Citizen Kane by Harlan Lebo

Geeky, but in a good way…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

citizen kaneAs a casual and totally unknowledgeable movie watcher, I’ve never appreciated Citizen Kane as much as I feel I should. I’ve always been aware that the reason for this is that largely I watch films on a pretty superficial level, for the plot and acting, whereas often with these films that are designated as ‘great’ it’s as much for cinematography, innovative technique etc. So this looked like the perfect book to help me understand just what it is I’m missing about a film that is often cited as the greatest movie ever made.

In the introduction, Harlan Lebo explains that the book is based on source documents and conversations with some of the participants in the making of the film. He points out that there are a lot of myths around the film, many of them created by Welles himself for the fun of it. He proposes to debunk at least some of these myths (none of which I knew anyway) at the same time as getting to the truth behind the mythology. He recommends having the film set up ready to watch each scene as it’s discussed. I heartily agree with this advice – it added a lot to my understanding of the more technical side of the book to be able to see what Lebo was describing. I also watched the film all through to refresh my memory of it before I began reading, and that was useful too.

The "intimate" surroundings of the Great Hall at Xanadu
The “intimate” surroundings of the Great Hall at Xanadu

Lebo starts with a brief biography of Welles’ achievements on stage and radio before he was given a contract by RKO. His notoriety following the famous War of the Worlds broadcast had made him hot property, with every studio wanting to sign him. RKO won the bidding war by offering him unprecedented artistic freedom to produce, write, direct and star in his own movies – all this when he was just 25. He was granted things previously unheard of, such as the right to determine the final cut. Hollywood was agog, and split between those who were pleased to see artistic control handed over in this way and those who resented the meteoric rise of this inexperienced and as yet untested young man. Lebo gives a good idea of how, at this time, Hollywood studios were throwing money at people they hoped would bring a good return.

Once Welles is installed at RKO, Lebo takes the reader through the entire process of the making of Kane in painstaking and pretty geeky detail. But geeky in a good way – written so that even I, who wouldn’t recognise a movie camera if I tripped over it, was able to easily understand. No detail is too small, no aspect too obscure to be included here, from budgeting, casting, direction, production, even what days particular scenes were filmed on. Sounds dreadful, huh? And yet, I found it increasingly fascinating – I had no idea of all that went into producing a film and began to feel a much greater admiration for the strange and wonderful people behind the camera, sometimes far behind it.

Lebo explains how the newspapers were produced and translated inot various languages, with 'real' stories even though they mostly can't be read except in stills...
Lebo explains how the newspapers were produced and translated into various languages, with ‘real’ stories even though they mostly can’t be read except in stills…

One of the bits I found most interesting was the creation of the script, over which there is apparently some debate about who should have had the major credit. By examining the various drafts, Lebo shows how the idea originated out of a kind of brainstorming between Welles and scriptwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, who then went on to produce a very lengthy and wordy script. Lebo then shows how Welles went about paring this down and down, partly for budgetary requirements, but mainly because he intended to use the camera to tell the story as much as the words. I found reading the original extracts and then watching the final version gave a real idea of how Welles’ directorial skills enabled him to keep the thing lean without losing the intrinsic essence of it.

Lebo also goes into huge detail on the cinematography of Gregg Toland, who was thrilled to be working for a director who wanted to try out new things. He made me aware of things my usual careless watching would never have let me notice, such as the, for then, unusual fact that the rooms have ceilings, or that many of the shots are filmed from unusually low angles, or that the focus is entirely different from many movies of that time by having everything in focus simultaneously.

How do you know when your marriage is on the rocks? When your wife is reading your competitor's paper at breakfast...
How do you know when your marriage is on the rocks? When your wife is reading your competitor’s paper at breakfast…

In similar vein, Lebo shows how budget restrictions led in part to the empty look of some of the sets, especially in the Thatcher archives scene and the Great Hall at Xanadu, giving the film a distinctive and unique look enhanced again by Welles choosing to put in echoes to emphasise and use rather than hide the vast bareness. And he contrasts that with the detail of, for example, the props in Susan’s various rooms all of which add to her character almost subliminally – the rather childish stencilling on the walls, the dolls on the bed and so on. These are just some examples – every aspect of the making of the film is covered in similar detail: music, special effects, editing, etc., etc.

In the final section, Lebo covers the controversy that nearly stopped the film from being released – the suggestion that it was based on the life of the newspaper magnate, William Randolph Hearst, whose organisation and supporters did everything they could to have it suppressed and very nearly succeeded. To be honest, initially I thought this would be the bit of the book that intrigued me most, but actually I found all the production stuff much more interesting.

To create poor Susan's opera-singing disaster, they used a real opera singer and then Bernard Herrmann pitched the music at a level that was all wrong for her voice. (Herrman's music also provides clues to the central mystery if you listen closely...)
To create poor Susan’s opera-singing disaster, they used a real opera singer and then Bernard Herrmann pitched the music at a level that was all wrong for her voice.
(Herrmann’s music also provides clues to the central mystery if you listen closely…)

So the burning question is – did it all make me like the film more? Well, I waited a few days and then watched it again. And… I fear not! I now have much more appreciation of the work that went into it, I admire a lot of the innovation, I see the stuff about the cinematography, I’m impressed by the dissolves between scenes, I hear how the music is being used. But… nope! It still just doesn’t do it for me. Oh well, never mind! I still thoroughly enjoyed the book. Recommended for Kane buffs, movie buffs, and people with a weird penchant for detailed geekiness. I think we all know which category I fall into…

One last word: “Rosebud!”

citizen kane snow
Such a sweet child too. Ah, where did it all go wrong…?

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, St Martin’s Press.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Book 8
Book 7

40 thoughts on “Citizen Kane by Harlan Lebo

  1. What an interesting-sounding book, FictionFan! And I can see how it would be best to watch the film in conjunction with reading the book. Even if it didn’t make you like the film and better than you had, it sounds as though this gave you some real insight into the film; to me, that’s worth a lot. I’m no film expert, either, but it sounds as though this book is informative to those who aren’t knowledgeable without being condescending. That takes skill.

    • It definitely made me see much more in the film than I’d ever noticed – or ever would have – even if it didn’t turn it into a favourite. But at least now I understand what it is about it that makes people say it’s great. I love these geeky books every now and again – actually I love almost anything written with a passionate enthusiasm, whatever the subject. There’s something so appealing about it…

  2. I have never seen the film so I don’t think the book will be of interest to my good self, but it sounds like a lot of thought has gone into it so I feel obliged to raise a small hurrah for that at least!

    • Ha! I’ve now seen this film and all the various scenes from it more than I’ve watched most of my actual favourites! If only he’d succeeded in making me like it more, but at least now I can switch off from the story and watch for all the tiny details… like Joseph Cotton’s special contact lenses to make his eyes look old… *wears Geek of the Year medal with pride*

      • It is often that attention to detail in cinematography that is lost on us mere mortals. My friend Paul picks up on all that sort of nonsense whilst I sit there going ‘who’s that? I thought she was dead? what’s that person doing? ‘ My attention span is woefully limited 🙂

        • Me too! My bro is a bit of a film buff and loves all these arty foreign films with subtitles. Sadly I can’t do subtitles – it’s not possible to read subtitles, play computer games and make coffee simultaneously I’ve found. They’re great for insomnia though!

  3. Ooooh gripping I might have to get this one. It reminds me of a fantastic book I read about the filming of The Third Man called In Search of the Third Man by Charles Drazin. I love the film and no detail was too detailed for me in that case! There’s a lot of funny stuff in there about how Orson Welles was rather badly behaved and then turned up and stole the whole show.

    • As a film, I much prefer The Third Man to Citizen Kane, but I can well imagine that directing Welles would have been… challenging! It was all the backroom stuff that fascinated me in this one – I really had no idea of all that was involved in producing a film. And no idea that anyone would be able to make me find the details so interesting…

    • OK, just hang on! I’m scrambling the Air-Sea Rescue Squad and we’ll get you an emergency transport to the Loquaciousness Crisis Centre! I can only hope your temporary loss of verbosity is due to a mouthful of Hotel Chocolat’s finest…

      PS It is great!

      • Heh ! It was probably in tribute to Welles’ cutting and editing the screenplay, imposing a temporary and unexpected moment of succinctness upon me. Unlikely to happen again soon I think.

        Ps have you started the Harris Joanne – I ‘fess to some irritation and tutting. I think she repeats her grooves, whatever they are. It won’t make the blog.

        • Phew! You had me worried there for a bit! Seriously, it was great fun getting totally immersed in the film for the time it took to read the book. It might never become a favourite but at least I can admire it now.

          Not yet – I’m reading at about the speed of a superannuated snail at the mo. Probably next week. Hmm – that’s a pity, but I admit that how I felt about some of her earlier books – loved Chocolat and never quite felt the same way about other ones. I was hoping a long break and different subject matter might make me more enthusiastic…

          • I enjoyed the first in this vein, though not enough to review it, either on blog or even on Amazon, so I suspect that I didn’t have strong incentive, positive or negative, to justify extra time reviewing. Must admit my reading is equally snail like, and I’m finding my attention drifts unless the writer is skilful enough. That’s my excuse, anyway. The milk of human kindness in my reading persona is curdled at the moment.

            • Yes, I’m finding I have even less patience than usual for anything that’s less than stellar. And sadly I find very little contemporary fiction to be stellar. I’ve abandoned more books in the last few weeks than I usually do in a year. Ah well, it’s usually at these points that some unexpected book comes along and blows me away… here’s hoping!

  4. I don’t think I ever saw the film or read the book, so I’ll just confess my ignorance. I do understand, however, how a movie can envelop you in its world…to the exclusion of the technical aspects of cinematography and such. Glad you enjoyed this one, FF!

    • Haha! I’ve now seen the film about a million times more than I ever wanted to! But it was fun watching it agin with all my new-found trivia knowledge, even if it will never be one of my favourites.

  5. Genuinely fascinating! I have always preferred A Touch of Evil to Citizen Kane, but your insightful post has encouraged me to give the latter another whirl. It’s been way too long since I last watched it.

    • I once saw A Touch of Evil in the cinema and it was amazing what a difference the big screen made to it. I was wondering while reading this if perhaps Welles’ style of direction works better for the big screen than for TV. Certainly if they show it in one of the cinemas I’ll pop along and try it – and bore my companion to tears with my now profound knowledge of Kane trivia… 😉

  6. I never really liked the film, but this book sounds as though it might explain what’s great about it. As you know, I watch very few films, largely because, even as a child, I would always rather read a book, but I do like to know how people do things, so I might look out for this one.

  7. Marvelous, marvelous review! I have the movie from the library right now…staring at me with baleful eyes, daring me to watch it, but now I’ll have to read the book first. It sounds extremely informative…and great even for helping with the appreciation of film in general.

    I might have to try your method of watching the bits of the film while reading it….then watching the whole thing later. I hope it doesn’t drive my family nuts! 🙂

    • Why, thank you! 😀 Despite the fact that the film will never be a favourite, I definitely found I appreciated it much more after reading the book – I think you’d love this one. But unless you remember the film pretty well I’d also really recommend watching it all the way through before embarking on the book – he assumes the reader knows it, though he does go through the plot in great detail. Haha! Fortunately my cats don’t care what I watch so long as I tickle their tummies while watching. Perhaps you could try that with your family…

  8. This sounds absolutely fascinating – a must read for me! The Third Man is my favourite film of all time, but Citizen Kane has always left me a bit cold. As you say, it may not change my opinion of the film but it will hopefully increase my appreciation of it.

    • It definitely made me appreciate it more and I enjoyed the whole experience of immersing myself in it for the couple of weeks it took me to read the book – not that it’s huge, but with flicking back and forwards to watch scenes it was a slow read. I love The Third Man too – I think I prefer Welles as an actor rather than a director maybe, though I did enjoy Touch of Evil.

    • I keep trying to turn myself into a film buff and failing, especially since the ‘greats’ usually leave me feeling a bit underwhelmed. But I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of immersing myself in Kane while reading the book – maybe I should read more film criticism…

  9. I would love a book like this on a Hitchcock film. Someone made a film of Hitchcock filming Psycho. It started Anthony Hopkins. I rather liked it, but cannot vouch for accuracy. Thanks for this interesting review! Reminds me of your review of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

    • Oh yes, I saw that one and enjoyed it! But like you I have no idea whether it was accurate or not. I guess there’s probably as much film criticism out there as lit-crit – it’s something I’ve never really looked at before. But having realised that I seem to have almost stopped watching films, I thought I needed to do something to gee myself up, and I’ve found tying them in with books makes me watch with more concentration.

      • That’s brilliant! When I watch a movie, even an artistic indie film, I feel guilty I’m not reading. I did have lots of fun with reading and watching Rebecca! I was also thinking I should update my Rebecca book review to be spoiler free and publish the new version.

        • I just don’t concentrate – suddenly find I’m reading e-mails at the same time and so on. But if I know I’m planning to review then that keeps me paying attention. Yeah, it’s always hard with classics isn’t it? It’s so easy to assume everyone knows the story, but I guess there’s always a new generation coming up who haven’t read or seen all these things. I find it hard to write spoiler free reviews of really well known stuff while still finding anything interesting to say about it…

  10. Wow! Great review! I saw the movie, but was never as enamored with it as the critics. (I preferred The Magnificent Ambersons.) I probably would enjoy this book, however.

    • I find that with films in general – in fact there’s one critic over here that I use as a sort of reverse recommender – if he loves it, I know I’ll hate it! I’ve never seen The Magnificent Ambersons – I should probably watch it while I’m still in Welles mode…

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