Rightwing Film Geek

For the first time

I generally don’t walk out on movies. I won’t give a bad movie the satisfaction of driving me out of the theater, and so it becomes a contest of wills or an excuse to nap or whatever. To this day, I’ve only walked out of three theatrically-seen movies (I obviously “turned channels” a lot more — it feels different). And until 2003, the only movie I had ever walked out on in a theater was …

CITIZEN KANE.

Yes, the consensus “greatest movie of all time” was the only film I quit on in about 15 years of adult filmgoing. It was the 1991 50th anniversary re-release and, though I already had seen KANE several times on TV and video, I was there Friday afternoon when it arrived in Austin, where I was a UT student. And when KANE began, to my horror, I immediately noticed crops at the top and bottom of the image (the first shot is the film’s title in big screen-filling letters, so it’s hard to miss). After about a minute to make sure it wasn’t a hiccough, it starkly hit me: the theater was projecting CITIZEN KANE in widescreen, in what I would guess was about a 1.66:1 ratio (certainly not Vistavision or the like). The film probably would still have been enjoyable, but given that I’d seen KANE before, there seemed no point in having a first theatrical viewing be so radically flawed. I went to the ticket office and demanded my money back. I got it and tried to explain to the guy at the box office why I wanted a refund, even trying to draw pictures on napkins to explain the geometry of why you can’t fit a square image on a rectangular frame. But he apparently had just graduated Popcorn 101 and I may as well have been speaking in Scholastic Latin. So I passed up a chance to see a spiffing new 35mm print of CITIZEN KANE. I have had one or two chances since, I think, but not until last night did I finally see KANE in a theater (I even took along a buddy who had never seen it all the way through at all, though he had watched bits and pieces of it).

So … these are the Top 12 Things I Noticed for the First Time Upon Seeing CITIZEN KANE in a Theater. In order of when they come in the movie:

(1) In the “News on the March” newsreel, the decrepit NY Enquirer building has hammer-and-sickle graffiti on the doorway. Really.

(2) I would swear under oath that one of the men in the newsreel-viewing room, tucked in a corner whom you can only see once or twice as the lighting permits, is Joseph Cotten or a dead ringer for him.

(3) The sleigh-ride music Chuck Workman uses in his AFI pieces is actually Bernard Herrmann’s transition music from the harshness of the Walter P. Thatcher Library flashing back to Charles’s idyllic boyhood.

(4) In the dissolve from the Thatcher library to Mr. Bernstein’s office, the frame space taken up by a portrait of Mr. Thatcher is taken up almost exactly by a portrait of Mr. Kane, as if the sycophantic Mr. Bernstein is just a living memorial to Charles Foster Kane.

(5) At the offices of the New York Inquirer when Kane arrives for his first day, there are several signs saying “silence,” an unthinkable admonition in the newsroom of a real newspaper.

(6) In the “Breakfast Montage” encapsulating in two minutes the marriage between Kane and his first wife, there are actually only two shots, the first and the last, show the two people in the same frame. And only in the first are they actually touching.

(7) The dissolve from Susan Alexander’s own apartment to much-plusher digs after meeting Kane obviously implies she has become his kept mistress — a fact I had noticed before. But beyond that, in the shots, she is playing the piano and singing “Una Voce Poco Fa,” a soprano aria from “The Barber of Seville” (it’ll come up again later; it’s the song in Signor Mattisti voice-training lessons). In her own shabbier digs, Susan is singing the aria in English; but as the scene’s image dissolves into her Kane-paid pad, she starts singing it in Rossini’s original Italian — a subtle measure of her own pretension and ambition, contrary to her later protestations.

(8) The music opening the scene of Kane’s election-night defeat is the melody of the bursting-with-optimism “Who’s Charlie Kane?” song with the dancing chorus line, only  hererearranged and inverted into a dirge.

(9) More than any other time I’ve seen this movie, I disliked Susan Alexander Kane, who, opera career aside, seems to do little after the marriage but whine, complain and bitch. It’s easy to see a man falling for Susan Alexander; hard to see him tolerating Mrs. Kane. And yet so strong is Dorothy Comingore’s performance that you can’t detest her for long, or not see her side of things. Her delivery of the seemingly-nondescript line “don’t you think I do” holds a universe of pathos worthy of comparison with the more surface-eloquent speeches like Mr. Bernstein’s soliloquy about the girl on the boat.

(10) When Susan walks out on Kane, there is a doll on the bed that looks not unlike her and is propped up against the pillow and beside her in the image composition. She’s leaving the doll behind (though she’ll still trade on the Kane name to the bitter end).

(11) Before being burned, the sled is in a box next to a photo of Kane with his mother and next to the aforementioned doll from Susan’s bed in Xanadu.

(12) The last image is a long shot of Xanadu castle, same as at the start. At the start, there is a light on, and it remains burning in the same spot in the image frame even as the shots get closer in. But at the end, that light is off. And the movie is over.

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April 2, 2010 - Posted by | Orson Welles

2 Comments »

  1. [...] Victor Morton once walked out on Citizen Kane (for good reason). Now he's finally seen it in a theater and has some thoughts. [...]

    Pingback by Links for the Day: Attack on Attack of the Clones | The House Next Door | April 5, 2010 | Reply

  2. Good observations — I keep meaning to do a post of “Little Touches from KANE That Make it Great/Problems with KANE it Overcomes” but haven’t had the time (my favorite tiny moment: the look Jed Leland gives Thatcher after Kane dictates his reply telegram to Cuba; this is the side of his friend that he agrees with Thatcher on).

    Yes, that IS Joseph Cotten in the projection room, and Erskine Sanford (“Mr. Carter” later in the film) is right next to him — this was supposedly “test footage” being shot before the first official day of shooting, so Welles grabbed what actors he could to fill the room, thinking they’d be invisible in the darkness. Ebert’s commentary track on the DVD is okay, but he makes a big blunder in looking right at Cotten in this scene and saying it’s Alan Ladd (who is the pipe-smoking reporter in the final scene at Xanadu). I’ve read reports that Herman J. Mankewicz is in there, too, but nothing that can be confirmed.

    On the other hand, that IS definitely photographer Gregg Toland playing interviewer with Welles as Kane in the newsreel, which gives a nice meta-quality to Welles joshing Toland with all the “young man” comments.

    Comment by Ian W. Hill | April 5, 2010 | Reply


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