Film of the Week | 3rd May 2021
8.00pm Thursday 6th May
The decision by SIGHT AND SOUND magazine (by 191 votes to 157) to replace Citizen Kane with Vertigo as the greatest film ever made was wrong. Much as I love Hitchcock, Vertigo had nothing like the same impact as Citizen Kane, it didn’t innovate as much, and it isn’t such an explosion of possibilities and ideas: Vertigo may be a masterpiece made by a great director, but it didn’t change the landscape. Citizen Kane did. It made almost everything possible. Some of the sequences are as fine as any that have ever been put on film.
The movement to make scriptwriter Herman Mankiewicz and not director Orson Welles the true auteur of Citizen Kane isn’t as wrongheaded as arguing that Marlowe, or Bacon, or the Earl of Oxford, or Uncle Tom Cobley wrote the works of Shakespeare, but it is to acknowledge that cinema is the most collaborative of all the arts (and Shakespeare was not the solitary genius imagined by the Romantics and targeted by the ‘non-Stratfordians’, for he worked in conditions similar to early Hollywood along with other writers and actors as the theatre struggled to establish itself, collaborating with Marlowe, Fletcher, Wilkins, Middleton, Nashe, Kyd and Peele, among others). By your works shall you know them. Welles made other films of genius. Mankiewicz, one of the keys to the greatness of Citizen Kane, achieved little else.
What muddied the water was that the egotistical Welles was happy to be thought of as the only begetter of the film, and it was Welles who was blamed by the producers for the controversy surrounding the film’s release. Later, Pauline Kael, enfant terrible of film critics and looking for evidence to attack the auteur theory, loaded the bases in favour of Mankiewicz (though she later revised her argument). Mankiewicz should get some credit, but he was no Orson Welles.
Early in the story the banker Thatcher comes to discuss Kane’s future with his parents, and we see the little boy Kane on a sledge playing in the snow. The camera pulls back to show that the shot is being taken from inside the house. As it does so, the box frame of the window appears and settles like prison walls around the boy. That, in a few seconds, is the theme of the film, perhaps the theme of every film, every novel, and every religious and philosophical system: the imposition of rules and boundaries, the loss of freedom and innocence, as reality grips.
This is clear in the original script, so Mankiewicz made it possible, but it was Welles (and his cameraman) who understood how to film it.
INT. PARLOR - MRS. KANE'S BOARDINGHOUSE - DAY -
Camera is angling through the window, but the window-frame is
not cut into scene. We see only the field of snow again, same
angle as in previous scene. Charles is manufacturing another
snowball. Now -
Camera pulls back, the frame of the window appearing, and we
are inside the parlor of the boardinghouse. Mrs. Kane, aged
about 28, is looking out towards her son. Just as we take her
in she speaks:
When Leland passes out drunkenly while writing his critical notice of Susan, and Kane decides to finish it, there is a super-close-up as the typewriter keys hit the paper, and the keys spell out W, then E. ‘We’. Leland and Kane, friends forever. The next two letters are A and K. ‘Weak’. That is the end of the friendship. And that isn’t in the script.
Every second of this film is a marvel. Fortunately, having been on TV on Saturday afternoon, it returns on Thursday evening.
Best wishes. Bill.