sense I agree with Kael that it€™s a €˜shallow€™ masterpiece, but that doesn€™t change my appreciation of it. The sound effects track is for the most part superb, with various diegetic sounds underlining plot points, a hangover from Welles€™s radio days. But occasionally the sound effects feel a little obvious, as with at least two dated €˜comedy sound effects€™ used to underline comic lines (the first comes when Kane observes at their current rate of loss he will have to sell the newspaper €˜in€ sixty years€™). Other than that I can only think of one problem the movie has: its dubious title of The Greatest Movie Ever Made. I find the question banal, feeding as it does in to our need to list and qualify and fetishise movies (I say this as someone who just recently spent hours working on a best of the decade list). It has become the starting point of discussion; if you say you recently saw Kane to someone, their likely question will be, but is it the greatest movie ever? There are lots of movies with a claim to that title, and it is interesting that Kane is the one that pops up on more critics€™ lists than any other. This, I submit, is for three reasons. Firstly, it is a great movie, and a very influential one. Secondly, the €˜greatest movie ever€™ hype tends to feed on itself and become self-perpetuating. And thirdly, unlike a lot of movies termed €˜masterpieces€™, it€™s fun. If you let someone choose a movie between one you have described as very good and one you have described as a masterpiece, most people would probably choose the €˜very good€™ one. Masterpieces sound like hard work. Kane is an entertaining experience on a number of levels; it almost makes fun of its own technical brilliance. Said Pauline Kael, €˜Citizen Kane€ is a watch that laughs.€™
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I've been a film geek since childhood, and am yet to find a cure. Not an auteurist, but my favourite directors include Robert Altman, Ernst Lubitsch, Welles, Hitch and Kurosawa. I also love Powell & Pressburger movies, anything with Fred Astaire, Cary Grant or Katherine Hepburn, the space-ballet of 2001, Ealing comedies, subversive genre cinema and that bit in The Producers with the fountain.