CITIZEN KANE (Orson Welles)
Probably the most remarkable thing about this film (and there are many) is that to this day it still belongs indisputably on the list of one of the greatest films ever made. The backstory of its creation is every bit as involving and I urge anyone to explore it, particularly the documentary, THE BATTLE OVER CITIZEN KANE (1998). But if CITIZEN KANE could possibly be seen in a vacuum, without any knowledge of the peripheral facts of its creation, it would still be stunning.
Yes, cinema is a collaborative art form. And yes, Herman J. Manckiewicz contributed enormously (and Oscar-winningly) to the co-authorship of the screenplay. And yes, Greg Toland was the perfect cinematographer for the playful and adventurous first-time director. But at the end of the day, it is the boy genius Orson Welles (then a wizened 25 yrs old) that deserves the pedestal on which he’s been put by countless others before me. CITIZEN KANE has become a catch-phrase as a unit of measure for excellence for all kinds of art works. And it still remains the “CITIZEN KANE” of cinema.
There is little that I could add to all that has been said about the film. But I can say that Welles’ genius did not just begin to show itself with this, his maiden voyage into cinema. For four years previously, Welles had been elevating the art of radio drama. From his 1937 adaptation of Les Miserables through his Mercury Theatre on the Air productions, he set standards that no-one else was able to equal. Through innovation and a deep and natural love of storytelling, Welles was pushing boundaries. It is no surprise that movies were the next step. Along for the ride were so many of the Mercury players, Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead, Ray Collins among them. And then there was Bernard Herrmann. With CITIZEN KANE, Herrmann began his journey to become one of the finest film composers the cinema has ever known.
Having seen CITIZEN KANE so many times, it has become like an old friend. Each time I see it, I am delighted to renew the memory of having known a good thing when I saw it as a teenager. And to be assured in the belief that I still do.
THE LADY EVE (Preston Sturges)
“You’re a funny girl for anybody to meet who’s just been up the Amazon for a year.”
In the early 40’s, the unstoppable Preston Sturges was writing and directing two movies a year, each one fully and beautifully realized. This one was no exception. The first 30 minutes are among the funniest, wittiest ever filmed.
THE MALTESE FALCON (John Huston)
The perfect private eye movie, it elevated John Huston to the top of the director ranks his first time out. And it finally made a star out of Humphrey Bogart. Even though it had been filmed twice before within a decade, this adaptation of the Dashiell Hammett novel became the only one that really mattered.
HOLD BACK THE DAWN (Mitchell Leisen)
Like Sturges before him, Billy Wilder first established himself in Hollywood as a master screenwriter at Paramount. Charles Boyer is the womanizing scoundrel who woos schoolteacher Olivia De Havilland into marriage in order to cross the border from Mexico to the U.S. Not everything goes as planned.
SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS (Preston Sturges)
Preston Sturges was on a major roll when he rolled out this classic, wherein Joel McCrea is a movie director wanting to go high-brow. Tired of making studio fodder like “Ants in Your Plants of 1939”, he wants to make relevant pictures, instead. You know, pictures about bigger things, important things……message pictures. He’s got a project called “O Brother, Where Art Thou”, but the studio isn’t buying it.
So our hero decides to do a little research (incognito) in the “real world”, something he knows little about. He hits the road, finds a delightful companion, and there we have our movie. Another example of Sturges’ unprecedented (and unequaled) string of cinematic gems. The Cohen Brothers referenced this classic of course, with their own O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU (2000).