Posts Tagged ‘ D.W. Griffith ’

“Love on my terms …”

Citizen Kane at 75

1. Leland’s recollection (“Not that Charlie was ever brutal, he just did brutal things.”).
Leland (Joseph Cotten): “Hello, Charlie. I didn’t know we were speaking.”
Kane (Orson Welles): “Sure we’re speaking, Jedediah. You’re fired.”

Citizen Kane, which for long periods has been saddled with the title of “greatest film ever made,” had its general American release 75 years ago this past month, on September 5, 1941.  (It had premieres in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles the previous May. The interval from then until its general release was filled with threats, legal review, unwillingness of distributors to show the film, etc.) The movie never enjoyed great popular success. It failed to recover its relatively modest cost during its initial run, although a large part of that failure was owing to the determined opposition of media mogul William Randolph Hearst, who used his vast media empire to bluster and smear those associated with the project (including director Orson Welles, whom was repeatedly called a Communist by Hearst newspapers) and whose associates vaguely threatened reprisal because Hearst himself was the none-too-secret model for the main character.  The major Hollywood studios, which owned the distribution networks at the time, did what Hollywood does best—they cravenly capitulated, restricting distribution, fearing the worst and acted to avoid bad publicity. (It would not be the first, or even the most spectacular, of Hollywood’s cowardice-induced paralysis. Its actual cravenness to the powerful and rich and even just the conventional helps explain why it so often champions movies about those who stood up to the powerful and rich and the conventional.) Louis B. Mayer of M-G-M, a friend of Hearst, even offered RKO $842,000, well above the production costs, to destroy the negative and all prints.

The Beatification of Citizen Kane

The critical response, in contrast to the tepid box office response, was enthusiastic. In fact it was the unanimous acclaim of the leading newspaper and magazine critics (outside the Hearst empire, of course) that goaded RKO to release the film. Many critics wrote that it was flat-out the best movie they had ever seen. Most pointed out the innovative technical and stylistic aspects of the film. The acting was also considered superior.

2. Boss Jim W. Gettys watches as Kane makes his one campaign promise:

2. Boss Jim W. Gettys watches as Kane makes his one campaign promise: “My first official act as governor of this state will be to appoint a special district attorney to arrange for the indictment, prosecution and conviction of Boss Jim W. Gettys!”

The enthusiasm of the critics was unable to persuade distributors to risk the wrath of the unethical and megalomaniacal Hearst and his vast empire of yellow journalism outlets. It was not just that the empire could libel with impunity, it also could refuse advertisements in the local papers by the distributors for other films. Smear was also a tactic. “Communism,” even before World War II, was an effective way to ruin a reputation, and the Hearst empire more than once accused Welles, who had been actively anti-Fascist in the New York theater, of being a fellow-traveller. Being tarred with communism meant that everyone or thing that was associated with the target, however indirectly, even (or especially) a small town movie theater, would be tarred as well. RKO threatened to sue the studios if their distributors refused to accept the film. So some paid for it, but didn’t show it. Others only showed it a few times. The movie really had no chance for box-office success, and in Hollywood that is the one criteria that movies are judged by.

So as with all American movies of the time, it descended into oblivion after a short run. At the time there was not the secondary markets for films that exist today (television, art houses, home entertainment, for example). So when a film ended its run, it usually ended its claim on public attention. Ultimately it was French intellectuals who resurrected interest in the film.

Jean-Paul Sartre saw the film in a private showing in the United States in 1945 and reviewed the film in L’Ecran français in August. He allowed that the film “was the work of an intellectual,” but that was hardly complementary to Welles, for Sartre, who after failing to generate interest in a literary underground in occupied Paris, spent his time during the war writing radical pieces that never offended the Nazi censors and after the occupation began espousing the uselessness of intellectualism in art, as something divorced from politics and therefore backward looking. Sartre was promoting art that emphasized the future, and one that had a decidedly political orientation, and Citizen Kane, he felt, was “a story in the past tense” where “everything is dead.” (Welles was not even the worst offender here. Sartre felt that all of Zola’s work portrayed a “false disorder” where everything obeyed the “narrowest kind of determinism.”) Citizen Kane was not the kind of work that would be useful for the French, Sartre concluded, however much it was of interest to the Americans, presumably in the cultural hinterlands.

4. The pivotal meeting between Kane and Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore). Kane:

3. The pivotal meeting between Kane and Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore).
Kane: “What are you laughing at, young lady?” …
Alexander: “You’re funny, Mister. You’ve got dirt on your face.”

When the movie was shown in Paris in July 1946, however, French critics, not carrying the cultural baggage of Sartre, saw the film as revolutionary. Roger Leenhardt, who was an important film critic and who had argued that sound technology provided the means by which works of genuine realism could be made, hailed Citizen Kane as a work of genius. Bazin, Leenhardt’s protege, expanded on this observation in an essay tracing the history of cinema from its beginning to the emergence of post-war Italian neo-realism. In this history Bazin found Citizen Kane as its most important inflection point. Bazin believed that the cinematic convention of camera work which had developed in D.W. Griffith’s time had calcified a decade into the sound era. Shot editing had allowed the director to focus the audience’s attention on particular aspects of a scene. This may have been essential in pre-sound days (where cards could hardly support all of the audience cues) but by the late 1930s it had become a lazy convention that obstructed, rather than aided, a realistic version of events. Bazin explained it this way in “An Aesthetic of Reality”:

“Classical editing, derived from Griffith, separated reality into successive shots which were just a series of either logical or subjective points of view of an event. A man locked in a cell is waiting for the arrival of his executioner. His anguished eyes are on the door At the moment the executioner is about to enter we can be quite sure that the director will cut to a close shot of the door handle as it slowly turns. This close-up is justified psychologically by the victim’s concentration on the symbol of his extreme distress. It is this ordering of the shots, this conventional analysis of the reality continuum, that truly goes to make up cinematographic language of the period.”

Bazin wrote that Welles in Citizen Kane broke with this tradition by restoring “to cinematographic illusion a fundamental quality of reality—its continuity.” He did this by several means but principally by a static shot with a wider angle than was traditional and deep focus allowing the audience to see from the back of the visual set to the foreground in equal definition. This also had a number of collateral consequences, such as allowing the viewer freedom to survey the entire scene and requiring the actors to act more naturally rather than confining them to close-up speaking and reaction shots.

These features were expanded upon and detailed in the 1950s in pieces by Bazin and his followers in the journal he founded, Cahiers du cinéma, the French vehicle that gave cinema, for the first time,  a claim to intellectual and cultural importance. The Cahiers writers had their own programme, related mostly to criticisms of the then current state of French film, and Kane provided what seemed to be a point for point counter-example for the failings of French cinema. But above all, Bazin argued that the director was, or should be, truly the auteur of the film, much as a novel was the author’s work. Kane happened to nicely prove this point because Orson Welles, had been able, as a result of his string of successes and resulting publicity in New York theater and national radio, to negotiate with the RKO a contract that gave him complete control over the film, an unheard of liberty (and one that made long-time studio functionaries so jealous that they laid in wait to pounce on what they hoped would be Welles’s failure to deliver). Moreover, Welles’s theatrical background gave him experience in every aspect of stagecraft that a film required, from costumes to make-up to sets to lighting to script editing, and so forth. And he used all of his experience, combined with the impetuosity of youth and that of the brilliant associates he collaborated with, in his first film.

4. After the defeat. Kane: “Toast, Jedediah, to love on my terms. Those are the only terms anybody ever knows.”

Much of the match between Welles’s instinct and Bazin’s prescription for the New Wave, came simply from Welles’s theater background. For example, a great deal of the problem of staging a play is to have the characters project into the audience (usually by facing it). Bazin objected to the cliché of cutting from one full-face close-up to the other when two characters were talking. Welles, who never liked the close-up shot to begin with, simply staged the movie as he would stage a play, often with both characters facing the audience (see, e.g., #1 , #3, #4, #14, #19). Ceilings, Bazin’s indicium of the restraints on human activity as well as further visual evidence that the characters were inhabiting a realistic environment, simply were the natural result of the “frog’s eye view” (as Marlena Dietrich put it much later), a signature of Welles’s cinematography from then on— and similar to the way audience members in the orchestra saw a play (seee.g., #4, #15, #16). And that special “trick” that Welles’s and cinematographer Gregg Toland worked so hard to achieve (and did so spectacularly)—deep focus—was theatrical rather than typically cinematographic. Plays are static shots in which characters moved from front to back as well as side to side, and therefore were inherently more three-dimensional than the flat screen had become. The convention that had grown so stale in film, the facial close-up, was of course unknown in theater and something that Welles only sparingly used in his film career, was another instance where Bazin’s objections lined up with Welles’s instinctive practices.

There was some resistance to Bazin’s sweeping assessment of Citizen Kane, mostly by those who pointed out that certain stylistic innovations had been used, or at least prefigured, by others, such as films with scenes having greater than normal depth of field and those employing non-chronological narrative. While he was able to distinguish such counter-examples, his point, he said, was larger than the invention of particular visual or stylistic points; rather, it was that the particular use of them together formed a narrative style, which so differed from convention that it created a new cinematic language:

“The novelty of language, cinematic or otherwise, must be understood from the point of view of style, not from the point of view of vocabulary or syntax. … [E]ven if Welles did not invent the cinematic devices employed in Citizen Kane, one should nevertheless credit him with the invention of their meaning. His way of ‘writing’ is undoubtedly his own. I don/t mean the mere architecture of the story, although the ordering of the film’s scenes is worthy of our consideration. In this sense the connection between Citizen Kane and the novels of  Dos Passos is obvious. … The substitution for the classical story of a kind of jigsaw puzzle, whose pieces are provided by the memories of a series of witnesses, can hardly be traced to The Power and  the Glory (1933) or even Marie-Martine (1943).”

5. Kane brins back a President's niece as the staff of the Inquirer watches through a window.

5. Kane brings back a President’s niece as the staff of the Inquirer watches through a window.

The last sentence was a response to Sartre who claimed the narrative structure derived from two movies, the later of which was released two years after Citizen Kane. The earlier movie, The Power and the Glory, written by Preston Sturges, was noted by both Sartre and Borges (see below) as a possible influence on the structure of the Welles’s movie. Bazin showed how the non-chronological nature of Sturges’s screenplay functioned in a way unlike Citizen Kane. Nevertheless, Pauline Kael, in her attempted take down of Orson Welles, claimed the structure of Citizen Kane to be borrowed from it. She based her argument only on recollection, however, since a print of the film had been lost until after her essay (discussed below) was published.

When Citizen Kane had a limited revival run in 1956, Andrew Sarris was writing for Film Culture. Sarris had not long before spent a year in Paris where he became associated with Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, both of whom had deeply imbibed Bazin and contributed to the Cahiers du cinéma agenda.  Within four years he became film critic for the Village Voice, where he would become America’s foremost critic and from which he espoused the film theory of the Cahiers du cinéma crowd. But in 1956 Sarris wrote an influential reappraisal of Citizen Kane, this time the focus was on the narrative structure and “meaning,” not its technical innovations.

6. Thompson at Thatcher Library. The formal, implacable rules of the institutionalized history of the great and powerful obscure rather than reveal genuine motivations.

6. Thompson watches the ritual at Thatcher Library. The formal, implacable rules of the institutionalized history of the wealthy and powerful are designed to obscure rather than reveal genuine motivations and justify wealth and power.

Sarris saw Citizen Kane, not as a collection of self-referential techniques nor as a film that subordinated content to style, but rather as a work that has “inner consistency of theme, structure, and technique.” He viewed the theme as the progressive hollowing out of Kane’s inner life and the narrative means of the Rosebud detective story:

“Within the maze of its own aesthetic, Kane develops two interesting themes: the debasement of the private personality of the public figure, and the crushing weight of materialism. Taken together, these two themes comprise the bitter irony of an American success story that ends in futile nostalgia, loneliness, and death. The fact that the personal theme is developed verbally while the materialistic theme is developed visually creates a distinctive stylistic counterpoint. Against this counterpoint, the themes unfold within the structure of a mystery story.”

The themes are embedded in the overall structure of the film. The movie begins with the “intense reality of the fence” (the objective world) and then moves into the “fantastic unreality of the castle” (the world that Kane had constructed for himself). At the end, the camera performs the reverse operation: “[T]he mystic pretension of the castle dissolves into the mundane substance of the fence. Matter has come full circle from its original quality to the grotesque baroque of its excess.”

“As each flashback unfolds, the visual scenario of Citizen Kane orchestrates the dialogue. A universe of ceilings dwarfs Kane’s personal stature. He becomes the prisoner of his possession, the ornament of his furnishings, the fiscal instrument of his collections. His booming voice is muffled by walls, carpets, furniture, hallways, stairs, and vast recesses of useless space.”

The distinctive camera work of the film is not simply a matter of style, nor eve just a means of enhancing the realism of the scenes. It is a metaphorical illustration of the theme. Story and style worked together to comprise a work of art.

This summing up became the accepted critical consensus. And for a decade it became commonplace to consider Citizen Kane the most influential, if not the “best,” film of all time.

The Kael-ing of Citizen Kane


7. To Thatcher (George Coulouris) the Inquirer was an outrage. And for Kane, his populism was perhaps merely a weapon for his unresolved Oedipal rage.

Pauline Kael rose to fame (and obtained her job at the New Yorker) for being a contrarian. She championed Bonnie and Clyde while critic at middlebrow McCall’s. They wouldn’t print it. She was eventually let go because she condemned every big budget movie Hollywood produced. Her point of view was somewhat contradictory. She equated popularity with trash (and she condemned popular movies), but claimed that movies arose from trash (and disliked movies that strayed too far from their origins): “Movies took their impetus not from the desiccated, imitation European high culture, but from the peep show, the Wild West show, the music hall, the comic strip—from what was coarse and common.” And nothing represented “desiccated, imitation European high culture” more than the auteur approach to film and its American representative, Andrew Sarris, who would become her nemesis. She was therefore an odd choice to write the introduction to Citizen Kane (the movie lauded by “desiccated, imitation European high culture”) when Bantam Books decided to publish the movie’s shooting script (and other production notes). But in hindsight it was entirely predictable that she would use the opportunity to attempt to take down Welles, who was the big game of hunters like herself of “auteur theory,” an approach she entirely rejected (at least then).

The essay she produced, entitled “Raising Kane,” was the longest extended work of her career. It appeared in two successive issues of the New Yorker in February 1971 before it was later that year published in The Citizen Kane Book by Atlantic Monthly Press, an imprint of Little, Brown. Kael’s goal was to show that Welles was not solely (or principally?) responsible for the movie. Since nearly everyone responsible for major aspects of the movie had publicly attested to Welles’s guiding hand in each department, she was left with only one area to attack Welles, the screenplay.

Welles took only co-writing credit together with long-time Hollywood screenwriter (and recent Welles collaborator) Herman J. Mankiewicz. At the time Welles had engaged him to produce a draft of the story they agreed on, Mankiewicz was nearly an outcast in Hollywood owing to his alcoholism and unpredictable behavior. Welles had previously used him to create radioscripts from popular books for the weekly national radio program, The Campbell Playhouse, that Welles and John Houseman produced for CBS Radio. When Welles arrived in Hollywood with his new RKO contract, he had the idea of filming a version of Heart of Darkness shot by a camera recording events from the narrator’s eye view (a story that he adapted for sceen himself). When that concept proved prohibitively expensive, he began casting about for a new project. He discussed the matter with Mankiewicz, and after some time they came up with the idea of creating an original screenplay based on a mogul in the likeness of William Randolph Hearst. Mankiewicz was full of gossip about Hearst and even knew him slightly, having attended parties given by Marion Davies, the actress who Hearst had set up in California to be away from his New York wife’s prying eyes. (Davies would become the model for Susan Alexander in the movie.) Welles agreed to hire Mankiewicz come up with the first draft, but first, wary of Mankiewicz’s notorious binge drinking, Welles set him up in a sanctuary outside of Los Angeles and engaged his long-time producer John Houseman to ensure Mankiewicz worked rather than drink. From there Mankiewicz produced a first draft, with some help from Houseman, that they sent to Welles. Other drafts were generated from the comments and personal visits from Welles and eventually a script was produced. The shooting script included in The Citizen Kane Book was the final written draft, approved by RKO, but even it differs drastically in some places from what appeared on screen. Nevertheless, Mankiewicz probably saw his work as the last (and undoubtedly best) item in his legacy and began claiming that Welles had little, if any, input. When the screen writing was the only Oscar (out of nine nominations) won by Citizen Kane (Hollywood in the end had its revenge on Orson Welles, the boy wonder; he never won another Oscar), Mankiewicz publicly claimed the he only, and not Welles, deserved all the credit and that the writing was what carried the movie.

Relying solely on reports of comments by Mankiewicz (who had been dead for two decades at the time) and information from his living allies, and not calling Welles (or most of those involved in the production) at all, Kael used the occasion of her supposed appreciation of Citizen Kane to make the case that Welles had no responsibility for the script of the movie except, perhaps, for occasional superficial “consultations” with Mankiewicz. The essay is not a model of persuasive writing. It begins with a long detour into the history of the “coarse and common” of American film history, especially the “flapper” and “zany” comedies of the silent and early sound era. She details Mankiewicz’s roles in many of those movies and then attempts to show how those movies led into the “girl reporter” movies like Front Page. Mankiewicz had nothing to do with Front Page, but Ben Hecht did, and he was a friend of Mankiewicz and also a newspaperman from New York before coming to Hollywood, just like Mankiewicz, so she weaves it into her thread. She describes the “girl reporter” movies that followed, showed their similarity to earlier comedies and argued that these were predecessors to Citizen Kane. Since Citizen Kane had not even a superficial resemblance to these comedies, other than it also involved journalism (but no girl eporter), she makes the assertion, evidently to persuade those who never saw the film or were planning to, that  Welles’s film derived from the  “commercial comedy tradition” —and is “practically a collection of blackout sketches … ,” the form that Mankiewicz had specialized in. It was a bizarre form of analysis, but her “direct” evidence that Welles had no responsibility for the script was even worse. Kael’s argument depended for direct evidence on industry gossip solely from those who had axes to grind against Welles (a large enough group), failed to elicit testimony from Welles or anyone in the know who was not openly hostile to him and ignored Welles’s life-long history of effectively re-writing novels, stories and even plays for his own scripts for plays, radio programs and later movies. (I have shown how Welles “re-wrote” even his sainted Shakespeare, by condensing, re-arranging scenes and distributing dialogue among different characters, all without changing any word, but substantially refitting the story. See Shakespeare, Freud, Machiavelli and Welles: The “Prince Hal Problem.” With less hallowed writers Welles simply rewrote the story.) Just the next year he converted Booth Tarkington’s novel into perhaps his best scripted movie, The Magnificent Ambersons, without any additional help. And Mr. Arkadian was based on a novel he wrote converted into a screen play by him (again without assistance).

Raymond's recollection: Emerging from Susan's room, now broke up, holding the globe, Kane first mouths

8. Raymond’s recollection: Emerging from Susan’s room, now broken up, holding the globe, Kane first mouths “Rosebud,” as the Butler (Paul Stewart) watches.

When she finally reached the point of “analyzing” the film, Kael simply produced a list of the things she liked and the things she didn’t, the laziest form of any kind of criticism. Oddly, the things she didn’t like tended to be attributable to the script, so if Welles had nothing to do with it, he escaped her worst volleys. But even in listing her gripes, she makes superficial and often flatly wrong assertions. I will give one example only because you occassionally hear it repeated by those who dislike the film. Kael was the source of the complaint, that one often reads in “fan” critiques of the movie these days, that no one was in the bed chamber to hear Kane utter “Rosebud,” and therefore the entire movie is based on a gaffe—the search for his “last words” that no one could have heard. She doesn’t elaborate, but I suppose she came to this belief because after Kane utters the remark and drops the globe, we see only a sinlge nurse opening the door and entering the room to draw a sheet over Kane’s head. But there is nothing to show (such as a pan of the room) that no one else was in the room before she entered. In fact, the movie itself contradicts Kael’s assertion. Near the end of the movie, the butler Raymond (Paul Stewart) tells the reporter of the two times he heard the term. After we see Kane emerge from the room he has destroyed, picking up the globe and mouthing “Rosebud” at the entrance where Raymond stands, the scene returns to Thompson questioning Raymond:

Thompson: I see, and that’s what you about Rosebud?

Raymond: Yes. I heard him say it that other time too.

The “other time” is in Kane’s room, as he lay dying. Raymond was, therefore, waiting with him as he slept. As you would expect, someone that close to death, especially a wealthy man who could afford it, would have attendants around the clock (as Susan Alexander did, on doctor’s orders, after her suicide attempt). But if there were any question about what Raymond meant (did Kael think that Raymond was referring to a third time Kane said it?), the shooting script, which Kael’s essay was supposed to be introducing, makes clear, what Raymond meant:

Thompson: And that’s what you know about Rosebud?

Raymond: That’s more than anyone knows. I tell you, he was a little gone in the head—the last couple of years anyway—but I knew how to handle him. That Rosebud—I heard him say it that other time too. He just said Rosebud, then he dropped that glass ball and it broke on the floor. He didn’t say anything after that, so I knew he was dead. He said all kinds of things that didn’t mean anything. [The Citizen Kane Book, p. 286.]

Evidently Kael specialized in barbs, not close reading of a film’s text.

The essay would substantially damage Kael’s reputation. The negative response was so overwhelming that her supporters advised her not to reply, hoping that it would be forgotten. (The Age of Movies, the Library of America’s anthology of her work, does not include it, even though it is her most remembered work.) Sarris, of course, responded, as well as other critics and a host of actors and production personnel. Kael’s piece was so littered with factual misstatements that it is hard to ascribe it solely to carelessness. The most effective critique, however, was Peter Bogdanovich’s in Esquire, which met the charges point by point, assailed her good faith, but most devastating for Kael’s reputation contained the disclosure that she had misappropriated the research of U.C.L.A. scholar Howard Suber, who gave it to her under her representation that his essay would be published along with hers in the book. Instead, she incorporated his work into hers without attribution. Kael it turns out had fewer ethical restraints than the Inquirer newsmen portrayed in Citizen Kane.

9. Leland and Bernstein discuss the nature of selling out, while a dancing Kane is reflected in the window between them.

9. Leland and Bernstein discuss the nature of selling out (the new reporters or maybe even Kane himself), while a dancing Kane is reflected in the window between them.

Finally, the main thesis of her essay was decisively put to rest by Robert L. Carringer, who studied the seven completed drafts of the script before the shooting script. The first draft is a sprawling series of rumors about Hearst booted about among journalists, many of them libelous, but in any event entirely different from the movie. It contained, for instance, scenes in Italy showing how Bernstein and Kane plotted to take over the Inquirer without tipping their hand to Thatcher. Kane’s son does not die and becomes a major character with Kane at Xanadu. Susan Alexander betrays Kane with a lover, who ends up dead after Kane discovers the affair. And so forth. It was a problematic (from a legal point of view) draft, but also an undisciplined melodrama. Carringer shows how Welles took this draft and over several successive versions molded the work to a tighter story reflecting his own view of the move. Welles not only supervised the writing, he did extensive re-writes himself. Carringer’s conclusion was as follows:

“In the eight weeks between the time [Mankiewicz’s original] material passed into Welles’s hands and the final draft was completed, the Citizen Kane script was transformed, principally by him, from a solid basis for a story into an authentic plan for a masterpiece. Not even the staunchest defenders of Mankiewicz would deny that Welles was principally responsible for realization of the film. But in light of the evidence, it may be they will also have to grant him principal responsibility for the realization of the script.”

Kael’s essay had the reverse effect of what she intended: It resulted in the digging up of proof that Welles was intimately involved in the script writing, just as he was involved in every other aspect of the film. If anyone in film history was an auteur, it was he. And as the years passed, Kael gradually acceded to the view that the director was the “author” of the film and engaged in analysis accordingly. She had given up (but never admitted the defeat). The essay, however, had an unfortunate impact on writers for the general public, however. Citizen Kane, as well as Welles’s later works, were treated as things that should be interpreted by reference to insider’s views of how the films were made. Instead of treating the movies as works of art, capable of analysis on their own right, almost all popular writers on Welles and his works treat him and them as subjects for rehashing insiders’ gossip. Perhaps that lingering effect is why Citizen Kane is currently losing its allure to first-time viewers and seen as the province for Hollywood trivia buffs or those devoted to outdated and “desiccated” European film theory.

Citizen Kane’s Diamond Jubilee

At 75 Citizen Kane no longer generates the enthusiasm it used to (it has even been knocked off the top spot in several film society all-time lists) nor the controversy. In fact, it seems to have gone unremarked on, unlike its 70th anniversary, which produced a new digital transfer. The customer response on Amazon or shows that younger viewers mostly fail to understand, or are actively hostile to, the acclaim that the film received. Used to the Hollywood production values of today, some of which are the same as the cliches Citizen Kane challenged in 1941 (rapid cutting, pinpoint close-ups to direct audience attention, over-reliance on musical score to provide emotional content) and some which are new (rapid plot development to cover lack of characterization, reliance on suspense and shock in routinized ways, emphasis on special effects), first-time viewers of Citizen Kane today seem to have little interest in what they see as a cinematic language that has been superseded. The question is, Does Citizen Kane have more than historic interest?

10. Bernstein's recollection:

10. Bernstein’s recollection: “It wasn’t money he wanted. Thatcher never did figure him out. Sometimes even I couldn’t.”

To answer that question, instead of starting with questions of the cinematic style of the film and whether the elements were original or effective, let’s start with what Welles said he was attempting to say with the film. When it was leaked in January 1941 that the film was based on the life of Hearst (the production of the film had been a closely guarded secret), Welles issued a statement to the press denying that the movie was so intended. (The statement is found at Brady, pp. 283-85.) Welles said that he wanted “to make a motion picture which was not a narrative of action so much as an examination of character.” He intended to show that a single personality could generate numerous different opinions, even from those who knew him best. For this, he said, he needed “a public man—an extremely public man—an extremely important one.” He first considered making him President of the United States but discarded the idea probably because it would be difficult to have the audience believing a counter-factual man in real historical times when the real figure was so well known. Welles then concluded that the only other character who could have as decided an influence on public life in American democracy was a wealthy newspaper publisher.

“It is possible to show a powerful industrialist is potent in certain phases of government. It is possible that he can be good or bad according to the viewpoint of whoever is discussing him, but no industrialist can ever achieve in a democratic government the kind of general and catholic power with which I wished to invest my particular character. The only solution seemed to be to place my man in charge of important channel of communication … .”

So Welles fixed on the tycoon of a newspaper empire. And because the character had to represent a sort of New Man, he had to be in charge of papers that pioneered yellow journalism.

But Welles had a second part to his central premise. He was to make this a story of failure, not success.

“I did not wish to portray a ruthless and gifted industrialist working his way up from a simple lumberman or streetcar conductor to a position of wealth and prominence. The interpretations of such a character by his intimates were too obvious for my purpose. I therefore invested my character with sixty million dollars at the age of eight so that there was no considerable or important gain in point of wealth possible from a dramatic point of view. My story was not, therefore, about how a man gets money, but about what he does with his money—not when he gets old—but throughout his entire career. A man who has money and doesn’t have to concern himself with making more, naturally wishes to use it for the exercise of power.”

11. We see Susan Alexander through the sky light of El Rancho before the camera travels through it to encounter her for the first time.

11. We see Susan Alexander through the sky light of El Rancho before the camera travels through it to encounter her for the first time.

The method of examining this character was also specified. He chose a psychoanalytic approach. He would try to find the underlying reason why such a person would “fail” despite his ample means of “succeeding,” and he would use the character’s closest friends and foes to probe his psyche. Power is what Kane obtained, what he wielded. But there was something else he was looking for, even if he did not consciously know it, and it was why he threw everything he had away in the vain hope of acquiring. It was the purpose of the “Rosebud” theme to symbolize his deeper, subconscious driving force. The story is about what Kane is secretly looking for and ultimately how he fails in his quest. Welles would later admit that his analysis of the character was “‘dollar-book’ Freud, but, nevertheless, it’s how I analyze the film.” We’ll come back to this “admission” later.

Now, this statement of what was intended shows how different the movie was from what we see made today. Yes, there are similar characters that provide models for such a film now. One need only consider the former CEO of Fox News. But no one would consider examining such an unappealing and distasteful character today in the same way that Welles did then. All our political characters today are cardboard. Political villains, especially, beggar the limits of our empathy whatever political viewpoint we have. So Hollywood would never consider making such an examination. And independent films have settled into examination of issues other than public ones. (Television programs are these days more likely to make such examinations but given the episodic nature of such series, they are not comparable to movies.)

Moreover, the method chosen, psychoanalytic, is foreign to current film. Greed explains everything in our day, probably because our society has reduced everything to commodities with a price. It would therefore be a meaningless exercise today to set out to find why someone with wealth and power acts as he does, because most see it as self-evident. But let’s assume this method is fruitful and see where it leads in this movie. After all, all art has to be examined in relation to what was intended. If we rejected that proposal, there is nothing more to say about a work.

12. The Newsreel, from which we learn the formal chronology of his life, is a flat construct. The reports are not looking for depth, only a

12. The Newsreel, from which we learn the formal chronology of Kane’s life, is a flat construct. The reports are not looking for depth, only a “hook” to finish their artifice.

What drives the narrative of this film is the supposed search for the meaning of “Rosebud.” It makes the film something of a psychological detective tale. But why are we looking for it? This is not how Freud or his disciples would examine a man’s psyche. No, the quest is launched by the makers of a news reel, journalists of the type that were replacing the yellow journalism of newsprint. And while they didn’t operate quite like Kane’s papers did (they did not start with a conclusion and work backwards), they nonetheless began with the assumption that the story of this man’s life could be made engaging, understandable or entertaining with a “hook.” And they arbitrarily picked the dying word of Kane. So the quest is the quest of the new mass information disseminators into the life of one who operated under old principles. But both were motivated by the same thing, mass consumption of information.

Not to get ahead of ourselves but let’s consider how this quest ends for the new journalist, Mr. Thompson (William Alland). Although he speaks to the surviving characters closest to Kane at the key moments and even consults the memoirs of Kane’s surrogate father, he does not answer the question he was given: What did “Rosebud” mean? This, despite the fact that he talked to the butler Raymond, who twice heard Kane say the word and told Thompson of the glass globe, a clue that Thompson makes not attempt to follow up on. As he leaves Xanadu and its hordes of items that Kane possessed (among which we will find the meaning of the word), Thompson delivers himself of his conclusion that the search was a waste of time. Rosebud was simply the missing piece of a puzzle, and in any event one word could not sum up a man’s life. And with that the search is over, and nothing has been learned of interest to the new journalists.

13. Before we see Kane, we see the window which encloses him. The camera will penetrate that barrier.

13. Before we see Kane, we see the window which encloses him. The camera will penetrate that barrier.

But we have watched the search, and we have observed the principal crisis points of Kane’s life, their immediate causes and their long-term effects. We have seen a pattern that makes up the arc of his psychic life, and we can come to certain conclusions about Kane’s inner life. In his famous 1941 review of the film Borges (who saw the film in Argentina, where it ran a month before the general U.S. release) said that it represented what Chesterton called a “labyrinth with no center”—the most frightening thing of all. By that he meant, not that the movie was a pointless puzzle (as some have interpreted it), but that Kane himself was a “simulacrum, a chaos of appearances.” Whether we agree that is so or not, Borges is at least partially right in seeing this as the “psychological and allegorical” solution to the “metaphysical detective story” we embarked on. The new mass journalists found none of that interesting. In fact, the entire movie, its comments on Kane’s character, the intimate details of his life, the things that only his confidents knew, the conclusions we can draw about the meaning of his life, all of what we find compelling is what the new mass media considers unimportant. And so, at least in part the movie says that journalism is not the means to make the “metaphysical quest.”

Yet in less than an hour and a half, we understand Kane and to a certain extent, at least, can empathize with him. And this might be the most surprising thing of all. How can this be when even those closest to him had no clear picture of him? Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloan), a follower whose identity is so merged into Kane’s that we don’t even hear his first name mentioned, says to Thompson (#10): “Thatcher never could figure him out. Sometimes even I couldn’t.” Chekhov called the soul, what Borges said was a labyrinth without a center, a cave.  But Bernstein, who was there “from before the beginning” and now “after the end,” at least knew what to look for to find out: Whatever it was that Kane wanted. And Bernstein also knew that, maybe, Rosebud was “something he lost. Mr. Kane was a man who lost almost everything he had.”  He was talking about a man who died in a castle he built from the stones of Europe among gardens and bestiaries and the “loot of the world” enough to “fill 10 museums” (in the words of the Time on the March newsreel). And yet it is Bernstein, the only one to profit from his association with Kane, the only curator of the unsullied image of Kane, the outsider to old line Anglos-Protestant elites—it is this Mr. Bernstein that comes closest to uttering a Christian morality on the destruction: For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?

The other witnesses don’t see Kane’s life in moral terms. The banker, Thatcher (George Coulouris), the substitute father (and mother), the man responsible for raising him, saw Kane only as a series of ledger book entries. His final conclusion on Kane’s life, as he tells a bemused congressional committee, is that Kane was a “communist.” Leland (Joseph Cotten), his oldest and perhaps only friend, his social equal, or perhaps superior because his place was conferred by his parents not sudden, randomly achieved wealth, saw him, in the end, as having “behaved like a swine.” His butler Raymond summarizes his view: “He was a little gone in the head sometimes, you know?” Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore) suffered the most at the hands of Kane, but she also has the most ardent and conflicting emotions. But she cannot articulate her feelings, she can only suffer alone. Perhaps a man’s intimates are incapable of fully judging him, because they can only see him in terms of their own values, desires and losses.

If journalistic fact and the recollections of intimates do not bring us to the center of the labyrinth, then what does? It is here that the techniques silently carry the load. Until then there was no movie that used all the technical resources available to allow the audience to view inside the “cave.” Visual techniques, of course, are the most obvious. And while Bazin highlighted the static frames and deep focus, Welles also employed his own version of montage and cutting. But the main visual effect of the movie is the omnipresent camera, a sort of divine eye that we get to view through. It is a tool, unlike the flat, dispassionate view of mass communicators (#12), which can penetrate depths, not simply gaze at surfaces. From the very beginning, when we are confronted with the “No Trespassing” sign on the fence of Xanadu, we see what the camera can do. In this case it slowly floats above the fence and proceeds into the grounds and in a fairy tale way we see “once upon a time.” It proceeds through the remains of a menagerie, gondolas in a strange lake which reflects a castle, what looks like a crumbling gazebo, an abandoned golf course, a haunted gardens until finally we see the fairy tale castle itself with one light one. A close-up shows a barred window with a light that suddenly goes dark. And then we are on the inside watching a snow storm from the inside  of a globe. The camera, we see, can penetrate barriers and see inside small globes. We then watch a man die. The odd feature of the camera, allowing us to penetrate through windows is seen again when we first visit Susan Alexander at El Rancho in Atlantic City. We first see her trapped in the club from its vista through the sky light (#11). The glass does not prevent us from traveling into the enclosures to meet Susan directly, however. But our freedom highlights her enclosure, perhaps from sorrow, but certainly from having had contact with Kane. For no one is visually enclosed more than Kane. And whatever the camera is (psychoanalysis? empathy? divine insight?), it first must disengage Kane from the confines he is held in before we can understand him. The camera portrays his boundaries, visually, and then allows us to invade them.

As Mary Kane signs the papers transferring her son to the banker Thatcher, her husband looks on impotently and Charles is seen through the window in happy ignorance.

14. As Mary Kane (Agnes Moorehead) signs the papers transferring her son to the banker Thatcher, her husband (Harry Shannon) looks on impotently, while Charles is seen through the window in happy ignorance.

The camera constantly tracks Kane, even when he is not the center of the scene’s attention. It is a visual reminder of his narcissistic personality disorder but it also holds him up to view as a specimen being observed, as the object of the scientific inquiry. But even more the enclosures show how he is boxed in, how his freedom is circumscribed, how he became what he did. He would have died behind a castle window out of sight, were it not for the camera’s ability to pierce it (#13). From the very first time we encounter him him (outside the news reel, which itself is a visual box without depth), we see him becoming enclosed. At first he is playing as a child in the snow but by a reverse tracking shot we see him slowly enclosed in a box which becomes smaller until we see it is the window in the background during the grown up’s decision of his future (#14). Although the discussion is about him, he far from their presence and enclosed in a visual cage.

The “framing” of Kane is ubiquitous in the film. When Bernstein speaks of him to the reporter after his death, he gazes on the framed portrait of Kane in his office (#10). Kane drafts his “Declaration of Principles,” which he feels will make the Inquirer as important to the people of New York as “the gas in that light,” at the window, and we see him from the outside, “imprisoned” by the window frames, while Leland wistfully gazes into the “open: world (#18). At the moment of his greatest professional triumph, when he has acquired the entire reporting staff of the rival Chronicle, he celebrates by dancing with hired call girls. As we watch Leland and Bernstein discuss the consequences of hiring reporters who hewed to political line opposite of the Inquirer‘s, we see Welles in the background, his figure reflected in the window between them, as though he was ever present, but always hemmed in (#9).

15. through the doorway into Susan Alexander's apartment.

15. Susan and Kane in her room for the first time seen through the doorway of her apartment.

The camera pictures Kane as transfixed by enclosing borders at his highest, his lowest and his most critically important moments. The staff of the Inquirer have planned a homecoming when he arrives from his celebratory vacation in Europe. He runs off embarrassed after he drops off a society notice. The staff is perplexed until his notice is read: he is engaged to Emily Monroe Norton (Ruth Warwick). After they run to the window, we see the couple for the first time through the frames of the window, as though fenced in below (#5). Emily, we soon find out form Bernstein, “was no Rosebud.” But by complete accident (#3) Kane allows himself to believe he has another chance. When Kane first enters Susan Alexander’s room, we see them both framed by the doorway (#15). He reflexively shuts the door, and we hear her say, when she opens the door so we can see them again: “Hey! Excuse me, but my landlady prefers me to keep the door open when I have a gentleman caller.”

But Kane was given no second chance. The visual enclosures presaged his lack of freedom. His future was as determined as his past. At the moment of his greatest political triumph, when he is delivering his last speech at a time when everyone is expecting him to be elected governor, his implacable enemy, Jim W. Gettys, watches him from a balcony whose view encloses (confines?) Kane, as he is vehemently promising to jail Gettys (#2). The two political enemies confront each other in a scene from which only one will survive unscathed. And the confrontation takes place with the combatants face to face, penned in by Susan’s doorway, too confined for an arena, but the match is not of physical prowess, only a matter of will (#16). During this his most fateful encounter, when Gettys confronts Kane with the reality that his political life, his family and ultimately his only friendship requires him to do something that he cannot—bend to the will of another that fate made superior to him for once—he is visibly ensnared and shadowed. Everyone but Kane knows it. And Gettys delivers his disdainful conclusion when Kane refuses the one way out Gettys offers him: “If it was anybody else I’d say what’s going to happen to you would be a lesson to you. Only you’re going to need more than one lesson. And you’re going to get more than one lesson.”

Kane and Gettys fight for their lives as Emily Norton Kane watches Kane.

16. Kane and Gettys. both bathed in the darkness of their intent, fight for their lives as Emily Norton Kane watches her husband from inside Susan’s apartment.

I won’t continue for the second part of the movie this list of visual cues that show how Kane’s behavior is strictly, almost mechanically determined. Kane operates under the illusion that he is in control. As he tells his wife, his great political nemesis and Susan all incongruously assembled to hear him: “There’s only one person in the world to decide what I’m going to do—and that’s me.” But like a figure from a Greek tragedy, Kane had it almost right. It is true that no one else will decide for him what to do. But he is mistaken that he makes the decision. In the second half of the film, his life with Susan, we see his life following the same deterministic rules. Despite what he has seen, he is still trapped in circumstances and behaviors beyond his volition. When the end comes, and Susan leaves him despite his inept attempt at change, he has an explosion of uncontrolled rage, destroying Susan’s room. When he emerges, the camera captures him framed in a doorway (#8). He is still trapped by external (or by the logic of the story, internal) forces that compel his conduct. As he heads towards his room, where he will disappear from our sight, we see visually the final image of his doom: the series of his identical images in the mirrors, all enclosed in the same way, all heading for the same tomb, his final enclosure (#17).

17. Our last view of Kane, and the last expression of his fate. All possible versions of him are doomed to suffer identically.

17. Our last view of Kane, and the last expression of his fate. All possible versions of him are doomed to suffer identically.

What constrains Kane, the condition that determines his behavior and ultimately his fate, is something that now has a name. Kane suffers from Narcissistic Personality Disorder. We know this now because in this interminable election season we’ve seen in on display in a particularly vulgar version. The DSM-5 describes what we’ve seen in the movie (and in the GOP candidate): Grandiose feelings of superior intelligence, success and power, excessive need of submissive love and admiration from others, inability to empathize with others, wanton exploitative conduct, a belief in entitlement that has been wrongfully denied. The populist demagogue is an exemplar of this condition. It’s not an objection that the DSM was not around when Citizen Kane was made any more than that Sophocles did not know about the Oedipal Complex or Shakespeare about Represession when he wrote Hamlet. Usually diagnostics imitate art.

18. Kane drafts his Declaration of Principles as Leland seems to look for freedom from the enclosure.

18. Kane drafts his Declaration of Principles as Leland seems to look for freedom from the enclosure.

The hints in Citizen Kane are unmistakeable. Leland tells Thompson that Charlie never gave anything to anyone he only “left you a tip.” Susan complains that Kane never loved her, he only gave her things, nothing that really mattered. And Kane’s method for obtaining admiration, consent and love is to make promises. And his closest friends know what his promises mean. When he drafts his famous Declaration of Principles, Bernstein warns him (jokingly) against making promises he can’t keep. At his campaign rally he teases about promises he won’t state because he is too busy preparing to fulfill them. And twice with Susan, after all he had supposedly learned, he makes promises that he immediately breaks.

The first promise to Susan is after her suicide attempt. He doesn’t understand her intense desire to quit singing, something that he had poured all his hopes into after his bitter electoral defeat. She tells him, plaintively, “You don’t know what it’s like to feel that people—that a whole audience doesn’t want you.” This is a concept that a narcissist has a particular way of dealing with, and Kane blurts out, “That’s when you’ve got to fight them.” But then, seeing that she cannot mount such a fight, assures her, “All right. You won’t have to fight them any more. It’s their loss.” But as Susan eases into a look of relief, the scene dissolves into a night view of the castle of Xanadu, accompanied by the ominous Power motif (discussed below), which in turn quickly dissolves into a resentful Susan working on a jigsaw puzzle. Clearly, Kane had not taken her interests into account in this last move. Instead it seems that Kane has taken refuge in priveleged isolation to shield himself from the humiliating stares of a public who knows of his political failure and the failure of his wife’s musical career which he used to justify or at least replace the former.

Kane’s second promise to Susan was one that he knew was his last hope of adulation, the response he repeatedly mistook for love. It was day following the night that he struck her for the accusation that he did not love her. The next day she packed and announced to him that she was leaving. For the first time he is reduced to begging:

Kane: Susan, please don’t go. Please, Susan. From now on everything will be exactly the way you want it. Not the way I want it—but your way.

[Script direction: She is staring at him. She might weaken.]

Kane: You mustn’t go. You can’t do this to me.

[Script direction: It is as if he had thrown ice water into her face. She freezes.]

She realizes that Kane is only thinking of himself. Her needs mean nothing, and with that resolution she leaves.

Kane’s tragic flaw is that he lacks the capacity to love another. When Leland tells him that he demands love only on his own terms, Kane agrees, he thinks wisely, by saying those can be the only terms that anyone knows (#4). And it is not just that he is incapable of giving love, he seeks only a particular kind of return on his gestures. We learn that Kane responds, not to personal love, but to abstract adulation. When confronted with the choice to withdraw from the gubernatorial race or see his family destroyed by scandal, he refuses to withdraw. Even when Susan pleads that he consider his “little boy,” Kane’s only concern was that Gettys was trying to take from him “the love of the people.” Leland told the reporter Thompson that Kane told him after he first met Susan that she represented “a cross-section of the American people.” The love he pursued from her, then, was of the same sort that Gettys was trying to deny him. Susan finally leaves Kane when she realizes that she represents nothing more to him than ego gratification.

19, Kane (Buddy Swan) resists leaving with Thatcher. Jim Kane (Harry Shannon):

19. Kane (Buddy Swan) resists leaving with Thatcher.
Jim Kane (Harry Shannon): “What that kid needs is a good thrashing!
Mary Kane (Agnes Moorehead): That’s what you think, is it, Jim? … That’s why he’s going to be brought up where you can’t get at him.”

Now, if we can return for a brief moment to Welles’s comment about “‘dollar-book’ Freud,” we can see how the movie treats the cause of Kane’s narcissistic imprisonment (the etiology, if we choose to be a bit more pretentious). In “On Narcissism” Freud developed his early explanation both of the development of the libido and the component parts of his proposed psychic structure (then called id, ego and ego ideal). He also introduces the concepts of repression and sublimation. Freud asserted that libido pre-dated the construction of ego in a child. While the ego is being developed, the child’s libido is object-directed (primarily toward the mother). (Originally the child knows no difference between inward and outward affection, because its ego is absent or only rudimental. It is the life-long, and impossible quest, to return to the state where one is united with everything.) As it extends its libido outward, a child’s (healthy) narcissism is depleted. Only the return of love by his love-object (mother) can restore it. An ideally healthy adult is one who ego ideal is constructed (normally by the father) while his outward-libido remains in balance with his ego-libido (supplied by the mother), and one’s ego is eventually sustained on its own by fulfillment of the imagined expectations of the ego ideal. When there is a disturbance in the normal development a person can substitute narcissistic object choice for normal anaclitic object choice. (Thus a profound narcissist, just like Freud’s example of homosexuals and others whose sexuality did not develop “normally,” has a stunted desire for heterosexual objects of libido.) However, an adult develops the equation is the same as during ego formation. Extending libidinal energy outward (to an object of love) depletes narcissistic investment in one’s ego; being loved, however, restores one’s self-regard and enhances one’s ego.

We can speculate that Welles had a fairly good grasp of basic Freudian theory, not only because he repeatedly draws on Freud throughout his careen in describing characters (including Shakespearean ones) or even because Freud’s world-view was much more prevalent in the early half of the 20th century than it is now. But also Welles himself experienced similar repression and displacement when the physician Maurice Bernstein moved into his house, replacing his father and becoming the primary influence on Welles. Bernstein was remained so important to Welles, that he flew to Los Angeles to take care of Welles during the production of Citizen Kane when Welles broke his ankle. This relationship was so important to Welles that he named Everett Sloan’s character after him, perhaps as an intended clue. (But with Freud, there is generally no unintended clue, only subliminal.)

One further textual clue suggests that orthodox Freudian explanation of narcissism is intended to be depicted perhaps comes from the nature of the relationship between Kane and Susan. Because the narcissist has substituted narcissistic object choice for normal anaclitic object choice (that is, ordinary heterosexual erotic object), the narcissist seeks abstract rather than erotic love. Leland suggested the Kane was interested in Susan for what she represented, not what she was (and he laughs about it). We then see a scene of a coquettish Susan meeting Kane (#3). But she is quite proper in observing the conventions, even insisting that the door be kept open. Susan herself twice insists that before they were married she had no sexual relations with Kane. The first time was during the encounter in her apartment between Kane and Gettys, where she indignantly asks “What story?” The second time was when she first spoke to Thompson. He questions her as though she were a gold-digger, she insists that he was only interested in her voice and she only got music lessons out of it. The marriage was forced by the publicity and loss of the election. (Even Leland says that Kane’s motives with respect to Susan was to eliminate the innuendos of the newspaper headlines.)

20. The Declaration of Principles, which Leleand

20. The Declaration of Principles, which Leleand “had a hunch it might turn out ot be something pretty important.”

Whether or not Welles intended such a deep digging into psychoanalytic theory, it is clear that he was pointing to a quasi-Freudian explanation of Kane at the very least. Kane is strongly attached to his mother when we see him at the age of eight. She has shielded him from the influence of his father whose values would normally be instilled to form his ego ideal (see #19). But he is nevertheless taken from her to live with Tatcher. Whatever unresolved Oedipal rage Kane had against his father, he now directs against the banker. Kane therefore had no chance for a well-adjusted ego with anaclitic object choice (in Freud’s terms). Instead, Kane and Leland enjoy a raucous and undisciplined adolescence at various colleges most of which they were thrown out of (according to Bernstein). Kane’s rage against his surrogate father never dissipates (his Oedipal complex is never resolved), however. When Thatcher, as head of the bank that takes back ownership of Kane’s newspaper empire in the Depression, asks Kane what he would like to have been (a startling question for a man who was supposed to have raised him), Kane answers: “Everything you hate!”  With his damaged ego development, Kane has little chance to have a normal psychic life. We see the strategy he would employ his entire life from the beginning of his role at the Inquirer (#20). Kane expected immediate adulation in exchange for promises to be paid later. But as Leland observed looking back: “He never gave anything away. He just left you a tip.” As for love, Leland said: “That’s why he did everything. That’s why he went into politics. It seems we weren’t enough, he wanted all the voters to love him too.”

So there is support for Welles’s “dollar-book Freud” but the visual framing of Kane and the testimony of his intimates are not enough to make us viscerally feel the desperate constraining limits of Kane’s psyche and how it came about. Two other techniques are required.

First, there is the musical (and more broadly aural) soundscape of the film. Whenever Welles had the technical capabilities (which some of his self-funded movies lacked), he always devoted considerable attention to its sound ambiance and musical score. His long radio career, which he pursued simultaneously with his theatrical one, taught him the emotional impact of sound. When he became executive producer of his own nationally broadcast shows he closely supervised sound production and engaged in a variety of experiments. With RKO, Welles had become associated with the studio that was most interested in the sound of its films and the one with the most advanced sound equipment. On Citizen Kane Welles was able to use sound engineers with radio backgrounds. Even so, it was Welles’s close supervision and innovative concepts that made the sound of the movie as groundbreaking as was the visual style of the film, according to James G. Stewart, the film’s sound engineer, who also credited Welles with teaching him the principles of sound aesthetics which he thereafter used for the rest of his career.

Many of Welles’s sound techniques enhanced the realism of scenes, much as Bazin noted his visual style did. For example, after we see Susan begin her aria in the staged opera, the camera pans slowly upward through the rigging. As our view ascends higher, we hear Susan’s voice diminish, like aural perspective. This was not done by simply lowering the volume of the recorded sound, but rather by increasing the microphone’s reverberations, a technique used in Welles’s radio productions. When Kane delivers his political speech in the great hall, Welles declaimed his speech with the timing of one speaking in a large, cavernous hall with sound reflection. In postproduction the reverberation rate of his voice was manipulated to simulate the sound of the echo in such a venue. Scenes at Xanadu have a cavernous sound, usually produced in postproduction. Much of the sound involving multiple sound sources, like the scene where Welles is dancing and the new reporters are celebrating, was recorded live, with especial care given to sound levels from different sources so dialogue can be heard and yet the scene sound genuine.

But the soundscape was not only designed to add realistic details to the film but also to plumb psychological depth. Much of this was done in connection with Bernard Herrmann’s musical score or the score in connection with recorded sound. The best example of the latter is the musical-sound confusion during the montage of Susan’s final opera tour. As images flash of the efforts made by Susan, the exasperation of her singing coach, newspaper headlines and the reactions of Kane and the audience, the sound is a cacophonous mix until the end when only her voice is heard then the frequency reduced so that it sounds as though she is running out of steam just as the light filament (by then the only image) burns out. Usually, however, it is Herrmann’s music which underlies scenes requiring sound interludes, for example the montages of photographs.

Herrmann invested a great deal of thought and time into the score and he did so with the active collaboration of Welles. He made a decided choice to reject the prevailing approach by Hollywood veterans such as Max Steiner, Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Dimitri Tiomkin and relative newcomer Miklós Rózsa, all of whom employed full symphonic orchestras to play their version of lush late Romantic music along the order of Richard Strauss. The music was inserted after the movie was a finished print, to enhance the emotional or dramatic intensity of particular scenes often during dialogue. Herrmann’s music was largely subtle, produced by small groups of unusual instrumentation and never during the most dramatic scenes, which depended exclusively on acting and mise-en-scène. The quiet background added an unexpected drama because it was so unusual then (and now).

Herrmann composed fully structured pieces for set scenes, especially montages. Welles often waited for Herrmann to compose a piece and shot or cut the scene around the composition. The best example is the famous “breakfast montage” (see video below) where Welles portrays the disintegration of Kane’s marriage with Emily by successively cut scenes of their breakfasts. (Welles himself added this to the script based, as he admitted, on the concept by Thornton Wilder in his one-act play The Long Christmas Dinner.) Herrmann composed a waltz (a musical form that introduced us to her (#5)), which together with the successive shots underwent a series of variations each becoming more dark and dangerous, just as Kane himself was becoming so himself. But the music merely underlies the drama, not overwhelm it. Welles decision that Herrmann compose the piece and then edit the scene following the cues of the music was an unheard of deference to the musical content of a film.

But for our purposes the two most important pieces of music were two two-bar motifs which we first hear at the very beginning of the film. The first, which Herrmann called “Kane’s power” is heard in the first two bars of the score, played by the bassoons and muted trombones. It consists of five notes (E–D♯–E–E–B♭). It is darkly foreboding, and represents the icy exterior of a place owned by an evidently powerful man. It is related to the “There is a man” tune that is sung at the reporters’ party (#9), which later becomes the theme of Kane’s political campaign. Both are heard when Kane’s fortunes are on the upswing (one intensely serious, the other buoyant and optimistic). It is the “power” theme, however, that suggests the deep driving force. When Kane’s fortunes take a decisive turn, only the “power” theme continues. Throughout the film the motif transforms to a variety of forms including ragtime, polka and finally the funeral end of the film. It is the force that keeps Kane plowing forward in the furrow that he has dug for himself. It represents Kane’s id.

A second motif is also heard at the beginning. It is melancholic but strangely wistful, and Herrmann calls it the “Rosebud” motif. It too is made up of five notes (C♯–D–B–F♯-C♯), and we hear it played by a solo vibraphone the second time we see the castle. We hear it with fuller instrumentation and repeated when we see the snow globe for the first time. This theme is repeated throughout the film, but not usually in the same circumstances as the “power” motif. It is found when it looks like Kane may have a way to redemption. It is prominent when he meets Susan and ascends to her apartment (#3), for example. The motif represents Kane’s idealized ego, restored to the harmony of mutual maternal-filial love, the longing for the unattainable condition where there is no distinction between inward and outward libidinal direction. Its distinctive mood is unsettling and gives a distinct coloration to the film.

As effectively as the camera and musical motifs guide us through the psychological inquiry, they are aided by the cutting. In most movies cutting is so prevalent that it becomes second nature and we rarely notice it. In Citizen Kane, there are unusually long set shots filmed by a single camera. When there are cuts, they are usually surprising and punctuated by a very brief musical statement or exclamation. The cut from the poster of Susan to the long tracking shot through the rain to the skylight of El Rancho is accompanied by a startling musical attack, much like lightening, for example. Some dissolves transition from one form of information to another. One example is how the white page that Thompson is reading in the Thatcher library becomes the snow that young Charlie Kane is sledding on. Another is how Leland’s narration from the hospital dissolves into the scene at Kane’s breakfast. Montages with more rapid cutting are designed to show a process acting over a period of time, telescoped to a few moments. The famous breakfast montage (in the video above) is an example. So is Susan’s opera tour, showing how she has been worn down by the ordeal of performing before audiences who think she is ridiculous. That montage directly cuts to the long, fixed scene of her bedroom after she has overdosed on pills. The stationary camera showing a glass and spoon prominently in the foreground and the door in the distant background with what appears to be a bed between is all the more effective as it followed the rapid cutting and dissolves of the opera tour montage.

But the most effective use of cutting occurs when it shows how two episodes are related, even though they are separated by an expanse of time. A good example is the cut between scenes after Susan attempts suicide. A pale and exhausted Susan explains her suicide attempt: “Charlie, I couldn’t make you see how I felt.” She tells him of her humiliation before audiences that didn’t want her. Kane at first, impulsively, follows his id: “That’s when you have to fight them!” But then relents and tells her she won’t have to sing again. It will be “their loss.” She relaxes in relief, perhaps believing that Kane has finally understood her. All of this was accompanied by the “Rosebud” motif. But then the scene cuts to a picture of the foreboding Xanadu castle with the “power” motif again heard. What she exchanged for humiliation was haunted loneliness and isolation, Kane’s ultimate perversion of his narcissistic drive (#21).

21. Susan’s relief and happiness when Kane relents and lets her stop performing cuts to the reality of what her next ordeal would be.

This temporal cutting can  take place in the middle of things. We hear Susan practicing the aria from The Barber of Seville in her parlor but the scene cuts in the middle of singing and in the next scene she seamlessly continues, as Kane, in different clothing, sits listening in the same chair, although it is a much later time. He claps, and as he does, the scene cuts to the clapping at a political rally. Sometimes the cut shows identification between people or events. When, for example, Leland is making a pitch on the street the scene cuts mid-sentence to Kane in the great hall who finishes Leland’s sentence. All of it causes the audience to realize that it is on an analytic exploration in which chronological sequence is a hindrance. In fact, we come to see the soul of Kane only by viewing one long ago cause and its matching much later effects, separately considered. It is as though this fracturing of time and visual frames of reference and even points of view are all required to gain empathy with another. On reflection that conclusion applies as much to each of us as to an examination of Kane.

In the end the film succeeds as a work of art because it had a single, perhaps unusual, point of view, and all technical facilities of the movie studio and all the artistic possibilities of a theater troop combined to realize that viewpoint in original (and therefore exciting) ways. Bazin once dismissed as an impossibility the notion of “total cinema.” But to the extent a film approaches that impossible limit it can be measured as great art. There are exceedingly few films that came as close to that ideal as Citizen Kane.


Paul Arthur: “Out of the Depths: Citizen Kane, Modernism, and the Avant-Garde Impulse,” Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane: A Casebook ed. James Neremore (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 263-84, reprinted from Ronald Gottesman (ed.), Perspectives on Citizen Kane (New York: G.K. Hall, c1996).

Peter Bogdanovich, “The Kane Mutiny,” Esquire, pp. 99-105, 180-90 (October 1972).

André Bazin, “The Technique of Citizen Kane,” Bazin at Work: Major Essays and Reviews from the Forties and Fifties trans. by Alain Piette and Bert Cardullo; Bert Cardullo (ed.) (New York: Routledge, 1997), pp. 231-39, originally “La technique de Citizen Kane,” Les temps modernes, no. 17 (February 1947), pp. 943-49.

André Bazin, “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema,” What is Cinema? trans. by Hugh Gray (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1967-71) (2 volumes), vol. 1, pp. 23-37 (Translation of selections from Qu’est-ce que le cinéma? a collection of essays published posthumously in four volumes (Paris: Éditions du Cerf., 1958-62). The particular essay was a composite of three essays written by Bazin between 1950 and 1955.

André Bazin, “An Aesthetic of Realism: Neorealism,” What is Cinema? trans. by Hugh Gray (Berkeley, Calif: Universit of California Press, 1967-71), vol. 2, pp. 16-40. Originally published in Espirit (January 1948).

Jorge Luis Borges,  “An Overwhelming Film (Citizen Kane),”  Selected Non-Fictions ed. by Eliot Weinberger (New York: Viking, 1999), pp. 258-59, translation by Suzanne Jill Levine of “Una Film Abrumador,” Sur, no. 83 (August 1941). 

Frank Brady, Citizen Welles: A Biography of Orson Welles (New York: Scribner, c1989).

Robert L. Carringer, “The Scripts of Citizen Kane,” Central Inquiry, no. 5 (1978), pp. 369-400, reprinted in James Nevemore (ed.), Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane: A Casebook (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 79–121.

Robert L Carringer, The Making of Citizen Kane (Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press, c1985).

Sigmund Freud, Zur Einführung des Narzissmus (Leipzig: Internationaler Psychoanalytischer Verlag, 1924) (a book version of an essay originally published in 1914), translated in Joseph Sandler, Ethel Spector Person, Peter Fonagy (ed.), Freud’s “On Narcissism—An Introduction” (New Haven : Yale University Press, c1991). A version of Freud’s essay (without identificaiton of the edition or the translator) is found online at

Ronald Gottesman (ed.), Perspectives on Citizen Kane (New York: G.K. Hall, c1996).

Bernard Herrmann, “Score for a Film: Composer Tells of Problems Solved in Music for ‘Citizen Kane’,” New York Times, May 25, 1941, Dram-Screen-Music section, p. X6 (online; subscription required), reprinted in Ronald Gottesman (ed.), Focus on Citizen Kane (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971), pp. 69-72.

Pauline Kael, “Raising Kane—I,” New Yorker, February 20, 1971 (online) and “Raising Kane—II,” New Yorker, February 27, 1971 (online), reprinted as the introductory essay to The Citizen Kane Book (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1971) (and in other collections of Kael’s writings).

Istvan Meszaros, The Work of Sartre: Search for Freedom and the Challenge of History (New York: Monthly Review Press, c2012).

Frank Rich, “Roaring at the Screen With Pauline Kael,” New York Times Book Review, October 30, 2011, pp. 1, 12-14 (online; open access).

Andrew Sarris, “Citizen Kane: The American Baroque,” Film Culture, vol. 2 (1956), pp. 14-16, reprinted in Ronald Gottesman (ed.), Focus on Citizen Kane (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971), pp. 102-08.

Andrew Sarris, “Citizen Kael vs. Citizen Kane,” Village Voice (April 29, 1971), reprinted online by

Jean-Paul Sartre, “Quand Hollywood veut faire penser: Citizen Kane, Film d’Orson Welles,” L’Ecran français (August 1, 1945), reprinted in Olivier Barrot, L’Ecran français, 1943-1953: histoire d’un journal et de une époche (Paris: Les Editeurs français réunis, 1979), pp. 39-43.

Lawrence Van Gelder, “Pauline Kael, Provocative and Widely Imitated New Yorker Film Critic, Dies at 82,” New York Times, September 4, 2001, p. C12 (online; open access).

Orson Welles, “Citizen Kane is not about Louella Parsons’ Boss,” Friday, no. 2 (February 14, 1941), p. 9, reprinted in Ronald Gottesman (ed.), Focus on Citizen Kane (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971), pp. 67-68.

Leila Wimmer, Cross-Channel Perspectives: The French Reception of British Cinema (New York: Peter Lang, 2009).

Bill Wrobel, “Herrmann’s Citizen Kane,” Film Score Rundown (November 4, 2001) (PDF).

Chimes at Midnight

The Final Masterpiece of Orson Welles Can Be Seen Again

Chimes at Midnight Poster

Poster accompanying 1967 release of Chimes at Midnight. As usual, US distribution policies worked at cross-purposes with Welles’ vision for his work.

It is likely that you, like me, did not see Chimes at Midnight, Orson Welles’s tribute to Jack Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s great comic-tragic characters, when it was released in the United States in March 1967, you likely would not have ever seen it in a cinema, since it has been tied up in litigation between its Spanish producers and the Welles estate ever since. Fortunately the film has been re-released and is showing until January 12 at Manhattan’s Film Forum, and thereafter will make its way through art houses around the country.

[Update 1/12/16: The New York Film Forum has announced that the film will be held over for another week. There will be five showings daily through January 19.]

In 1967 I would not have been prepared to appreciate the film, even if I had lived in a place where the film was shown. Since then having seen all of the rest of Welles’ output, I can now put it in perspective. By the time Welles made Chimes at Midnight, he had made at least five or six of the very few films that belong among the classics of world cinema: Citizen Kane (1941), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), The Lady from Shanghai (1947), Othello (1948), Touch of Evil  (1958) and The Trial (1962). Of these films, only three escaped the ravishes of the Hollywood. Kane was a fluke. RKO Pictures so lusted after the head of New York’s Mercury Theatre, that they caved to the demands of Welles when he demurred. Because Welles sought artistic control rather than more money, RKO agreed and allowed Welles to make a masterpiece. Studios would not make that mistake again, and RKO cowered before might of the Hearst newspaper chain and limited distribution. The other two, Othello and The Trial, avoided the problem by avoiding the studio system, although Othello suffered from such lack of ready money that it took years to complete, requiring Welles to use imaginative shots to cover for actors who missed the infrequent shootings.

Chimes Publicity Shot

“As fat as butter” (Carrier describing Falstaff, Henry IV, Part One, II:iv:496). Welles in publicity still. (Peppercorn-Wormser Film Enterprises: Photo: Mary Evans/Alpine Films.)

Welles was able to obtain Spanish financing for Chimes at Midnight, if Bob Mandello has it right, by use of deception. He lied to the Spanish producers promising that he would produce a version of John Louis Stevenson’s  Treasure Island. He had no intention to do so and instead filmed Shakespeare’s version of the origin of the Lancaster House, by focusing on Falstaff. Filmed mostly in castles in Spain, Welles operated with an economy that even the most impoverished of independents today would find chafing. It is a tribute to the esteem in which Welles was held by actors that he was able to assemble an international cast of stars: Sir  John Gielgud played Henry IV, Keith Baxter was used to play Hal (later Henry V) as he did in Welles’ 1960 stage version of the Chronicle plays, Jeanne Moreau acted the part of Doll Tearsheet, Margaret Rutherford played the matronly keeper of the bawdy inn Mistress Quickly and Fernando Rey, not long after his role in Viridiana, plays the cool conspirator Earl of Worcester, head of the Percy rebellion against Henry. Repertory actors Alan Webb played Shallow, Norman Rodway was Hotspur, Tony Beckley played Ned Poins and Michael Aldridge played Pistol. Welles had his daughter Beatrice play his page.

The Days We Have Seen

Shallow: “Jesus, the days that we have seen.” … Falastaff: “We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow.” (Henry IV, Part II, III.ii. 214 & 209-10.) Welles and Alan Webb.

Much of the attraction to Welles must have arisen from his close attention to the craft of acting and his respect for actors themselves. Janet Leigh once expressed her surprise on finding out that the first two weeks of work on Touch of Evil would be spent on rehearsal, with no shooting, an approach rare enough. But Welles also solicited the opinions of the actors, which created the feeling, according to Leigh, that the entire ensemble was engaged in creation. Much of this was the result of having headed up a successful theatre company of talented players. When he came to the movies, his films would help express the actions, feelings, prospects and limitations of the characters, an extension of set design. Directors who started with film tended to see actors as simply another part of the moving pictures. And of course, since cinema began without sound, theater experience for either actor or director was something beside the point. In early movies, say those of D.W. Griffith for example, emphasized crowds and massed movement. When people were alone or encountered another, the acting was filled with histrionics. When “talkies” became established, directors still treated actors as part of the scenery. Soon framed close-ups with cuts between speakers became the standard way of showing conversation.

Tim Holt

Wide shot in The Magnificent Ambersons: Young George Miniver (Tim Holt) learns to become the center of the universe. Major Amberson (Richard Bennett) listens as his parents (Dolores Costello and Don Dillaway) fail to give him their full attention.

Welles almost never used close-up, and particularly avoided them in dialogs. From the very beginning, Welles usually filmed actors, even in conversation, in medium wide shots. Some of the most dramatic scenes in his movies (Kane in front of the mirrors, Fanny in the background making breakfast with George Miniver and Jack Amberson in the foreground eating breakfast, all sorts of shots of Hank Quinlan and so forth) were wide shots and even long shots. After he and cinematographer Gregg Toland perfected the use of deep focus, he was able to show characters acting in various depths of field. In that way movies became three-dimensional in the same way stages were. And thus theater actors were more important to him.

Quinlan and Grandi

Wide shot in Touch of evil: Quinlan (Welles) confronts Uncle Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff). In a world suffocating with corruption, a man’s bearing showed his rank in the pecking order.

The dramatic camera shots perfectly fit the kinds of stories Welles preferred to tell. They involved larger-than-life characters, usually with substantial flaws but nevertheless portrayed sympathetically, whose actions result in a crisis or turning point for a number (sometimes a large number) of people. Even minor characters, such as Fanny Amberson, though insignificant to most people, were treated with such empathy that even though she brings on a great tragedy, we still recognize her humanity. A self-professed “romantic” (of the early 19th century variety), Welles never attempted quiet personal moments, unresolved ambiguity or divided intentions. His characters could be stopped (and usually were), but only by countervailing forces, not failure of will.

The other aspect that sets the films of Welles apart was their reliance on dialogue. Welles never worried about letting his characters talk, so long as the talk was literate. This is another carryover from the theater. This one, however, seemed to violate everything about cinema even then, and now would be considered daring, if not suicidal, to make a movie that didn’t have regular visual scenes that aroused, excited, titillated or shocked the viewer. I pass this over without comment; perhaps it is simply another symptom of our passage to a pre-rational, pre-literate stage. But all of this brings us to Chimes at Midnight.

Revolted Mortimer!

Henry (Sir John Gielgud) “No, on the barren mountains let him starve. / For I shall never hold that man my friend / Whose tongue shall ask me for one penny cost / To ransom home revolted Mortimer.” (Henry IV, Part I, I:iii:88-91.) The long shot shows the king’s icy domination over the volatile Hotspur, whom he nevertheless prefers to his own son (Norman Rodway).

I'll be friends with thee

Doll: “Come, I’ll be friends with thee, Jack; thou art going to the wars, and whether I shall ever see thee again or no there is nobody cares.” (Henry IV, Part II, II:iv:64-66.) Jean Moreau and Welles.

Welles laid claim to the War of Roses plays in the late 1930s. In April 1938, at a :”Shakespeare birthday luncheon” at the Waldorf Astoria, Welles announced that his Mercury Theatre Company in connection with the Theatre Guild would mount a “marathon” two-night production of “The Five Kings,” an abridgment of both parts of Henry IV together with Henry V (shown the first night) along with Henry VI and Richard III the second night. The 22 year old Welles (in his typically sententious manner”—a relic of his history of being considered a prodigy) claimed that it was his intention to restore the plays which had been “lost to the living theater.” Welles promised it would be “a cavalcade of the fifteenth century.”

Welles-Julis Caesar

Photo of production of Julius Caesar in 1937. Caesar (Joseph Holland) far right, Brutus (Welles) second from the right, Publius (Joseph Cotton) far left, and Cassius (Martin Gabel) third from the left. From: The Holloway Pages.

The announcement was made just as Welles was riding his first wave of acclaim. It had been two years since he put on the all black “voodoo” Macbeth for the Federal Theater Project. He had directed a number of other noteworthy plays including Marlowe’s Doctor FaustusThe Second Hurricane (with score by Aaron Copland). He was a famous national radio actor in a variety of plays and his Shadow detective series.  By the Spring of 1938, the Mercury Theatre was , in its first season, was performing four plays simultaneously, two in different theaters on the same block. Welles’s daring Julius Caesar, condensed to one act, done in modern garb and presented as the story of a modern totalitarian, electrified the newspaper critics. John Mason Brown of the New York Post (November 12, 1937) was perhaps the most ecstatic, suggesting that the play is more than entertainment,  rather something vital and contemporary in  the context of sinister world events::

Something deathless and dangerous in the world sweeps past you down the darkened aisles at the Mercury and takes possession of the proud, gaunt stage. It is something fearful and ominous, something turbulent and to be dreaded, which distends the drama to include the life of nations as well as of men. It is an ageless warning, made in such arresting terms that it not only gives a new vitality to an ancient story but unrolls in your mind’s eye a man of the world which is increasingly splotched with sickening colors.”

Welles and his partner in Mercury John Housman cut Julius Caesar short (to the dismay of the box office manager who believed it would sell out indefinitely) in order to produce new plays. (For all his devotion to personal myth-making Welles always devoted himself to  the best production of the stories that interested him rather than money-making.) Surprisingly, the next play, Thomas Dekker’s Elizabethan comedy The Shoemaker’s Holiday, proved even more successful to newspaper critics. Brook Atkinson declared that the regular replacement of works (regardless of the continued demand) was the sign of a healthy company. (It is also of advantage to the newspaper critic.) As for the play itself, Atkinson proved he was firmly among the Welles boosters, calling it “the funniest jig of the season and the new year has begun with a burst of theatrical hilarity,” and even providing a pedestrian marketing plug: “everyone who loves a good time will want to see it.”


Welles as character of Captain Shotover from Heartbreak House on cover of Time, May 9, 1938.

The announcement by Welles of the proposed Henry plays was shortly followed by more acclaim. In May 1938 Time published a cover story on Welles. In the breathless prose the magazine used for unreflective puff pieces the piece highlighted the 22-year-old’s extravagant lifestyle (large house, driver and limo, his “Falstaffian” appetite), swooned over his success (“the brightest moon that has risen over Broadway in years”) and contributed to his mad scientist reputation (“Welles is Caesar (not Brutus) where stagecraft is concerned, and in his own opinion ‘pretty dictatorial'”). But at this very time the Mercury Theatre was facing an existential crisis. Welles’s Caesarism was destroying the morale of the members (some of which simply quit). More important, the company was facing a financial crisis caused by its latest project. When the group took on Heartbreak House to close the season, it had to deal with the demands of the rights holder and author, George Bernard Shaw. Fort he first time it had to pay royalties and comply with the stage instructions of an outsider who demanded real (and expensive) sets rather than the “gimmicks” the company got away with in its revivals. And because Welles could not impose his own concepts on the text, he felt compelled to hire genuine Broadway actors, who were much more expensive than his own crew. The considerable additional expense squeezed the finances of the group and put into doubt whether it could really go forward. And so both Welles and Houseman delayed plans for the next season (including postponing the start of Five Kings), which resulted in more actors quitting.

Five Kings-1

Welles as Falstaff and Burgess Meredith as Prince Hall in Five Kings. From: The Holloway Pages.

As would become a commonplace over Welles’s career, a deus ex machina saved the day. CBS Radio offered the Mercury Theatre a deal for nine one-hour radio dramas, which would become Mercury Theatre on the Air. When that engagement ended in September it was renewed until December. And then the company obtained a permanent sponsor and the show was known as the Campbell Playhouse, which would last until Welles moved to Hollywood. The weekly demands of a new radio play pushed preparation for Five Kings so repeatedly that most considered it abandoned. But the most troubling  factor was what seemed to be the inability of Welles to stir himself to attend to the details of theatrical production until things had descended to a crisis. It was what happened with the Mercury Theatre’s production of Georg Büchner’s Danton’s Death, which opened in November 1938.

Five Kings-2

Hotspur (John Emery): “… men of your nobility and power did gage them both in an unjust behalf … to put down Richard, that sweet lovely rose, and plant this thorn, this canker, Bolingbroke.” Five Kings, I:ix (from Henry IV, Part I, I:iii:170-174). MacGregor Gibb (as Northumberland, middle) and Eustace Wyatt (as Northumberland, right) (Lilly Library, Indiana University, from Richard France, see below.

Welles and Houseman could be counted on for selecting a timely and often forgotten play. But if you look back on the whole of Welles’s career, this play seems a very odd choice. Late in life Welles boasted that he was a Romantic and an “enemy” of modern times. (Just as, he said, Falstaff was an enemy of his own modern times.) Welles was drawn to stories that involved large personalities, who grand themes and usually operatic plot lines. Danton’s Death, though written in 1835 during the height of European Romanticism, was anything but Romantic. Büchner’s Woyzeck, written two year later, would show that he was decades ahead of his time and thoroughly imbued with modernist sensibilities. The play simply did not have any resonance with Welles. More problematic, however, ws that Welles had no concept, no “gimmick,” to apply to it. The essence of Welles’ theater direction was always in staging and choreography. He was not particularly an actor’s director. But with Danton’s Death he had no grand concept to push and so he seems to have lost interest.

The lackluster piece marked the turning point for many newspaper critics some of which were already fed up with the adulation of the 23 year old. (Perhaps it also had something to do with the brouhaha caused by theMercury Theatre of the Air’s radio production of World of the Worlds the previous week.) The Brooklyn Eagle-Examiner (Nov. 6, 1938): “Orson Welles does Büchner’s Danton’s Death Over to a Little thing of his Own, Enjoying Life as a Boy Prodigy” (only in all caps). John Mason Brown, the Post‘s critic who gave the breathless review of Julius Caesar said (Nov. 5, 1938), said it was too “arty” and “too self-conscious for comfort.” It was panned for being slow and too episodic. Edward Watts of the New York Herald-Tribune (Nov. 3, 1938) panned the staging: “Every movement is made as if it were artistically precious, and it manages to achieve not a rhythm that seems appropriate ot the French Revolution but rather one that indicates a belief on Mr. Welles’s part that everything he is doing is significant.” Even Brooks Atkinson had doubts. He called Welles an “erratic genius” and criticized Welles’s action saying “[h]is eccentric phrasing … sacrifices meaning to apostolic sound.” In a second comment a week later Atkinson was more prophetic:

“Plays have to give way to his whims, and actors have to subordinate their art when he gets under way, for The Shadow is the monarch of all he surveys. It is no secret that his willfulness and impulsiveness may also wreck his Mercury Theatre, for he is a thorough egoist in the grand manner of the old-style tragedian.”

Five Kings would fulfill the prophesy.

In the first place, the concept was hubris reified. The idea of putting on three Shakespeare plays (that at best clock in a near 4 hours each) and parts of four others in two nights was problematic at best. When it was announced it was simply a wish, because Welles had not even outlined the script yet. Nor would he get to it until pressed. But the idea was not to isolate one theme or idea of the plays, but rather to simply condense them all. This was inherently problematic. But it interested the moribund Theatre Guild from whom Houseman arranged fairly generous support.

Master Planx 1 & 2

Two of James Morcom’s master plans for the stage with rotating device. There were also three battlefield plans. From Richard France (see below).

Second, the “gimmick” that Welles came up with to tie everything together (and perhaps speed things up) was a revolving stage. In addition to the stationary aprons the stage would hold a 28-foot circular palatte, rotated by an electric motor, with wooden curtains behind that would allow stage hands to change scenes. The sections mnarked off by walls had doors or gates to allow actors to move from one scene to another.  The concept may have worked well in a permanent theater setup, but the production was intended to tour several cities before opening in New York. Only an incurable optimist would believe that this mechanism (which was the central feature of the set) would work flawlessly, and no thought was given to a back-up plan. The revolving stage also impacted rehearsals because the build took up most of the time allotted for it.

But the main problem was the disinterest, shown by the procrastination of Orson Welles himself. He delayed in producing a script. (In the end only the first night’s production was ever written, making the affair more like Three Kings). He arrived very late for rehearsals and wasted time while there. The problem was compounded by casting a kindred spirit in Burgess Meredith as Hal. The two encouraged each other to carouse both on and off the set. The two often missed rehearsals entirely.

Simon Callow described the problem as a combination of all the foregoing:

Five Kings-3

Falstaff (Welles): “We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow.” (Five Kings, I:xix, from Henry IV, Par ii, III:ii:209-210). Edgar Kent (as Shallow, left) and Fred Stewart (as Silence, left). From Richard France (see below).

“Welles’s one interest in Five Kings was staging it; without the turntable, he had no motive to work. Indeed, one of the problems Welles had increasingly to face in the theatre was that, denied the enormous resources of the Federal theatre Project, his method of working without any plan, without even any tentative moves, of depending on the inspiration of the moment and what the other actors and the setting would offer him, was totally impractical. Only a fully subsidised European State Theatre could have provided him with what he wanted: the full set in the rehearsal room from the first day. So he stayed away, until the technical period, when he could really work on the set. Meanwhile the other actors struggled on as best they could. .This was not very well at all.”

Perhaps it was the lavish budgets of Hollywood and their technical proficiency that kept bringing Welles back, even after he discovered Hollywood was not as enamored with him as the New York stage had been.

As the debut became closer the work became more frantic. It was not until close to the opening that Welles realized that his script was pared down to get the performance under five hours. Because the trimming was within scenes (rather than eliminating some), it made the play more episodic, requiring stage changes (and rotations of the turntable) more frequent. In the end the crisis mentality created a disaster rather than the theater magic that Welles generally pull off att he last minute.

The Boston premier was technically a nightmare. The rapidly rotating rotary flung parts of the scenery into the audience. The narrator, who was supposed to disappear into by walking through a door on the rotary, became so afraid of the device that he exited into the orchestra pit. And the show clocked at nearly 4 and a half hours, ending around 12:30. Bostonians, used to shows not nearly ready for Broadway, were not especially vicious. The AP report only complained that it needed to be trimmed more. By the end of the Boston schedule it had been trimmed to three and a half hours, but it was still not a triumph and critics were ready to pounce.

- their stings and teeth newly ta'en out

Henry (Gielgud), about to die. warns Hal (Baxter): “… all my friends, which thou must make thy friends, have but their stings and teeth newly ta’en out … ” (Henry IV, Part II, IV:v:205-206). Henry’s advice points out to Hal the rules of an entirely different life than that pursued by Falstaff.

The ambitious road tour was cancelled and the production moved to Washington, D.C. where the critics were mainly interested in the internal politics of the show. The Baltimore stop was cancelled and finally it landed in its last road destination, Philadelphia, where the final indignities met it. The theater was not equipped with the electrical requirements for the rotating stage, nor could it be fixed in time. So the stage hands were required to push the thing around, at glacial speed. The stage itself was not a good fit for the rotating stage in any event and accommodating it compromised audience view. The critics were generally negative about all aspect of the production but the one review that had to have cut Welles the most was written in the Philadelphia Inquirer (March 21, 1939), which unfavorably compared Welles’s portray of Falstaff  with Maurice Evens who performed the role on Broadway several years before. The critic went so far as to say that Welles had either “understudied or mis-studied his part.” Leaving no stone unturned the critic concluded that “To compare Orson Welles’s Falstaff to Mr. Evans’s Falstaff, John Emery’s Hotspur to Wesley Addy’s Hotspur, Burgess Meredith’s Prince Hal to Winston O’Keefe’s Prince of Wales or Mr. Welles’s course-keyed direction to the electrifying direction of Margaret Webster would be as unconscionable as it would be unkind.”

The show never made it to New York and the Mercury Theatre, at least as a playhouse company, ceased to exist. Welles would be off to Hollywood, for better or worse. But the one project he would not forget was Five Kings. Houseman thought that the reason he originally because of his distaste for Maurice Evans: “Five Kings was never purely an aesthetic conception —it was conditioned in its conception and its execution by a desire to go Evans one better …” Half a century later Welles called Evans one of the “bums” to Peter Bogdanovich.

And so, once his affair with Hollywood was finally over, Welles returned to the Hal-Falstaff story with a production on the Dublin stage of Chimes at Midnight, which starred as Hal  Keith Baxter as would his film five years later. Over the many years since the failed play, Welles’s conception changed drastically.  And so did his concept for the drama. It was no longer to be a condensation of Shakespeare, it was to focus on Falstaff, who Welles came to view as a tragic figure.

Inquire at London

Seeking his son, Henry (Gielgud) orders: “I would to God, my lords, he might be found. Inquire at London ‘mongst the taverns there; for there, they say, he daily doth frequent with unrestrained loose companions …” (Richard II, V:iii:4-7).

Chimes at Midnight is not really a filmed version of Shakespeare. The two Henry IV plays are mostly about royal succession. Falstaff is a (large) maguffin to explain why Prince Hal (the heir to the throne) is not loyal to his father. The Henry IV plays, like most Shakespeare “message” plays, have more than one relationship ostensibly or formally similar but inherently somewhat different. In the two Henry IV plays there are four Henrys, making two father-son relations: Henry IV and Prince Hal and Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, the father of Henry Percy, called Hotspur for his volatile temper. The King despairs of his son, the Prince of Wales, because he he is dissolute, spending his time with Sir John Falstaff, unlike Hotspur, who is zealous in putting down rebellions. Henry IV expressly wishes that Hotspur were his son.  Hotspur’s father, Northumberland, proves to be unreliable. During the climactic battle between the Percys and the King, Northumberland fails to send his forces and as a result his son, Hotspur, is killed (by Hal , to tie up the other father-son problem). The reason that all of this has more than passing interest as just another group of barbarians fighting for power, has to do with another Medeival type: the sanctity of kingship. Henry IV, with the assistance of the senior Percys, overthrew and killed Richard II.  If the divine right of kings meant anything then Henry IV did not possess that sanction. And Henry through two plays agonized about it. That together with his errant son hounded him to death. Hal on the other hand is attracted to the dissolute Falstaff as a father figure, because Jack (as he is known) represents everything that Henry his father is not—unconstrained, irreligious, lacking in class-based or psychoanalytic  restraints. Falstaff becomes a major figure in Shakespeare’s works because like Hamlet (and a few others in smaller ways) is aware that the existing order is out of shape and that sanity lies in not taking part. Hamlet, however, has stakes in the status quo, at least enough to “fix” it. Falstaff has no stakes except Hal, who will likely become king. The likelihood is so important that Falstaff goes to war with Hal to put down the Percy’s rebellion.  But he does it, not because he believes in the order of things, but for Hal.

Wherefore do I tell thee

Henry to Hal: “Why, Harry, do I tell thee of my foes, Which art my nearest and dearest enemy? Thou that art like enough, through vassal fear Base inclination, and the start of spleen,To fight against me under Percy’s pay …” (Henry IV, Part I, III:ii:122–126).

Exploring all this is why Shakespeare takes so much time in development. But because the lynchpin of the social order of medieval society (divine ordering of succession) has no interest to us, much of the drama in the historical plays escapes us.  And Welles rightly (for us) dispenses of it. So the Shakespeare that survives is not the Renaissance Shakespeare wiling to explore the essence of medieval social orderings (because we have long lost interest in that). It is rather  a different Shakespeare. Welles converted Shakespeare’s Renaissance historical analysis into (as Vincent Canby noted) a Romantic novel, which focuses primarily on the psychological dimensions of the relationship between Hal and Falstaff with Falstaff as the central character. Other attempts have been made to “modernize” Shakespeare, including Laurence Olivier and Welles himself. But if you are interested in the Shakespeare of psychological verisimilitude (rather than, say, the expressionistic Shakespeare that is the essence of Macbeth or Lear). then Chimes of Midnight is the best of what is on film.

To accomplish the conversion of the Renaissance Shakespeare discussing political matters of no interest to us to a Shakespeare of psychological relevance to our time required an extensive re-write. And Welles put together new dialogue spliced from several plays, created new scenes by cobbling together parts of unconnected scenes and slimming down the plot line by making the one battle shown (Shrewbury) the pivotal event. You can get an idea of how Welles wove together fragments by looking at the following chart which gives the sources for the dialogue in the first few scenes of the movie:

Source Chart

If you go back to the original plays, you can see that Welles was indeed rewriting Shakespeare. Early in his Mercury Theatre career literary critics sharply denounced his tampering with Shakespeare. Mary McCarthy, then writing for the Partisan Review, said of Julius Caesar: “The production of Caesar turns into a battleground between Mr. Welles’s play and Shakespeare’s play. Mr. Welles has cut the play to pieces—turned Cassius into a shrewd and jovial comedian; Caesar into a mechanical, expressionless robot; Antony into a repulsive and sinister demagogue.” But of course any condensation requires the loss of something. The same was true in Five Kings when Welles was aiming at a shorter version but one still faithful to the themes and characterizations of Shakespeare. His approach to Chimes at Midnight was quite different. Falstaff would no longer be the witty vagabond who tempted Hal away from his duty. Falstaff would become the centerpiece. The palace intrigues and plots were cut down to a minimum, kept mainly to explain the choice to be made by Hal. Worcester is reduced to a petty plotter, but Welles uses Hollinshed’s words to justify it. Northumberland’s failure as a plotter, not to mention as a father, is not a part of the film. And Henry IV is portrayed as set upon by plotters with no probing of the guilt that comes with usurping the throne, regicide and his war against the rightful occupant, Hotspur’s bother-in-law Mortimer. Characters at the tavern are reduced and other minor figures are eliminated or only seen briefly.

The reduction of the political aspect could have been problematic because their complexity seems to require longer explication. But Welles pulls it off deftly by compressing dialogue which took place over a longer time in the plays into single scenes. The episodic nature (which plagued Five Kings) is thus avoided. And even more cleverly, scenes seem to anticipate the next (when Henry explains how his son frequents the taverns, the next scene is the tavern itself, for example).

Imitate the Sun

Hal: “Yet herein I shall imitate the sun …” (Henry IV, Part I, I:ii:195).

That is not to say that aspects are  not enigmatic. The character of Hal us somewhat unbelievable. Hal is a type to make the exploration of succession and filial loyalty the centerpiece.  Hals’s problem is to decide between the mincing morality of his compromised father and the “freedom” of Hal, who is beyond a conscience formed by a corrupt society (as all societies are). It would be easy enough to show the choice to be illusory. He is heir apparent and must do his duty to the kingdom. (Shakespeare’s Tudor audience would undoubtedly have agreed.) Nor is the fact that he spent his youth debauched surpirsing. It is not only monarchs who end up in powerful positions after a dissolute youth. What makes Hal’s character seem untrue to life is the secret resolution he articulates to continue his debaucheries so that when he ultimately reforms (when he becomes king) the people will marvel at the transformation, like the sun emerging from clouds (see Henry IV, Part I, I:ii:193-215). This is a problem in the original play, not one caused by Welles.

The resolution can perhaps be considered the rationalization of an egocentric. He is never shown to act empathetically toward anyone, and the film certainly plays up the mean-spiritedness of Hal. At the end of the movie we see that Hal (now Henry V) is utterly without feeling and perhaps that is the best way to tie up the character. Shakespeare cannot do so because he continues with Henry V, where Hal becomes the hero. How are we to avoid distaste for such a character?

A.D. Nuttall propounds the theory that Hal is like the “Friend” in the sonnets who Shakespeare loves and whose unresponsiveness Shakespeare admires. He points to Sonnet 94, where he approves of his Friend’s ability to conceal his intentions and indeed says that being “unmoved” and “cold” imitates “heavenly graces”:

They that have power to hurt and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow;
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces
And husband nature’s riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards of their excellence.

It is true that once he becomes king, Hal urges his followers to have their brow overwhelm their eyes like “a galled rock” (Henry V, III:1:12), but he is giving a war speech there. Maybe, however, the ability to control one’s countenance (which is another way of dissemble one’s intentions) is necessary for a king. Nuttal, however, has another explanation:

“If this were the nineteenth century I should now be permitted to speculate—to wonder whether Prince Hall was not founded on the beloved Friend, whether our difficulties with the prince may not arise from the fact that we, unlike Shakespeare, are not in love with him, s that for us he gives light but not warmth, to wonder whether the rejected Falstaff, the myriad-minded, the genius with words, the messy, disordered man, might not be an ectype of Shakespeare himself, who in the sonnet made an intense effort to give praise to the other sort, to the beautiful, reserved man.”

However we explain Hal, and whether or not Falstaff was Shakespeare’s alter ego, it is clear that Welles invests Falstaff with all his own views. In the latter part of his life Welles often talked of disliking modern times. (Some of Welles’s narration in F for Fake elaborates on that feeling.) This is perhaps a common enough feeling among men after 50 especially if they believe they were not allowed the success they feel entitled to. But Welles had long felt that modern times had ruined more Edenic times where he belonged. After all, The Magnificent Ambersons, made in his mid-twenties, showed how a golden age had been overwhelmed by an uglier age of technology and base commerce. Welles makes Falstaff into a romantic who longed for return of Arthurian days.  The present days are an iron age compared to the once golden age.

Welles does not make up Falstaff’s idealistic nostalgia. There are a few hints in the play: In Hnery IV, Part II, II:4:33 Fastaff enters singing “When Arthur first in court … .” More importantly in Henry V when his former friends are discussing whether he is in heaven nor hell,” Hostess replies that he is not in hell, but rather in “Arthur’s bosom” (II:iii:9-10). (Hostess confuses Arthur with Abraham in the parable (Luke 16:19-31), and it is clear that she sees Arthur as the poor Lazarus, denied succor from the powerful in life, who ends in paradise in the afterlife.)

Welles took these ideas, enlarged upon them and made them the basis for his characterization of Falstaff. The concept corresponded to his own thinking at the time. The JFK administration was popularizing the notion of Camelot as ideal, and the assassination proved that it was a lost ideal. Welles himself (like Broadway and the JFK administration) got his concept of Camelot from T.H. White’s the Once and Future King, which he reportedly read at rehearsals of Chimes at Midnight.

Falstaff thus became in the film an idealist, with pure morals and the right view of how men should behave. But he was trapped in an unkind and corrupt age. Falstaff’s witticisms are not the empty chatter of a dipsomaniac but rather the currency he uses to accommodate himself to the times and its inhabitants. He holds himself in more esteem than others do (which makes him look foolish) but in this he is being true to himself who is out of place and out of time.That he is a small time highwayman does not make it a criminal in these times where even the greatest of men trade in the deepest crimes. That he lives in a tavern among thieves and prostitutes merely illustrates the degeneracy of the times.

Opening Scene

Opening scene with Falstaff and Shallow.

That the times are blighted, barren and dark is on view from the very first scene outside Shallow’s castle where Falstaff and Shallow walk among the leafless trees in dead of winter.  Even high places are blighted, however. The palaces are dark, vacant and cavelike. Henry’s court is lined with silent soldiers showing the ever present danger to even the head of state. Henry is plagued by the fear of plots and rebellions and cannot count on his own son to aid him. The outdoors are barren of forests, instead soldiers’ pikes take the place of trees.

The elite of these times think of nothing but plotting for their own survival. Hotspur, whom Henry would fain have his son over Hal, thinks of nothing but military victory. He ignores his beautiful and playful wife, even avoiding her caresses, the quicker to be off to battle. Only the rabble know that there is no glory in war. When Falstaff goes off to muster troops for Henry’s defense, the men all seek to avoid it. But as in all corrupt times the poor must pay dearly for the folly of the powerful.

I'll canvass thee between a pair of sheets

Doll to Falstaff who threatens to do harm to Pistol: “Do, an thou darest for thy heart. An thou dost, I’ll canvass thee between a pair of sheets.” ( Henry IV, Part 2, II:iv:219-220).

It is only at the Boar’s Tavern that anything like congenial human intercourse takes place. And here Falstaff is clearly the king. Welles invests the character with gravitas even as he appears to clown. The performance is undoubtedly Welles’s revenge on Maurice Evans. Key to the atmosphere is the earnest goodness of Hostess, called Mistress Quickly played by Margaret Rutherford. Jeanne Moreau’s Doll Tearsheet, erotic, young, attractive and fiercely protective of Falstaff, adds dimension to him, showing that he has qualities that evoke tenderness and devotion.

Falstaff as Henry

Falstaff (as King Henry): “There is a thing, Harry, which thou hast often heard of, and it is known to many in our land by the name of pitch. This pitch—as ancient writers do report—doth defile, so doth the company thou keepest.” (Henry IV, Part I, II:iv:403-406.)

But the central dynamic of the film is between Falstaff and Hal. Falstaff clearly loves him and while Hal never reciprocates Falstaff is not put off. In fact he ignores all the many hints that Hal will not repay the affection Falstaff has lavished on him. Falstaff sees Hal as something of a son and accepts him as he is, something that his father is incapable of doing. In the play within a play Falstaff takes the part of Hal’s father Henry and lectures him the way his father would, except that he explains the virtues of Falstaff. When the two change parts, Hal as King Henry berates Falstaff. Falstaff as Hal pleads Falstaff’s defense and concludes by saying: “Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.” (Henry IV, Part I, II:iv:465.) To this, Hal replies: “I do, I will.” (line 466). It is a startling foreshadowing of what Hal intends, but the conversation is immediately broken off when an announcement is made that the sheriff and “a most monstrous watch” is at the door.  Earlier in the film a similar hint is drop and again not picked up. When Hal at first refuses to rob a group of pilgrims on the next morning, Falstaff humorously prodding him says: “By the Lord, I’ll be a traitor then, when thou art King.” Hal replies coldly: “I care not.” (Henry IV, Part I, I:ii:144-146).

Falstaff earnestly believes in Hal’s loyalty and on occasion asks how Hal will act as king. Hal is always non-committal. So it is not a shock to us when Hal, made Henry V, betrays Falstaff. The moment is nonetheless stunning because Welles plays Falstaff with such joyous enthusiasm in his quest to pay obeisance to the new king. When he prostrates himself before his new liege, the heartless brutality of the rejection is so sudden and so cruel that it is devastating. And Welles perfectly expresses teh devastation, which will soon lead to his death. The film ends with the death of Falstaff and the remembrances by his friends, unlike Five Kings and so is more successful as a narrative.

I have omitted mention of the thing that is usually first noted when discussing Chimes at Midnight: the battle of Shrewbury. The scene is rightly lauded for its look and its influence on later films which portray medieval hand-to-hand combat. It involved months of editing by Welles and turns out not only as a perfect visualization of such a battle, but also adds to the theme of desolate times. The battle takes place in a muddy lifeless slough. The intensity, violence, cruelty and hatred it conveys depict everything that Falstaff deplores about the age. It marks the break between Hal and Falstaff (although Falstaff does not know it or admit it to himself) since Hal has finally impressed his father by killing Hotspur and acclimated himself to the nasty, brutal and short life of the warrior king. (The last we see of him he is off to make war on the French.)

The movie is a deeply thoughtful conception of the characters created by Shakespeare. Unless you are of the group that find any tampering with the bard to be sacrilege, I think you will find it engaging. (Of course, one is  better prepared if he has at least a summary of the plots of the two Henry IV plays in mind, otherwise things may become murky.) It has the original cinematography and imaginative staging that one expects from any film by Welles, and the acting is uniformly of high quality, with especial efforts by Gielgud, Moreau and Rutherford.

After the run at the Film Forum the film is scheduled for national distribution and possibly a release on video disc. The restoration is not a 4K one, which I read would take several more years. It is instead a “DCP restoration,” which is a digital restoration of some sort and therefore avoided by purists. But we live in corrupt times just like Falstaff’s and we are unlikely to see real film ever again. But to paraphrase Shallow, “Oh! the films we have seen!”

Update 3/8/2016: Further thoughts on Chimes at Midnight are found in Shakespeare, Freud, Machiavelli and Welles: The “Prince Hal Problem”



____, “New Drama Built upon Shakespeare,” New York Times, April 24, 1938, p. 41 (online; subscription required).

_____, “The Theatre: Marvelous Boy,” Time, May 9, 1938 (online; subscription required).

Associated Press, “Welles’s ‘Five Kings’ Cheered in Boston,” New York Times, February 28, 1939, p. 23 (online; subscription required).

Brooks Atkinson, “Mercury Theatre Adds Dekker’s ‘The Shoemakers’ Holiday’ to Its Repertory,” New York Times, January 3, 1938, p. 17 (online; subscription required).

Brooks Atkinson, “Mercury Going Up,” New York Times, January 9, 1938,  Section 10, p. [1] (online; subscription required).

Brooks Atkinson, “Mercury Theatre Reopens with Orson Welles’s Production of ‘Danton’s Death,'” New York Times, November 3, 1938, p. 28 (online; subscription required).

Brooks Atkinson, “Gotham Hobgoblin: Orson Welles Frightening Little Playgoers in ‘Danton’s Death,'” New York Times, November 13, 1938, Section 9, p. [1] (online; subscription required).

Peter Bogdanovitch and Orson Welles, This is Orson Welles (ed. Jonathan Rosenbaum) (New York: HarperCollins, 1992).

Simon Callow, Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu (New York: Viking, 1996).

Vincent Canby, “‘Chimes at Midnight,’ Welles’s Own Shakespeare,” New York Times, June 19, 1992, p. C15 (online; open access).

Peter Conrad, Orson Welles: The Story of his Life (London: Faber and Faber, ©2oo3).

Richard France (ed.), Orson WElles on Shakespeare: The W.P.A. and Mercury Theatre Playscripts (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, ©1990).

Lawrence Langner, The Magic Curtain (New York: Dutton, 1951).

Mary McCarty, Sights and Spectacles (New York: Ferrar Strauss, 1956).

A.D. Nuttall, A New Mimesis: Shakespeare and the Representation of Reality (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007).




D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance

The French Court. The Protestant L'amiral de Coligny (played by Joseph Henabery), bowing, receives a favor from a rather truculent Henry II (described as Henry III in the film and played by Maxfield Stanley) thereby inflaming the Catholic intolerance of Catherine de Médici (played by Josephine Crowell). As a result, the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre. Perhaps the intolerance of the KKK to Catholics is a result of this event? (Click to enlarge.)

The French Court. L’amiral de Coligny (played by Joseph Henabery), bowing, receives a favor from fellow Hugenuenot, the rather sullen Charles IX (played by Frank Bennett, who is a font of emotive outbursts) thereby inflaming the Catholic intolerance of Catherine de Médici (played by Josephine Crowell). As a result, the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. The film’s highly effeminate version of Henry III (played by Maxfield Stanley) is seen in white stockings exposed high up the leg (and viewing the behind of the bowing Admiral). Perhaps the KKK in Griffith’s previous movie was simply responding to this “intolerance”? Are we thus intolerant for criticizing Griffith’s defense of them? (Click to enlarge.)

The New York Film Forum this afternoon premiered a restored wide-screen version of the embarrassingly pretentious Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages, a silent film directed and  produced (and plotted out) by D.W. Griffith and released in 1916.

There are two immediate reactions a viewer will have to this experience. First and foremost, complete exhaustion. With intermission, the experience is over three hours long. And the score by Carl Davis (composed in 1989) makes the experience even more exhausting. The music is not the blaring, brain-draining, unsubtle attempt at manipulation that Hans Zimmer is now noted for. But it relies on a mishmash of quotations, phrases and parodies of Wagner and late German romantics (including Mahler) together with an original (I think) theme that is frankly too thin for the extended use that is made of it. And yet the movie would probably be unwatchable without some sort of score.

The second reaction is that the film pretty much summarizes every generalization we have ever thought about film as a form of art or entertainment. Let’s get to particulars about this film first.

Everything was overdone in Babylon including the dance numbers.

Everything was overdone in Babylon including the dance numbers.

Of course, unless your interest in film history is more than casual (in other words greater than my own), you are likely to know D.W. Griffith mainly (or entirely) from his vile Birth of a Nation, released in 1915. Part of the profit made from that KKK encomium was used (after the legal fees to fight the attempts to ban it) to produce Intolerance. Contrary to the myth that surrounded this largely forgotten film, that it was Griffith’s apology or at least corrective for the “poor judgment” shown in the second half of Birth of a Nation, in fact Intolerance seems to be quite obviously an indictment of those who criticized Griffith’s earlier film. This is where the title and the not-so-subtle moralizing comes into play. Griffith would like you to believe that the world’s evils throughout history stem from a small group of people who arrogate to themselves the right to judge other people, who left to their own devising would not only mind their own business but have a meaningful and socially useful life otherwise (or even produce great art of historical analysis). So it was the critics of the ahistorical and racist film who were the problem.

One would probably assume that conveying this thesis convincingly would be a difficult feat to pull off, and of course he did not pull it off. The wonder is that he thought he could. I suspect that Griffith, himself the son of a confederate colonel who grew up in Kentucky (from the age of 10 when his father died in poverty), was steeped in Lost Cause mythology. He was born in 1875, right around the time that tenets which combined self-pity and a conspiratorial world view were beginning to take on their “classical” form. (The general method behind this thinking still form the backbone of Southern right-wing folk beliefs.) Anyone who saw how a people could put a noble aspect on a treasonous slave-owners’ rebellion might think that the task of vilifying the critics of Birth of a Nation was a walk in the park. So how does he attempt it?

The angelic bundle of girlish goodness, called The Dear One, after many tragedies have worn her down. Played by Mae. (Click to enlarge.)

The angelic bundle of girlish goodness, called The Dear One, after many tragedies have worn her down. Played by Mae Marsh. (Click to enlarge.)

First he doesn’t tell a story, he attempts to tell The Story of Mankind, by relating four episodes in human history with supposedly the same moral arch (tragedies caused, or at least attempted, by self-righteous Reformers who turn out ot be bald-faced hypocrites). One story (the only one that makes much sense) takes place in modern times and involves a woman called in the film The Dear One (played by Mae Marsh). The Dear One is such an infantilized bundle of feminine innocence and love that she can hardly contain herself and is busting out, with rollicking arm gestures and leg kicks, just out of pure happiness, despite the fact that she keeps house for her ancient father, who is a poor mill worker employed by a heartless tyrant. That would be tragic enough, but The Dear One must bear a lot more than that. Indeed her innocent goodness is to be the target of a group of women who preach Reform, but in fact are motivated by nothing other than the desire to crush the happiness of the destitute, who would be happy enough but for their interference. One title card makes this clear by pointing out that once women lose the ability to attract men they turn to Reform as a source of meaning. (I wonder if D.W. really believed that his father’s precious Slavocracy was brought down by a group of conspiracy-minded Northern spinsters.)

A second story tells how the head of the Catholic faction, Catherine de Médici (played by Josephine Crowell), persuades her husband to order the killing of all Huguenots in Paris. There is not much effort to plumb the psychology of Ms. de Médici, but she is homely enough that you can infer that she is motivated by the same desire for Reform as the crusaders of modern times.

The third narrative, and this is one that makes almost no sense, relates how the noble King Belshazzar (played by Alfred Paget) was betrayed by the High Priest of “Bel-Marduk” or “Bel” for short (played by Tully Marshal), and his kingdom was handed over to the Persians.

And the fourth story, of course, involves Jesus. How could we show intolerance without the story of how Jesus was mistreated by the Pharisees? (The Sadducees were left out for some reason.) Now in this one respect there may be a tip of the hat to the unpleasant reaction to Birth of a Nation: a title card points out that not all Pharisees were hypocrites, but a couple of bad apples gave the whole lot a bad name. (Perhaps the KKK went overboard on the Jew business?) In this story Jesus was played by Howard Gaye, who also played Cardinal de Lorraine in the French episodes. I take it that the doubling up owed to the lack of qualified silent stars rather than some subtle subtext about how Jesus and Cardinal de Lorraine (who may have ordered the assassination of the Protestant Admiral de Coligny) shared something or other.

The three “historical” stories have no real character development or even explication. The stories seemed aimed at an audience who had attended Sunday School classes long ago, ones that also superficially covered the Babylonian exile and Foxes Book of Martyrs. Vague concepts are all that are needed. In fact, knowing much about any of the characters would tend to make you refuse to suspend disbelief, which is eminently required to make it through the three hours.

The modern story is a melodrama of the type that was popular on stages at the time. It is implausible, involves unbelievable characters, but attempts to substitute for these failings exaggerated dramatic irony and races against time. in fact, given the race against the train, which provides one of the simultaneous climaxes, it reminded me of Elmer E. Vance’s highly successful stage play of the 1890s, The Limited Mail, which packed them in across the country, mainly for its exciting train chase scene (with train cars on stage!). But let’s not get caught up in any of these stories because the plots will only give you a headache. Suffice it to say, in all of them there are innocent, loving, childish women who are crushed by intolerance. Except in the Jesus story, which has a paucity of innocent women unless the woman taken in adultery is considered innocent. Some men are Christ-like (although it still is difficult to see Belshazzar in a Christ-like pose—he does end up dead, however). And there is lots and lots of violence.

Even Oz could not be a sumptuous as Babylon. (Click to enlarge.)

Even Oz could not be as sumptuous as Babylon. (Click to enlarge.)

The failure of the plot(s) is a feature that seems common in overblown spectaculars that would be produced over the next century. And if spectacle covers plot deficiencies (which appears to be an unshaken belief among film producers) then this movie comes through. No expense was spared in producing sets. The Babylon set is so lavishly designed that the title cards actually boast about their construction. The faux-sculptors, cast of hundred and exotic (and scanty) costumes probably were designed to take one’s mind off the fact that no one is given a reason to care about whether the absolute ruler who favors Ishtar ought to beat the absolute ruler who favored Bel-Marduk. But even this trick fails Griffith when a fire-breathing mechanical device is unleashed on the Persians. The contraption, when shooting flames, bears an uncanny resemblance to Japanese monster movie beasts.

The gallows scene could have been composed by a German or Northern European director in the 1920s.

The gallows scene could have been composed by a German or Northern European director in the 1920s.

None of this is to say that the movie did not anticipate a surprising number of clichés that later movies would adopt. Let me simply mention a few:

  • The look, expressions and carriage of Jesus would be repeated endlessly.
  • A tracking shot of the Persians in full gallop resembled countless similar scenes with Indians or the cavalry.
  • Dancing on the stairway to the Great Hall of Babylon was shot just as a modern chorus number would be.
  • The speeding trains shots could have been done by Hitchcock.
  • The workers going to the mill looked much like the miners going to work in How Green Was My Valley.
  • And of course lavish ancient spectacles and Jesus would become the subjects of countless Hollywood movies (sometimes together).

In fact the chief (or only) enjoyment of sitting through this spectacle is to try to imagine which later directors stole what from this movie. But this is not enough for my taste. Even expertly framed shots (and there are many) become tiresome when they are not, as they are not here, employed for some other purpose than simply to display moving pictures. And what finally makes the three-hour exercise seem puerile is the ending, which has no logical connection with what went before, except that it appears to argue that we all adopt the mindless, enthusiastic “innocence” of the unassuming and unaspiring female “heroes.” And even if you are willing to put up with a non-sequitur happy ending just to put the experience behind you, ask yourself, What happened to the baby?

For film history enthusiasts, I suppose watching this film is much like fans of Greek drama studying the fragments of lyric verse of the previous century. It’s not done for its own sake, only to throw light on other things. Intolerancehowever, does not make a case for according films the status of major art. If anything it reminds you how projects that depend on collaboration tend to be the least successful means of expression with long-term importance. Perhaps films really cannot have long-lasting ability to engage an audience. That is certainly true of Intolerance, which is a work that is unlikely to engender repeat viewings for enjoyment or edification or, really, anything else.