The Detroit Movie Palaces help you rediscover classic films and see them in a new way. That happened again on May 26, 2006, when the Redford Theatre presented one of the standards for excellence in American films: Citizen Kane. This 1941 movie by Orson Welles has provoked more discussion about cinematic technique than almost any other film.
The big screen at the Redford magnified details that might be lost on the television screen. I gained a new appreciation for Gregg Toland’s cinematography. Much has been said about Toland’s use of deep focus (where the background is as clear as the foreground) and creative angles (especially when showing ceilings). But I was amazed at his manipulation of shadows in the scene where the newsreel producers are discussing how to present Kane’s life and death.
I also was impressed by how well Toland and Welles used camera movements to heighten drama, as well as the careful arrangement of actors and scenery in individual camera shots. Several close-ups really hit home, especially the shots of Agnes Moorehead that showed the emotional cost of young Charles Foster Kane moving into a new life.
Bernard Herrmann’s music also jumped out in a way that can’t be appreciated on the small screen. The dramatic crescendo at the end of the film leaves the viewer with emotional memories that linger long after the viewer leaves the theater. Interestingly, the current spring/summer season of the Redford features Herrmann scores in three films: The Day the Earth Stood Still (May 12-13), Citizen Kane and North by Northwest (August 4-5).
And then there’s Kane director, writer and actor Orson Welles, whose strong personality and special talent made possible the unique circumstances and influence of this film. Citizen Kane is a case study on how much ego, talent and opportunity contribute to artistic creation. After a prominent career in radio and theater, Welles swept into Hollywood with a blank slate on which to make a cinematic impression. The explosion of creativity that is Citizen Kane has rewarded movie buffs many times over in the 65 years since it was released.
After seeing an old movie on a big screen, I usually page through my different film reference books to see what others thought about that movie. Film writers seem to make an extra effort to understand a movie like Kane that has such a prominent role in film history. They debate such things as the contributions of film co-author Herman J. Mankiewicz and the influence of 1920s European films on Welles. In Bosley Crowther’s May 2, 1941 review of Kane in The New York Times, he writes, “It is cynical, ironic, sometimes oppressive and as realistic as a slap. But it has more vitality than fifteen other films we could name.”
What a great film. I hope that one day a theater screens Welles’ second—and equally dramatic—film, The Magnificent Ambersons.
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Copyright © 2006 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.