While Orson Welles usually gets the genius kudos, much of the creative brilliance in this 1941 masterpiece arises in the seasoned experience of his collaborators Herman J. Mankiewicz and Gregg Toland.
- The nature of the story itself. It’s not exactly likeable. We want to befriend Kane but can’t. He starts out as charming but more and more becomes a sphinx. The newsmen themselves are nobodies. As for his wives and lovers? And yet there’s something gripping in the rise and fall of this spoiled rich boy turned tycoon and populist turned brutal cynic and failure, plus his times. (Sounds topical, considering the White House now, doesn’t it?) Pulling this off is much more difficult than it sounds, and yet we’re swept along throughout. In short, anything but a conventional screenplay.
- The soundtrack. Welles and Mankiewicz were grounded in radio drama, not filmmaking. And so they brought to Hollywood a revolutionary ear for not just dialogue but everyday detailing background sounds like footsteps and doors. Their radio perspective also meant they could envision a scene from the way it unfolded within a viewer’s head and not just how it might appear on a stage in front of us, the way directors and writers had framed movies before this.
- Cinamatographer Toland. In his work with Hollywood great John Ford, Toland had begun exploring a new technique called deep focus, which allows multiple things to be present within a single shot. In Kane, this comes to full fruition. Tons have been written about what’s happening in the background or how multiple items come together to make their own statement or put everything into a fresh comprehension. And it holds opportunities for emotional depth previously absent in cinema.
- Optical illusions. Again, give Toland credit. They serve as guideposts, according to film critic Roger Ebert in his lovefest to this film.
- Visible ceilings. You never saw these in a movie before. Sometimes it required cutting a hole in the floor. But it made for some much more dramatic visuals. Again, Ebert has much to say about this, for good reason. I think the ceilings are an emblem of many other similar breakthrough touches that advance this movie light years ahead of convention.
- The blending of drawings, real sets, and wipes. Welles was surprisingly economical in obtaining some of his spectacular impressions and moving the story across time.
- The witness. Always in a corner, observing or even commenting. A great storytelling device.
- Complete artistic control. RKO executives agreed to make no cuts in the footage. In addition to writing, directing, and taking the starring role, Welles had unprecedented complete artistic control. Amazing. The one compromise was forced by the film board, which nixed the brothel scene. Alas.
- Common misperception. Unlike the widespread tale, the story’s not even about William Randolph Hearst, whose opposition undermined of its chances for commercial success.
- Kane prompted Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel in homage. Not that I viewed them in chronological order.
Oh, yes, if you want to know about “rosebud,” you really do have to look up Ebert’s take. We do miss him.
What movie and its special effects have especially impressed you? These days we practically take them for granted.
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