Some thoughts on Kane

Embarking on an Orson Welles programme I have started chronologically, which means of course Citizen Kane (1941). There are a couple of major problems with this. In the first place the rest of the programme, whatever delights and treasures it contains, is inevitably something of an anti-climax, a disappointment, a slide. Would it have been possible for Welles to ever reach the same level, let alone surpass, Kane even were it not have been for his persecution by Hearst, rejection by Hollywood and the rest of the well-known story? That is the great unknown of cinema history I suppose. But secondly what can one possibly say about Kane that has not already been said before, that rises above the level of the obvious and the clichéd. Very little if anything I suspect. That is the inevitable problem of writing about masterpieces, unless one is something of a critical genius. The following are therefore mainly notes for my own edification and should not be expected to contain anything original.

In the first place I watched the film and then re-watched it with a commentary by Ken Barnes. The first thing to remark on is to remind ourselves of the scarcely believable fact that Kane was Welles first movie, made when he was 24. 24! This inevitably raises the question of prodigy. Prodigies are fairly common in music I understand (Mozart etc.). But in other artistic fields I am much less sure of their frequency. Poets? well I know Byron died young but his youthful first efforts are pretty woeful. Novelists? Painters? I just don’t have enough information but my impression would be that the general rule would be that artists mature and ripen as they age. I am pretty sure this is true of film-makers. Welles and Kane are a brilliant exception. Not of course that Kane can be considered a solo effort any more than any other film. Cinema is a collaborative art. But it can be argued that it was part of Welles genius to identify and use other outstanding talents. As far as actors were concerned Barnes explained that one reason he wanted to use members of his own Mercury Theatre company was that he wanted to do long takes rather than the short ones to which Hollywood actors were accustomed. But when it came to technicians he sought expertise; his greatest good fortune was that Gregg Toland, the greatest cinematographer of his day, offered to work with Welles – and Orson bit his hand off (in the second disc this is described as ‘a match made in cinematic heaven’). He was also extremely fortunate to obtain the services of Herman J. Mankiewicz to assist with the screenplay, and much more so to identify and commission Bernard Hermann to compose his first film score. Barnes explained that Welles working-method was collaborative and he was always happy to listen to suggestions made by members of the cast and crew: one example is the upward pan in the first Susan Alexander opera scene ending with the two stage-hands on a gantry high above the stage (and one holds his nose) – this was a suggestion from a crew member. For all this Kane is unquestionably an auteur film; RKO signed a contract which gave Welles unprecedented full artistic control of the movie, and while it is important to acknowledge other contributions, Kane is Welles’ creation in every sense. His work rate on Kane was extraordinary – 16 hour days during which he was, of course, both directing and acting. Such was the vigour with which he threw himself into the latter that he sustained several injuries, the worst being a broken ankle in the scene where he pursues ‘Boss’ Geddes down the stairs.

In terms of specific technical aspects which Barnes emphasised and drew out, there were three which especially struck me: Welles’ use of lighting, focus and framing. The film’s lighting was highly experimental and is often sensational; it is highly varied but Barnes observed that the use in places of strong contrasts and shadow make Kane, among many other things, one of the sources of film noir. In terms of a very specific example, Barnes pointed out how in the opening shots the lighted window in Xanadu always remains in the same spot on screen through succeeding shots. As far as focus was concerned Welles was insistent that, in contradiction to established (and still continuing) practice, he wanted everything in focus – ‘universal focus’. This was achieved by a variety of methods often as result of Toland’s inventiveness. Welles’ theory was that he wanted the viewer free to look at a scene as a whole and not be ‘over-directed’. In fact however, Welles’ skill in framing and composition of shot mean that the attention is just as directed as it would be by the use of focus, so this was a little disingenuous. The use of sharp focus however does result in many stunning and unsettling images whether as a result of the use of either deep focus (as when Kane appears at a far-off door) or near focus (as in the shot of the medicine bottle in Susan’s suicide scene). Of course there is also the brilliant use of montage, hardly ever better used than in the succeeding breakfast scenes between Kane and his first wife, which are an object lesson in how film, uniquely, can tell a story through a succession of images and scenes. And camera movement as in the wondrous repeated zoom over the roof and through the skylight to Susan. Incidentally  Dorothy Comingore the actress who played Susan had a sad post-Kane career; she made only three subsequent movies, possibly through being over-choosy about scripts (for which one might not blame her after Kane), before being blacklisted in 1951 and later succumbing to alcoholism.

A second disc contained a discussion of the film fronted by Barry Norman, but which was in fact scripted by the same Ken Barnes! This meant there was quite a bit of duplication, but there was also additional material and I was able to pick up some things which I had forgotten from the commentary. Considerable time was devoted to the question of the screenplay, which is contentious because of Pauline Kael’s assertion in The Citizen Kane Book that Mankiewicz deserves as much credit for Kane as Welles (an assertion, despite my enjoyment of Kael, which I find utterly absurd since even if Mankiewicz  wrote the whole of the screenplay – which Barnes vigorously argues he did not – it would still just be the screenplay and therefore very, very far from being the movie). Another important collaborator on Kane was the Art Director, Perry Ferguson, whom RKO put in to control the budget – a move that completely misfired as Ferguson fell under Welles’ spell, in addition to being a highly creative addition to the team. When learning the ‘grammar of film’  Welles watched and rewatched, and discussed with John Ford, Stagecoach and was struck by the use of low ceilings (see also below): Ford explained that he used them in indoor scenes to contrast with the vastness of his open-air scenes. The idea that Welles was profligate or unreliable is a myth; in fact he always came in under budget and on schedule: incidentally the total cost of Kane was $839,727.46! (which is amazing value). Kane took just 4 months to shoot. There were a few excerpts from interviews with Welles; the two most interesting snippets were first that his one regret about Kane was that people had taken Susan Alexander to represent Marion Davies which was very unfair and he called a ‘dirty trick’ (see also, and, secondly, on the relationship between Kane and Hearst. Welles said that he had only once encountered Hearst, meeting him by chance in a lift (elevator) soon after the film’s release; Welles offered Hearst a couple of tickets to the première but Hearst just blanked him – Kane, Welles asserted, would definitely have taken the tickets and gone to see the movie! John Houseman said in an interview that there was a considerable amount of Welles himself in Kane (which only makes the movie the more extraordinary).

My own observations on this viewing were principally about the use of size. On repeated occasions the sets are either enormous (as in the Thatcher Library or the Great Hall at Xanadu) or, in direct opposition, with very low ceilings (as in scenes at the newspaper offices). The former leave an impression of expressionism and of characters dwarfed by their surroundings; the latter of Kane dominating, filling his surroundings. Barnes revealed that to some extent both of these were the examples of happy accidents. In the case of the Great Hall scenes there were far more of them than intended because the construction of the Hall itself cost so much that scenes which were intended to be shot elsewhere were relocated there. As far as the low ceilings are concerned Welles wanted the sound recorded live and technical restrictions at the time meant he had to conceal the microphones in the ceiling. These happy accidents add to the general impression that Kane’s achievement does have something of the miraculous, or certainly fortuitous, about it; perhaps this is inevitably true of great cinema where so much depends on circumstance. I also, as ever, pondered on the influence of Kane; here I took the very specific example of the ‘Declaration of Principles’ which Kane scrawls on a scrap of paper early on and wondered how this influenced the brilliant use of  similar scraps of paper to such devastating effect in The West Wing (‘Bartlett for America’ and more importantly ‘Let Bartlett be Bartlett’). In terms of the actual content of the film I was struck, also as ever, by its complexity. Kane’s ‘message’, ideology, even its story are complex. The film’s relationship to its eponymous protagonist is a love-hate affair. The very title is an irony. Kane was anything but an ordinary ‘citizen’ although he liked to portray himself as such. Of course it is to some extent a tale of the way in which power and money corrupt. But it is also a tale of a Hollow Man. However inevitably such speculation tends to descend, as I have done, to cliché. It is better to engage with specifics in terms of the creation and influence of this masterpiece. And to revel in the revenge which the judgement of history has made upon Hearst and all the film’s detractors.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s