Lively, entertaining reviews of, and essays on, old and newer films and everything relating to them, written by professional author William Schoell.

Thursday, May 22, 2008


CITIZEN KANE (1941). Director: Orson Welles.

Wrested away from his parents at a young age against his will, Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) spends the rest of his life trying to retain complete control of every aspect of, and every person in, his life. Employing flashbacks, first person narratives, and inventive camera work, Citizen Kane examines the life of the great Kane upon the event of his death at his castle Xanadu, where he mutters the word "Rosebud" (a reminder of the time when he felt fully loved and content). Sixty-seven years after its original release Welles' fascinating masterpiece seems, if possible, even greater. Welles offers a terrific performance as he goes from young newspaper magnate to aged tycoon, but he is matched by a fine cast that includes Joseph Cotten as his friend and associate Jed Leland, Dorothy Comingore as his second wife and hopeless opera singer Susan, Everett Sloane as the assistant he always calls Mr. Bernstein, Ray Collins as Kane's political opponent Jim Gettys, and others.

The film has a rich visual look due to the art direction by Van Nest Polglase and the cinematography of Gregg Toland. William Alland, who plays the reporter asking questions about Kane (and who later became a producer) is always seen in shadow. The marriage-by-breakfast sequences that show Kane's first marriage disintegrating at the breakfast table is just one of many memorably creative aspects of the picture. Bernard Herrmann's score is, as usual, excellent. [It should be noted that -- while Modest Musorgsky wrote an opera entitled Salammbo -- the Salammbo (or at least the aria from it) heard in Citizen Kane was actually composed by Herrmann. Too bad he didn't do the whole opera (Herrmann did compose a fine operatic version of Wuthering Heights, however.)]

There are some imperfect aspects to Citizen Kane. The whole business with the boy being sent away by his mother (Agnes Moorehead) to become the ward of the prickly old lawyer, Thatcher (George Coulouris), supposedly to get him away from his drunk, physically abusive father (Harry Shannon), seems contrived. The newly-rich Mrs. Kane could have paid off the father and taken the boy with her to live somewhere else. Yet later Leland tells us that Kane remained close to the mother who sent him away -- but why would he (we never again see the two together)? It's also interesting that while we hear in passing how Kane's first wife (Ruth Warren) and child are killed in an automobile accident, we are never shown Kane's reaction to the death of his son, certainly a pivotal moment in any man's life. Yet perhaps that's the point: that the self-absorbed Kane would not have been all that affected by the tragedy, as we see earlier that he doesn't take into account the effect that a disclosure of his affair with Susan might have on the child. Still, when you consider how great this film is, these are mere quibbles. Written by Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz and edited by Robert Wise.

Verdict: A certified masterpiece on virtually every level. ****.


Craig Clarke said...

I'm not sure you would actually want to hear an entire Salaambo opera, as I seem to remember reading somewhere that Herrmann wrote the music he did to be deliberately mediocre -- and especially to be just above of the singer's range.

Nice review. I find it difficult to write reviews of films that I love as much as this one.

William said...

Thanks for your comments. Actually last night I listened to Herrmann's Salaambo aria as sung by soprano Kiri Te Kanawa and I have to say I loved it -- highly dramatic and melodious. Herrmann would probably have had a hard time writing anything absolutely mediocre.

But we can agree that it's a great movie, right? Best, William.

Craig Clarke said...

I've heard that recording. Kiri certainly does great things with the material. And Herrmann is one of the greats -- I'm constantly rediscovering his work, especially on old-time radio shows.

But, as you said, we can indeed agree that Citizen Kane is a great movie. Perhaps the greatest -- although personally for me (and this has developed with maturity) Casablanca has the edge, with its combination of technical brilliance (acting, writing, etc.) and emotional connection.

William said...

Yes, Herrmann is terrific. I was never as carried away with Casablanca as I was with Kane, but I haven't seen the former in a long time. I'll make it my business to catch up with it again before too long.

Thanks for your comments, Craig. Best.