The Fame of Kane

I get a little tired of people telling me that Citizen Kane is the greatest film ever made.  Don’t get me wrong; I love the film, but calling it the “greatest ever” seems a little hard to swallow.  I’ve seen a lot of Welles films, but certainly not all of them… I have to tell you that I don’t even think Kane is the best Orson Welles film.  I tend to like Touch of Evil better.  It seems a much more relaxed and confident film to me.

(For the record, I’m frequently interviewed by people who ask me variations on this… “What is your favorite film?”  “What’s the greatest film ever made?”  I don’t have an answer for this.  The greatest film ever made, and my favorite, is moldering in a can somewhere, waiting for me to find it.  I have a real weakness for auteurish films by obscure people like Max Davidson, Warren William, or Charley Bowers.)

Citizen Kane could hardly have been a bad movie if it tried.  Welles was a first-time director, but he was given a great cinematographer (Gregg Toland), a great composer (Bernard Herrmann), a great editor (Robert Wise), a great co-screenwriter (Herman Mankiewicz) and a great cast.  He was protected from studio interference by contract and they adhered to it.

RKO in the early 40s was a really great place to make a movie.  I often cite William Dieterle’s The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) as another film done at the same studio at about the same time, that is also a great film.  Both Welles and Dieterle were influenced by German expressionism, with the editor, composer, and studio brass the same for both films. (I would be remiss not to point out the scene at 47:05 when we first see Simone Simon.  I will only say that I’d have worked on this film for free.)

Some of these same people went on to do other great pictures at RKO.  Kane’s editor, Robert Wise, moved up to the director’s chair, and worked for producer Val Lewton.  Lewton headed up a B-unit there that made twelve amazing pictures, largely free of studio interference, between 1942 and 1946.  Lewton was allowed to make pretty much anything he wanted so long as he used the studio’s title, which led him to make a film like Curse of the Cat People (1944)–basically a sentimental Christmas story with a ghost in it.

I realize that I’m painting an overly rosy picture of RKO as a studio that left artists alone.  I do remember what happened to The Magnificent Ambersons, but that was an unfortunate anomaly that was not typical of RKO’s behavior at the time.  In fact, Robert Wise, who was responsible for the studio-backed recutting of Ambersons, was embarrassed and defensive about it even as late 1995 when he was grilled about it at Cinecon.

But as I get back to Kane, I see a film with Welles being extra ambitious to make an artsy film that would get people talking.  He succeeded, but as a result, Kane is not exactly subtle.  The direction calls attention to itself at nearly every opportunity.  Flashy editing, flashy photography, dramatic lighting… it’s all there.  This doesn’t make Kane a bad film–far from it–but I find that Welles matured as a director and did more confident, more cinematic work later in his career.

The legend around Citizen Kane is that Welles did his very best work for his first film, and that everything he did afterward was a step down.

I don’t believe that.  Welles was highly idiosyncratic, and he had a reputation of being “difficult.”  He tended to offend studio people and they tended not to hire him for a second picture.  This meant that it became progressively more difficult for him to get work as a director, and he had to resort to using technical people who were less than the stellar crowd he got on Kane.

That’s easy to say, because the crew for Kane is among the best ever assembled for a movie.  Almost any other crew would be a step down.

Welles was unable to make great films from lousy budgets, but he managed to do good, solid work with much smaller budgets.  The Lady from Shanghai (1947), made for skin-flint Harry Cohn, still has a lush Wellesian feel, especially when we compare it to other films made at Columbia during this period.

When I watch Citizen Kane, I note that Welles seems to be relying heavily on advice from his cinematographer, Gregg Toland.  Kane is very much a photographer’s film, and that’s fine by Welles, who loved heavy Expressionist lighting.  But there comes a point at which I feel Welles is using Toland almost as a crutch.

Toland was tinkering with special lenses that let distant objects and closer objects stay in simultaneous focus.  Normally directors use different lenses, focus on the character speaking, and then rely on the editor to combine disparate shots of actors in the cutting room.  This practice is rough on inexperienced actors, because they are frequently not talking to another person, but rather to a bank of lights and a camera lens.

Watch this scene from Citizen Kane.

This is all one continuous shot, with no edits, which is pretty amazing.  The actors are all in focus at once, so that they can speak and react to each other.  It’s great from an acting standpoint, and we have nothing but respect for Toland at being able to set up shots like this.

Ultimately, though, Welles has used technical bravura to forward his thinking, and it’s stage-bound.  The scene plays like a well-lit, well-acted stage scene, which is basically what it is.  There isn’t much that is terribly cinematic about it.

Compare this to the opening shot of Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958)

This is also a continuous shot with no edits, but notice that Welles is thinking differently.  Characters come in and out of frame, cars move, lighting shifts.  It’s not a stage scene; it could never be a stage scene.  Welles still doesn’t like the cut-cut-cut editing mentality, but he’s made a quantum leap forward in how to implement it successfully in a movie.

It is fair to say that Welles never made another movie as slick as Citizen Kane is. I think Welles is judged unfairly by film fans.  I doubt that anyone in the history of film ever had a deal as sweet as the one he got for Kane.  That his later films can’t live up to that isn’t his fault.  I think he did grow and mature as a director, but casual viewers get so lost in the flair of “Rosebud” that they miss his other accomplishments.

The “greatest film ever made” is a highly subjective thing.  It makes people angry and combative.  I find the AFI lists of greatest films consistently annoying, because they omit so many films that I love in a rush to get to the most popular ones.  If you want to say Citizen Kane is the greatest film ever made, then that’s OK for you.  I’m here to say that it probably isn’t his best work as a director.  Many people don’t like the film because it’s so flashy.  I understand that too.

I respect individual taste on what constitutes a great film—just so long as “great film” and “Adam Sandler” don’t go together.

16 thoughts on “The Fame of Kane”

  1. I have to add, on the record, that I don’t approve of copyrighted material being posted on YouTube. I linked to them, because they are already there, but none of those postings was my doing!

  2. Dr. Film I find that the film makers who love the low films (as well as the high films)you know like movies that are never going to see the light of day of being the best of the best. like cult movies, and B-movies and forign movies.. film makers or movie makers (who like, not just the best of the best) are more likely to make better movies.
    if you want to make good movies wach minny different types of movies, don’t just wach all top 100 best films or nothing but oscar winners.. thoughs people who only wach the top best movies in the world, in my mind are less likely to do a better job.

  3. I enjoyed your analysis, Dr. Film. While I do very much like Citizen Kane, your point about his using Toland’s skills to forward the story in a beautifully lit stage piece is well taken. And such a great idea to compare and contrast the lengthy one-shots in Kane and Touch of Evil. It really brings the point home. I’d like to see more of these analytical pieces on the sacred canon!

  4. Orson Welles has been one of my heroes since childhood. His CITIZEN KANE IS a great picture – and is certainly ONE of the greats of cinema — as it’s a glorious showcase of showmanship and film language in one amazing package. I think between the constant praise given to it by critics and fellow filmmakers and the rotten number that Pauline Kael did on it – he himself became both encumbered and embarrassed by it (while at the same time – being quietly proud of it – how could he not be?) As the years went on, KANE (and ill-fated AMBERSONS) continually reminded him of the sweet deal he briefly had in his youth and quickly lost – then having to make the best of what was offered (and BOY could he make something grand out of meagerness). I especially adore his MACBETH, MR. ARKADIN and F FOR FAKE. I find THE STRANGER especially lacking (he made it only to prove that he could produce something commercial and under budget – thus it strangely has no heart, nor the spark of it’s creator.) This is an artist who could make the most amazing things no matter what he had to work with. Rather than take KANE down a peg down or two – his other works should be brought to the fore and celebrated alongside their most famous sibling.

    1. I think no film earns the reputation that Kane has, which is as some untouchable classic in the marbled halls of film. I really liked Welles’ Macbeth, but I have to admit that I also enjoy The Stranger, which I feel is a beautifully directed film. I think it’s unfairly ignored. The clunkers in Welles’ career are things like The Trial, that are shot poorly and have bad sound work.

      1. I dare say that GWTW and CASABLANCA are both right up there with KANE – dooming all three to being overrated. THE TRIAL has it’s moments (he made it under increasingly difficult circumstances when he found himself in Yugoslavia with the backers who brought him there, pulling out at the last moment — the fact that a film was made AT ALL was a testament to Welles’ formidable tenacity.) Welles didn’t make clunkers, just films that weren’t for everyone. Hell, there are people today who consider KANE a bore (which is often a revealing indication about how interesting THEY are.) I need to give THE STRANGER another chance – although I remember finding it shockingly soulless and un-Wellesian.

        1. I’m told there are actually print of The Trial in which you can hear the dialogue, so perhaps I have judged too harshly, although I was not impressed. The Stranger has a wonderful expressionistic feel to that I love. It’s a little pokey, but fantastic lighting and a nice sense of unease garnered in the film.

        2. And of course virtually ALL films are overrated depending on who you talk to.

          My most overated film (on most days) is 2001 A Space Odyssey. I had free passes for it’s first screening at the Grand Cinerama in Columbus (provided by the record company who had the soundtrack album).

          I still wanted my money back!

          Back to Welles, I’ve always preferred Ambersons to Kane, even in the former film’s mangled state. (Agree that Touch of Evil is high on the Welles list.)

          1. I, too, love Magnificent Ambersons, in part, no doubt, because I love the novel, to which the film is largely true, especially in the use of dialogue, except at the end, of course. So beautifully shot! A certain film person has a 35mm print that he managed to show in a rather small library meeting room. It was stunning to get to see it projected again, the only way to do it justice. Touch of Evil is gripping, and again, all the more so when projected. Indpls Museum of Art had a showing last year.

  5. This blog post reminded me that I have been planning, for ever so long, to see A Touch of Evil. Have seen bits and pieces of it here and there and was fascinated with the lighting and cameara angles. We picked it up at the library and I will, at last, see it, all the way through.

    Blog on!

    1. I think you will enjoy it. It’s not as lavish as Citizen Kane is, although few films are. It’s a good, solid film with a lot of moral ambiguity in it. Very interesting picture.

  6. Thanks Dr Film. Like the opening shot in TOUCH OF EVIL, my favorite continuous shot comes later in the movie. It’s the frame-up scene, where Hank Quinlan’s cronies suddenly discover sticks of dynamite in a shoebox, which Charlton Heston — and we the viewer, looking over his shoulder — know was empty moments before. Welles was a little crestfallen that no one noticed this sequence was one LONG shot with lots of dialog and tracking that worked the camera through three rooms, reversed, and returned to the original location. Much longer and more complex than the famous opening sequence. But so subtle that it doesn’t jump out at you. It made me slap my forehead when first brought to my attention. It’s another example of your observation that Welles’ blossoming cinematic sense out-stripped his earlier stageyness.

    1. Yes, and apparently that sequence almost got Welles in trouble with Universal. Peter Bogdanovich recounted it as a story Welles told him. Universal was nervous that Welles would go over budget and out-of-control. That was the first sequence they shot, and he didn’t shoot anything until he’d rehearsed the actors on it all day. The studio brass almost went nuts when they heard that Welles had been rehearsing all day without shooting anything. Finally, they got the shot and it was so long that it put them 2-3 days ahead of schedule!

  7. Touch of Evil is usually my favorite of Welles’s movies, depending on how recently I’ve seen Chimes at Midnight. One of my favorite things about Kane that carries forward into the rest of Welles’s films is his feeling for sound. That’s a big part of Touch of Evil, too.

  8. Thanks Dr Film. Like the opening shot in TOUCH OF EVIL, my favorite continuous shot comes later in the movie. One of my favorite things about Kane that carries forward into the rest of Welles’s films is his feeling for sound.

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