Sunday, March 1, 2009

Don't Make a Scene: Citizen Kane

The Story: Two minutes, fifteen seconds. That's how long this dizzying sequence lasts, and so, too, the bloom of the first marriage of newspaper baron Charles Foster Kane. It's a wise, but cynical scene, an amazing accomplishment for a 26 year old upstart, with one six-year marriage behind him, directing his first film.

Dizzying for the points it makes in so short a time, and also for all the "whip-pans" flashing us forward to the next precipitous drop in the two's affections. It's a simple set-up: we fade from Jed's ironic words, and like a stage production the lights dim on him and come up on the couple, where Kane, in the throes of wedded bliss, deigns to act as servant, bringing his new bride Emily Norton Kane breakfast. The camera dollies in on their loving conversation—only when Emily first mentions Charles' ungodly work schedule are they separated into their own film frames, where they will remain while their marriage declines. and their personalities change--his into fatuous megalomania, hers into brittle contempt. Only at the end, in antagonistic silence, do they share the same frame once again, as we dolly out and their lights go down, as Leland's come up. Curtains closed.

The acting is superb with both participants, Welles' body language speaking louder as his words become fewer and fewer. And in a subtle accompaniment, Bernard Herrmann's subtle waltz at the beginning of the montage, becomes increasingly shrill and sniping as the scenes continues, settling into an icey breath of high strings that brings an added frost to the final sequence–the same arrangement he would use for the chilling horror of "Psycho" twenty years later.

It's amazing work, from the use of sound—Kane's clinking coffee cup is as final a period as any movie-sentence has recieved—to the subtle way the conversation bridges from one to the other during the 'whip-pans." It's very smart. And very unfeeling and not sympathetic. And it's probably demonstrative of why so many people don't like "Citizen Kane." It's a brilliant show-piece, but aloof. Vaguely superior and judgemental, but without the warmth of empathy.

Not unlike the subject of the film.

We take our leave of the month of Valentine's the way we started it...with "Citizen Kane." Because "Citizen Kane" is, above all, a love the narrator of this scene tells us, it's how Kane lost it.

The Set-Up: Young Mr. Thompson (William Alland) is searching for the origin of the last word of Charles Foster Kane—"Rosebud." He is interviewing acquaintances of the late Mr. Kane, looking for clues. Now, he talks to Jedidiah Leland (Joseph Cotten), an old college buddy of Charlie's, who worked as a theater critic for Kane, and had a famous falling-out with him. Jed remembers Kane's first wife, Emily Norton (soap opera doyen Ruth Warrick), and we are given a ring-side seat to that marriage. Get ready to duck.


Thompson: Mr. Leland, what do you know about "Rosebud?"
Jed Leland: "Rosebud?" Oh! Oh, his "dying words." "Rosebud." Yeah, I saw that in the Inquirer.

Leland: Well, I never believed anything I saw in the Inquirer. Anything else?

Leland: I can tell you about Emily. I went to dancin' school with Emily.

Leland: I was very graceful.

Leland: Er, uh, we were talking about the first Mrs. Kane.
Thompson: What was she like?

Leland: She was like all the girls I knew in dancin' school. Very nice girl, very nice. Emily was a little nicer. (clears throat) Well, after the first couple of months, she and Charlie didn't see much of each other except at breakfast.

Leland: It was a marriage just like any other marriage.

Charles: You're beautiful.
Emily: Oh, I can't be...
Charles: Yes, you are you're very, very beautiful.
Emily: I've never been to six parties in my life!
Charles: Extremely beautiful...
Emily: I've never been up this late!
Charles: It's a matter of habit.
Emily: What will the servants think?
Charles: They'll think we enjoyed ourselves...
Emily: Dearest..
Charles: Didn't we?
Emily: I don't see why you have to go straightaway to the newspaper...

Charles: You never should have married a newspaperman. They're worse than sailors.

Charles: I absolutely adore you.
Emily: Oh, Charles...

Emily: Even newspapermen have to sleep.

Charles: I'll call Mr. Bernstein, have him put off my appointments 'til noon.

Charles: What time is it?

Emily: Oh, I don't know it's late.

Charles: It's early.

Emily: Charles?

Emily: Do you know how long you kept me waiting last night when you went to the newspaper...

Emily: ..."for ten minutes?"

Emily: What do you do at a newspaper in the middle of the night?

Charles: Emily? My dear? Your only correspondent is the Inquirer...

Emily: Sometimes, I think...

Emily: ...I'd prefer a rival of flesh-and-blood.

Charles: Oh Emily, I don't spend that much time on the newspaper.

Emily: It isn't just the time. It's what you print - attacking the President...

Charles: You mean Uncle John.

Emily: I mean the President of the United States.

Charles: He's still Uncle John, and he's still a well-meaning fat-head who's letting a pack of high-pressure crooks run his administration. This whole oil scandal...

Emily: He happens to be the President, Charles, not you.

Charles: That's a mistake that will be corrected one of these days.

Emily: You know...

Emily: ...Mr. Bernstein sent Junior the most incredible atrocity yesterday, Charles. I simply can't have it in the nursery.

Charles: Mr. Bernstein is apt to pay a visit to the nursery now and then.

Emily: Does he have to?

Charles: Yes.

Emily: Really, Charles...

Emily: ...people will think...

Charles Foster Kane:...what I tell them to think. (clink)

"Citizen Kane"

Words by Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles

Pictures by Gregg Toland and Orson Welles

"Citizen Kane" is available on DVD on Warners Home Video

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