Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Citizen Kane


SCREENPLAY by Herman Mankiewicz & Orson Welles
ORIGINAL MUSIC by Bernard Herrmann
ART DIRECTION by Van Nest Polglase

I came a little late to this movie, considering that I’d become a student of film during my brief time at college. At the film society I learned that Charlie Chaplin was not this shuffling little doofus, seen in 5-second clips, but a great artist, maybe the best cinema has ever seen. At the art houses around East Lansing I learned there were foreign films that didn’t star Brigitte Bardot. Some good ones. And in film classes I was shown the evolution of cinema, from The Great Train Robbery (1903) right on into the ’50s. We saw films that remain masterpieces, and others that were interesting mostly from an historical perspective. In film class you watch The Birth of a Nation to learn how that old racist D.W. Griffith pretty much invented the epic form, and many of the basic editing techniques still in use today. You watch Battleship Potemkin to see how Eisenstein cut shots to distort time when the sailor dashes the maggoty meat to the deck, how he distorted space with the brilliant Odessa Steps sequence. You watch The Triumph of the Will to see really brilliant propaganda. You watch Un Chien Andalou and The Passion of Joan of Arc and Wild Strawberries and La Strada for basically academic, educational reasons. I watched them all, and was stunned and amazed by most of them, learning just how much I did not know about movies. But I didn’t love many of them.

I was absent the day they showed Citizen Kane. I read the book on it. Apparently it was important, cinematically, because Orson Welles put ceilings on his sets. I thought back, realized that rooms in most films of that era had high, high walls, so high you never saw the ceilings. That’s because there were lots of lights up there. I remember having it pointed out that during the silent era the camera was very mobile, and being shown a very stagey film from around 1930 where the camera was nailed in place, because of the newfangled microphone, like the wonderful business where they’re trying to film The Dueling Cavalier in Singin’ in the Rain. With ceilings, Welles could use dramatic low angles, and was impelled to invent innovative lighting.


Years went by. One late, late night in San Francisco I saw Citizen Kane was going to be on TV. What the hell. I started watching it, looking for the ceilings. Almost at once I wasn’t thinking “technique” at all. That all came later, on subsequent viewings, when I noted things such as the fact that the reporter’s face is never shown full-on, and that no one is in the room when Kane whispers “Rosebud.” That night I was pulled in, utterly entranced, by one of the best stories I’d ever seen, told in a way that is still stunning today. I saw a marriage dissolve in about 90 seconds over a series of breakfasts. I saw people living in rooms that would have given an elephant agoraphobia. I saw a woman’s nervous breakdown in successive operatic scenes … well, if you haven’t seen it, you are not a serious student of the cinema. And you’re missing one of the greatest films of all time.