Mondo Kane #7: El Rancho #2
A clever thing — by introducing Susan Alexander early on, allowing her to dismiss boy reporter Thompson from the royal presence, and then looping back to her an hour later, Welles, Mankiewicz (and the uncredited Houseman) achieve at least two things at once.
(1) The repetition makes us feel like we’re nearing the end, which is a useful clue to plant when dealing with a structure as unconventional as KANE’s. Since film is a time-based medium, and time is the one thing none of us seem to have enough of, it’s useful to let the audience know where they stand. I’m surprised a counter ticking down the seconds remaining hasn’t been inserted in the corner of Hollywood movies, but maybe that’s because you don’t need it — the McKee school of structural conventionality allows a savvy audience to plot their position in a movie’s timeline with unerring accuracy.
(2) The early intro to Susan gives us a warning as to the damage Kane, and time, have inflicted on her. Next seen, she’s the naive girl on the street corner, a far cry from the sozzled night-club entertainer glimpsed at the film’s start. Cotten’s flashback covers a good part of her decline and fall, even though he wasn’t there for most of it — now we’re ready for her to take up her own story, and the movie gains dynamism by plunging directly into something we just saw at the tail-end of the Leland narrative.
In his excellent book The Magic World of Orson Welles, James Naremore points out that the narrators of KANE get progressively more cynical and critical as the film goes on, with Susie as the one who really nails Kane’s character weaknesses, followed only by Paul Stewart who is completely indifferent and contemptuous. In fact, the dynamic is more complicated than that — it’s really complicated. The film wins us over to Kane by presenting him first through the eyes of his greatest enemy. If Thatcher hates him, we feel, he must be pretty OK. A darker side emerges in Bernstein’s affectionate tribute, since Bernstein is not blind to his boss’s faults — he’s just philosophical about them. Leland, the dramatic critic, weighs in very articulately on Kane’s betrayal of “the sacred cause of reform,” but it’s left to Susie to expose Kane as not just a bad friend but a bad man.
Naremore’s very sharp on how the film uses Susie, as Kane described her, as “a cross-section of the American people.” The movie doesn’t show the social damage a figure like Hearst can do, except in metaphoric form through his treatment of the second Mrs Kane.
KANE, Naremore says, is structured around dualities: a man with two wives, two friends, two sleds. And Susan Alexander’s interview brackets the centre of the film, split in two, each sequence opening with the same camera movement, only in this second interview the crane shot up the El Rancho takes place in dawn half-light (it’s EXACTLY the tone of sky you see in the background during the opening shot of TOUCH OF EVIL) and with a melancholy, tender repeating arpeggio from Herrmann replacing the thunder and drunken jazz of the first version (and a smooth dissolve replacing the botched attempt at a seamless passage through the skylight).
Susie, in mellower mood than last time, conducts us into flashback with wry, rueful amusement and one of those loooong dissolves, and we meet Matiste the music teacher, one broadly comic element of the film which nobody seems to mind. I think he works well because (asides from Fortunio Bonanova’s big-but-credible performance) his comedy is tied in to the film’s most painful scenes, making for the kind of uncomfortable and conflicted response you get with Uncle Joe Grandi in TOUCH OF EVIL. Welles’ tendency to hit more than one tone at almost the same time, and hit them both hard, may be one of the traits that kept him from mainstream Hollywood success and a certain kind of critical acceptance. Here, there’s no question of it not working because you don’t have to find the comedy funny or view Susie’s plight or Kane’s monstrousness with irony, it’s simply an option made available to you.
This sequence folds back time a short distance to overlap with Leland’s narrative, but now presents her career not as the grotesque public spectacle Leland reacted against, but as a personal torment inflicted by Kane — Susie, in present tense, is well aware that Kane only married her as a damage-limitation exercise when news of their affair got out, and Leland has already told us that the whole opera bit was an exercise in Orwellian copy-editing on a massive scale — ‘He was going to remove the quotation marks around “singer.”‘
But still, with the scary rehearsal light and the pain of that thin, strained voice, and the desolation of that lonely curtain-up shot with Susie centre-frame (the weakest, most exposed part of the screen to occupy), we have a perspiring Bonanova coaching Susie from the prompter’s box and getting some pretty good laughs. Amid Welles the actor, director, musician and magician, we shouldn’t forget Welles the cartoonist. Naremore points out that Susie’s kneeling pose at the climax of Salammbo is echoed in her confrontations with her husband later.
Fiona suggests that the paper sculpture a bored Leland makes from his programme is a continuation of the film’s octopus imagery.
The play of sympathies in the film gets still more complicated when Susie — in her own account — transforms to a shrieking shrew. Hard not to feel sorry for Kane, in a scene where he’s just lost his oldest friend and been told he’s sold out his most sacred principles, and all the while he’s got this blonde harridan yelling in his ear. One fears for his pipe-stem.
Is Kane a little deaf in old age? There are a couple of “Hmm?” moments which might be simply distraction (which certainly plays a part) but might also be signs of hearing loss. Maybe that’s how he’s been able to enjoy his wife’s singing all these years. It must certainly be a blessing to him now. But the film is also good on how one person not quite hearing another can make any argument get worse…
Dorothy Comingore’s voice gets so shrill she loses whole words — one line literally comes out as “I never wanty tdo inna first place!” Presumably the missing bits are audible to dogs, and possibly to the Kane family parakeet, the Xanadu monkeys, or those damned animated flamingos.
And FLIP — with the line “I don’t propose to have myself made ridiculous,” Kane loses all audience empathy and becomes a very raw embodiment of the human-inhuman, self-centeredness incarnate. The other great line that does this is in the other best movie ever made, also scored by Bernard Herrmann, VERTIGO, when Jimmy Stewart tries to get Kim Novak to change her hair: “It can’t matter to you!”
Insanely beautiful, terrifying end to scene as Kane’s shadow eclipses Susie, with just a star-point of light reflecting in her eye, beaming from the blackness.
Newspaper montage! But not the usual kind — the blinking bulb and multi-tracked vocals create a threatening effect that’s more abstract than anything we’ve seen or heard since the Xanadu opening, especially when the filament fades with the dying warble of an extinguished kettle.
The suicide attempt — a cry for help, really — and one of the few trick effect deep focus shots where the trick can be spotted, just because there’s a hazy area between the sleeping pill bottle and the distant door, something that no lens could achieve.
Susie with no makeup on (apart from the sweat beads, probably a mix of water and baby oil), an unusual thing to see in a ’40s film. Kane allows her to quit her stage career, I guess a genuine act of kindness on his part and a unique example of Kane being forced to do something, and doing it. His normal temperament would be to double-down in the face of opposition and drive Susie on to destruction. But she’s made it clear what the result would be, and he prefers to keep his wife and sacrifice the opera, just as he preferred to sacrifice his previous marriage in a vain attempt to keep his political career. He can tell himself it’s on his own terms.
But with Susie’s career removed, all that’s left is the horror of leisure — her jigsaws are a cruel comment on her lack of any cultural aspirations, but obviously also a bleak summary of the emptiness of her coddled existence and a miniature version of hubbie’s insane art collection — endless, pointless, automatic, isolating.
The rest of the movie, more or less, takes place in Xanadu.
Kane’s picnic — the exact counterpart of this is Bannister’s grotesque, overblown picnic in LADY FROM SHANGHAI — “It was no more a picnic than… he was a man.” The Floridian beachfront is a combination of Californian location and matte painting. Then we’re back to the studio (KANE is a 90% studio construction) with rear-projection for the everglades campsite. I think I’ve said everything there is to be said about the pterodactyl-flamingos.
The fight in the tent. I am rather sure that slap is real. Comingore flinches a second before it happens. Micheal MacLiammoir writes in Put Money in thy Purse, his often-hysterical account of the shooting of Welles’ OTHELLO, that Welles slapped Suzanne Cloutier for real, after telling her he wouldn’t, in order to avoid her flinching before the blow is struck. I tend to disapprove — movies are full of slaps, most of them fake, but perfectly convincing. The suspicion is hard to shake that directors who require real violence to photograph want it for non-photographic reasons.
“I’m not sorry.” And that weird SCREAMING in the background. No explanation give — maybe the pterodactyls are eating the party guests and the “It Can’t Be Lobe” singer? But it captures the psychological mood of the moment alright.
Susie’s room at Xanadu is like a doll’s house. The low ceiling beams, almost brushing Welles’ bald cap, make the girly, petite dimensions as oppressive in their way as the grand hall’s echoing monumentalism. Again Welles slams a door in our face, but this time immediately cuts to inside the room, facing the other way — with a starry cartoon BLAM! effect in the wood paneling behind Kane, visually complimenting the still-echoing sound of the closing door.
Charlie NEARLY talks Mrs Kane into staying, but his selfishness betrays him, and she knows him too well to let it pass — this break-up is something that’s being done TO him, is happening to HIM alone.
Susie walks out, triumphant, and is still upbeat when we fade back to El Rancho. Our attitude to her may have changed, from pitying her as a washed-up drunk, to respecting her as the character who best understood Charles Foster Kane, and who is happier in her alcoholic near-obscurity than she was during the years of unwanted fame. As Sinatra said, I’m for whatever gets you through the night.
“Well what do you know — it’s morning already.”