Friday, April 09, 2010

Citizen Kane vs. Casablanca, a classic debate

What is the greatest movie ever made? Obviously, it is a subjective question, for any two people--let alone dozens, thousands or millions--likely couldn't even agree on how "greatest" should be defined, so forget about any true consensus on the one movie from the vast and diverse celluloid galaxy that merits such supreme recognition.

And what does it really matter anyway? A great movie is whatever one thinks it is, and even those we may view as the best movies are often quite distinct from our personal favorites. Plus, our impression of any one movie is apt to change over the years or potentially fluctuate from one viewing to the next, even just days apart.

As such, the American Film Institute's (AFI) highly publicized 1998 list of the 100 Best American Movies and the 2007 update have been commonly derided and often revised by anyone who fancies themselves a movie critic or just your run-of-the-mill film fanatic. But while clearly not gospel--and by virtue of being an American list, devoid of any works by Fellini, Kurosawa, Bergman, Truffaut, etc., although Hollywood-made films by Brits like Hitchcock, Lean and Kubrick are included--I have found the AFI lists to be a fairly decent point of reference, with many choices echoed on other such lists.

In both 1998 and 2007, the AFI lists--tabulated from a poll of more than 1,500 artists and leaders in the film industry who chose from 400 nominated movies--were topped by Citizen Kane, the first film directed by Orson Welles, who was only 25 when it was released in 1941. Kane is probably the movie that is most often named "Greatest Movie Ever Made," including in five straight once-per-decade polls conducted by the British Film Institute's Sight & Sound magazine.

Although I have seen it numerous times, own it on DVD and can watch it in a pretty large format at home, I recently drove about 45 minutes to see a special showing at the historic Genesee Theater in Waukegan, IL. It was really enjoyable seeing it in such a large and legendary venue, and while the idea of citing any movie as "the greatest" is, again, somewhat nebulous, I really can't name one that I think is clearly better.

But in mentioning my having attended the Genesee showing over dinner with my friend Paolo--probably the most cultured person I know and likely a more extensive movie connoisseur than I--he stated that he thought Casablanca was better movie, for it was "more lyrical and poetic" than Citizen Kane.

Certainly, not a crazy opinion, as Casablanca--undoubtedly one of the most beloved movies ever--was ranked #2 on AFI's 1998 list and #3 in 2007 (behind The Godfather). And it inspired me to not only re-watch Casablanca for the first time in several years, but to watch both it and Kane again while listening to the wonderful commentary tracks by Roger Ebert. (If nothing else, it was great to hear his voice again.) I've also read some other comments about both movies and taken in the opinions of a few more friends. 

And in my book, err, blog--sharing the opinion offered by Ebert--the winner, for greatest film ever made (among these two, at least) is clearly: Citizen Kane.

Funny thing is, I say this despite agreeing in large part with Paolo's reasons for preferring Casablanca.

Casablanca is more lyrical and poetic. It also has a better script, it moves along more fluidly, is therefore a good bit easier to watch (especially, I imagine, for first-time viewers) and is far more uplifting.

Although many actors in Citizen Kane give excellent performances, most notably Welles himself, the cast of Casablanca is considerably deeper, with at least nine performers worthy of mention here: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains, Paul Henreid, Dooley Wilson, Peter Lorre, Conrad Veldt, Sydney Greenstreet and SZ Sakall.

Casablanca also has a far greater quantity of memorable lines of dialogue than Citizen Kane--and likely more than any movie--with a 6-to-1 edge in AFI's list of 100 Top Movie Quotations and a much longer list of memorable quotes on IMDB (Casablanca; Kane).

From Casablanca, we get "Here's looking at you, kid" (ironically never in the screenplay), "Play it, Sam" (not "Play it again, Sam"), "Round up the usual suspects," "We'll always have Paris," "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine," "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship," and several other great quips from Bogart as Rick Blaine, including his answer when asked his nationality: "I'm a drunkard." This despite a screenplay pieced together by three writers who, by all accounts, were simply penning "another Warner Bros. picture" with no expectations of immortality.

In Citizen Kane, Welles delivers several choice words from a script on which he shared credit with Herman Mankiewicz (whom some, including famed critic Pauline Kael, believe deserved even more recognition), but the only truly legendary line from the film is simply: "Rosebud."

While most observers, including Paolo, seem to agree that Citizen Kane is a by far greater technical achievement--on the commentary tracks, Ebert says that are "very few shots that are memorable as shots" in Casablanca, while gushing nearly non-stop over Kane's deep-focus compositions--Casablanca is so hugely entertaining in large part because, despite several plausibility flaws in its plot, there are "no dead patches, no waste" (Ebert). Almost every scene draws you in and many stir deep emotions. Rick's deep friendship with Sam is well ahead of its time in terms of Hollywood's depiction of interracial interaction, and given that the movie was created  in the midst of World War II, well before its outcome was clear, the scene below depicting the collective pride of Morocco's French citizenry in opposition to their Nazi occupiers, is truly amazing.

But despite all the reasons to love Casablanca and concur with much of Paolo's rationale--even Ebert calls it the movie he likes the best while declaring Citizen Kane the greatest film--it it nowhere near the astonishing achievement of Welles' masterpiece. Though unlike Ebert, I think I actually even "like" Kane a bit more than Casablanca.
While I'll assuredly stumble over and contradict myself in trying to argue "achievement" over "enjoyment," and stipulate that Paolo is far too astute for me to ascribe his opinion to superficiality--he isn't contending The Hangover is a better movie than Citizen Kane even if it is far more fun to watch--it would seem that, even if often intangible, things like originality, innovation, substance and influence have to factor into the discussion.

I see Kane vs. Casablanca as analogous to a comparison between two Van Morrison masterpieces, Astral Weeks and Moondance. Both are within the top 70 of Rolling Stone's list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. But though Moondance, ranked #65, is much more accessible and acutely enjoyable, with its marvelous title song and other cuts more melodic than anything on Astral Weeks, which has 4 of its 8 songs running over seven minutes, Astral Weeks is a greater artistic accomplishment and justifiably ranked #19 on Rolling Stone's list.

Similarly, I've long said that if I could only have "early Beatles or late Beatles," I'd take the early gems any day. Yet for harder to enunciate, less acute reasons, Sgt. Pepper's is their greatest masterpiece (and a deserved #1 on Rolling Stone's list). It is more inventive, more inspired, more unique and better produced than anything that came before, or since.

Although I have never been a technique wonk, about movies or music, and probably never clearly understood much of Citizen Kane's technical ingenuity until I listened to Ebert's explanations, even for reasons closer to the surface I have long thought Kane to be a far richer film. No pun intended, though I am never one to resist. To the uninitiated (although likely not still reading), I should explain the Citizen Kane is a film ostensibly about, or at least largely influenced by, William Randolph Hearst, owner of a newspaper empire and one of the richest men in the world at the time.

I won't get into it much here, but there was a whole bunch of controversy when Citizen Kane was released, despite it being a rare film for which its director--let alone a 25-year-old wunderkind--was given complete control and "final cut." Hearst disallowed any mention of the movie or Welles in any of his newspapers and, fearing the backlash, rival movie mogul Louis B. Mayer offered Kane's studio, RKO Radio Pictures, full reimbursement for production costs if it would destroy all prints of the film and burn the negative.

But contrary to common belief, Citizen Kane was a critical success from the day it opened, with initial reviews overwhelmingly positive according to Wikipedia. In his review for the New World Telegram, William Boehnel said that the film was "staggering and belongs at once among the greatest screen achievements, while The New York Times found it "close to being the most sensational film ever made in Hollywood". Although due to the controversy surrounding it, many people in America didn't see the 1941 film until it was re-released in 1958.

According to Ebert, with crucial contributions from cinematographer Gregg Toland and other collaborators, Welles accumulated all of filmmaking's advances to date in sound, editing, cinematography and acting to an extent that every subsequent film has been "informed by Citizen Kane's breakthrough." And with numerous superlative "backgrounds fading out, then fading in" transitions, innovative camerawork including Toland's groundbreaking "deep focus" shots and many astonishing scenes, Citizen Kane is not only spectacular to look at, "as storytelling it is wonderfully economical" (Ebert). 

Consider this famous scene, which captures the breakdown of a marriage in 2-1/2 minutes by furthering the distance of Kane and his first wife, Emily, at the breakfast table. Stupendous. And in terms of ingenuity, nothing in Casablanca compares.

Not only did Citizen Kane set the look of films to come, but according to Pauline Kael in her 1971 essay, Raising Kane, "the mechanics of movies are rarely as entertaining as they are in Citizen Kane, as cleverly designed to be the kind of fun that keeps one alert and conscious of the enjoyment of the artifices themselves."

Consider the scene at right, very near the movie's end. Not only has Welles now aged as Kane from about 25 to 70-something, but the shot of Kane walking though his huge, empty house with only reflections of himself is truly brilliant, as both visual imagery and none-too-subtle allegory.

Again, I can't say I tangibly appreciated all the technical genius every time I've seen Citizen Kane, but even without being able to cite specifics, it's been a movie I've loved watching since I first saw it back in high school.

So I want to be clear that appreciating Citizen Kane isn't, for me at least, like trying to develop an affinity for opera. Even if not as linear, engaging or uplifting as Casablanca, on first viewing it should still be quite entertaining and watchable. It is great on the surface, but it only reveals itself as the greatest if you look a bit deeper.

Though I should point out here that despite their highest esteem for it, both Kael and Ebert concur that Citizen Kane is a "shallow masterpiece." It's meaning is not all that profound, and despite being referenced by some as a mystery, when we find out what Kane's opening deathbed utterance of "Rosebud" refers to, it is not really all that consequential. Also, like Casablanca, Kane has a number of flaws, causing Ebert to cite the film's "cheerful disregard for logic and continuity."

But in the end, although the two films' central characters go in opposite directions, with Rick Blaine rediscovering his essence (albeit over just a few days) and Charles Foster Kane losing his over the course of a lifetime, the cinematic linearity of Rick's transformation is what makes Casablanca less of an overwhelming achievement than Citizen Kane. A few weeks ago, in an overview of Quentin Tarantino's oeuvre, I hailed Pulp Fiction's non-linear structure as revolutionary. But Citizen Kane utilized--and perhaps introduced; I'll defer to more knowledgeable historians--a circular structure 53 years earlier!

And you don't need to be a film student to understand that what Welles, along with Toland and Mankiewicz, did was truly remarkable. Even in enjoying subsequent Welles films in recent days, such as The Lady From Shanghai and The Stranger, it's clear to me that neither compares to the staggering accomplishments of Citizen Kane.

And neither, for that matter, does Casablanca.

Paolo, you're on the clock.


Suzi said...

Seth: This is Suzi from your movie meetup group. I just taught KANE for about the 200th time (no exaggeration), and there are concrete reasons why KANE is considered "great" that are not a matter of personal taste. It's great not because it is "better" than CASABLANCA but because it is "different." It takes a historical perspective to explain it, but if you are interested, e-mail me through the movie discussion group, and I will be more than happy to offer a historical perspective.

Anonymous said...

You know I would have agreed with everything you said twenty years ago...even ten years ago. But here I am approaching 50 and I have to say that while I still maintain the highest affection and admiration for Welles and all that he (and Toland) accomplished, Kane is a picture that has aged over time. It's still a masterpiece, but Casablanca has usurped its position as number one (to my way of thinking). Bogart Bergman is timeless and the dialogue is unmatched. The scene with Rick allowing Laszlo to lead the house band in La Marseillaise never fails to give me chills. A great film should move you as well as entertain you. Casablanca does both. Also, although film purists prefer scenes from Kane for their technical merits, Casablanca has more "great" scenes: The beautiful friendship scene, the "We'll always have Paris" scene, the "La Marseillaise" scene, etc. etc. Kane has several very good scenes that LOOK great thanks mostly to Gregg Toland. As for acting, I think both Welles and Bogart had better performances (Welles in LFS and Bogart in TKM) but they're evenly matched in Kane and Casablanca. Where Casablanca wins is in supporting cast. The Mercury players are good, but not uniformly so and there are some wooden and overly hammy performances here. In Casablanca, the supporting cast is the pride of pre-war Europe and absolutely elevate the undertaking to a higher level. In closing, I take nothing away from Kane, it's still the seminal masterpiece it always was, but I think Casablanca is the ultimate "movie" movie and deserving of the number one spot.