Scott’s Movie Journal #2
Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)
(rewatch; seen countless times, but it’s been awhile since I last sat down with it)
What do you say for the movie that has everything? I came up in the last generation that had this as our north star, the clear “greatest movie ever made” that we could all agree on, even though inevitably we had our own personal favorites. There was something democratic about that, this willingness to cede the personal claim for the collective truth.
Viewing it again, I’m once more struck by the rush of energy that carries the film through its first hour, how nimbly it shifts from grand gothic to newsreel to nostalgia to almost farce, before gradually finding its arc back to the gothic and tragic. The whole montage of the early days of the newspaper is as relentlessly entertaining a stretch of film as anyone has ever crafted.
I’m also struck – more so now that I am, for the first time since I started watching this, older than him at this time – how young Welles is here. Renowned as he was as a “boy genius,” there are really only three feature narrative films that capture him before he turned 30, and despite the many films made about him at this time and just before this time, he’s never been played by an actor in his 20s. It’s quite striking then to see him here, just coming into himself, not quite yet grown, his grandest mistakes still ahead of him, as they are for so many of us at 25. The glint in his eye here never quite came back, used though it was to sinister ends in The Third Man. This Welles, much like the young Charles Foster Kane, has the world at his fingertips, everything to prove and nothing to lose. Until he starts losing.
Doubtlessly, that the arc of Welles’ life came to in many ways resemble that of Kane’s – though a good deal poorer – has contributed to its continued resonance, but so too has its boundless and immediately evident greatness. Anyone with an ounce of curiosity can be swept up in this, the parallels to our modern lives so immediately apparent that even to state them risks sullying them. It’s the most innovative and exciting thing to come out of the prewar studio system, and even decades later many films would struggle to keep pace. How one creates such a thing is as mercurial as how someone creates an Orson Welles.
The Lady From Shanghai (Orson Welles, 1947)
(rewatch; seen probably twice before)
For me…I’m saying for me now…this is Welles’ most viscerally satisfying picture, one hell of a yarn that unfolds headfirst, unencumbered by any real typical concerns with the common hallmarks of a narrative picture, a sort of dream logic at work that fits with Welles’ just-coming-off-a-bender voiceover and a pure aesthetic revelation. One of those pictures I could watch again immediately after it ends. Rita Hayworth is almost obscenely beautiful here, absolutely a femme worth fataling over. Welles’ Irish accent is a little silly, but he makes up for it by investing the film in a lot of hyper-local flavor, shooting on real locations and including a lot of the languages and cultures that loosely make up San Francisco.
The Man Who Cheated Himself (Felix E. Feist, 1950)
(first time view)
Fantastic by-the-numbers noir. Lee J. Cobb plays a police detective whose married girlfriend (Jane Wyatt), believing she’s acting in self-defense, impulsively kills her husband. Cobb tries to hide the body; he’s spotted, but in a way that makes him impossible to identify. Fortunately for him, he’s the one assigned to the case; unfortunately, his brother is working alongside him for the first time, and is very eager to see the case done right. Feist squeezes all the tension one can from this scenario, most especially in its stunning climax, which corners Cobb and the girlfriend in some kind of abandoned fort near the Golden Gate Bridge (ahhh…old America) with only the wind to hide their footsteps. Feist strips all the music out of this, letting the sounds of the environment ratchet up the tension to unbearable lengths.
Cobb is far from a pretty boy leading man, and despite making a heavy mark at the time as a character actor, rarely got these sort of leading man roles that in another Fox production with maybe a bit more money or a bit more prestige might have gone to Dana Andrews or Kirk Douglas. Cobb makes for an interesting presence, a little bit more guarded than stars typically should be, which leaves one not fully understanding his motivations moment to moment – Jane Wyatt, pretty as she is, doesn’t otherwise make a strong case for why a man would haul a body all the way out to the airport – but he plays especially well his character’s guilt, especially over lying to his brother (the always-welcome John Dall), which leaves him on balance a well-rounded, engaging figure.
Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)
(seen many times, no idea how many or how long it’s been since the last one)
Hitchcock’s masterpiece has not always been well served by home video, but the new UHD release is an absolute knockout, my favorite of the small stack from this format I now own. For one of the great color films, we get a vibrant palette that radiates from the screen. If you have the tech for this, I highly, highly recommend this set.
Hitchcock is often spoken about regarding his “perfectionism,” this way every shot is carefully arranged and the edits hit like a knife. That’s no less true here, but it all feels so much less schematic than Psycho or Rear Window or any of his other famous films. That’s partially to do with the lack of irony in this – Hitch’s mean streak usually comes with a sense of humor that keeps the audience slightly laughing at just how much they’re being kept in suspense. But it mostly has to do with the fact that, for much of the film, there is no real “bad guy,” until suddenly there is, and it’s worse than ever. We don’t have someone to gleefully fear, just an odd situation that keeps getting odder and a pervasive atmosphere of dread that it’s all going to get rather horrible rather soon.
A compelling picture…but we NEVER quite get what exactly happened with the fall of the woman Scottie was hired to tail. Perhaps his friend had set up his wife for a murder…but why would he have both her….and her “double” in the tower at the same time? This seems to be a VERY large “plot hole.” Another is why…with this new woman (who is, apparently, the same woman who had served as the “double”)–at the very end–falls out of the church tower opening? There seems to be NO basis for this second death.