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

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946): The Forgotten Counterpart to George Bailey’s Story

The_Best_Years_of_Our_Lives_film_Inherent in a film with this title, much like It’s a Wonderful Life, is the assumption that it is a generally joyous tale full of family, life, liberty, and the general pursuit of happiness. With both films you would be partially correct with such an unsolicited presumption, except for all those things to be true, there must be a counterpoint to that.

Upon watching both these films on subsequent days, that became markedly evident. George Bailey (James Stewart), of course, must go through a perturbing alternate reality where he never existed, and the consequences are catastrophic to all those he knows and loves in his community. But such a paradigm shift or new perspective, does truly revitalize his entire existence. It’s as if he sees the whole world through an unfaltering lens of hopefulness thereafter.

Although it lacks the dark fantasy that engulfs the latter half of It’s a Wonderful Life, Best Years has its own heavy dose of foreboding, that while more realistic, is no less disconcerting. All the boys have returned from the theaters of Europe and the Pacific, including our three protagonists Fred (Dana Andrews), Homer (Harold Russell), and Al (Fredric March). Upon getting back to their old abode of Boone City, sons talk about nuclear fallout in Hiroshima and men at drug store counters warn of the imminent threat of “The Reds.” Some soldiers like Fred have trouble landing work. Others struggle with getting the necessary loans from banks like the one Al works at,  or they come back to far less glamorous lifestyles. Homer copes with being a double amputee and simultaneously closes himself off to all those who love him, including his longtime sweetheart Velma (Cathy O’Donnell). He must learn not so much how to love, but the equally difficult life skill of allowing others to love him.

Derry also struggles in a loveless marriage with his superficial wife Marie (Virginia Mayo), while also battling with PTSD symptoms like recurrent nightmares. Even the subtle reality that the only African-Americans in the film work behind soda fountain counters or in nightclub jazz bands has greater implications. Theirs is a relegated status, even in a country of liberty like America. Unlike the former film, we do not see any ghoulish human cemeteries, but we do see plane graveyards like ghost towns where metal is slowly rusting just waiting to get demolished and re-purposed. At this point, it is only a sobering reminder of all those who fought and died in the war years.

Many of these topics are only mentioned for a brief moment or we can only infer them from visual cues, but still, they lurk there under the surface or better yet, right in plain view. These real-life unsettling concerns are worse than It’s a Wonderful Life because they fall so close to home even today.

Wounded veterans are still coming home to a country that doesn’t know what to do with them, or a country that seems ungrateful for their service. Married folks still struggle through marriage and divorce. Single people still struggle with figuring out if they should get married and so on.

I think part of the reason I admire The Best Years of Our Lives so much, despite its nearly 3 hour running time, is its ability to captivate my attention rather like a day in the life of someone I would meet on the street. Although Virginia Mayo and Mryna Loy seem the most Hollywood, most everyone feels rather ordinary. Certainly, Dana Andrews is handsome and Teresa Wright, as well as Cathy O’Donnell, are wonderful as multidimensional girls-next-door, but I feel like I could potentially know people like them. And of course, Harold Russell was unusual since he wasn’t a trained actor. That casting choice pays off beautifully in moments such as the final wedding scenes where in a dyslexic moment he switches up his vows. But it works wonderfully as an authentic addition.

Although Gregg Toland worked on revolutionary fare like Citizen Kane, and William Wyler dabbled in all sorts of genres from westerns to period dramas, they have all the necessary sensibilities for a perfect presentation given the subject matter. The visuals are crisp and beautiful, but never flashy or overly conspicuous. The use of deep focus concerns itself with the overall composition of the frame -never attempting to focus our attention on any singular action.  It all becomes equally important. Meanwhile, Wyler directs with a sure hand that makes the actions flow organically and at the same time his ensemble is given the space and the time to grow and evolve before our very eyes.

It’s a timeless film for what it brings to the forefront and also because of what it evokes out of the audience members themselves. There is an underlying somberness to it at times, but most importantly it rings loudly with the high unequivocal notes of hope. In the post-war years, it was a pertinent film, and it still has something to offer even now. More people need to know about The Best Years of our Lives.

5/5 Stars

Review: The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

Grapes_of_Wrath,_The_-_(Original_Trailer)_-_01The Grapes of Wrath is in special company with a number of literary adaptations where film and source material are both so highly regarded and culturally significant. A few other names spring to mind such as Gone with the Wind, A Streetcar Named Desire, and To Kill a Mockingbird.

However, even more so than all of those stories John Steinbeck’s novel of exodus during the Dust Bowl has a universal ring reverberating for the common man. The Joads are a humble, simplistic Oklahoma clan, but they are only one family out of many who are forced to make the migration out to California. The Dust Bowl and big business push them off their homes and their only hope is the distant promise land of California. They cling to that hope which keeps them going resolutely onward toward the Orange Groves.

Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) who has just gotten out on parole is the figure from which we see the story through. He’s the focal point certainly, but he is defined by all those around him. Ma Joad (Jane Darwell) is the rock of the family, keeping them together, civil, and spirited even when the worst hardships of life hit.

Grandpa dies on the land that he called home. Grandma dies without the company of her lifelong partner. Rosasharn’s husband cuts out when prospects look bad. The family is slowly drained of money, food, gasoline, and hope when they see that the prospects in California are far from good. The book has so much to say politically and socially, using the Joads as a universal parable to reflect the reality of a great many people.

Obviously, John Ford’s film cannot contain all the exposition and commentary of the novel, but he uses the visual medium brilliantly and the Nunnally Johnson’s script fills the screen with all sorts of folks. There are no true villains and the only heroes are those who maintain their humanity and treat others well on a day to day basis. Ma Joad is one, offering food to starving children because it’s the right thing to do. A roadside waitress comes off brusque at first before extending a true act of kindness. You have the genial caretaker (Grant Mitchell) of the Wheat Patch Camp, who is angelic in comparison to so many of the other gruff people the Joads come in contact with.

There’s the scum of the earth. People just doing what they’re told, men just worried about profit, and crooked cops looking to run Okies out. There are those who just grin and bear it to feed their families. They’re part of the problem too and finally, you have Jim Casy and then Tom following in his footsteps.

Former preacher Jim Casy (John Carradine) is a critical figure because he, like so many of the other characters, has lost himself and yet over the course of the film he finds his purpose again. He’s the film’s Christ-like figure (with the initials JC), and yet he seems counter-intuitive to what we expect. But he has the most important things down. He fights for justice and lays down his life for his friends.

Rather like an extensive Dorothea Lange exhibition, cinematographer Gregg Toland shoots the film in beautifully austere and gritty black and white, which feels like a test run for Citizen Kane. However, it remains iconic in its own right with the ways in which it makes the plain, simple, and ordinary cinematic. It’s truly a visual snapshot of Americana with Henry Fonda as our All-American poster boy.

Speaking of Fonda, how could I have lost sight of his character here? Fonda in many ways synonymous with Tom Joad, and I always equate him being a kindly, true blue American. But that’s only part of him. That’s how he acts around his family, but he’s a young man disillusioned by the world. He speaks his mind and is not opposed to fighting back against the injustice. Because that’s what he sees around him. That’s why he kills the man who beats Casy and that’s why he goes out on the road; to be a champion of justice where there isn’t any. It’s an ending more suited for Hollywood at the time than Steinbeck’s original denouement, but it no less poignant or powerful. It doesn’t just stop with the Depression, but it ends up being a whole lot bigger and more universal than that. This is one of the great tales about the human condition, courtesy of one of America’s greatest directors starring one of America’s most legendary actors.

4.5/5 Stars

“I’ll be all around in the dark. I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look, wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build, I’ll be there, too.” – Tom Joad

Review: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

15548-best2byears
Who in their right mind would make a film like this today? I mean it’s nearly three hours of incessant talking and character development. There are no explosions or special effects. There are not even any war scenes! And yet it is pure gold from William Wyler. He forces us to get to know these characters — all the details about them — and it is a pleasure.

In a year that boasted the likes of It’s a Wonderful Life, it is not simply a testament to the post-war sentiment, but also the power of this film, that led it to garner so much praise including a Best Picture Oscar.

Like Capra’s film, WWII plays a role here without actually focusing on the fighting. The effects of such a cataclysmic event were enough on their own.  The Best Years of Our Lives chooses to focus on the point of view of three returning servicemen. However, it would be selling the film short to suggest that is all the film is about. It revolves around deeper issues such as family, camaraderie, patriotism, and of course romance. Over the course of the film each man must navigate his own path, and much of those pathways have to do with their romantic relationships.

Al (Fredric March) has been married 20 years and yet he returns to a home with a wife and kids who seem more foreign than the battlefronts he fought on. His loving wife Milly (Myrna Loy) patiently allows him to become acclimated and stands beside him as he stands up for his convictions at his bank.

Then there is Homer (Harold Russell), the double amputee, who is bracing for the worst as he returns to his family and the girl next door named Wilma. His way of dealing with the situation is to avoid those he loves because by not letting them get close he thinks that will allow them to move forward with their lives. However, Homer completely misjudges just how much his girl loves him. Wilma is the real deal, and she is prepared to remain faithful to Homer no matter the circumstances.

The final relationship is perhaps the most complicated of the lot. Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) is the complete antithesis of Al. He has little work experience, and he was a young man who only knew his wife for a handful of days before he went off to war. Now it is all coming back to bite him because Marie (Virginia Mayo) is not ready to patiently wait around while the former soda jerk tries to find a job. She wants money, nights on the town, and good times. Sparks fly and Fred finds himself drawn more and more to Al’s daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright) since his marriage is a loveless one. This relationship is perhaps the most agonizing to watch as Fred is torn apart, but he ultimately gets the girl who will accept him for who he is.

“The best years of our lives” may have been during the war for some, but that really does not matter, because with the right attitude humanity is able to move forward to make the best of the future. That is one of the merits of this film, it exudes hopefulness and despite their different lots, each character is able to find a little slice of joy.

No one personality outshines any of the others, but on the contrary, all the players add up to the perfect combination. I will shamelessly acknowledge that Teresa Wright is one of my favorite actresses and over the last few years I have come to really appreciate Dana Andrews. They really do deserve more credit and I hope this film continues to get the praise it deserves. It is a delectable slice of cinema and Americana.

5/5 Stars

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Directed by William Wyler, the film chronicles the lives of three men as they return from World War II. They feel joy and then angst trying to integrate back into society  with lives that are strangely different from when they left. They face various struggles like finding a job, holding a marriage together, to just trying to get used to a disability. Although they each have their own lives which we get to see first hand, they are still intertwined. Together these three men find it within themselves to make these the best years possible. Full of both highs and lows, this movie is extremely touching and leaves you with a smile. The cast is superb including Dana Andrews, Fredric March, Harold Russell (real life amputee), Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright, Virginia Mayo, and of course Hoagy Carmichael. This film is great because it does not try to glamorize and it stands the test of time in my mind.

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