Now Roger Ebert told us that the movie that made him a critic is CITIZEN KANE. When he saw it in high school he started thinking in a new way about the connection between directors and films. This is Roger’s own voice this week, from the commentary track he did for the DVD.
Whenever I’m asked what the great film of all time is, I always say CITIZEN KANE. I must confess that I always think that question is a little bit silly, because I don’t know how you can compare different kinds of films and rank them in a list, but CITIZEN KANE to me is so inventive, so fresh every time you see it, so new, I never get tired of it.
In 1939, Orson Welles, a child prodigy who had become a radio and theatre star in New York, got one of the most amazing contracts ever offered by Hollywood: complete control over a motion picture to be made at RKO radio pictures. He would be able to write it, direct it, produce it, star in it, have the final cut – it would be released exactly as he wanted it to be released.
His movie CITIZEN KANE was based on – so everyone thought – the story or William Randolph Hearst, the press baron who owned newspapers, radio stations, wire services, controlled a lot of the information in America – although Welles always denied that, partially because the Hearst press was so opposed to the film, and there was the possibility of lawsuit.
Here is the most famous montage in the movie, the famous “Breakfast Table” montage showing the disintegration of a marriage. Here they are as the young newlyweds, very happy, sitting close together, same end of the table.
But now she looks a little more dubious. Notice the makeup here is adjusted to age them. They shot this sequence in reverse order, taking OFF layers of makeup on Kane, rather than putting them on. They shot the older Kane first, then the little bit less order Kane, and so forth down to the young Kane.
They’re dialog here involves increasing differences, over their marriage, over their politics, over his treatment of her uncle the president, over they’re happiness with each other. And notice that all of these shots have been alternating medium shots. The very first shot off the montage was a two-shot showing the 2 of them so cozy and close together at the end of the table. Now there hasn’t been there hasn’t been another 2-shot, just these alternating medium shots. Notice she’s reading “The Chronicle” now, he’s reading “The Inquirer”. And then the camera pulls back, and we get another 2-shot. So the sequence began with them very close together in a 2-shot, now it ends with them far away.
And here is one of the most mysterious and beautiful haunting sights in all of the cinema: The Mirror Shot. The many, many, many Charles Foster Kanes. Sad, resigned and looking nothing at all like the 25 year old man that he was when he played the role.
This scene never ceases to amaze audiences because you have the feeling of a great revelation. Of course the famous sled, and they had to burn the sled over and over again. They got closer and closer and closer to the burning rosebud here by using an optical blowup to get closer than the physical camera really could get.
And so we find out the secret, which really explains nothing at all.