Monday, August 13, 2012

Sexually Confused Cop Triumphs Over Megalomaniacal Newspaper Tycoon

By Lars Trodson

There's been a lot of chatter about "Citizen Kane" being knocked off the No. 1 perch in Sight & Sound's poll of the best movies ever made, a survey the British-based magazine publishes just once a decade.

"Kane" had held the top position for 40 years, unrivaled, but this year Sight & Sound asked a total of 846 critics to arrive at their verdict, a much wider net cast than ever before. While I don't know the demographics, I suspect the end result of this year's poll has as much to do with a lower age of the average reviewer as it does with the films themselves.

Let's face it: a lot of the things in Orson Welles' first film are hopelessly out of date. The film is in black and white. It's about a newspaper tycoon. Newspapers!  And this is a film decidedly lacking in any kind of sex. Oh, sure, Charles Foster Kane gets himself a mistress and even puts her up in a fancy apartment. But there is nothing sexy about Kane - either the man or the movie.

"Vertigo", on the other hand! Wow! The only thing it has on its mind is sex! "Vertigo" -- for all its flaws -- just seems more modern. Charles Foster Kane exhibits old fashioned fits of jealousy. He may even have a screw loose. But James Stewart's Scotty Ferguson is a real head case, as they would have said back in San Francisco in 1958. Man, he's gone.

But what are the virtues and drawbacks of each film?

Category: Writing
Winner: Tie.

I love "Vertigo." I should say I love most of "Vertigo." I tend to get bored with it toward the end -- although I'm still amazed at how much James Stewart trusted Hitchcock. His character -- Scotty Ferguson, a cop -- is truly deranged. I do remember being shocked by the ending the first time I saw it (when it was finally re-released in the early 1980s).

Today, with "Kane", I could easily fast-forward through the early scenes of setting up the Inquirer in New York. Too broadly played, too self-conscious. So each film has its dry patches.

Category: Editing.
Winner: Tie.

There are few films as beautifully edited as either "Vertigo" or "Citizen Kane." "Vertigo" was edited by George Tomasini, who edited eight Hitchcock films, including "Psycho" and "The Birds" and who was nominated once for an Oscar ("North By Northwest"). The scene in Hitchcock's film where Stewart first walks into Ernie's -- a San Francisco landmark restaurant -- and Stewart and Kim Novak turn toward and away from the camera in a series of shots set up by Hitchcock is still breathtaking. And there is that astonishing silent sequence during which Stewart follows Novak through various Bay area landmarks.

Robert Wise, a two-time Academy Award winning director, edited "Kane" and few films are more beautifully paced than this.

Category: Cinematography
Winner: Tie.

Both films are beautifully shot (Kane by Gregg Toland and Vertigo by Hitchcock's cameraman of choice for many years, Robert Burks). The styles of each film are so radically different it's hard to rate them, but one thing is certain: Toland was a genius (five Academy Award nominations and one win in a career cut short by his death at 44) and Burks never did anything close to the kind of work he did with Hitchcock. (He did win an Oscar for "To Catch A Thief.")

Category: Acting
Winner: " Citizen Kane."

Kim Novak, God bless her, is a less than exciting actor. She's so wooden she almost drains away her natural sex appeal She's got an expressionless voice and dead eyes. She's much more captivating in her other 1958 movie with Stewart, "Bell, Book & Candle."

Many of the supporting performances in "Vertigo", while adequate, hardly aspire to anything truly superb. The one standout is Barbara Bel Geddes, smart and lonely and hurting as Stewart's old college sweeheart (although trying to make them the same age seems a mistake).

Almost every performance in "Kane" is superb (aside from Everett Sloan who was allowed to overact toward caricature by director Welles). The actors playing his parents, Agnes Moorehead and Harry Shannon, are truly lovely. There are truly wonderful actors in this movie in major and minor roles.

Category: Music.
Winner: Bernard Herrmann.

This is of course a joke. Hermann composed the score for both films, putting himself in a category of one. Hermann was nominated for "Kane" and not for "Vertigo" but both scores are luminous.

Category: Directing
Winner: Tie

This is not a cop out. It's like winning the gold in swimming by a thousandth of a second. Who's to say? I bet both directors put down on screen exactly what they wanted, and that is a rare thing.

There is a low-point in each film: the mood lighting Hitchcock uses to show how mesmerized Stewart is over Kim Novak was hokey back then.

And the astonishingly bad animation that Welles used for the birds flying overhead during the camping trip was sloppy even for 1941.

Summing Up

Hitchcock made 53 feature length films -- a handful of which any critic would also put at the top spot of any film list ("Psycho", "Rear Window", "Notorious") -- to Welles' twelve feature films. Hitchcock started directing in the 1920s, his first films are silent, and he essentially outlasted Welles. Hitchcock made his final feature in 1976 ("Family Plot"), with Welles having cobbled together "F For Fake" for a 1973 release. We're all still waiting on "The Other Side Of the Wind."

So, in a way, compared to Welles, Hitchcock is the big dog in this fight. He had a long and incredibly successful career. He had a lucrative TV show, a paperback series that published thrillers with his name on it, and he worked with the best actors and technicians right up until the end. He never lacked for funding. Unlike Welles, he never won a competitive Oscar (that's a real Hitchcockian shocker), but he never lacked for defenders. He lived to be 80.

Welles, of course, never made any money. He apparently never had money himself, and when he did he put it back into his films -- even such ludicrous projects like "Mr. Arkadin." He never got a chance to make some of the films he wanted to, like "Catch-22." He was a vagabond. He lived to be 70.

But Welles always had one thing: he had made a film that many people considered, year after year, to be the greatest ever made. He had that. I guess I would have kept the crown with Welles, but for all the wrong reasons. I'm like old Charlie Kane himself. I'm a sentimentalist. I want to hold on to some of the old things before they fall out of reach, and break.