Citizen Kane

(USA - 1941)

by Vanes Naldi & Mike Lorefice
12/14/02 (Vanes 7/11/01)

Cast: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Comingore, Everett Sloan, George Coulouris, William Alland, Agnes Moorehead, Ruth Warrick, Ray Collins
Genre: Drama/Mystery
Director: Orson Welles
Screenplay: Herman J. Mankiewicz & Orson Welles
Cinematography: Gregg Toland
Composer: Bernard Herrmann
Runtime: 119 minutes

"Kane urged his country's entry into one war, opposed participation in another, swung the election to one American president, at least, spoke for millions of Americans, was hated by as many more. For forty years appeared in Kane newsprint no public issue on which Kane papers took no stand, no public man whom Kane himself did not support or denounce, often support then denounce," - excerpt from News On The March obituary

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Vanes: When I read reviews of Orson Welles' masterpiece, I come across three kinds of reviews. First, people called the film overrated because they were expecting something "earth shattering" given all the hype film buffs and critics have bestowed on it. For the most part these people seemed to be from the MTV generation, and as far as I could tell weren't ready to embark on this character study, to see something so "old" yet so recent because it influenced films for years to come. Kane was earth shattering, but not in the way they expected, and not in a manner they had the attention for, so they were disappointed and didn't consider it that good. At least they were honest.

Mike: It would be hypocritical of me to blame these people because I wasn't exactly a fan of the film the first time I saw it either. Being a victim of the historically bankrupt mass marketed the latest is the greatest whatever of all-time culture America has become, I hadn't seen Kane until a 100 level Comm course. Though the media and film industry almost universally praises it since the '50's, it still goes against both what we are taught to like and how a film is supposed to be made. It's filmed in that inferior black and white. It has a main character, and for that matter a cast, that isn't warm, cuddly, and easy to relate to. With a few exceptions, it doesn't spell things out. It's controversial, even political. When you don't know better and you run into a professor, who somewhat clinically tells you that all this stuff is wrong and this is really far superior to not only the latest blockbusters but every blockbuster, I think it's human nature to disagree. Even if you think it's a great film, the greatest ever tag certainly should cause you to at least pause.

These days, what I want to know before I go into a film is whether it's supposed to be merely good or not. To discern this, I look at reviewers whose opinions' and/or ratings I trust, and if I can't find anything there I try to figure out which of the people who commented show some overall knowledge of film. If I get the idea it will be good or somehow rewarding, then I'll watch it regardless. If not, then whether I watch it depends on if there's people involved that I consider interesting and/or important. I believe the less one knows going in the more they are free to develop their own opinion. Thus, I'm happiest if the first good reviewer recommended it and I can just watch it because the fewer preconceptions the better. After viewing the film I can go back and find what was said that I agree with and what I can get worked up about.

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Getting back to the influence of the film, it's too hard to say how far it really extends. What is, or at least should be, obvious is that the top grossing films of the past 5 years aren't being effected by Kane, but rather one of the things Kane warns of, a few powerful people controlling all the media and deciding what people will like. The problem is not the kids growing up on MTV, it's the adults that have decided they can make the most money by treating them as dopes that are incapable of having an original thought, of drawing their own conclusions, and of looking at a shot or image for more than a few seconds. I was right to rebel, but initially wrong because I lived under the delusion that the many somehow automatically knew more than the few.

Vanes: The second kind of reviews were by those who, trained from the beginning to expect something incredible, watched the film with the mindset that it was going to be the best film of all time no matter what. Thus, instead of explaining why it was one of, if not THE best film of all time, why they felt it deserved such praise, they just noted it was the best because other people said so even if they themselves didn't understand the film. This way of thinking is not surprising, since it's present in every form of art, even music. So many people consider artists acclaimed by critics as "great", and consider them so themselves just because it's the "cool" or "correct" thing to say. This kind of review didn't help me or anybody who didn't see the film.

Mike: Sadly, the concept of justifying your lists and rankings is becoming passe. Now everything is becoming a popularity contest with best and favorite becoming synonymous. It would be hard to cite any one atrocity as the biggest abortion on TV, but the E!'s Rank is certainly worthy of nomination. Forget justifications, there aren't even any qualifications other than being popular. I mean, a celebrity that accidentally had paint spilled on their hair when they were four years old might make their "best blondes" list if they had a popular movie or CD out in the last six months. Then they'd have a couple dumbass celebrities say something like, "She's, um, really hot" and move one to the next number.

Eric Clapton as the greatest guitarist is a perfect example of people simply bestowing the best ever label on someone. His supporters that bother to cite any evidence usually point to Layla, not knowing that the late Duane Allman is playing the best/most difficult stuff. Considering Clapton, who unlike virtually every other great guitarist who play by themselves or do twin leads with one other player, needs a handful of select guitarists on stage with him at all times and they still can't come close to matching Allman's work on "Clapton's masterpiece", you'd think that would give people a hint that there are and have been better.

A lot of great guitarists - Chuck Schuldiner, Kai Hansen, & Axel Rudi Pell to name a few - are never mentioned in any of these conversations because noMusicTeleVison and radio stations have decided heavy metal is too evil, too aggressive, too uncool, or whatever so people shouldn't hear their music (Kid Rock, of course, is perfectly acceptable since he's not a real musician and is a prime mover of corporate rebellion products/styles). There's supposed to be all this choice now that the digital age is upon us, but that's just what the marketers want you to believe so you'll by the new technology. Get the dish or digital cable so you can hear the music you choose is the sell. What they don't bother to mention is that the same service is providing every audio channel, so all you get is their take on a certain style of music. You get the people they have an interest in promoting even if they don't really even fit in the genre, while you don't get the people they don't like or don't want to promote. Choice would be several stations playing their take on each genre of music so you can select the one that most suits your likes or go back and forth to hear the best songs.

It seems like the idea these days is to create generations that can't think for themselves, the perfect mindless consumers. Put out a familiar and mediocre, at best, product and use millions of dollars and all your pull to manipulate everyone into believing that the product is a must. As Kane said, they'll believe "What I want them to believe!" The Kane's of the world have taken over, but they no longer write a bad review for their product to prove something. Now the "molders of mass opinion", and especially the politicians, are much smarter. They don't expose themselves or their product to anything they can't control, to the few that don't buy into the party line or actually ask a tough question and will ream them if they don't get a real answer. It works since a few people with a ton of money control almost everything that's well known, that's supposedly credible.

Vanes: Finally, the third kind are those people who explained the reason why they considered this film what it is, what they felt, why they felt it, and what good things they learned about filmmaking thanks to this film. I'm not pretentious enough to consider this will be one of those reviews, but I can assure you it won't be one of the cases I talked about in the second kind. This film gave me something, taught me something, showed me something, and I'm just trying to put it into words.

Mike: I originally thought this would be an easy review to write, but it's just the opposite. This film has been analyzed and babbled about by so many people for so many years that it's hard to write anything without feeling like a plagiarist. What you've said above hits on the reason for writing the review though; the beauty of this film is that it retains its sense of mystery no matter how many times you've seen it. There's always something more, even if you can't quite put your finger on it. The accepted notion is that there's nothing like experiencing a great work for the first time, but a film like Kane makes me at least consider otherwise. Perhaps greatness instead lies in that which one can experience again and again, and still unearth and understand more about without it losing any of it's freshness. It's possible that's only the case for certain great films, but being something of a mystery, Kane logically would lose more than most.

Vanes: The most incredible thing about this film is the artistic freedom that Welles got from RKO working on this project. He became famous for his radio broadcast of H.G. Wells' "The War of the Worlds" that literally scared people into thinking Martians were invading the Earth (my, how time have changed). Thus, RKO gave him carte blanche to make any film he wanted with anyone he wanted.

Welles wisely chose experimental cinematographer Gregg Toland, who would become one of the best of all time with Kane being his seminal work. Toland, the developer of deep focus and one of the most influential in changing the perspective on how films were shot (from bland static shots to something more involving and meaningful) thought working with someone so young (Welles was 25 at the time and working on his first project) would help him go beyond the general formula. His innocence, his curiosity, the fact his mind wasn't altered yet by the business or wasn't influenced by anybody (at least enough to change his style), made his style unique, and allowed Toland to reach a new level of cinematic expression. A lot of the film's merits are due to his use of the camera, to the way focus is given on the subjects. Many scenes have as rich a background as a foreground. Many times, lighting or different camera angles put emphasis on the characters, in a way never seen before.

Mike: The lighting, which certainly borrowed something from the German expressionists but used new positions and was more daring, had a huge effect on the way black and white films, especially film noir with it's shadows, would go on to be filmed. In many scenes, it's simply black except for some strategically placed lights, often behind the characters, that illuminate portions of their faces and certain background objects. One of the famous scenes takes place early on is the projection room. RKO's "idea" was to build one that would work in traditional movie terms, that would have the "proper" brightness, but Welles' instead chose to make a real projection room work. Utilizing source light and shooting into it, Welles achieved a profound dramatic effect of silhouetted figures whose face couldn't be discerned. More important than any one technique or effect is just the way Welles & Toland present altered states of lighting that conform with, and of course emphasize, what we've just learned or are about to learn about Kane.

Vanes: There has always been debate over precisely what ideas and techniques originated in Kane. That kind of misses the point. Certainly Welles was influenced by other filmmakers' ideas, but the way he used ALL of those and added new twists to those techniques made this film memorable. Other people used lighting to put emphasis on the scene, but he used the scenarios, the lighting, the camera shots to tell something more, to help better portray the story, to focus more on the characters and their behavior. Every single shot, set, and positioning had meaning. The reporters were always in shadows (Thompson, the reporter assigned to discover the meaning of the word "Rosebud" is often on screen, but we can never make out his face), showing that they were like insects, like mindless machines, without personality and only interested in discovering this mystery to gain fame. Look at the way the locations were filmed, for instance the incredible sense of space given in Kane's house to express the loneliness he felt living in the gigantic mausoleum. There were so many virtuous shots, noticed even by people who never paid attention to such things, and it wasn't just an empty "tool" as the old school critics of the time though but something that told the story in a different more effective way.

Mike: The importance of Kane is that it's one of the first, and definitely the most famous, of the sound films that made people realize what film could do and be. I mean, not just film people, but any old person that wasn't bound and gagged by the Hollywood formula. To understand the importance and influence of Kane, you have to understand the negative aspects that came with sound film. Most importantly, films went from being concieved in terms of motion to being anchored by the performers having to stand within feet of a microphone.

Prior to sound, the best directors were the ones that understood how to tell the story with the camera and pushed the visual and technical boundaries. I have no problem being impressed by the work of say F.W. Murnau, Erich von Stroheim, Alexander Dovzhenko, Sergei M. Eisenstein, Abel Gance, Carl Theodore Dreyer, King Vidor, or Mikheil Kalatozishvili; the problem is getting a chance to view it. Actors were less important because something always had to set them in motion. After all, they couldn't exactly have conversations or rely too much on now vaunted star power (too much interruption caused by the titles for them to carry on or just stand around). With sound, the films became more about the actors, about their charisma, especially if they were MGM films since they had the most big names and always tried to flaunt them. The director and his crew became people that weren't supposed to be noticed, weren't supposed to "get in the way" of the story. Thus, the technical end was no longer technical, with the camera restricted to what was "essential to the plot". The result is the same few easily understood and immediately recognizable shot patterns were repeated over and over again.

The sound films weren't just marred by actors' iconography; they were marred by their predictable juvenile storylines (okay, that wasn't until the puritanical production code a few years into the sound years). Though far more characters were utilized and developed than today, by no means were they believable three-dimensional characters. They lived the ideal life and didn't have complex problems or any kind of believable dilemma. If they fought the bad guys they won because that made people feel good and the code said that the bad guy had to lose so as to not encourage crime.

What Welles does with Kane is tell everyone that this way of filmmaking that you are comfortable with, that's supposed to be right, is crap. Other quality directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Josef von Sternberg, and John Ford (who Toland previously worked with on The Long Voyage Home and the incredibly overrated Grapes of Wrath, a poor softened simplistic and incomplete adaptation of John Steinbech's novel I couldn't believe in for a minute that wreaks of obvious sentimental romantic noble manipulation and is marred by it's clean look as well as unexplained illogical character shifts) had gone against the Hollywood grain with certain shots and sequences, but there was no Hollywood film that consistently went full bore against every established method. Welles throws away almost all the ways things are supposed to be done, all the ways stories are supposed to be told. Instead, he takes his inspiration from Fritz Lang's M, the all-time great from a decade earlier that showed the few people paying attention what a sound film cound be, and "develops every aspect a movie can have" (thankfully Alain Resnais didn't listen to such bogus claims or we wouldn't have several other all-time greats like Hiroshima Mon Amour, Last Year in Marienbad, etc.). He puts all that story and production through the blender until what comes out is movie, obviously a movie, where all the ingredients are carrying their end but everything is now inseparable. It's challenging and intelligent, putting demands on the audience and giving them respect rather than pulling them along like a donkey. It's liberating and thrilling because you don't know where to look, you don't know what to think, you don't know what will happen well, but it all works and provides the full cinematic experience.

Vanes: Another obvious innovation was the way Welles used flashback. His non-conventional storytelling influenced generations of filmmakers, because it intertwined the story in a new way. The story doesn't follow a traditional path, doesn't evolve along one line. It's more like a jigsaw, based on the different recollections of the people who knew Kane, and thanks to that, it also gives another message that our life after death is remembered by the things we've done and by how we treated people when we were alive. Every person interviewed has a slightly different story, picturing Kane in a different light, adding clues and hints to what Rosebud might be, to what Kane (Orson Welles) represented for them in his life. However, we never get the full picture until the end, we never find out his true sentiments until the end.

Mike: I have to disagree with this. I think the point is there is no full picture and that's why the multiple narrators isn't just a tool here. There is no one truth about an individual, no one meaning to their life. Each individual is a different person to everyone or at least every group of people they come into contact with. One behaves differently depending on whom they are around, and the rules of interaction and circumstances surrounding each relationship call for different rituals and bring out different characteristics. Not only that, each person's role/relationship brings out different aspects of the individual in question.

It's true, the conclusion of the film does solve the mystery behind Rosebud, but for whom? None of the living people that knew Kane ever found out the meaning. None of the people that didn't know Kane ever found out either. The revelation satisfies the curiosity of the audience, but that shouldn't distract one from the point that Rosebud dies with Kane. Everyone probably has their Rosebuds, the parts or things about their life that they take to the grave because they weren't shared or had no special meaning to those who went on living.

In the end, Kane is essentially remembered in two ways. First, there's the official Charles Foster Kane, the newspaper/newsreel version that essentially tells you his statistics. They give you all the odes to capitalism - throw in a scandal or three but there's never a hint of mammon because the news is run by the rich - but offer no insight into the man himself. Second, there's the various people that knew him, who see him in a different light based on their relationship with him. This offers the potential for the "truth" about the individual, but as the movie shows there are so many factors involved. A person's life isn't black and white, can't be pigeonholed as entirely good or bad (like Disney loves to do) because there are always exceptions and levels. Even with both versions, there are still many missing pieces. I think something Leyland says can be applied here in a different context. "I suppose he had some private sort of greatness, but he kept it to himself. He never gave himself away. He never gave anything away. He just left you a tip."

Welles film is a bunch of tips, urging the audience to construct their own truth. The fact that he made the film for adults can't be overlooked. It's not even so much the subject matter, which actually takes on issues and challenges the way of the world, but just the fact that it gives a multi-dimensional look at the world and the type of person that is running it, showing the successes and failures genuinely and from various sides and perspectives, sometimes simultaneously. Kane is both a hero and a villain, and his story can be read straight, with anger-tinged satire, or really any number of ways. The lack of tidiness and the lack of glorification for both the people that are propping Kane up and the people who are running him down is part of the brilliance of the film. It's avoidance of oversimplification and it's rebellion against the supposed need to provide all the answers are two big reasons it's still compelling and stirring on the 10th viewing.

Vanes: The flashbacks are not merely back and forth pieces of the story, but they're as fragmented as Kane's broken crystal, and the collaboration between the awesome cinematography and the storytelling is obvious. One of my favorite scenes has Kane and his assistants watching a photo of the employees of the Chronicle, a rival newspaper. The camera focuses on the photo, goes deeper and deeper until it transforms into live action, moving 5 years ahead with Kane and the same people, now hired by him, making his newspaper the one with the biggest circulation in New York. There will be several similar uses of the cinematography to tell the story, and when the jigsaw pieces together (and Welles himself used jigsaws in the film, ironically), we understand the life of Kane better than any straightforward story could have told.

Mike: This example would be much better to show Welles bold editing style. Technically, what he's done is show five years worth of events in a few seconds without using the conventional transition of showing a calendar. His technique does far more than that though. It shows the transformation of Kane, how he decided that the staff was the key to the success so he bought them for better or worse without considering the potential consequences. If there's a flaw in the film, it's that too much of Jedediah's (Joseph Cotten) role is spelling out the dilemmas that Kane's determinations without any beliefs create. In this case it's necessary, but after a while it becomes a crutch.

Vanes: The film chronicles the life of Charles Foster Kane, born in poverty, grown up as the biggest media tycoon in the United States, mainly by fate and design. In a way, this was a biopic of the tycoons of the era, in particular William Randolph Hearst. There were quite a few references to his life, like the enormous estate Kane lived in, Xanadu, compared to Hearst's ranch at San Simeon, and it appears that Rosebud may have been the name Hearst gave to girlfriend Marion Davies' private parts. The story of Harold McCormick, an industrialist who built the Chicago Opera for girlfriend Ganna Walska was perhaps combined with that of Hearst and Davies for the Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore) part. In the film, Kane builds an opera house around his talentless wife Alexander, like Hearst bought a film studio, Cosmopolitan Pictures, to promote his loved one and gave all her films glowing reviews in his newspapers, of course promoting Davies like no actress before. What the film is able to do though, is to go beyond this, to explore the rise and fall of the American dream through one character.

Mike: It should also be pointed out that the more time went on, the more similar Welles' life became to Kane's. He was defeated by his initial ambition, rarely finished anything (but in his case about everything he worked on was quality), isolated himself (but that was to do individual projects and not have them trashed by clueless studio putzes), and so on. Regardless of that, I think the similarities to Hearst's real life may do a disservice to the film. Considering the film would be about a Rupert Murdock if it were made today and could be about someone else if it was made 20-30 years from now, it's a mistake to get hung up on Hearst or any other potential insider story. The point is not the individual or their specific excesses, but the danger of one or two people having the power to manipulate an entire country, which is more or less the situation right now with a half dozen bottomlinists controlling 90% of tv/radio/print thanks to Republican deregulation. The Susan Alexander part shows the farce it can create in the entertainment industry (take virtually any star since said deregulation, they are products designed to sell products), but there are far more important issues in the film like the ability to create a war (which we've just seen happen).

Vanes: At first, looking at the memories of the people interviewed, Kane seemed like an ambitious, gentle and spirited man willing to give opportunities and jobs to the poor or less fortunate even if it costs him a million a year. The closer the narrator's relationship to Kane, the more we discovered about his true nature. His best friend and his wives got to know the real side of his selfish quest to be known and loved by everybody. Kane was a man that was suffocated by all his wealth, by the will to be loved, but in reality he didn't care about anyone other than himself. When he was trying to get elected governor, his opponent caught him red-handed and promised to ruin his reputation and shame his family by revealing his relationship with Susan if he didn't disappear. Moved by his own egoism, by his belief that he was above everyone else, he didn't back down. He didn't care about his wife, his child, or Susan enough to do so, and because of his greed, because of his need to be in control, his political career was abruptly over.

Mike: What's more important is the politician's ability to deceive the public. Kane lost the election because he just said Boss Jim W. Gettys (Ray Collins) was corrupt. Like the typical politician, he didn't bother to offer any proof of Gettys underhanded tactics or show how he could do something that was better for the public; he just smeared his opponent. Gettys won because the public allows politics to be nothing more than a charade (vote for values get more deregulation that only results in the bottomlinests putting out an even more vile product that appeals to our basest instincts because that and not the projects that add something to the world that they muscle out through their media & $ or keep from being made entirely is what makes them the most money, and hey that even indirectly ensures an even bigger tax cut after the next values determined election) and Gettys was smarter and more experienced at this charade than Kane. He waited until he had something specific to smear Kane with, the infamous "love nest". Of course, Kane cheating on his wife has nothing to do with whether he would have been a good politician (he wouldn't because he gets one thing on his mind, any one thing, and goes all out to do it just to prove he can). To disagree, you have to be willing to categorize FDR and JFK as bad politicians. Anyway, Kane's slip up also doesn't make Gettys a good politician, an honest man, or necessarily a better choice. The only thing it does is sucker people into voting for Gettys without him having to present any kind of plan that shows what he'll try to accomplish, and more importantly how his ideas can actually be implemented in a way that will work and benefit his voters (in those days it was possible because you weren't always reported in out of context sound bites).

"You know, Mr. Bernstein, if I hadn't been very rich, I might have been a really great man," Charles Foster Kane.

Vanes: As the film progresses, we get to know more and more about the dark side of Kane's personality, that all this wealth and material objects don't give him what he wants, what he's looking for. That all goes back to those words, Rosebud, the thing Jerry Thompson (William Alland) is trying to find the meaning of. Nobody seems to really know what Rosebud was, or had Kane's view of it. That showcases the fact that because of the many ways we portray ourselves, the many facets of our personality that interact with other people, nobody really has a full view of us. Nobody can fully understand what we were thinking, our aspirations, our ambitions, our problems, and that is at least partially our fault. Kane seemed like a man interested in reaching a goal, in becoming someone, but when he realized his dream, he knew he didn't feel complete. As a result, when his empire starts failing, he has no one but himself to blame, because he chose materialism over love and friendship. That word, Rosebud, is his way of coming back home, when he was happy, maybe poor, but still happy. That word means the only thing that mattered to him anymore, the only time his life was really complete. When we see what Rosebud is at the end we have to think about what it means for Kane, and the brilliance of the film lies there, in provoking us to understand why his life changed so much and why, with all that wealth and fame, he was only looking for was such a simple thing.

Mike: I'm not so sure his childhood was good or happy, just simpler. I think I lean more toward him being too innocent to know any better, to realize it wasn't right for his old man to be beating him and such. To me, his problem seems to lie in the abrupt transition from poor to rich. He went from never having anything to having everything, and that robbed him of his childhood and all his culturing and possessions couldn't replace that. He never developed any system of beliefs and values, no desires or goals, no appreciation for what he had or understanding of how to get the things that were important. I like the Bernstein quote, "Well, it's no trick to make a lot of money... if what you want to do is make a lot of money." Kane was very successful by that measure, but this success never brought him what he envisioned it bringing, love, because he was totally insincere.

Vanes: Apart from its technical virtuosity, the acting is excellent. Welles used mostly newcomers to the big screen from his Mercury Theater. All were excellent actors, and the feeling of familiarity certainly helped them make a strong team effort. Most of those performances are helped by Herman J. Mankiewicz and Welles' brilliant screenplay. One of the beauties of the way the film evolves is the dialogue, always realistic and compelling but never over the top. I really liked both performances of Kane's wives, especially Susan (Dorothy Comingore) and obviously Welles' masterful portrayal of Charles Foster Kane.

Mike: I think what's important to note here is that all the focus on actually developing the technical side didn't have any negative effect on the performances. Instead, the performances enhanced the other aspects just as the other aspects enhanced the performances.

Vanes: Bernard Herrmann, ironically, forms something of a link with Orson Welles for me. Both were incredibly revered artists who, after a few incredible landscape-changing masterpieces, were rarely ever able to recapture that spark later in their career.

Mike: What gets lost in all the trumpeting of Welles' achievement with Kane is he only won the first round. Hearst wasn't able to buy RKO Radio Pictures off and get the film's negative destroyed before release, but he won the rest of the fight. He ruined Welles' career, branding him a communist and refusing to allow his name or the movie's name to be mentioned in any of his media outlets. The key to the brilliance of Kane is Welles had the necessary financial backing, the freedom to do any film he wanted with it, and total control over every aspect of the production. Welles contract with RKO called for 3 films like this, but it was a luxury he never received after this first masterpiece because of Hearst's influence and no one stepping up and providing the artist with the means to create. Welles was too talented to not still make good even great films, but it seems like the planets had to be in alignment for him to bring a completed version of his vision to the screen, and the films he did get finished were generally genre films or literary adaptations rather than his take on some issues. I'm hardly Mr. Budget, but it's easy to see that Welles spent his money wisely here and his future projects would have benefited from having some more of it to spread around. Films like Macbeth and Falstaff might be near masterpieces anyway, but their reputation would be much greater if not for technical/dubbing issues that make them occassionally appear to be rough cuts.

Vanes: Herrmann was certainly one of the most influential composers of all time, but was he the best? Looking at the films, at the directors he worked for, many people come to this conclusion. He worked for Welles (also The Magnificent Ambersons), Alfred Hitchcock (works like The Wrong Man, Vertigo, North By Northwest, & Psycho), Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver), Francois Truffaut (Fahrenheit 451 & The Bride Wore Black), and Brian De Palma (Sisters & Obsession). When considering his legacy, one must wonder if the quality of his soundtracks was overrated by the fact he worked with some of the best directors of all time in some of the greatest films ever made. In his prime, few people had the genius of Bernard. He wasn't technically impressive, nor did his music have any particular virtuosity, but like few others he was able to take music beyond simple background, to intertwine emotions with melody, to help generate tension with simple string sentences, to use simple music sentences to convey a complex message. He required someone who would give him enough creative freedom to express himself, and he got his wish working with Hitchcock and Welles in his prime. The thing though is, that after his prime, after his works with Welles and Hitchcock, he lost most of his verve, his artistic bravura. I can understand why he's considered the best by many people, but it's more because of a few great, memorable and unforgettable scores than for a career full of masterpieces and constant quality like John Williams or Ennio Morricone experienced.

Mike: Herrmann was not a great composer in the traditional sense. He worked in fury rather than melody. Generally, what he did was create a little lash out and repeat it several times in sequence. That said, Herrmann is the best film composer because he has no peers at doing what they are supposed to do, score the scenes in the movie to make them most effective, to make them inseparable from the images. He translated the movies themes into music so well that you feel like you can see the film through his music. Herrmann was a genuine rarity, an uncompromising film composer who handled all aspects of the soundtrack and wasn't afraid to ignore his instructions or tell any director (for instance Hitchcock) or writer (for instance Paul Schrader, whose third act of Obsession was scraped as a condition for him agreeing to score the film) they were screwing up the film. And he was usually right. For instance, Hitchcock told him Psycho should have a jazz score and there shouldn't be any music during the shower scene.

As far as his innovation goes, I don't see where he supposedly stopped. In the '50's, his electronic score for Robert Wise's The Day the Earth Stood Still became the in thing for sci-fi films. Since the '60's, everyone has imitated his shower scene work in Psycho. He also took the electronic sounds to new heights with The Birds, where he composed a score of sound effects rather than music. He did almost a full brass and percussion score to capture the metallic aspect of the Greek mythology tale Jason and the Argonauts. His last score for Taxi Driver, bluesy jazz rather than the strings he's associated with because of Psycho, with the scummy saxophone for the filth always put in contrast with the justifying romantic jazz for his "heroic" saving of the women is one of his greatest accomplishments, that's really what manipulates us into siding with Travis rather than rightfully judging him a whack job who largely because of some good intentions (but ridiculous solutions) does mostly bad. Show me a score from his days with Welles or Hitchcock where he captures the loneliness and emptiness like he does for Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451, and I haven't even gotten into his work with De Palma or most of his stuff with effects master Ray Harryhausen. The fact that virtually all the films he worked on were good, and many were great, has a lot to do with him because the score, as it should be, was an intrinsic part of every film he worked on.

Vanes: We could make a case of him being one of the most important soundtrack composers of all time, but he's not the best, not by a long shot. Considering the time and the environment, Alfred Newman was just unbeatable. He sustained a level of work that couldn't be beaten, while Herrmann, after his prime and before, did quite a few disappointing works. Certainly his best works are impressive, and in Citizen Kane, one of his top 5 works, he displays his ability. I just don't see him worthy of any top 5 list of all time composers, since Newman, Morricone, John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith and Hans Zimmer are simply something else, another level, all things considered, watching more the full scope of their careers rather than single pieces.

Mike: Herrmann was always thinking about the movie. He didn't show up at the end to take a paycheck like most of your favorites, he was there right from the beginning and he was composing specifically for the scenes, sometimes while they were being shot. His compositions both move the audience and explain the character's state of being. The aria he composes for Susan Alexander's debut is an example of what he was trying to accomplish. She's supposed to be awful, so it's about making her strain her voice. He uses a really high key that forces her to try to hit really high notes, which perfectly exposes her to us as a pathetic wannabe at the same time it essentially shows the struggling singer doing her best not to drown in the overwhelming sea of his orchestra. Much of Herrmann's importance lies in things that make scores more effective. He replaced the lush and lengthy with short out of the ordinary orchestrations that were designed specifically for the scenes they being played with. He accomplished a lot with a little, replacing the long melodies with brief easily recognizable themes. These themes, like Psycho's shrieking violins, seemed to be composed of the films entire feel. Herrmann wasn't just a orchestra guy, he would do things like incorporate outside sounds, or in the case of Kane a woman's screams, into his soundtrack.

Vanes: Newman was probably limited by the time, but he probably was the "flashiest" of the great composers, working great, impressive scores for years to come. Jerry Goldsmith had some of the same problems Herrmann had, with his high's being some of the highest (Russia House, The 'Burbs, Hoosiers, Under Fire, Night Crossing, Star Trek, The Wild Rovers, Patton) but his low's were some of the biggest turds you'd ever be able to listen to, amplified by the fact he was such a great artist so they became even more disappointing than they should have been (Congo, Warlock, King Solomon's Mines, The Swarm, Freud). The thing that makes him better than Herrmann is his overall body of work, the fact he wrote many more excellent, even if not memorable scores.

Mike: You mean you weren't impressed by the disclaimer at the end of The Swarm that reassures us "The African Killer Bee portrayed in this film bears absolutely no relationship to the industrious, hard-working American Bee to which we are indebted for pollinating vital crops that feed our nation"? Aside from Patton, few of the films that supposedly represent Goldsmith's highs are even worth watching. You have to be able to do better than this with a versatile experimental composer like Goldsmith, who has done some exceptional scores. Where's The Omen (probably the only time someone got a "major award" for bringing devil worship to life), Planet of the Apes (huge effect on the images, and who can forget the unconventional aspects like sounds being emitted from a clarinet that wasn't being blown and the horns without mouthpieces), Chinatown (jazz getting over the dehumanization), Tora! Tora! Tora! (dark, somber, edgy score) The Ballad of Cable Hogue (the end of the west via harmonica) or Seven Days in May (influential minimalist score)? I don't see any argument for him being better than Herrmann, to me he's very inconsistent and has tailed off greatly since the '70's, but I'd rate him #2 among your contenders.

Newman scored some great films like Foreign Correspondent, Twelve O' Clock High, All About Eve, & The Gunfighter, but to my recollecttion none of the best films he was involved with are particularly memorable for their score. This is a lot of the difference between Newman and Herrmann. Herrmann was essentially the director of music, working on one film from start to finish and always playing a huge part in it's high quality. On the other hand, Newman oversaw the music for 20th Century Fox and lended music to over 240 films from the 1930-1959, many of which were wastes of time.

Vanes: John Williams is simply the best soundtrack composer of all time because of the circumstances: he didn't work with exceptional directors all the time, but was able to produce so many excellent works that he's unprecedented. When people in the business see his name, some "cringe" because he's famous (thus not the "cool" choice to pick), he worked most of his time for people who didn't let him express himself properly and only composed adventures, "family" entertainment movies or fantasies. That would be simply overlooking his work in pieces like Schindler's List, Presumed Innocent, The Towering Inferno and many others. His overall body of work is unbeatable, because even if lately he hasn't done anything earth shattering, he's always excellent, and very few of his works have been disappointing.

Mike: When I hear Williams name I can hear Phil Lynott singing, "It hits ya like a hammer, goddamn." People cringe because Williams is just the opposite of Herrmann. He doesn't understand how to make a scene effective; he just knows how to drown it out. I admit Williams has a few main themes I like such as Jaws (which was probably influenced by Herrmann) and Star Wars, but where we disagree totally on rating composers is I rate by how the compositions work, or in Williams case fail to work, in cohesion with the film, while you are just listing to the CDs and rating them as if they were designed to stand alone. Williams scores are incredibly loud, obnoxious, and hokey. He doesn't believe in subtlety, which makes him the perfect composer for Spielbum since he feels he needs to spell everything out, and do it repeatedly. His scores insist on calling most, if not all, of the attention to themselves and trying to steal the scenes. For all of these reasons, Williams kills most of the movies he's involved in. Granted, for the most part they'd be no better than average even if by some miracle he did a good score like a Mychael Danna, who makes the music of everyday contempory life (rhythm wise) the music of cinema, but I don't want to hear the argument that Williams does great work for lesser directors when I doubt you could pay David Cronenberg to waste his time with Williams instead of using the great Howard Shore. I'm sure you couldn't pay Godard. Williams does have the honor of composing the worst score, at least since their earliest days, for a Hitchcock movie (Family Plot) and a De Palma movie (The Fury). With the exception of Oliver Stone, who got him to do something more subtle on occassion but subtle isn't a word associated with Stone so there was plenty of bombast there too, he hasn't worked for a good director since.

Vanes: Morricone and Zimmer, sometimes even barely considered for such a category, are well worth of nomination because of overall body of work.

Mike: I think Herrmann is the most consistent because he always chose projects where he could do his thing for someone that would, at least in most cases, appreciate it. Directors that knew what made a good score always sought him out, so he could pick the most interesting projects, the ones that looked like they'd be a good movie as well. Zimmer is good enough to do more enigmatic work for people like Nicolas Roeg and Terrence Malick, but then he does that mainstream crap for Michael Bay. He seems like a talented musician that, for better or worse, gives the director what they ask for.

I'll give you The Mission and Morricone's work with Giuseppe Tornatore has been of consistent high quality (though these films are butchered by Harvey Scissorhands excising huge chunks or almost all the skin), but otherwise almost all of his highs are with Sergio Leone. If Hitchcock/Herrmann isn't the top director/composer collaboration then it's Leone/Morricone. However, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that aside from Once Upon a Time in America, his best and at least up there with anything Herrmann ever did, the Leone stuff is all from a 7-year period. He's even crazier than Newman is with 450+ scores since the 1960's. His other westerns are just reprising what he did with Leone, which was revolutionary and imitated in many of the westerns he actually didn't have time to score himself. His work with Dario Argento doesn't even approach any of Goblin's scores for Argento. His work with De Palma on The Untouchables is one of his best non-Leone scores, but Herrmann's Obsession is still better as are many of Pino Donnagio's like Dressed To Kill and Blow Out. Morricone throws so many elements into his music that it's certainly interesting to just listen to, but that doesn't make him a better film composer than Herrmann. Still, I'd rate him the highest of your five contenders.

Vanes: Citizen Kane is a perfect case of soundtrack and film working together harmoniously. Herrmann's scores were never flashy by themselves, but instead tried to follow the mood of the film, and highlight it effectively (at least in most cases). Like Welles, this was his first brilliant work because previously he'd been doing Mercury Radio. It was the start of a period of great quality, before he'd sort of "settle down" and produce inferior scores, with the occasional masterpiece. The most interesting thing was that Herrmann composed the music while the film was shot, and it was really complex even in small things like the lyrics of Susan's performance, talking about suicide, something that she would try later.

In a way, Kane might be considered like Beethoven's 5th Symphony, or Bach's Brandenburg Concerts. Many people have heard of them, many people probably even know the music in general lines, and consider them masterpieces, but how many have really tried to listen to the complete symphony? How many tried to find out why it was considered a classic? Like with Bach or Beethoven, many people have heard of the praise of Welles' work, they might recall the word "Rosebud", but how many have really seen or appreciated this film for real? Not enough, I think.

To decide what's the best film of all time, I generally consider flawless, timeless films that contain something that defines a genre, that changes the way to make films and/or view films. I often say, to someone asking me which are the best five films of all time, to think about what they would put in a space probe to showcase filmmaking, to display how cinema has evolved, to let other people see how history and people changed this art. Films like Seven Samurai, 2001, & Citizen Kane have something in common, they revolutionized something, thus they're worthy of being considered "best of all time". Many of the people who make these lists tend to consider older works more than current, mainly because there's this idea, by default, that the best era for cinema is way in the past, and now we're only seeing masterpieces once every several hundred films. The problem is, most of these people aren't open enough to consider that there's something more than Hollywood, or even independent productions. Asia and Europe have been producing masterpieces even in a dark age such as this. Directors like Krzysztof Kieslowski, Zhang Yimou, Wong Kar-Wai, Claude Sautet, Lars Von Trier, and Claude Chabrol have made recent classics that are only considered "minor" entries at this point. This probably happens in every period, as in the '40s people like Welles were underappreciated. Kane has to be considered one of the best, not because it's THIS good even among the average quality of the film produced in that era, but because it remained timeless, hasn't aged one bit after all these years.

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Mike: Picking the greatest ever is an exercise in futility any way you slice it because different films are attempting to do different things. I don't think any film is flawless, but I know where you are going with that. As far as your main criteria goes, I think it's all valid but there are no absolutes and I'd scrap genre because it's a limiting factor that as greats like Godard, Resnais, & Tarkovsky have pointed out works against what I believe you really mean, redefining not genre but our perceptions of cinema.

Timeless is predicated more on the ways the world changes or fails to change. Kane is timeless more because the power in the hands of a few people that he saw in the early 1940's has now become the fewer. That it's still viable is certainly a very important factor, but realize things can happen to outdate a film and later a different set of changes can make it truer than it ever was. Cold war films are no longer timeless, but sooner or later the Soviets will probably get their act together and then we'll be taught to hate them again because they have different beliefs and values (then again, we'll probably still be too busy fighting "terror"). If the internet takes over and everyone connected has a fairly equal ability to access their likes, spread their interests, and so on rather than the mainstream acting like only dumb fake people who watch superficial Hollywood rehashes exist and the main internet sites being commercially funded so they can pay for advertising everywhere and buy the highest search engine rankings to promote the same nonsense does Kane then become less of a film?

I think a new or different manner of filmmaking is a big issue, but how do we apply that do a director like Sergio Leone? He debuted a great new style of filmmaking with A Fistful of Dollars, but thanks to Leone's limitations at the time it lacked the story (even though it borrowed a strong story) and the budget to be a great film even though it was revolutionary and set the standard for stylish westerns. After going backwards in For a Few Dollars more, he perfected his brand of filmmaking in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. By Once Upon a Time in the West, one couldn't call his methods new or different, but he once again raised the bar. The film is a big improvement over even the great Good, Bad, & Ugly; it's one of the two best westerns along with Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch. However, Once Upon a Time in America applies the style to a different genre, has more to say and is of a grander scope than his westerns, so I can't deny that the freshness of material helps set it apart from his other works though I'd lean more toward the depth. Evolution and honing can be as important, if not more important. I might not vote for a Leone film in the top 10, but I'd definitely vote for GoodFellas, which certainly benefited from Scorsese having made the inferior but more technically revolutionary Mean Streets and having worked with many of the key actors on Raging Bull.

Vanes: Is this the best film of all time? I don't know, or better, I DON'T WANT TO KNOW. Every time I hear those words, I see something that changes my mind, and that is obviously a good thing. There have been a few films as good as Citizen Kane, for reasons often similar, and often different than the reasons that made this film a classic. The only thing I can say is that this film is probably the most IMPORTANT piece of filmmaking ever made, for pretty simple reasons. It was the most influential, it created a new way of making films, changed the perspective on storytelling, on cinematography, and on how to use light and music were used to convey the message of the story. This is something nobody will be ever able to take from Welles. He has done something, he showcased his vision, built something that was so influential to so many great directors, films, and genres. He gave us one of the biggest lessons on how to make a film, on how to tell a story in the history of cinema. Even 60 years later, it remains just as compelling, just as brilliant. Timeless. 



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