Archive for RKO

Mondo Kane #3: El Rancho #1

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 12, 2013 by dcairns

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As newsreel producer Philip Van Zandt concludes his mission directive to boy reporter Jerry Thompson, we boldly SMASH CUT to a poster of Susan Alexander Kane lit by thunderbolt. Editor Robert Wise ruptures the movie’s zombie-slow forward shuffle at several points, the most famous being the screeching parrot with the see-through eye. This is the first, unless we count the eruptions of News on the March.

As Toland cranes up the wall of the El Rancho night club, we ask: “How many hidden transitions has Vernon L. Walker hidden in this shot?” And the answer comes back, “As many as he wants.” Since his revelations to the BBC about adding optical pans wipes and zooms into the film at Welles’ behest, we can no longer take on faith the actuality of any of Welles’ long takes. Andre Bazin spins in his grave until he starts to drill his way through the earth, tunneling under the surface until he hits a six-foot hill and emerges into daylight, a spinning mummy. Welles from the very start was disproving the reality of the long take.

So when we pass the edge of the movie poster and when we pass the edge of the rooftop, those COULD be optical wipes from one shot to another, blurred over with superimposed rainfall, but they aren’t — the shot seems achievable for real, once you understand it. The whole exterior is a large miniature. The impossible move through the neon sign is accomplished with a breakaway prop, setting the stage for more magic later — whenever the camera isn’t looking, Welles gleefully slides set walls, furniture, props and actors about to rearrange the off-camera world, all part of pretending that the camera is not a chunky piece of studio equipment but merely a floating eye, able to roam anywhere.  (Welles: “Isn’t it basically ridiculous that film is in the camera?” Toland: “Yes. Eventually it will be a kind of electric eye. We won’t be carrying the film around, just the lens.”)

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And then the electric eye attempts to pass through the El Rancho skylight and Walker’s optical solution is probably the worst effect in the film, setting aside that parrot’s missing eyeball. He seems to be trying everything he can think of to tie together the overhead view through the rain-soaked glass with the not-sufficiently-similar crane shot down onto Susan Alexander’s table inside. Rather than the plethora of techniques used — an initial dissolve to get us closer to the glass, half-heartedly disguised by a lightning flash — an optical focus-pull to blur the image — an interpolated ECU of rain-on-pane slung in for God knows what desperate reason (in fairness, probably because the rain on the miniature skylight probably made the shot look like a miniature) — when really one good idea (like whiting the screen out completely for a few frames with lightning zap) would probably have done it. Walker remained embarrassed by the transition, and the praise heaped upon it, throughout his life. We’ll have many more opportunities to examine his more impressive work elsewhere as we sidle through KANE.

At some point before the skylight transition, Herrmann’s score has undergone a more successful segue, from the low sonorities of the Kane theme to a warbly, distant sax and clarinet torch song which toots aimlessly in the background, eventually shading in a xylophonic hallucination, occasionally interrupted by echoing thundersheet booms, giving the El Rancho an appropriately haunted, disconsolate atmosphere. (Soon, we are told, Nat “King” Cole will join the ensemble on piano.) The cactus-and-butte themed mural suggests a cheap movie, something many of KANE’s scenes evoke without ever making the film seem LIKE a cheap movie.

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Gus Schilling, a Welles favourite, plays the headwaiter. He has a face just made for standing over table lamps. Welles cast him as the porter in MACBETH, gave him his best role as Goldie in LADY FROM SHANGHAI, and his last role in TOUCH OF EVIL. Typed as a “nervous comedian,” here he’s discomfited by the fact that Susan Alexander Kane is sloshed as a newt and inclined to surliness. Note — when Dorothy Comingore as Susan Alexander asks for another highball, her delivery is too slurred to make out the headwaiter’s name. When Thompson addresses him later, he inserts a meaningful pause to get the guy to identify himself. “Josh,” volunteers Schilling’s character, but Thompson is too quick to reply, breaking in before he’s finished the syllable and calling him “John.” That overlapping dialogue will trip you every time.

Note also that Susan Alexander really blows her top at Thompson when he calls her Miss Alexander — she’s billed as Susan Alexander Kane, and apparently regards herself as The Widow, so wouldn’t “Mrs. Kane” have been more tactful, divorce or not? Call these little fumbles the first clues that Thompson isn’t going to succeed in his investigation…

Incidentally, it’s a damn good thing SK holds off telling her side of the story until late in the picture — imagine those revelations coming at the start. We’d have the second wife before we’d met the first wife, we’d have Kane’s opera house building before we saw him get famous, and we’d probably have to show how Kane and Susan Alexander first met, a story Welles wisely gives to Jedediah Leland, who introduces it with just the right dry amusement — Susie will maintain her drunken bitterness by focusing only on the relationship’s sour conclusion.

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Amazing frame-within-the-frame fractured composition during Thompson’s phone call to his boss. Two spotlit areas sliced up by shadow, with Thompson himself a mere black hat, accorded equal prominence with a potted plant. I’d happily believe that the telephone he’s honking into is a cardboard cutout, but I fear it’s squandering a whole extra dimension by being real.

“She never heard of Rosebud.” And — fade, The film’s first slow, more or less conventional transition allows us to feel that the plot has truly begun. Maybe something as recognizable as a First Act has been completed.

Next: The Walter Parks Thatcher Memorial Library.

Buy Robert L. Carringer’s excellent The Making of “Citizen Kane”

Mondo Kane #2: News! On! The! March!

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Radio, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 5, 2013 by dcairns

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I am blogging my way through CITIZEN KANE, sequence by sequence, as if it was a movie serial or something.

Following the experimental opening sequence, as quirky and unique as Welles could make it, we get the newsreel, as deliberately anonymous as possible, thus providing the most jarring possible contrast with what’s gone before. So it’s the one part of the film not scored by Herrmann, instead using a swill of sources from the RKO library, including cues from Alfred Newman, Max Steiner, Roy Webb and Anthony Collins; and it’s the one part not cut by Robert Wise, since Welles felt nobody could duplicate the crazy-quilt cutting of newsreels, so they got RKO’s own newsreel department to hack the footage together.

Brazen fanfare and the stentorian bellowing of William Alland, whose future career as producer of Universal B-movies is prophesied by his role here as Shrill Mockumentary Man (THE MOLE PEOPLE isn’t a mockumentary, I know, but it does open with a scientist lecturing us. Alland’s pictures often pursued a factual veneer, but he never had the courage to do what Welles did in his radio War of the Worlds).

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LAST YEAR AT XANADU

The RKO newsreel department got a leg up in its craziness by the scenario, since the decision to divide newsreel exposition between VO and intertitles gives it a nicely choppy, arbitrary quality. When William Wyler prepared ROMAN HOLIDAY, he originally planned to open unannounced with a newsreel announcing “Princess Ann’s” visit to Rome — since Audrey Hepburn was an unknown at this point, audiences would have been taken in — Wyler wanted people to think the projectionist had put the wrong reel on by mistake. This was so successful at the special screening for the studio heads that a riot nearly broke out and Wyler reluctantly concluded that the idea was ahead of its time. Welles probably sensed that opening on News on the March would be a step to close to his recent radio controversy, so we get the avant-garde Xanadu bit first…)

The newsreel cobbles together VO, intertitles, stock shots (including a shot from DRUMS OF FU MANCHU), custom-scratched fake stock shots, celebrity impersonations (Roosevelt and Hitler), a mock-up of a Hearst press composograph (the photoshop of its day — as when they printed prison bars over an image of Fatty Arbuckle, a nasty gag later ascribed to Kane in his dealings with Boss Jim W. Geddes), much play with film speeds and jumpy splices, and mocked-up hidden camera footage. Most of these devices seem to be entirely new to motion pictures — when people bang on about the ceilings in earlier movies or Hawks’ use of overlapping dialogue in HIS GIRL FRIDAY, ask them about this. The only precedent I can think of for this is in the assemblages of experimental filmmakers like Joseph Cornell, or Adrian Brunel’s gag film CROSSING THE GREAT SAGRADA, neither of which Welles or his team were that likely to be familiar with.

I’d like to know more about where the stock shots originally appeared. But many of the shots which look as if they might be archive, turn out on closer examination to be specially filmed footage (all those crates labeled “KANE”) — by shooting fast and light, Welles seems to have been able to generate a vast resource of material for this movie, slowing down and employing a totally different aesthetic for the “real” movie.

Just as in OTHELLO, MR ARKADIN and the original cut of THE STRANGER, Welles begins by revealing all the “surprises” of the story, thus enhancing the sense of tragic inevitability, if you like, or perversely cutting off dramatic tension at the ankles if you don’t like. In fact, knowing the ending is no barrier to involvement, as anyone who’s watched the same film twice can tell you, so the effect is really to let the audience feel the emotion unencumbered by anticipation — we won’t be wondering what happens to the characters, will we? Even though Leland and Bernstein don’t appear in the newsreel so they should be spoiler-free, when we meet them we immediately see that one is in an old folks home and the other is chairman of the board, so that kind of suspense is out the window.

Welles was very young, but his considerable experience staging the classics had clearly taught him that foreknowledge is no barrier to feeling.

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“1941’s biggest, strangest funeral” takes place at the church from the beginning of RKO’s THE BODY SNATCHER, which is meant to be in Edinburgh and not in Xanadu at all. My assumption is the church set must have been constructed for some previous production, but I haven’t identified it. THE LITTLE MINISTER and MARY OF SCOTLAND, both RKO films with Scottish settings, would make sense, but the set appears in neither. Probably a movie closer to KANE in time would make more sense. LITTLE WOMEN?

Welles’ youth is carefully concealed in this newsreel — Kane appears only in middle and old age, since he was presumably not important enough to be filmed in his hot youth, and anyway movies were only beginning then. This allows us to feel that Welles only “really” appears during the Thatcher’s memoir sequence, where we see him young (wearing more makeup, Welles liked to claim, than when he’s aged to eighty). But there’s one brief dialogue scene where we see Kane the old duffer joshing stiffly with one of his own pressmen, kidding around and self-mythologising shamelessly (“We asked them quicker than that when I was a reporter,” — Kane was never a reporter.)

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The newsreel is as much about Xanadu as it is about Kane — he’s even introduced as “Xanadu’s Landlord” — as if the big house was what the public mainly cared about. But the Xanadu seen in the newsreel only sometimes resembles the  matte shot opening sequence. Like Kane’s life, the version seen here is a patchwork of different pieces of footage, some recognizable as specific buildings (eg Eastern Military Academy). Since KANE serves as a sort of prediction of the rest of Welles’ career, it’s easy to see this sequence as laying the foundations for OTHELLO and THE TRIAL, which owe much of their dreamlike, fragmentary atmosphere to Welles’ habit of joining together geographically separate locations by editing. Kuleshov would do a spit-take. Milk would come out of Kuleshov’s nose. The Xanadu that we actually see Charles and Susan Alexander living in is never suggested by the newsreel — assembled not from archive footage but from spare pieces from the RKO scene dock, it is a very different kind of dream composograph. My blog will have more to say about this later.

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“…a private mountain was commissioned and successfully built.” And if it had been unsuccessful? What does an unsuccessful mountain look like?

The brazen fanfare, so insulting to the ear when it’s first heard after Herrmann’s moody overture, is even more offensive crashing in as a response to “as it must to all men, DEATH came to Charles Foster Kane.” But while we’re still sputtering like Erskine Sanford in response to that outrage, Welles and Robert Wise teleport us out of the screen and into an RKO screening room with a series of giddy-making cuts, the first one being one of my three or four favourite cuts in all cinema, an 80º yank clockwise and to the right that repositions News on the March in perspective, rather like the No Trespassing sign  that began the film. There are a few, less-striking edits like this in the film — this one seems to suggest that we’ve telepathically skipped from the POV of an observer middle row centre to one front row far left of the screen. Movies can do visually what novels can do psychically — convey the point of view of one character then another, as if the author literally had the ability to drift like an invasive ghost into other people’s heads. Since KANE will show the life of a man from a variety of perspectives, this technique is oddly apt.

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And now we have our first proper dialogue scene, but Welles isn’t prepared to slacken the reins yet, so he keeps his entire cast mainly in the shadows. Crowding most of his principal actors (including Cotten and himself) into the cramped auditorium, he challenges us not to recognise them, capitalising on the fact that most of them aren’t familiar to movie audiences yet. Time has sabotaged this trick (played partly from necessity, as Welles shot the scene pretending it was a “test,” thus jumping the gun on his schedule and tricking RKO into greenlighting production before they’d had a chance to second-guess themselves) — Cotten’s braying southern rasp (“Rosebud!” — he just can’t get over the effeminacy of the thing) is much more familiar to us now. Robert Wise, called in to help grade the DVD, helped muck it up too, brightening the whole film “so we can see more.” And the Blu-ray, by dint of its very definition, reveals details previously obscure, so the joke is revealed. Deal with it.

Welles’ use of overlapping dialogue strikes me as more natural, more chaotic and less orchestrated than Hawks’ — not as anarchic as Altman’s (Welles didn’t have multiple mics and a portable mixer to draw upon) — there are places where he’s happy to have sheer hubbub, others where he knows he needs certain lines to be completely clear. The Hawks and Sturges approach merely allows actors to step on each others’ lines for maximum pace of delivery, whereas Welles is aiming for the real-life effect where not every word is audible all the time, adding verisimilitude as well as energy. Welles, of course, is no realist, and so his adaptations of reality end up commingling with surreal and expressionistic devices to create that curious nightmare effect we call Wellesian.

In the first group shot, Philip Van Zandt is so dimly lit that it’s only his incessant big cat pacing that let’s us know who’s speaking.

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Then he gets the God shot, borrowed by Scorsese for THE AVIATOR the light blasted by Toland from the projection booth into the smoky interior seems to crucify him. It’s a crazy vision of a screening room with no light switch, illumined by the glare of a projector with no film, bouncing off the empty screen, filtering through a fug of lung cancer. Those newsmen are all going to keel over at fifty facedown in their steak dinners.

Since almost everybody is a silhouette, the fact that Thompson, our bespectacled knight-errant, is barely visible and generally in three-quarter back view, doesn’t pop out as strange, and so it doesn’t strike us as odd when he stays that way for the whole movie. In William Alland, Welles had found an actor characterful enough to occupy a space on the screen, but bland enough not to take over too much of the audience’s consciousness. Alland felt the audience wondered if this unseen investigator was hiding something — why can’t we see his face? — is HE Rosebud? — but I never had the least curiosity about Thompson. He’s sarcastic enough to be good company (passive-aggressively needling a snooty librarian), professionally sympathetic when dealing with a drunk, and he asks the kind of ordinary questions Welles would spend a lifetime patiently fielding. That is all.

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Philip Van Zandt as newsreel producer Mr Rawlston is the first of the movie’s underappreciated stars, a sly, peppy and commanding Dutchman. Other Van Zandt roles you may have seen: in wartime, a bunch of Nazi soldiers, exemplified by the role of Thirsty German Soldier in COMMANDOS STRIKE AT DAWN; the important part of Undetermined Secondary Role (scenes deleted) in TARZAN’S DESERT MYSTERY; Muller, one of the few non-monster characters in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN; a Cartel Member in GILDA; for Welles again, Policeman/Thug in LADY FROM SHANGHAI; various roles for John Farrow who evidently liked him a lot; various Arabs, including one in HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE; Mr Jones (scenes deleted) in THE BIG COMBO, presumably exploiting his experience lurking in the shadows — maybe he strayed too far into the dark and vanished from the emulsion altogether; The Adventures of Dr Fu Manchu on television, apt, given Rawlston’s sampling of THE DRUMS OF FU MANCHU for his newsreel; Radio Program Director in THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS; The High Mucky Muck in Three Stooges short OUTER SPACE JITTERS.

Are you weeping yet? As Welles said to Leslie Megahey, “It’s no way to live a life.”

(If you want true tragedy, consider that the Australian actor impersonating Roosevelt died in January 1941, meaning he almost certainly never got the chance to see the finished movie.)

Rawlston shuns the light and vanishes from the film after just one scene, sitting in offscreen on a phone cal or two but otherwise troubling us no more. But let us doff our snap-brim fedoras at this unsung backroom bigshot — like James Bond’s M and Austin Powers’ Basil Exposition, he has served to kickstart our narrative — he has given us a Quest.

“It’ll probably turn out to be a very simple thing.”

Next Week: El Rancho

Mondo Kane #1: Xanadu

Posted in FILM, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 28, 2013 by dcairns

Join me as I watch my Blu-ray of CITIZEN KANE. All frame grabs, for technical reasons, come from the standard DVD. By the end of this journey, the movie will, I confidently predict without the least touch of hoop-la, be ready to knock VERTIGO out of the top slot once more. I always liked the idea of KANE being the unassailable No. 1. It meant we didn’t have to think about “What’s the Greatest Movie Ever Made?” and could concentrate on more interesting questions…

***

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RKO logo, as normal, but then followed by — dead silence. Welles’ signature on the movie, an unheard-of, near-Stroheimian conceit. And a main title that fills the whole screen, in stark b&w outlined lettering. The strategy is already clear: make choices that are different, but not inferior to, from the Hollywood norm. Where the conventional approach is faulty it can be improved upon, and when the subject matter suggests an unusual but appropriate way of doing things, that can be adopted, but elsewhere, where there’s no particular reason to depart from the default approach — depart anyway. Not too far. Just enough.

Then, music! Bernard Herrmann’s sonorous chromatics, in which the whole opening sequence will stew, with only one spoken word and no sound effects (Herrmann is happy to “Mickey-Mouse” the shattering snowglobe with a blunt stab of orchestra, and provides a similar sound effect for an extinguished light).

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I find myself squinting at Gregg Toland’s first image. Note how the NO TRESPASSING sign (a similar sans-serif font to the opening title card) is composed with nose-room on the left of frame. Toland could have centred the sign perfectly within the frame — instead, he frames it in perspective — as if he’d lined up the shot flat on, with equal space on both sides of the sign, then leaped through space to observe it at a diagonal (as we do at the end of the News on the March newsreel). What I’m saying is, there’s equal space both sides of the sign, but it looks like there’s less on the right because that side’s further away. I’m intrigued by this petty detail.

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Lap dissolves and floating upwards and then dissolving in towards the painted Xanadu… Kane has monkeys! Clearly he was a very happy, contented man.

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Playfully, one shot takes the reflection of Xanadu as its subject, rather than moving in on the castle itself. If you manage to see the version of OTHELLO with opening titles spoken by Welles, you’ll see a similar shot of a tower reflected in a Venetian canal, a single window illuminated. Images recur in Welles in the most dreamlike way, and it’s even more dreamlike when you watch a film like OTHELLO and it’s different from the last time you saw it, not because you’ve changed, but because it’s literally a different edit…

Like the eyes in Ozu’s closeups, the lit window in Xanadu is usually positioned to occupy the same part of the frame as we dissolve closer, even when it’s a reflection in a lake.

Xanadu’s golf course appears to be spherical, as if Kane arranged for the construction of a private planetoid (kind of thing he might do). One pictures him putting away on it like the Little Prince. A kind of big grassy snowglobe…

We reach the window, that mysterious source of light which has led us like a will-o’-the-wisp in search of the promise of STORY. And the light is at once snuffed out. And Welles dissolves 180 degrees through space so we’re looking at the same window in the same composition but from the other side. This kind of match-dissolve was very rare up until this point — it’s still uncommon enough to be a good idea if it can be done with taste. I would suggest that Coppola’s dissolve from puncture wounds in Sadie Frost’s neck to the eyes of a wolf was not a distinguished use of the technique. An earlier usage which might conceivably have influenced KANE is HE WHO GETS SLAPPED. Victor Sjostrom had an interest in this device throughout his career, devising a sinister variation in UNDER THE RED ROBE (1937), his last film as director, where he melts from an empty noose to a glowering Raymond Massey, framed so that the cord briefly encircles his throat…

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Now the first snow-dissolve, giving the effect at first of a snowstorm breaking out within Kane’s bedroom. But that’s absurd. Then a tiny log cabin, which later we’ll surmise symbolises Kane’s childhood home. So he was born in a model and died in a matte painting. There’s upward mobility for you. Optical effects supremo Vernon L Walker created the zoom out which lets us pass through the glass ball as if by osmosis, only to find it’s still snowing OUTSIDE. Our initial misconception about weather conditions in the CF Kane bedroom turns out to be correct. This was apparently an artifact of sorts — Walker roughly superimposed snow over a shot to give Welles an idea of how it would look — Welles LOVED the idea of snow continuing to fall outside the globe, even though as Walker observed, it made no sense. Hell, BECAUSE it made no sense. It’s at this precise point that the opening of KANE becomes an experimental film: the big-budget remake of HEARTS OF AGE.

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The reverse angle gives us giant lips with tiny snowflakes drifting past, suggesting the view of a very small lodger inside the snowglobe, also establishing the idea of Kane as a fee-fi-fo-fum titan, bestriding the world like the RKO radio mast.

These angles haven’t actually set up where the snowglobe is in the room or who’s holding it, even if we’ve glimpsed the prone figure on the bed in that window shot, so the next few brief shots where the glass ball rolls from Kane’s cold dead hand allow us to play catch-up and figure out the geography — and then the snowglobe apparently explodes into a million fragments and globules of water (Water! So THAT’S how they get the snow to float!) before reconstituting itself miraculously for shots in which a nurse enters the room, reflected in the glass sphere.

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Very VERY grainy shot where Welles has run crazy with the optical printer while Vernon L Walker hangs onto his coat-tails screaming at him to stop, in God’s name stop. In a strange way the speed of the cutting and the fact that we immediately cut to a much wider view of the same thing somehow makes it OK.

Note that the shot following the sphere-reflection is the first in the movie where the wide-angle lens is allowed to distort space into a funhouse grotesque. It’s as if all the subsequent photographic choices are cued by that snowglobe reflection. Or as if the rest of the film were happening from the snowglobe’s point of view, which is a reading I may try to make stick.

Then there’s a brief fade-out, then the window is illuminated to silhouette Kane’s sheeted body, suggesting perhaps sunrise over the Kane estate. There’s also a dark horizontal smudge over Kane’s body, apparently a piece of tape stuck on during optical printing to mask it out. Because the movie is now too bright and high-res we can see it rather vividly on Blu-ray (but it looks just fine in the frame-grab below). See also the animated shadow on the wall in the swimming pool scene of CAT PEOPLE.

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What must 1941 audiences have made of this weird onslaught of imagery? It has to be the most experimental, abstract sequence in any Hollywood movie not featuring Olsen & Johnson, and it lacks the conventional excuses — musical exuberance, comedy, pop psychological surrealism, horror — which commercial cinema uses to render the avant garde safe. Welles was obviously intending to throw the audience off-balance, but also hoping that they’d then forget about this sequence as the film went on rather than allow it to keep nagging at them. I guess at a basic level he also wanted to plant a clue to Rosebud’s identity but surround it with so much opaque mystery that nobody would realize it.

But in fact, if it weren’t for the surreal snow drifting where it has no right to be, the sequence would be perfectly lucid and realistic, for all that it’s filmed with unconventional shots. Overlaying the snow pushes us beyond the bounds of sanity, and gives us bedroom as dreamscape and Kane as titan and forces the audience to essentially pretend they hadn’t just seen what they saw.

Welles, never entirely satisfied with what he shot, would continue sculpting his material in post-production, but never did he change its overall effect as completely as he does here.

Next week: News! On! The! March!

Thanks to Randy for the Blu-ray and thoughts.

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