Showing posts with label 1941. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 1941. Show all posts

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Movie Review: Blues in the Night

Blues in the Night (1941)
directed by Anatole Litvak, starring Richard Whorf, Jack Carson, Betty Field, Priscilla Lane

Note: Review requested by W.B. Kelso, of the fabulous blog 3B Theater: Micro-Brewed Reviews

Jigger Pine (Richard Whorf) is a world-class pianist with only one dream in his heart. To start his own jazz band (or "unit" as he calls it). A group of guys that play the same, live the same, and think the same. All of them on a mission to find the music of the streets and give it back to the people. His friend, reluctant lawyer/aspiring clarinetist Nickie (Elia Kazan) believes in his vision and they recruit two of their friends: Pete the bassist (Peter Whitney) and Peppi the drummer (Billy Halop). It isn't long before their enthusiasm wins over more people, too. Scheming trumpeter Leo (Jack Carson) and his sweet, optimistic wife Character (Priscilla Lane). The quintet begin their ragged life on the road, hitching rides on boxcars and playing to whatever audience they can find.

It's a hard but happy life until one faithful day when they run across ex-con Del Davis (Lloyd Nolan). One careless act of generosity on their parts is enough to win the gangster's loyalty and he brings them to his roadhouse, the aptly-named jungle. The former members of Davis' gang, his old partner Sam (Howard Da Silva), his old flame Kay (Betty Field), and Kay's crippled ex-lover Brad (Wallace Ford), are running the joint and none of them are too happy that Davis has decided to adopt this group of stray musicians. It isn't long before Kay, still angling to win back Davis, takes up with Leo. When Leo gets wise, she sinks her hooks into Jigger. Her toxic demands turn Jigger from a confident musician into a hollow-eyed wreck, willing to tear down everything else to make her happy. Even if it means turning his back on the band and the music he loves.


Blues in the Night is a movie that seems specially ordered for a night of insomniac channel-surfing, the kind of movie you watch through bleary, dazzled eyes at 3:00 A.M. and then forget about until the next morning, when you try to summarize it to your friends. All goes normally at first ("There's these guys that want to start a jazz band"). But before long you start to stumble over the details ("So the baby's dead and the pianist goes on some insane acid trip on account of the gangster's ex-girlfriend and he starts hallucinating that he's an organ grinder's monkey, but the band convinces him to come back, but then the ex-girlfriend returns to plot more evil until her crippled sidekick decides to put a stop to her.."). And then you start to think, "Wait, what the hell was I watching?"

But Blues in the Night is more than the sum of its delirious plot points. It's an amazingly appealing genre mash-up, a film that starts out like any other light musical comedy of Hollywood's golden age and spirals into a proto-noir of backstabbing dames, mental breakdowns, and vengeful gangsters. Despite the descent into darkness, though, the movie remains innocent at the core, allowing its group of music-minded misfits to walk through Hell and emerge unscathed. I have a weakness for movies that can skip through multiple genres. Maybe it's because as movies get bigger, they also get safer. Scene after scene of well-made, polished sameness. Did Blues in the Night seem as messy to the theater audiences of 1941 as it does now? Probably. But I doubt those audiences could have predicted how exhilarating watching that kind of mess could be, seventy years later.


I can pinpoint the exact scene where I fell for this movie. We catch up with our band of musicians as they steal a ride on a boxcar. After raising each other's spirits with a round of "Hang on to Your Lids, Kids," our gang welcomes a fellow traveler aboard. Only this traveler is no ordinary bum; he's a hardened criminal, who immediately pulls a gun and demands money. They hand over all they have and the train travels on, into the night. The gangster, Del Davis huddles by himself in the corner while the gang falls asleep, clutching their instruments. When the train pulls into the station, a railway man opens the car and beams the flashlight into the faces of our heroes. Instead of getting mad, he greets them as old friends. "Last time I saw you was three months ago...still riding the boxcars?" He promises not to kick them off, leaving them with a warning not to play so loud. When he's gone, the gang promptly settles back down to sleep but Davis won't let them. 

"You could have turned me in," he snaps. 

"Why should we? We've been broke and hungry, too," says Jigger, the band leader. 

The band members lie back down, curled up together like kittens or a bunch of kids at a sleepover. They are total innocents, completely unafraid or resentful. A smile breaks out over Davis' face and you can see the lost humanity slowly return to his eyes. When this hardened gangster decides to take care of them, it plays out not just as some ridiculous plot twist, but a sweet fantasy. Nobody survives on luck and music alone but sometimes, it's nice to pretend we could.


Director Anatole Litvak doesn't give you any time to question the plot of Blue in the Night. He keeps it moving at a frantic pace; you can almost hear him snapping his fingers in the background of each scene, ordering each actor to pick up the tempo. These jazz musicians talk faster than Wall Street stockbrokers, trading quips and comments and insults at such a rate that one scene can shuffle through six different moods. I like the speed, though. It reminds me of His Girl Friday and Stage Door, other movies about people doing what they love, no matter what it costs them. If you love something so much you couldn't imagine doing anything else, then why wouldn't your brain zip along at the speed of twenty ideas per minute?

While Litvak's direction is smooth and confident throughout, the movie really turns on the heat with the montage sequences (credited to Don Siegel). The first one is a sharp evocation of what life on the road means for a penniless jazz band. We race through images of the band members playing, of maps, and outstretched thumbs and speeding cars. I especially like the way the film uses angles, swiping across the screen with a character's instrument when it cuts into the next scene, as if to show music itself as a physical force, propelling these people onward.


But the second montage is the crowning glory of the film, its most perfect, bizarre moment. Jigger Pine falls off the deep end after the femme fatale Kay leaves him. He can't even remember how to play the songs he wrote. Suddenly, after a disastrous reunion with his friends, Jigger falls unconscious and dives headfirst into a surreal hallucination. He sees his bandmates. Then they turn into the five fingers of a hand. He sees Kay, repeated over and over, until she becomes an entire orchestra, each of them playing a separate instrument. Giant hands wave in his face. He shrinks down into an organ grinder's monkey while his bandmates taunt him. And then, in an image that feels like it should have been storyboarded by Salvador Dali, Jigger finds himself at the piano, ready to play, only for the keys to melt into white goo, trapping his fingers completely. The imagery is so stark and arresting that the movie doesn't even try to follow up on it in any logical way. Jigger just wakes up from this crazy dream and that's it, he's ready to be cured. I'm sort of wondering if Kay herself is supposed to be a metaphor for drug or alcohol addiction, because it really does play out more like Ray Milland coming off the DTs in The Lost Weekend than anything else.


Richard Whorf plays the film's protagonist, Jigger Pine, as a man of almost unreal goodness and conviction. He's always smiling, always supportive. Litvak keeps Whorf as the focus of nearly every group shot, letting the other band members cluster around him like eager acolytes. Because the movie holds Jigger up to such a high standard, I found myself almost rooting for the femme fatale Kay to drag him off his mountaintop. And drag him she does, right into the mental ward. Whorf has a relaxed, friendly presence onscreen and he handles Jigger's descent into desperation without histrionics (except that loopy hallucination scene). The script doesn't give him much chance to add character depth. Jigger's downfall happens as simply and easily as if someone had just flipped a light switch. 


I'm really beginning to wonder what quirk of fate and casting kept landing dimpled, all-American Betty Field in the role of irresistible, untrustworthy female. Every time I see her, she's playing some kind of tramp, from low (Mae in Of Mice and Men) to high (Daisy in The Great Gatsby). Maybe it was that insinuating nasal whine she could put into her voice. Or maybe it was the go-for-broke energy she displays here as conniving Kay. Field's femme fatale is a jangling bunch of nerves and tinsel, a two-bit, no-talent floozy who chews through men like they were strips of gum. I've ripped into Field before on this blog, but she's much improved here, clearly relishing Kay's barbed-wire ambition more than Daisy's aristocratic charms. However, Field relishes it rather too much, playing up Kay's whiny, nagging side so much that it's difficult to understand how she ever manages to enslave men. Personally, I'd be hopping a boxcar just to escape the woman's awful vowel sounds. And when she calls down vengeance upon Jigger and Del and all the men who haven't given her what she wants, Field goes right for the rafters in a way that's madly enjoyable and downright silly. I mean, she doesn't shout, "And then I will build my race of atomic supermen!" but she comes close.


As Field's good-girl foil, Priscilla Lane manages the trick of being the squarest jazz musician ever seen, until Martin Milner stole her spot in Sweet Smell of Success. Okay, so that's rough on Lane. She does have a nice voice and if her sweet, blonde singer seems like she'd be more comfortable baking an apple pie than hitching it on boxcars, well, at least she provides the audience with a pleasant break from Field's nastiness. The script does add a bizarre touch by giving her character the name, "Character." Really? Maybe Ethel Waters could pull that off but Priscilla Lane?


 Blues in the Night benefits from a wealth of wonderful supporting actors. There's Jack Carson, playing a heel as only Jack Carson could. It's a typical Carson role, the guy who knows he's laying traps for suckers but is honestly hurt and confused that these suckers would expect any more or less of him. There's also Elia Kazan, turning in another enjoyable, fast-talking performance after City for Conquest. Seriously, guys, I never would have pegged Kazan as any kind of acting talent, but that's twice now I've found him pretty good. Lloyd Nolan, as the gangster Del Davis, manages to convey the perfect amount of affability and menace. 

But by far and away, my favorite supporting performer was Wallace Ford, who plays Brad, Kay's ex-lover and fumbling sidekick. At first, Brad seems like nothing more than a pathetic crony, a shuffling Igor too stupid to free himself from Kay and Davis. But in one key dialogue with Jigger, Ford slowly reveals the tragedy behind the man. Once he felt sorry for Kay. And then he fell in love with her, breaking his own body in a rodeo just to impress her. "I wasn't much good for anything after that except hanging around her." As Ford talks, you see Brad stand straight and tall for the first time, his voice free of self-pity, revealing a depth of experience that turns him from a cringing crony into a fallen hero.


Blues in the Night is a movie I'd be very happy to stumble across again. It's weird, it's sweet, it's got good Arlen and Mercer tunes, and it's entirely unique. I don't think I'd ever want to own it, though. It really belongs to that realm of happenstance movies. Too mixed-up for respectability, too cute for sophistication, and too enjoyable to resist.

Favorite Quote:

"You see, I'm a student of jazz. I know the anatomy of swing, not only musically but theoretically. I've heard everything from Le Jazz Hot to Downbeat. You'll find out for yourself. As the Latin say, res ipsa loquitur. On the side, I'm a student of the law."

Favorite Scene:

As I mentioned before, that crazy montage scene. Can't say it enough.

Final Six Words:

Exhilarating riff turns into fever dream

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Movie Review: The Devil and Daniel Webster

The Devil and Daniel Webster/All That Money Can Buy*  (1941)
directed by William Dieterle, starring James Craig, Walter Huston, Edward Arnold

*The Devil and Daniel Webster is the original title of this movie; it was changed to All That Money Can Buy for its first release. Later releases of the film would revert back to the former title and that's the one I will use for this review.

(Note: This film review is my entry for the Fabulous Films of the 1940s Blogathon, hosted by The Classic Movie Blog Association.)

Nothing seems to go right for Jabez Stone (James Craig). His farm is failing, he's in debt to a greedy moneylender, and no matter what he does, he'll always be poor. In a fit of anger, he vows he'd sell his soul to the devil for two cents. Well, quick as a wink, a silver-tongued gentleman appears with a contract all ready and waiting. The Devil (Walter Huston) assures Jabez that for seven years, he can have "all that money can buy" and then his soul will belong to Hell. Tempted by the sight of gold coins pouring out of the earth, Jabez accepts. With the help of the gold, he suddenly find himself able to do everything he ever wanted. He can loan money to his needy friends, buy his wife Mary (Anne Shirley) a new bonnet, and treat himself to the best of everything. But his mother (Jane Darwell) is suspicious of his miraculous wealth: "When a man gets his money in a bad way...the Devil's in his heart."

As time passes, Jabez goes from being a simple, honest man into a greedy, arrogant bully, egged on by the Devil's kindly advice. His moral dissolution is also hastened by the arrival of the mysterious Belle Dee (Simone Simon), sent to be his child's nursemaid. With soft words and seductive smiles, Belle soon ousts the goodhearted Mary from her husband's life. But Mary, driven to desperation, enlists the help of Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold), the politician that everyone respects for his oratory and loyalty to the working man. Webster vows he'd "fight ten thousand devils to save a New Hampshire man." But it will take all of Webster's eloquence and all of Jabez's desperate, sincere repentance to win the trial for a man's soul. And when you're going up against the Devil, don't expect it to be a fair fight...


This simple morality tale, adapted from Stephen Vincent Benét's short story, is yet another superb movie from 1941. Yes, there were a lot of them that year, weren't there? Directed by the underrated William Dieterle, with cinematography by Joseph H. August and musical scoring by Bernard Herrmann, The Devil and Daniel Webster is one of those rare films that's a perfect example of classic Hollywood filmmaking and yet doesn't really feel like any other movie. The filmmakers take Benét's relatively simple narrative and expand it with humor, depth, and an imaginative perspective on eternal damnation. Believe me when I say that after watching this, you will never look at moths, recruitment posters, or "Pop Goes the Weasel" the same way again. But more than that, The Devil and Daniel Webster is a movie that can turn the old tale of good versus evil into something truly fascinating.


Something about tales of the fantastic and otherworldly seemed to strike a chord with director William Dieterle since his other great film of the 40s, Portrait of Jennie, was also about the arrival of the uncanny into ordinary life. Also made with the help of August and Herrmann and damn, why didn't those three collaborate more often? But while Jennie was lushly romantic, Devil is archly funny and straight-faced, lulling the audience in with its portrait of bygone America before it takes you by surprise. The visuals here are some of the most striking I've ever seen in a film. Like the first entrance of Satan, backlit and glowing more like an angel than the Prince of Darkness. Or the way Dieterle and August show the final temptation of Jabez, with the man caught in a crowd of whirling dancers, the play of light and shadow on their bodies slowly morphing into the image of hellfire. Even a relatively simple romantic moment between Jabez and his wife becomes something more, with the already-corrupted Jabez leaning over Mary in dark silence and her looking back with an expression that hints both at fright and sensual surrender. It's like the Tippi Hedren close-up from Marnie, twenty years before Hitchcock ever thought of it.


If Milton was "of the Devil's party without knowing it," then it's just as fair to say that this movie is very much of the Devil's party and is fully aware of that fact. Oh sure, we're rooting for Jabez to free his soul, but who could begrudge Walter Huston's incredibly charismatic Devil the chance to make some mischief? Like Ray Milland would find out in Alias Nick Beal (another great Faustian film), playing the Devil is just about as much fun as an actor can have. Huston's grin is so wide it doesn't quite seem attached to his face. He's a joking, courteous Devil ("I won't come to the christening...it would be in wretched bad taste"), running rings around Jabez with ease. The sinister aspect comes not so much from Huston trying to project real menace but from the good-natured satisfaction he has when explaining his position. Huston's performance as the unhappily married millionaire in Dodsworth is one of my personal favorites but this film shows he's just as wonderful when he plays it broad as when he plays it subtle. He was nominated for Best Actor (losing to Gary Cooper), but I wish it had been in the supporting category where he might have had a better chance. 


Have I mentioned how much I love Edward Arnold? He was the consummate character actor, a man who could play outsized comic parts or dead-eyed villains with equal mastery. But he shone brightest when he could play it smart. He had a way of sizing someone up with one quick, shrewd glance, saying nothing but letting his presence speak for him. In von Sternberg's adaptation of Crime and Punishment, Arnold was a surprisingly effective Inspector Porfiry, smilingly working at poor Peter Lorre's nerves the way an old woman would wind up a ball of yarn. Here he has the immense task of creating a Daniel Webster that lives up to all the hype. The Webster in this tale is a noble and courageous politician, a  man whose fiery rhetoric is in service to the people, not his own ambition. In short, he's the kind of man we dream of, not the man we ever meet.

In Arnold's hands however, Daniel Webster is a very enjoyable hero, clever and funny but with an air of real experience that makes his nobility seem hard-earned. Part of it can be attributed to the script, which allows Webster to be a little less than perfect. He's an overly enthusiastic drinker and smoker. He allows himself to get carried away by arrogance at times. And we can see that he too has to live with the Devil at his elbow, always tempting him with promises of the Presidency. Thomas Mitchell was slated for the role of Webster before breaking his leg. He would have been superb, but Arnold's performance is there already. When he makes his speech at Jabez's trial, we can see both the very real fear of a man facing the Devil himself and the deeper courage and fire that all of us would want to see raised in our defense.


There's a surplus of other great supporting perfomances in The Devil and Daniel Webster, from Jane Darwell's no-nonsense Ma Stone to John Qualen's hauntingly frightened Miser Stevens, the last man to make a bargain with the Devil. But by far the one you can't take your eyes from is Simone Simon as Belle Dee. She's ravishingly sexy here, so much so that it's no surprise that poor, simple Jabez falls for her charms in the space of about five seconds. Simon's French accent gives a strange, sing-song quality to her lines that's totally appropriate to a character that's meant to be otherworldly. "I'm from over the mountain," Belle says, in lieu of any other explanation. As attractive as Belle is, she's also quite creepy, with her constant smiles and ability to insinuate herself completely into the Stone household, replacing Mary entirely. It's hard to look at Simon's performance here and not imagine that Val Lewton was thinking of it when she was cast as the equally sexy and supernatural Irena in Cat People.


With Huston and Arnold holding up the smart, comic side of things and Simon handily taking care of the sex, there isn't much left over for our simple lead couple, James Craig and Anne Shirley. They represent the good American Everyman and his wife; two people that were meant to lead ordinary, uneventful lives. Craig gets the potentially interesting challenge of depicting Jabez's disintegration from true-hearted farmer into greedy, immoral layabout. But Craig doesn't have the ability to give any kind of complexity to the part. He's not bad, but he can only feel one thing at a time. Whether he's beaten down with remorse or trembling with greed, well that's all he feels. I feel that an actor like Joel McCrea or James Stewart could have made Jabez seem less like a pantomime character and more like a tormented, recognizable human being.

Anne Shirley is even less interesting than Craig and no wonder, she gets the worst part in the movie. The fact is that Mary Stone is such a monument of patience and sincerity that I doubt even Teresa Wright could make her credible. She waits in hopeless obedience for her husband to return to the path of goodness for seven years. She bows her head even when he forbids her from disciplining their son. She loves him even when he kicks her out of the new house so he can live there with his mistress. The only direct action she can take is to implore Daniel Webster to help her, crying that her lousy husband's behavior must be her fault somehow. Shirley does what she can (she tended to get stuck with these winsome ingenues time after time) and you can believe that she's a devout, loving woman and all that. But after all she endures, it's close to impossible to believe that she could ever trust and respect her husband again. There's too much poison between them.


In the end, we know that good will triumph and villainy will slink away unrewarded. Still this film is all about the journey we take to get there and it's a fun, fantastic trip all the way. It has rich performances, witty lines, and an imaginative use of sound and shadow that will linger in your memory. It deserves to be classed as one of the great films of the 1940s. And I suggest you spread the word about it right now, before Walter Huston makes you his next victim.

Favorite Quote:

"Oh, come, come now. Just because you sold your soul to the devil that needn't make you a teetotaler."

Favorite Scene:

The party at Jabez Stone's new mansion. While spoilers don't really apply to a straightforward plot like The Devil and Daniel Webster, I think it's best when Dieterle and August's uncanny visuals are left as a surprise. So I won't give too much away about what happens at the party and what we see. Suffice to say that it's one of the most memorable parties in cinema, one to put alongside The Masque of the Red Death. We get to see the final sum of all that Jabez has hoped for, along with his well-deserved comeuppance. We get to see the Devil's sharp assessment of the man he has caught: "I could fit your soul in my vest pocket." We see Belle's true nature revealed as she leads the revelry of the damned. And we're left with the haunting image of what happens when the Devil chooses to bring you into the dance.

Final Six Words:

Bewitching tale of dark fantasies fulfilled

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Citizen Kane Takes the Stand


"Citizen Kane is perhaps the one American talking picture that seems as fresh now as the day it opened. It may seem even fresher. A great deal in the movie that was conventional and almost banal in 1941 is so far in the past as to have been forgotten and become new."
~Pauline Kael, Raising Kane

"For me (Orson Welles) is just a hoax. It's empty. It's not interesting. It's dead. Citizen Kane, which I have a copy of — is all the critics' darling, always at the top of every poll taken, but I think it's a total bore. Above all, the performances are worthless. The amount of respect that movie's got is absolutely unbelievable."
~Ingmar Bergman, interview with Jan Aghed

Well, a challenge has been extended. Those three fine ladies, Brandie, Carrie, and Nikki over at True Classics have thrown down the gauntlet to the blogosphere: Make your case for Citizen Kane. Is is the greatest film of all time or the most overrated? And if it is "just a hoax," as Ingmar Bergman would have it, is there a film out there that can take its place as Greatest Film Ever Made?


My own position on the matter can be stated in two parts. And the first is this: any attempt to rank a single film above all others is a complete crock. For one thing, nobody's ever been able to see every movie ever made. Even if by some miracle, a person could sit around for the rest of their life, doing nothing but watching movies and carefully ranking them according to cinematic value, they would never be able to even come close to seeing every film. The Internet Movie Database, for example, lists over 400,00 films, a number which doesn't even take amateur productions into account. Let's say this miracle person watched 5 movies a day, every day of the year, for 80 years. Then they would have seen a mere 146,000 by the end of their lifetime. Most cinephiles eventually come to terms with the fact that not only will they not get to see every movie ever made, they won't even get to see every great movie.

The deeper problem with ranking films is, even if you make the assumption that you've seen every worthwhile piece of celluloid out there and are now free to hand out merit badges, is that art just can't be assigned value that way. I know that we movie lovers have an obsession with making lists. And then arguing about the lists. And then rewriting the lists. 

But while those lists do have plenty of value for sparking controversy and discussion, they have no power to assess a movie's worth. If you believe that both The Lady Eve and Strangers on a Train are great movies, how do you go about deciding which one should be ranked higher? How much weight are we supposed to give to technical and visual merit versus story and content? Does the beauty of something like Triumph of the Will make up for its appalling purpose? Do we have to ration out how much space we give to John Ford on our list so that Douglas Sirk can have room? Actually, I enjoy pondering these questions because they force me to think deeply about the films I love. I think list-making is good exercise but then again, so is jogging on a treadmill. In either case, you shouldn't expect to get anywhere.


But here we come to my second point which is a little more complicated. Citizen Kane is not the Greatest Movie of All Time, but if we do have to arbitrarily assign a movie this title, then I think Citizen Kane makes as good a case as any and better than most. Birth of a Nation was more technically innovative, Gone with the Wind was a bigger movie event, and Rashomon redefined our ideas of how a story is told, but Citizen Kane is, for me, one of those rare movies that combines all the elements we look for in a film. Visual mastery, an exciting story, a talented cast, and most importantly, the ability to be rediscovered. Every time I see Citizen Kane (and I ration out my viewings), it feels like I'm seeing it for the first time.

On my last Citizen Kane re-watch, I was struck by what a strange, strange film it is. Even in just those first few moments. The establishing shot of Xanadu, the light that flashes in the window, the snowglobe, those monstrous lips uttering the word "Rosebud"...some people compare Citizen Kane to a horror film but for me, the opening owes more to the Surrealists. The story is set up as a relatively straightforward mystery: what is the meaning of Kane's dying word, "Rosebud?" The telling, however, is anything but straightforward. We are handed off to various narrators (Kane's loyal employee Mr. Bernstein, his embittered friend Jed Leland, his second wife Susan, his butler, his banker) but even as the facts pile up, nothing is really explained. The narrators are bitter and biased, their stories roam beyond what they themselves witnessed, and they never come close to answering the real question of the film: Who was Charles Foster Kane?


I once had the pleasure of watching Citizen Kane with a friend who had never, ever been told about the ending. When we finally reached the secret of Rosebud, my friend gasped, jumped up in his chair, and proceeded to complain for ten minutes about what a crap ending this was. Rosebud was the sled? What a cop-out. As fun as it was to watch my friend flip out over a sixty-odd-year spoiler, it did make me think that if you take it as a mystery, Citizen Kane is an utter failure. It's a mystery that tells you flat out that all its clues lead nowhere. It's an end with no beginning.


I've had a theory for a while that Citizen Kane is the cinematic equivalent to Hamlet. Both works stand at the head of their respective canons, whether people believe they deserve it or not. Everyone who loves movies has to deal with Citizen Kane and everyone who loves English literature has to make their terms with Hamlet. Both works are essentially shaggy dog stories that purport to be about one thing (Hamlet's revenge against Claudius, the mystery of Kane's last word) and resolve in a way that makes this one thing seem incredibly hollow. Both stories center on one very powerful and mysterious person and their slow descent into self-destruction. And both works seem to attract a lot of the same criticisms, that they're boring, the protagonist is unlikable, that nothing gets resolved. But I believe that both Hamlet and Citizen Kane have something of the same irresistible appeal for people: they force the audience to question themselves. The mystery is not in the events of the plot, but in pondering the question of what lies at the heart of a human being.

And I think that emphasis on the individual is also part of the reason why Citizen Kane is so often ranked higher than its American competition, higher than Casablanca or Gone With the Wind. It strikes at the great American fascination with the self-made man, a myth that's dominated our culture from The Great Gatsby to The Social Network. Like The Great Gatsby, Citizen Kane is essentially a demolition of that myth. Charles Foster Kane doesn't "make" himself; his fortune is thrust upon him. His fantasies of using that money to do good prove weak, his patriotism is exposed as war-mongering, and even the simple right of telling his own story is taken out of his hands. While this kind of story isn't necessarily more valid or worthy than any other narrative, nevertheless, it's the kind of story that Americans tend to claim as being most, well, American. And tied in with Citizen Kane's search for success is of course, the story of its own creator, Orson Welles, his blazes of glory, his failures and thwarted endeavors. Casablanca is the ultimate cinematic escape and Gone with the Wind is the ultimate cinematic event, but Citizen Kane is the ultimate cinematic quest.


I've dwelt more on Citizen Kane's story more than its visuals, probably because I find it easier to go after narrative than I do picking apart Welles' gorgeous, fascinating camera work. When I watch Citizen Kane, I'm always in danger of losing myself in one particularly weird or beautiful shot. Just look at the way Welles and Toland light those reporters in the newsroom, with beams of light echoing around their faces and hands. Or the Thatcher Library, which looks like it should be the set for a medieval miracle play. Susan Alexander's jigsaw puzzles, the sharply angled ceilings, Kane thunderously clapping into empty space. This is the reason why I don't watch Citizen Kane very often; I don't ever want to reach the point where its images fail to shock me.

Citizen Kane is often touted as a cinematic pioneer, blazing new trails and techniques in creative filmmaking. Welles and Toland's use of deep focus, their experiments with camera angles, wipes, montages, matte paintings, and animation all play a part in making Citizen Kane's reputation as one of the most technically innovative movies of all time. But what makes me marvel isn't that these filmmakers pioneered so many new methods, but that even now, Citizen Kane still looks exciting and new. So many times, a work of art that was once fresh and ingenious turns stale after those same innovations are recycled a thousand times over. It isn't just that Citizen Kane looks different from every movie that came before it. It looks different from every movie that came after it.


I'm going to end my commentary on Citizen Kane with a personal confession. The reason why I named my blog, "The Girl with the White Parasol." Anyone familiar with Citizen Kane knows Mr. Bernstein's famous speech in which he remembers one fleeting glimpse of a girl with a parasol, years and years ago. "I only saw her for one second. She didn't see me at all, but I'll bet a month hasn't gone by since that I haven't thought of that girl." When I chose that quote and title for my blog, I worried for a long time that people might think I was calling myself after that long-lost girl. And wouldn't that seem like the height of arrogance? No one ever questioned me on the subject but here is my chance to set the record straight. The girl with the white parasol isn't me. For me, the girl represents a brief flash of beauty in a person's life. One of those brief moments that stay with us forever, no matter where we end up or what we do. The reason I watch films is so that I can find those moments of beauty, whether they come from a Technicolor image or from the throb in an actor's voice or from a string chorus. That's why I named my blog, "The Girl with the White Parasol." That's why I love film. And that's why I love Citizen Kane.