Absolute Corruption – Three Films About Power

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Posted 29 Jul 2011 in Essay, Film Reviews

By Ezra Stead

Citizen Kane has been widely cited as the greatest American film ever made. Citizen Kane, USA, 1941

Directed by Orson Welles

Scarface, USA, 1932

Directed by Howard Hawks

Beauty and the Beast, France, 1946

Written and Directed by Jean Cocteau

Never before or since has any director made such an impressive feature film debut as Orson Welles did, at the astonishing age of 25, with Citizen Kane (1941). Despite having no prior experience in filmmaking, Welles was given carte blanche on the film, and he delivered the most original, innovative and provocative film of its time. Even today it is considered one of the greatest films ever made, and it is a standard by which all other films are judged. According to the great critic Andrew Sarris, as quoted in his 1967 book Interviews with Film Directors, “Citizen Kane is still the work which influenced the cinema more profoundly than any American film since Birth of a Nation.”

Absolute CorruptionWelles, a child prodigy who could read at the age of three and was performing Shakespeare’s King Lear by the age of seven, was, in this regard, the Mozart of the cinema. He first garnered national fame in 1937 when, at the age of 21, he co-founded the Mercury Theater with John Houseman, a man he later described (as quoted in Interviews) as “an old enemy of mine.” Welles’ voice was already known on the radio as that of The Shadow, but it was his Halloween night broadcast adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds in 1939 that really catapulted him to stardom. The broadcast, which was done in the form of news bulletins interrupting regularly scheduled programming, caused mass hysteria and even a few suicides, despite the fact that Welles announced several times during the broadcast that it was merely a dramatization.

From this notoriety, Welles and company were enticed by RKO to come to Hollywood and make a motion picture; according to Louis Giannetti and Scott Eyman’s 2001 book Flashback: A Brief History of Film, “once … approved, it was entirely in his hands. He didn’t even have to show rushes to the executives.” Welles brought into the picture members of the Mercury Theater such as actors Joseph Cotten and Agnes Moorehead and composer Bernard Herrmann, all of whom went on to greater fame with other filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock. He also worked with veteran screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, who later sued Welles (unsuccessfully) for not giving Mankiewicz due credit during the film’s promotion, as well as renowned cinematographer Gregg Toland, a favorite of John Ford, who was one of Welles’ biggest influences. Welles later said of Mankiewicz, in Interviews: “He wrote several important scenes. I was very lucky to work with Mankiewicz: everything concerning Rosebud belongs to him. As for me, sincerely, he doesn’t please me very much … I have never had complete confidence in him,” and of Toland: he “is the best director of photography that ever existed.”

Citizen Kane is a virtuoso first film from the great Orson Welles. The story of Citizen Kane is a mixture of autobiographical elements from Welles’ own life and scathing satire of William Randolph Hearst, the most powerful newspaper publisher in the world at the time. Probably the most incendiary bit of this satire is the crux of the story, “Rosebud,” which was rumored to be Hearst’s nickname for his mistress’s vagina. As the subject matter of the film became more widely known in Hollywood, controversy grew; at one point, as recounted in Flashback, “Louis B. Mayer offered the president of RKO the cost of the picture plus a profit if he would simply burn the negative. [Luckily,] the offer was refused.”

Despite the controversy, Kane was not the smashing box office success for which RKO had hoped, which led to the studio ruining Welles’ next feature, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), by cutting approximately a third of the film in order to make it fit a second feature time slot. Welles would never again have the complete creative freedom he enjoyed with Kane, but he still managed to make a number of excellent films throughout the next three decades, including The Stranger (1946), The Lady from Shanghai (1947), Touch of Evil (1958), The Trial (1962) and F for Fake (1973). He also appeared as an actor in many great films such as Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949), which also stars Joseph Cotten, John Huston’s Moby Dick (1956), Richard Fleischer’s Compulsion (1959) and Mike Nichols’s Catch-22 (1970).

Thematically, Citizen Kane has much in common with Howard Hawks’ Scarface (1932), as well as Brian De Palma’s 1983 revision of the film starring Al Pacino. Welles was a great admirer of Hawks’ films, particularly his screwball comedies such as Bringing Up Baby (1938), His Girl Friday (1941) and I Was a Male War Bride (1949), all of which star the great Cary Grant. In fact, Welles was an uncredited collaborator on War Bride. According to Welles, as quoted in Interviews, “the scenarist fell ill and I wrote almost a third of the film.” Both filmmakers also toyed with the idea of a filmed version of Miguel de Cervantes y Saavedra’s classic 17th century novel, Don Quixote; though Welles actually came much closer to realizing this project (his unfinished version was actually posthumously completed and released in 1992, seven years after his death), both directors approached it in the same way: as a comedy. As Welles said in Interviews, “In a certain sense, Quixote is a comedy, and I put a lot of comedy in all my films but it is a genre of comedy that … is understood only by Americans.” Similarly, Hawks said, also in Interviews, “I once told a Spaniard I was thinking of doing Don Quixote with Cary Grant and Cantinflas, and the Spaniard said it was impossible to make a comedy out of a tragedy. I asked the Spaniard to tell me the story of Don Quixote, and after the Spaniard had done so, I said, ‘You’ve just told me the story of three of Chaplin’s best pictures.’ …  The only difference between comedy and tragedy is point of view.”  Scarface is one of the first great American gangster films.

Both Citizen Kane and Scarface are essentially “American Dream” stories that end tragically. Both Charles Foster Kane (Welles) and Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) build an empire and, ultimately, are destroyed by the very wealth and power on which they have based their lives. The significant difference between the two characters is that, while Kane inherits his wealth and initially uses it to rebel against his benefactor (“What do you want to be, Charles?” asks Mr. Thatcher, played by George Coulouris; “Everything you hate,” is Kane’s reply), Camonte starts with nothing and builds his empire with money he makes by robbing and killing. In this regard, Camonte is more of a twisted Horatio Alger than Kane, who wishes to do good in the beginning. This theme is brilliantly elaborated upon in Oliver Stone’s screenplay for De Palma’s Scarface, whose tagline is: “He lived the American Dream … with a vengeance.”

Another theme that becomes more apparent in DePalma’s version is Camonte’s incestuous feelings for his sister, Francesca (Ann Dvorak). When Hawks’ film was released in 1932, the Hays Office wouldn’t have allowed more than the subtle hints that appear in the film, but 50 years later, De Palma’s Scarface is awash with the sex, profanity and violence that are a large part of the everyday lives of the types of people these films depict.

Stylistically, Welles and Hawks were somewhat similar, though Welles was certainly much more visually adventurous. When asked about the amazing cinematic innovations of Citizen Kane in Interviews, Welles replied, “I owe it to my ignorance. If this word seems inadequate to you, replace it with innocence.” Welles simply knew what he wanted to see in any given scene, and he was not about to let conventional wisdom about the capabilities of the equipment of the time stand in his way. As he is quoted in Flashback, “You have to know how not to be timid with the camera, how to do it violence, drive it to its ultimate limits, for it is a base mechanism. Poetry is what counts.”

Hawks’ main visual flair in Scarface was an idea that, according to this quotation from Interviews, “exploited a … little known fact: The [Chicago] papers [of the time] that published the photos of a murder indicated ‘X marks the spot where the body was found.’ So we designed fifteen or twenty scenes around the X, finding all sorts of ways to use the X when a murder occurred.” The first man killed in Scarface falls in the shadow of a street sign, which forms an “X”; this has also been interpreted as a cross in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2004), which is interesting because “X” is the Greek symbol of Christ – hence, “X-mas.” Another notable scene is when Gaffney (Boris Karloff) is gunned down in a bowling alley; Hawks described it thusly in Interviews: “As he lets the ball go, he’s hit; the pins all go down. An X for a strike is marked on the scorecard.”

Hawks and Welles shared a distaste for close-ups. Hawks is quoted in Flashback as saying, “I try to tell a story as simply as possible, with the camera at eye level … I think a director’s a story-teller, and if he tells a story that people can’t understand, then he shouldn’t be a director.” Welles said of his own camera choices, as quoted in Interviews, “Theoretically, I am against close-ups … I find it marvelous that the public may choose, with its eyes, what it wants to see of a shot. I don’t like to force it, and the use of the close-up amounts to forcing it: you can see nothing else. In Kane, for example … there are perhaps six [close-ups] in the whole film.”

Hawks was known for his intentional simplicity; his films are straightforward and highly entertaining, without symbolic or metaphorical subtext, and his shots are mostly medium, eye-level ones. In fact, according to Sarris, this “unyielding eye-level point of view is his distinguishing stylistic characteristic and represents a total commitment to the subjective over the objective. Hawks … stamped his distinctively bitter view of life on adventure, gangster and private-eye melodramas, westerns, musicals and screwball comedies, the genres Americans do best and appreciate least.” In addition to these genres, Hawks also delved into the sci-fi/ horror genre with The Thing from Another World (1951), which he produced and carefully supervised, but on which he was not credited as director. It is this versatility of genre that made him a worthy forerunner of later filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick, who also consistently jumped from genre to genre with equal skill.

Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast is a visionary and highly influential telling of the classic tale. Hawks and Welles were both more appreciated in Europe than in America, though Welles had more of a European sensibility and style anyway. One European who seems to have been influenced by Welles is the French filmmaker Jean Cocteau. Like Welles and Hawks (who was a skilled engineer, pilot and auto racer), Cocteau was something of a Renaissance man, being renowned as a poet and painter as well as a filmmaker. He is, however, best known for his films, such as Beauty and the Beast (1946).

Beauty and the Beast also has much in common with Citizen Kane, both thematically and visually. The Beast (Jean Marais) is not unlike Charles Foster Kane in that they are both powerful men who live in isolation, in strange palaces of their own design. Both estates have numerous beautiful statues and ornamentation, though the Beast’s are strangely alive. Of course, Kane is a realistic story told in a somewhat surrealistic style, while Beauty and the Beast is pure fantasy, but with an important theme that has applications in real life. This theme is where the films diverge because, while love saves the Beast from his tragic fate, it is this same love that Kane can never have. Indeed, when his second wife, Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore), leaves him, he is unable to utter the one phrase that might make her stay; instead of “I love you,” he says, “You can’t do this to me.” This is the basic difference between Kane and the Beast: while the Beast cares only for Beauty (Josette Day), Kane cares only for himself.

Visually, the most striking similarity between the two films is the makeup work. The Beast’s costume and makeup, which took several hours a day to apply and remove, are just as utterly believable as the gradual aging of Charles Foster Kane throughout the film. Also, the scenes inside the Beast’s palace have the same low-key lighting as much of Kane, and Kane himself becomes like a beast when he trashes Susan’s room after she leaves him.

Both Cocteau and Welles seem to have a fascination with mirrors that is shared by many other great filmmakers. In Beauty and the Beast, Beauty is able to travel from the Beast’s palace to her own home and back again simply by wishing it while holding a magical mirror given her by the Beast, and one of the most beautiful shots in Citizen Kane is that of Kane walking by a series of mirrors which create multiple reflections of him that seem to stretch on into infinity, symbolic of his endless self-absorption. Welles later perfected his mirror technique in the climax of Lady From Shanghai, a famous and often imitated scene quoted in later films such as Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993).

Scarface, Citizen Kane and Beauty and the Beast have all had a wide-reaching influence on the world of cinema, as have the filmmakers behind them. Hawks has been a major inspiration for filmmakers such as De Palma and Quentin Tarantino, the latter of whom credits Hawks as his favorite director. Citizen Kane is widely considered the greatest American film, and Welles the quintessential genius of American cinema. Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, while not as widely known, is an obvious influence on the Oscar-winning 1991 Disney adaptation of the classic fairy tale, particularly in the idea of living furnishings and appliances, and was also a major inspiration for Julien Temple’s cult comedy Earth Girls Are Easy (1988). These three films are essential viewing for any lover of great movies, and each is a fascinating look at the excesses and corruption of absolute power.

Ezra Stead is the Head Editor for MoviesIDidn’tGet.com. Ezra is also a screenwriter, actor, filmmaker, rapper and poet who has been previously published in print and online, as well as writing, directing and acting in numerous short films and two features. A Minneapolis native, Ezra currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.

For more information, please contact EzraStead@MoviesIDidntGet.com.

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