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).
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.
“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.)
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.
“…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.
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.
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.
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