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