Review: Citizen Kane (1941)

citizenk3“That’s all he ever wanted out of life… was love. That’s the tragedy of Charles Foster Kane. You see, he just didn’t have any to give.” – Jedediah Leyland

It might seem rather trite to attempt to write anything on Citizen Kane, but as someone who can admittedly be trite sometimes, there seems to be a need to give it a go. Here it goes. Citizen Kane is forever an enigma, in the sense that it was fully under the control of the independent-minded and ultimate auteur Orson Welles during the studio age. It didn’t come out of some movie making assembly line, but instead, it’s a debut that exhibits so many elements that have befuddled and fascinated audiences for generations. There’s certainly the technical and production aspect which became the watermark and inspiration for countless millions. Then you have the human aspect which also deserves some attention.

Swirling around a film with this much mythology there is always bound to be hearsay and rumors, but supposedly in later years, Welles considered Citizen Kane a comedy, in the sense that everything is over the top camp, much in the same way that the Welles the man was a larger than life caricature. He played the part of an alienating artistic mastermind to a tee and it fit the way he made this film. Grandiose in scope,  infused with inspired vision, and really an all-out war for acknowledgment.

Because of the many stories about Kane which have now become the stuff of legend, the parallels between Charles Foster Kane and news magnate William Randolph Hearst stand out. Whatever his opinions of the actual film ended up being, Hearst did his best to besmirch the film and keep it out of theaters. And so it goes Welles’ debut did not get much of an opening, ironically because of a man rather like his main character. It would be interesting to know what Welles would have thought of such a situation. Would he have been greatly incensed or taken it rather like a compliment that he had created something so volatile? Because it’s true, Citizen Kane is still smoldering today, and it retains a constant place in cinematic discussions even 70 years after its release.

There’s so much to talk about and so much that most everyone has probably already talked about. It has such an intriguing narrative structure and it models time in such fascinating ways. Because a lot of this film is about the passage of time as it pertains to one man’s life and the memories of his life. He is dead after uttering that immortal word “Rosebud,” but his memories live on through the recollections of those around him.

We get access to the story through a newsreel, but like such a reporting device we leave it knowing very little about the man except for his material possessions and maybe a little about his career. What we really want to know is the man, and the nameless reporter becomes our stand-in.

He pieces together Kane’s childhood by sitting in a musty vault and reading over the thoughts of the boy’s caretaker and financial adviser Mr. Thatcher. With one particularly memorable match cut, we jump a number of decades in a matter of seconds as the banker speaks to a young Kane only to turn around speaking to a young man. But he’s not much help except that Kane put Thatcher under fire with his brand of yellow journalism.

citizenk2Mr. Bernstein is a kindly fellow and an old man by now who used to work with Kane at the Inquirer when it all began. He knew the man who had a song named after him, who bought out the staff of the rival paper the Chronicle, started his own war and married the niece of the president.

From the now elderly and slightly infirm Jedediah Leyland (Joseph Cotten) we learn of the rise and slow decline of the man along with his friendship with Leyland. There is a sequence here with Kane’s first wife that wonderfully shows the degradation of a marriage over the years as he is more devoted to the paper than his spouse. It’s tragically sad, and there’s more heartbreak in that one scene than most films can muster in their entire runtime. Because Kane could love and he wanted love, but he also seems to love himself more than any other person. He’s married to his work and the personal independence that comes with it. Ultimately, Kane’s political career suffers from scandal and his own bullheadedness. Leyland switches branches to get away and becomes a drama critic prepared to lambaste the operatic debut of Kane’s second wife. It really is bad, but Kane will never hear of it, but he also is always in need of proving himself to those around him.

Our investigative journalist returns to the nightclub of Susan Kane to get the rest of the story from her, and it only becomes more depressing. After being forced into an opera career she has no ambition for, Kane finally relents and Susan spends her days in Xanadau, the fortress he built for her sake. But she wants more than the stuff that he can give her. She wants to get out, have fun and have companionship. Kane doesn’t know how to do that, and soon after she left him.

What was left was a deeply troubled, isolated old man with nothing but material possessions to weigh him down in a river of loneliness. His life was a jigsaw puzzle and yet when we get the piece pertaining to his final word it fails to help us make any headway. Because the reality is that no one word can explain a man’s life. It is interesting how Kane desperately wanted love so you would think that his last words would refer to a person. It just shows how messed up his relationships were. He thought he could get joy from possessions so it’s only fitting that his final words were another thing. It’s sad really, so if Orson Welles wants to call Citizen Kane comedy, there seems to be a need to qualify that and christen it a “tragi-comedy.”

Herman Mankiewicz script with Welles is the quintessential tale of the rise and fall of one man and with the ever-changing times that archetypal narrative has remained prescient because America is still built on those sorts of individuals. It can be the nation of visionaries as well as tragedy. Wealth and loneliness.

As for the great Bernard Hermann, his score personifies the changes in Kane over the years and this was the first time I noticed the wonderful reprises of his theme song. It can be heard throughout although it seems to lose all the gaiety and luster it had years before.

citizenk1Gregg Toland’s cinematography is strikingly beautiful utilizing the distinctly clear, deep focus to frame shots wonderfully. Background and foreground remain equally important becoming a wonderful way to convey distance. Also, the camera always seems to be making the viewer crane our necks, getting a slight view of the ceiling or it has us looking down at the figure below us. We very rarely see them head-on as they appear. Furthermore, Kane is steeped in trick shots, mirror images, and all sorts of things that I cannot even begin to do justice to. It could be a nurse walking into a room or Kane solemnly plodding through the vast corridors of his domain. It’s a veritable paradise for the eyes because we are always being met with visual marvels. Citizen Kane has grown on me every time I see it since it’s not simply narrative, or backstory, or history, but also at the most basic level, it’s one of the most prominent expressions of this highly visual medium called film.

5/5 Stars

Review: Taxi Driver (1976)

taxidriver1Well. Whatever it is, you should clean up this city here, because this city here is like an open sewer you know. It’s full of filth and scum. And sometimes I can hardly take it. ~ Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle

Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle is an American icon representing anyone and everyone who has ever felt like an outcast, outsider, or misfit. He’s the perfect embodiment of any of the angst or disgust that might surge through our veins at any given time. Except before I ever saw Martin Scorsese’s film, I always assumed him to be a thuggish villain. But his character is more complex than that. He’s far more relatable than I would have initially given him credit for.

The film actually opens feeling like the pilot of the Sitcom Taxi or something. There’s Bernard Hermann’s beautifully cool jazz-infused score and then the illuminating lights of an average New York evening. It feels strangely peaceful in spite of all that is going to go down.

Travis is an ex-Vietnam vet who takes a taxi driving job for the strangest of reasons. He just wants something that will have him working long hours and he isn’t too particular about what part of town he ends up in. From the get-go, he strikes the audience as a quiet almost silent observer of all that takes place around him on the streets every night. He’ll sit around with a couple cabbies as they chew the fat, but he’s essentially isolated — a repressed young man who doesn’t really express himself. His existence feels tragic and lonely, certainly not deadly.

taxidriver2There is a small beacon of hope when a pretty campaign volunteer named Betsy (Cybil Sheppard) catches his eye, and he has an extremely awkward interaction with her but it lands him a date. But Travis just doesn’t quite know how to act, he hasn’t learned what it means to be in a relationship and he has an error in judgment while they are out. However, he doesn’t see it that way. He feels his attempts at kindness were completely rejected.

Then, he also begins to notice a young hooker out on the streets and his next mission is to get her away from there back home. He thinks it’s the right thing to do and he means well but young streetwise Iris (Jodie Foster) doesn’t seem to want his charity. So once again Travis seems unwanted and not needed when he is trying to do something nice.

Travis even acknowledges to his colleague Wizard that he’s getting all twisted up inside and confused. He’s distraught and he has no way to deal with it so his outlet includes a heavy strength regimen and loading up on a ton of guns. Never a good sign, but it his mind’s eye it’s all to clean up the streets of the scum of the earth.

However, first he attends a rally for a presidential candidate that Betsy will be at and he has intent to cause harm, but he backs out at the last minute and goes to Plan B confronting Iris’s pimp Sport (Harvey Keitel) and shooting him. The inner demons of Travis are unleashed as he goes off, but his delusions of grandeur reassure him that this is all for Iris. This is for her good. All this bloodshed.

taxidriver4The final moments after his rampage have Travis receiving a letter from Irises parents who are grateful for his actions to save their daughter from corruption. Then, a fully recuperated Travis finds Cybil sitting in the back seat of his taxi cab in all her glory. It’s beyond his wildest dreams, which begs the question is this reality, or is this just a clever construction of his own brain? Another delusion of grandeur. It’s a wonderful open-ended finale.

Paul Schrader’s script is a wonderful character study giving introspection into one troubled man’s psyche. However, there is controversy on two fronts. It’s rumored that John Hinckley Jr. who tried to assassinate Ronald Reagan was influenced by this film and also the finale seems to reflect many people who commit mass shootings. Oftentimes they are people who are deeply troubled and are looking for some type of attention. But with that desire comes often deadly consequences.

taxidriver3Martin Scorsese’s film has also received pointed criticism for its violence which is hard to downplay. However, Taxi Driver remains interesting because it is not bloated with killing (in fact only one scene is actually bloody). Most of the film has to do with relationships or lack thereof because a lot of what Travis does is watch and listen. It might be Martin Scorsese in a cameo as a jealous husband or a presidential candidate asking Bickle’s opinion from the back seat. Furthermore, like any warm-blooded boy, he knows that Cybil Sheppard is a dream girl. And he has enough compassion to want Iris to have a normal childhood. It’s just that his conscientiousness is misdirected and subverted.

The film resigns itself to following this one man in the wasteland that is New York. It’s starkly beautiful and thought-provoking placing a troubled anti-hero in front a canvas of urban realism. I could never condone his behavior, but then again I could never be completely against him either.

4.5/5 Stars

Review: Vertigo (1958)

Vertigo_1958_trailer_embrace“The Greatest Film of All Time.” It certainly seems like an arbitrary title, but if nothing else it gives film aficionados something to discuss. And that’s what Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo is now being called for many reasons. Rather than join the debate, I wish to take a few moments to acknowledge what makes the film itself special.

On the surface, shall we say the first viewing, Vertigo is thoroughly enjoyable as a psychological thriller and mystery. The title sequence is haunting with an eye staring back at us from behind the credits and as an audience we are quickly thrown into the action, watching the opening chase scene unfold. In only a few moments one man is dead and the other John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart) now has debilitating vertigo that takes him off the police force. We never learn why they were chasing a man on the rooftops. It doesn’t really matter. It’s a time later with his friend Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) that we first see Scottie after the harrowing events. She obviously cares deeply for him, and he sees her simply as a good friend so we can undoubtedly expect her to be in the film more.

Then, rather mysteriously, an old school acquaintance named Elster (Tom Helmore) calls up Ferguson, hoping to get him to shadow his wife. It has nothing to do with infidelity, but fear, because the worried husband believes that something is wrong with his wife Madeleine. She disappears for hours at a time and is barely conscious half the time. He would describe her as possessed and Scottie is noticeably skeptical. But he relents and agrees to tail her sending himself spinning headlong into a mystery that will become his obsession.

Vertigo_1958_trailer_NovakHe gets to know Madeleine by following her, all throughout the streets of San Francisco, and much like Rear Window, this part of the film becomes a repetition of scenes followed by the reactions of Stewart. Hitchcock’s background in silents is seemingly at work here as he lets the images and score of Bernard Hermann take center stage along with Stewart’s expressions. We end up all over, from a flower stand to a cemetery, an art museum, and an old hotel. Madeleine goes from place to place like a solemn specter and we watch in expectation. Something must happen.

In an instant, she leaps into the water near the Golden Gate to commit suicide and that’s when Scottie swoops in to rescue her. He can’t lose her now because by this point he’s entranced by the icy blond who he only knows from a distance. And so their relationship progresses if you can call it that. They wander together and Madeleine shares her nightmares with Scottie.

The two of them head to San Juan Bautista and that’s when the nightmares become a reality for both of them. It’s devastating to Scottie, and the second phase of the film begins. He’s inconsolable and madly in love with this girl he cannot have. She’s hardly real. But then wandering the streets listlessly he spies Judy Barton, who coincidentally looks strikingly like Madeleine.

So he does the only thing that he can think of, meet her and try to turn into the girl he so desires. His obsessions are the only things that drive him, that and the haunting memories. Finally, he figures out the mystery, but the swirling cycle continues as he goes back to San Juan Bautista. A cruel twist of deja vu rears it’s ugly head once more.

Vertigo_1958_trailer_Kim_Novak_at_Golden_Gate_Bridge_Fort_PointHitchcock always was one for visual showmanship and it reveals itself whether it’s the parallel symbolism that Scottie notes in the painting of Carlotta Valdes or the out-of-body dream sequence that he suffers through. There’s also the dizzying zoom creating the so-called Vertigo Effect whenever Stewart looks down from a great height. These are obvious visual flourishes, but it’s almost more interesting to watch our main characters walk the streets of San Francisco, especially since there are so many real landmarks to work with (ie. Golden Gate, Mission San Juan Bautista, Muir Woods National Monument, and the Coit Tower among others). There’s something mesmerizing and trance-like about all these scenes that’s difficult to discount. It pulls us in as an audience. We want to see more. Bernard Hermann’s score is, of course, noteworthy and at its core, there is a constant disconcerting quality. It is strangely majestic and beautiful, but it pounds away menacingly. And it spirals in and out with the same sounds, the same crescendos. You think you would get sick of it, but strangely enough, you don’t. It enraptures us.

Vertigo_1958_trailer_embrace_2Then there are the players. Kim Novak has the dual role as Madeleine and Judy. She carries out both with the needed precision. Elster’s wife is elegantly beautiful, aloof and ethereal in a way that makes her the obvious fantasy of Stewart’s character. When she casts a sidelong glance or stares up at Stewart there is a faraway quality in her eyes. The clothes. The hair. How she talks. Even how she carries herself. She is spellbinding, otherworldly, and almost unattainable in all ways. Then there’s Judy, the epitome of a Midwestern girl. Pretty but not elegant. Smart but not cultured. But she falls for Ferguson as he falls for an impossible ideal.

Vertigo_1958_trailer_Stewart_on_a_laddderJames Stewart is an important piece in this film because it’s his character’s obsession that drives the plot. His instabilities, his desires, his anguish, his vertigo. It has been said that Stewart himself is a stand-in for Hitchcock and the own inner workings of the director’s being. His obsession and lusts. That may be true but something else that could be inferred is that Stewart is really a stand-in for all of us. After all, there was no greater every man than him, but there also is a universal quality to the baggage weighing on his being. Stewart’s every man is certainly being subverted, or could it be he is becoming a more accurate depiction of everyone? It’s a scary thought but what is buried inside of us? What are our own fantasies, obsessions, and lusts that lurk under the surface? Let me put it a different way.

For Stewart, he has three prominent women in his life. There’s the fantasy in Madeleine, the perfect ideal, who will ultimately ruin his life because intimacy with her is impossible. There’s Judy who has a passionate love for him, but it seems complicated in so many ways. She’s trying to measure up to his standards. The ideals and fantasies he has created poison what they could have. Then, there’s Midge who is practical, funny, and also completely devoted to Scottie. If his head were on straight he would go right to her because he would undoubtedly find the most satisfaction in that relationship, but his obsessions have undermined that.

There was an alternate ending of the film which showed Scottie with Midge once more, listening on the radio about Elster’s capture. The ending that was kept is more powerful, not because Elster got away scotch free, but because we don’t see Midge again. She all but disappears by the end of the film and with her goes all that could have been decent and good about reality for Scottie. He gets so caught up in fantasy and that tears his life apart. He’s literally spiraling in a web of never-ending hellish obsession.  Who knows what becomes of him? We can only guess.

5/5 Stars

Taxi Driver (1976)

d184d-taxi_driver_posterDirected by Martin Scorsese, the film stars Robert De Niro with Jodie Foster and Cybil Sheppard. The story opens with a Vietnam vet, Travis Bickle (De Niro) who takes a job as a taxi driver. Travis is a quiet and lonely man who is turned off by the scum and filth he sees on the streets of New York. He becomes enthralled with a beautiful campaign worker who eventually turns him off. Then he also comes in contact with a young girl who makes her living working the streets. His frustration deepens and he begins to work out and collect weapons. It becomes obvious he is about to explode and after an initial failed attempt he does  just that. However, ironically the aftermath leaves him as a hero. Travis is an interesting character because you feel sorry for him and yet he does things that are truly wrong. I found Bernard Hermann’s score, the voice-over narration, and the cryptic ending all to be interesting parts of this film.

4.5/5 Stars

Citizen Kane (1941)

The first time I ever saw the film, I actually wrote Citizen Kane off because my hopes were so high thanks to its major critical acclaim. Those hopes were soon dashed after viewing it once, but over time I realized I needed a second viewing. This second chance allowed me to see the minute details, which can be easily overlooked or forgotten. Now I can truthfully say I have a new found respect for this film.

The brainchild of Orson Welles, Citizen Kane opens somewhat unimpressively, however it is certainly very moody and atmospheric. As the camera closes in on a great mansion, we are given a first-hand view of a dying man followed by his mysterious final word “Rosebud.” In the following newsreel, we learn the man was Charles Foster Kane (Welles), a millionaire tycoon and newspaperman. A journalist (William Alland) is enlisted to find out anything he can about Kane. First, he scours the memoirs of Kane’s deceased childhood guardian (George Coulouris). Then, he talks with Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane), who worked with Kane’s paper the Inquirer. He gets around to talking to Kane’s unstable former friend Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotten), as well as Kane’s second wife (Dorothy Comingore). We learn from these accounts about Kane’s early years, his success with yellow journalism, the evolution of his first marriage, and the rise and fall of his political career. Furthermore, we find out about Kane’s unhappy second marriage that ultimately left him loveless after looking for affection his whole life. Fittingly, we are again left with the bleak view of his fortress Xanadu, and we now have the knowledge that “Rosebud” was in fact utterly trivial.

Obviously, Greg Toland’s black and white cinematography using deep focus and low camera angles is noteworthy. The framing of the narrative with different points of view and flashbacks was unique at the time. The actors age in front of us showing the progression of time and montage is used to effectively condense time. There are the overlapping and fragmentation of dialogue to create a realistic feel throughout the film. Bernard Hermann puts together a score that slowly changes along with Kane. And of course, you have the supposed basis of Kane on William Randolph Hearst. Historically, Citizen Kane may, in fact, be the most important film of all time, and artistically it is certainly up there with the best of them. I will let others decide if that makes it the very best film, period.

4.5/5 Stars