Monthly Archives: April 2014

April 12, 2014

Best Original Screenplay 1941: Citizen Kane


Winner in the category of WRITING (Original Screenplay) at the 14th Academy Awards, presented February 26, 1942 at the Biltmore Bowl, Biltmore Hotel.

The other nominees were:
The Devil and Miss Jones — Norman Krasna
Sergeant York — Abem Finkel, Harry Chandlee, Howard Koch, John Huston
Tall, Dark and Handsome — Karl Tunberg, Darrell Ware
Tom, Dick and Harry — Paul Jarrico

Opening of screenplay:





All around this an almost totally black screen. Now, as the CAMERA MOVES SLOWLY towards the window which is almost a postage stamp in the frame, other forms appear; barbed wire, cyclone fencing, and now, looming up against an early morning sky, enormous iron grille work. CAMERA TRAVELS up what is now shown to be a gateway of gigantic proportions and HOLDS on the top of it — a huge initial “K” showing darker and darker against the dawn sky. Through this and beyond we see the fairy-tale mountaintop of Xanadu, the great castle a silhouette at its summit, the little window a distant accent in the darkness.


(A series of set-ups, each closer to the great window, all telling something of:)


First line in film:

— Rosebud!

BETH Well that was definitely the best episode of Hoarders I’ve seen.

BROOM That’s a more profound joke than it seems at first.

BETH I was aware of that when I thought of it.

ADAM I found it exhaustingly theatrical. I recognize that it’s really got a lot of clever lines, and clever photography tricks, and clever acting, and it’s affecting… but it’s so different from modern movie-making as to be foreign and antique.

BETH You’ve seen it once before?

ADAM Yeah, once before.

BROOM I don’t think I could agree with “antique,” because that suggests that it’s part of some historical style, but I don’t think that this is in the style of any other movie.

BETH Before or after. It seems like it’s entirely its own thing.

ADAM There were a lot of things here that reminded me of other things, although some of them I guess are movies yet to come. But it reminded me a lot of Gone With the Wind, and that sort of bigger-than-life… You know: “Romance! Drama! Epic!” So maudlin that it’s almost daring you to not have a straight face. But maybe that’s just my small-minded cynical naturalistic modern sensibility.

BROOM I didn’t have a reaction anything like that, so I’m trying to figure out what you might be responding to. What scenes? Give me an example.

ADAM Every time someone was backlit with dramatic, dusty light.

BROOM I see, the whole tone.

ADAM Or a thunderstorm every time anyone was interviewed. Some of the camerawork is really clever, but awfully melodramatic.

BETH It just makes you notice it.

ADAM Coming in through the ceiling like that. Twice.

BROOM Three times if you include going back out.

ADAM So many of the clever transitions were like, a thing dissolves into another thing that’s totally different from it but looks just like it. Like the swinging doors dissolve into the newspaper plates. There were a bunch of those.

BETH And that tired you rather than exhilarated you?

ADAM Well, maybe it’s just that tonight it tired me. Maybe in a different sort of emotional mood I’d feel differently about it. But at the moment it was just… I mean, no wonder I had thought it was longer than 119 minutes.

BROOM It’s very dense. It must be one of the movies most dense with incident. It compresses so much content — not just narrative time, but perspectives and things that it’s trying to address. So it does feel very long.

ADAM Don’t get me wrong: I didn’t not enjoy it. Although I was fatigued by it, there are so many rich little details that are cool. And clever. Like the scene at the very end when the cockatoo screams in your face.

BROOM Well, your objection is the one that I think critics of the time held over it: that it was technically showy in a way that didn’t necessarily further its cause. But to me, part of what’s exciting and satisfying about this movie is the particular combination of this technique and this material, which is very ambitious even separated from the technique. To me it’s stimulating; it doesn’t feel like they’re fighting with each other.

ADAM I’m not saying that I didn’t think it was successful. I’m saying that it felt like I ate an entire fruitcake at one sitting.

BROOM I feel stimulated by exactly what you’re saying was fatiguing to you. Beth and I are reading our way through the George Smiley novels of John Le Carré, and the first one — Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy — was striking to me the first time I read it, and again recently when we reread it, for being hard to follow. It doesn’t belabor anything; it makes it difficult to keep track of what’s significant. But as a result of having to turn your brain up to that level, it has an intensity. What you glean out of it seems somehow richer than just some genre spy novel. Whereas in the third one, which we’re reading now, he’s being a lot more obviously careful not to lose the reader, and as a result the whole thing seems thinner. And this to me worked on the same principle. The fact that there’s so much shadowplay and trickery put me in a state of having to run, and then the blood is pumping and you feel that something exciting is happening to you as you experience the non-trickery part of it, the material itself. Which I think is thrilling exactly because as a result, the ambition of what it’s trying to be about, which is pretty grand, works. At least for me. You can have this movie that’s about the meaning of life, or “who is a person?” — it works because the audience is put into this state of being drawn through a haunted house and things are jumping out at you. It intensifies your experience of what’s there. So I didn’t feel fatigued. Except for maybe in that haunted house sense of “Whoa! This is really intense.” It didn’t feel too long. But I guess it has to do with how sleepy a person is.

BETH It does, because I know that in previous viewings I have felt that it was a slog, and “I know I’m supposed to like this but.” But this time I completely did like it. Partly because I’m reading a biography of Orson Welles, and I’m drawing parallels. I was connecting with it, not on the level that you’re talking about, but just sort of analyzing Orson’s psychology.

BROOM I think I had the best experience of it, then.

BETH You probably did.

BROOM This was probably my best experience ever watching it. I got goosebumps and felt overwhelmed by what it was saying.

ADAM It could have used more levity and moments of exhaling. I guess it had those, but they weren’t really coded that way.

BETH It didn’t have many.

ADAM Like the scene with the dancing girls I’m sure is supposed to feel like a moment of relaxation…

BETH I don’t know, I think it’s supposed to be ironic. It’s grim.

BROOM I think it’s supposed to have a feeling of claustrophobic good cheer, and you see it in Joseph Cotten’s face: “I’m at the party, but…”

ADAM Oh. I thought maybe there was supposed to be some relief in that “fun,” but it didn’t really feel that fun to me. And I was going to say maybe it doesn’t feel that fun to me because seventy years have gone by. But maybe really it’s just not fun.

BETH Yeah, it’s not.

ADAM It’s fun like Edgar Bergen and that little girl.

BROOM If you take it at its word and its tone, it’s a very grim movie. It’s almost a kind of ghost story-ification of a biographical movie. It takes the idea of investigating a person and makes it gothic. It’s upsetting!

ADAM It has kind of a Masque of the Red Death quality.

BROOM Yeah! I was going to say Poe.

ADAM A room lit by horrible cross-cutting stained glass.

BROOM I think it ends on the “No Trespassing” sign at the end because —

BETH That was great; I had not made anything of that in prior viewings. Or I just didn’t remember it.

BROOM There’s no trespassing on the heart.

BETH On the soul.

ADAM So in terms of innovation: is this the first time in movies that you see a man crazily crashing around a room destroying everything?

BETH I was thinking about that too, because we just watched The Room

BROOM When we were watching The Room and he destroyed a room badly, I thought, “I hope this doesn’t discolor our upcoming viewing of Citizen Kane. But apparently it did.

BETH I couldn’t help it!

ADAM When we saw this in college I remember talking about how when you see his first marriage dissolving, it’s the first time you have a montage of anecdote, essentially, being used to convey dramatic narrative.

BROOM Maybe. I don’t know if it’s the first time.

BETH It’s definitely referred to all the time.

BROOM It’s a very iconic sequence. I think I got this from the Roger Ebert commentary that’s on the disc — or maybe somewhere else: that Welles didn’t truly innovate a lot of this stuff, he borrowed it, but he borrowed from such widespread sources that he consolidates a lot of what had been avant-garde technique into this one movie. It showcases so much invention that had been in 20s and 30s cinema that it ends up feeling new.

ADAM Like what?

BROOM I don’t remember because I don’t remember the source of this comment. But things to do with the lighting, the staging, the extreme constrasts. The deep focus. Strange camera movements that take you from one space to another space through an intermediate space. The ghostly quality of the camera’s relationship to the subject.

ADAM I was thinking of the scene where he’s in the hall giving the speech running for governor, because of course we just saw that last year in The Great McGinty, in all those crowd scenes.

BROOM That’s true.

ADAM But here of course you’re in the back of the theater, there’s that big Hitler poster of him… it was turned up to eleven.

BROOM The elevenness of it is this Romantic, gothic tone that covers the whole thing. I know that Orson Welles generally liked that for his radio plays…

BETH He liked it for everything.

BROOM … because it’s intense. And for me it works. Maybe it’s a taste thing, but for me it goes beyond my own “taste” and self-image: I really get transfixed by that kind of intensity. The threat of it! There’s a kind of scariness to it.

ADAM I’m not saying it didn’t work; I’m just saying I wanted to get up in the middle.

BROOM Which you did. Which you were free to do. So we’re here to talk about the screenplay.

BETH I was gonna say.

ADAM It’s full of bon mots. That aren’t necessarily relevant to the story. I guess the most famous one is the woman in white on the ferry, which is, you know, a poem in six words, if you will, just sort of strewn there for no reason.

BROOM Well, I think for a very clear reason.

ADAM For atmosphere.

BROOM It’s directly related to the subject of the movie.

ADAM Well, it’s not narrative.

BETH It’s thematic.


BROOM The screenplay is designed to be returned to and studied and seen more than once, and on a second or third viewing, that anecdote becomes one of the oblique explanations that the movie offers for Rosebud, which it never gets to address overtly: what are we really saying, for him to have been dreaming on this sled? This ferry story is an explanation of how these things can function psychologically. I mean, if you watch it from the beginning there are lines in almost every scene that turn out to sort of be coded lines for the second-time viewer about what you’re going to understand the movie really to be about.

ADAM Right, but which are also memorable and striking in their own right.

BROOM Of course potentially it all works for the first-time viewer, because you’re gathering this outlook, the philosophical perspective of the movie, and you hear people saying all these things, so that you’re suitably prepared to find out what “Rosebud” means, at the end. In the first scene, a reporter says, “Maybe it’s a horse that he bet on… that didn’t come in!” A variety of things like this are said. What does the woman say in the last scene? Someone says something at the very end…

ADAM “Something he lost…”

BROOM Right. “Maybe it was something he lost… Maybe it was something he couldn’t get.” That’s what the story about the woman on the ferry is: “you’d be surprised what sticks in a man’s mind.”

ADAM I’m not saying it’s not related to the theme, I’m just…

BROOM You’re quoting Roger Ebert, who came and made a speech about that when we were in college.

ADAM Is that why that’s stuck in my head? All right, fine.

BETH You guys saw him?

BROOM We saw Siskel and Ebert talk together, which supposedly was something of a rarity because they didn’t really like each other, and they gave sort of parallel speeches from opposite sides of a stage.

ADAM I don’t remember this. Though apparently I do remember this.

BROOM Here are a few things I remember about it. It was only a year or so before Siskel’s death. The theme they chose to talk about was scenes in movies that are not explicitly necessary.

ADAM Is this where I got the Fargo thing, from this event? It wasn’t a thing we saw on TV?

BROOM Yes. They each talked about scenes that contribute to a movie spiritually without being a plot necessity. I don’t remember exactly the thesis statement, but it was something to the effect that that’s the essence of movies, being given these moments that don’t have to happen, where you don’t know why they’re happening but in a larger sense you feel why they’re happening because you’re in movie space.

BETH I like that.

BROOM I think the woman on the ferry was Ebert’s example, and Siskel’s example was the scene from Fargo where she meets with the guy from high school…

ADAM Gordon.

BROOM … who turns out to be sort of delusional…

ADAM I think Gordon is his name. If I’m wrong you can correct me in brackets in a snotty way.

BROOM No, I won’t do any such thing. [ed: I don’t need to — readers can click this link to watch the Mike Yanagita scene and decide for themselves.] Here’s the other thing I remember from that event: Ebert said “You know, you can go across the street to the Coop and buy—” and Siskel started laughing and said, “Coop? Like a chicken coop? It’s the CO-OP, Roger!” And Ebert lit up, and turned immediately to the audience and said “What do you guys call it?” And everyone shouted “The Coop!” And Siskel was sort of shame-faced. It was like that’s what Ebert lived for.

ADAM Well, I guess that stuck with me without my knowing where it came from. But anyway, Orson Welles is sort of showing off at the end by giving everyone their best little witticism in the credits.

BROOM They seemed to be alternate takes.

ADAM And what could be showier than that last credit?

BROOM The faux modesty of putting “Kane” at the very end of the credit list?

ADAM The humblebrag.

BROOM But then he has a proper card for “Direction — Production”.

ADAM That just makes it even snottier. “Oh, well, acting, psssh.”

BROOM But the big director credit is on the same screen with the photographer, which I think is a genuine sharing of glory.

BETH Was this the first movie that did that thing with clips of each character at the end?

BROOM Oh, I don’t think so. I mean, I don’t know. It was certainly standard form for trailers.

BETH Even in the 30s?

BROOM I don’t know. I’m just so used to it.

ADAM I think Coming to America was the first.

BROOM Back to what I want to say about the screenplay. The impetus would seem to be reading about famous or powerful people like William Randolph Hearst, and speculating about them. The fun of talking about Michael Jackson and how weird he is: “what’s going on on that crazy estate he lives on?” Or Gwyneth Paltrow and her “ridiculous” divorce announcement. And then in a writerly, humanist, artist’s way, saying: “if we’re going to speculate, let’s try to be as real as possible about what’s going on behind this public figure.” And yet the brilliant thing about it is that it doesn’t answer that explicitly. It occupies itself with the business of trying to get through and be real. Beth, when you said during the opera scene that you liked that she wasn’t hilariously bad — I feel like that’s the spirit of the whole movie: we’re not going to laugh at any of this stuff. We’re going to make it gothic, and then it’s going to be up to you to feel out what’s behind it that makes it so, figure out what is the ghost in the closet.

ADAM Not that it’s subtle: three different people say “What he wanted was love.”

BROOM That’s right; it’s very direct and simple about its psychological outlook, in what it does offer. But it rings true as far as it goes. And the kernel of it, that scene with his parents, leaves a lot of questions unanswered — to me, at least; maybe I’m missing things — about why they are each behaving the way they do in that scene.

ADAM His mother is an abused wife who is cold for her son’s protection; the father is a drunken ne’er-do-well who mishandles them.

BROOM So you take the mother’s words at the end of the scene at face value: “I’m sending him away because you are likely to beat him.”

ADAM As opposed to what?

BROOM Well, I think we’re supposed to be chilled when she says “I’ve had his bags packed for a week” and is stony.

ADAM I think she is a monster, but an understandable monster.

BROOM You think she’s the victim of abuse and that has made her into stone.

ADAM That’s sort of how I read it. I’m sure there are other ways to read it.

BETH I hadn’t read it like that before, but I like that interpretation. It makes her more sympathetic and understandable.

ADAM As opposed to that she’s just a witch?

BETH It’s partially that Agnes Moorehead looks like a witch that makes it hard to sympathize with her.

ADAM In fact I can only think of her as a witch, since she played Endora.

BETH But your interpretation makes a lot more sense, actually.

BROOM But it follows on a scene of the father ineffectually pacing around and fairly sympathetically saying “Why does my son have to go away?”

BETH But he also seems a little bit drunk.

BROOM Clearly drunk.

ADAM And then when the fifty thousand dollars is mentioned, he drops his protestation and says, “Well, I hope it’s for the best.” I’m sure he’s not a bad guy, but…

BROOM I’m not saying “You guys need to be nicer to him; I love the dad,” but the movie is all about the love that Kane needs because of this separation.

BETH It’s clear that he had more of an affinity for his mother. “Mom, why aren’t you coming with me, mom?”

BROOM He loves Pop too; he runs over to him.

ADAM Leland says later, “He never loved anyone but himself. Well, I guess he loved his mother.” Are you supposed to take that at face value? That his childhood really was this halcyon place? Or is it just a fantasy, the way the woman on the ferry is a fantasy?

BETH It’s his memory, which is infused with…

ADAM But if he really was beaten… if it really was as bad as his mother implies.

BROOM I don’t get the sense that that’s the case, from that last scene. I do think it’s implied from her last line that he has beaten her and that she cannot conceive of raising her son in this environment. But there’s something darker going on with her than just a kind of beaten-down resilient pragmatism.

ADAM Oh, I agree. She’s coded as a total creep. The way she stares out the window like death. It’s super-creepy.

BROOM And yet he as a child seems basically cheery. I guess maybe you could read into the fact that his make-believe in the snow is some sort of battle. But we don’t really know. And that’s what the “No Trespassing” of the whole screenplay is.

ADAM They seem to be a darker version of Scarlett O’Hara’s parents.

BROOM I don’t remember how Scarlett O’Hara’s parents are portrayed.

ADAM Her father is sort of a drunken, sentimental Irishman, and her mother is a chilly, elegant Charleston dame.

BROOM Do we see them for more than one scene?

ADAM You see the father a lot. Maybe it’s just me, but to me this movie has strong impressions of Gone With the Wind.

BROOM I haven’t seen that at all since I was a teenager.

ADAM It also has strong Gatsby qualities. But it’s sort of a haunted house Gatsby, as you said.

BROOM Yes, it’s related, but in Gatsby the presentation is different because the audience and the narrator are somewhat drawn into the potential glamour of this way of life, whereas here the entire pageant is about how he’s trying too hard and protesting too much.

ADAM Yeah, you’re right. The subject matter is the same but the psychological outlook is different.

BROOM This time while watching, I was thinking: “And why shouldn’t he want to be loved? Who in this story does love him? He is very lonely.” I guess this is where the Orson Welles parallels become complex.

BETH They’re all over this movie.

BROOM Because the movie has a very scolding, cautionary-tale attitude toward the impulse to try to buy love. But it doesn’t present an image of what he could have done instead. It sort of says that having been set on this path, this emotional need inside him was always going to express itself this way, which wasn’t going to work.

ADAM Well, Susan seemed like she could legitimately love him; she was very nice to him in the first scene, even though she didn’t know who he was. That was sort of the sweetest scene between any two people in the whole movie. And when she turns into a harridan, it’s disappointing.

BROOM She only shrieks like that in the stress of having been made into an opera star, which is artificial for her. But that “sweet” scene when they’re in her apartment together: the scene doesn’t miss an opportunity to have her say something really stupid.

ADAM Oh yeah, she’s clearly a moron.

BETH “Is it an elephant?”

BROOM Or later when they’re at Xanadu and she says “What time is it in New York?” and he says “11:30” and she says “At night?”

ADAM When he’s dressing her as the opera star, it felt like Vertigo to me.

BROOM But that scene in the apartment is a sweet scene, because he says he was on his way to a warehouse of his mother’s stuff, looking to recapture his own actual emotional life, and so her childlike simplicity feels to him like a connection… and then he immediately invests it with “what will I buy you? How will I give you fame and glory?” And poisons it. The script is very determinist about that. It doesn’t say “here’s where he could have gone right; here’s where he made a mistake.” It’s all imposed on him at the beginning. Although when she says “you never gave me anything that I actually wanted” — when he does tricks to cheer her up in her apartment, it is sort of an actual act of generosity. Although maybe we’re supposed to see that as trickery; he’s just trying to impress.

BETH To seduce.

BROOM Trying to get another person to think he’s cool.

ADAM I felt pained watching this thinking that we’ll never get to see a remake starring Philip Seymour Hoffman. It struck me overwhelmingly, at the end, that this would have been quite a role for him.

BROOM I don’t think this needs to be remade. You saw that April Fools’ joke about Keanu Reeves.

ADAM I didn’t see The Master, but you did, right?

BROOM Yes, and I guess it did have some connections. There Will Be Blood, actually, had more in common with Citizen Kane, though.

ADAM That was another movie that I felt was so hard to actually sit through because it was so gnarled with style. But that’s not as good as this.

BROOM That’s a movie that I found harder to take than this — though I really liked it and admired it and was glad to sit through it — but I found that harder to take because it depended less on tricks: it spent longer periods letting us just soak in the uncomfortable atmosphere of a particular moment. Whereas Citizen Kane is such a screenplay movie; watching it feels like reading a screenplay, in some ways. And that’s what’s exciting about it: this unfettered freedom to have whatever next thought it wants.

BETH That’s interesting though, because it’s so directed. I didn’t feel at all like I was reading a screenplay, because it’s so visual.

BROOM I didn’t mean it feels like reading in that it’s as colorless as words on a page; I mean it moves around conceptually in a way I associate with reading.

ADAM You mean because it’s choppy, and it cuts back and forth between past and future?

BROOM Yeah, and I feel like its attention generally moves with a very advanced kind of freedom that I associate with the printed word. It’s creatively exciting to watch because it feels unfettered.

BETH That’s not really done now.

BROOM I don’t think it’s been done in very many movies. I mean, there’s a structure to it; obviously the script has been carefully worked through many times: they knew there would be sequences about his love life, his political career, the newspaper, Xanadu — and then they divided them up, and chose which order, and who’s going to talk about what, and which parts are going to be repeated… But still the flavor of how it’s constructed is that the mind skips around, through time and thematically.

ADAM I like that you’re introduced to him through a newsreel. I remember when I read American Pastoral, the structure was very striking. The first third of it is the main character as observed by Zuckerman. And he seems super-shallow, and he doesn’t understand why he’s supposed to think that this guy is so profound. It’s all the main character seen from the surface. And it’s only then that you pivot into the story and see him through his own eyes. It has this coiled structure, where the surface is first and then you come into the inside. I mention that not because I think there’s anything related here, but because that observation was a touchstone for me when I read it. Here, first you see him through the newsreel, which is this sort of impassive quote-unquote “objective” picture of his life.

BROOM And there’s nothing gothic or Romantic about the visual style or presentation.

BETH Although I think those handheld shots of him being wheeled around are pretty innovative and genuinely feel invasive.

BROOM Because it’s directly implied that these are paparazzi shots stolen from outside his gates.

ADAM “No trespassing”!

BROOM Watching that sequence, right at the beginning, I thought, “This screenplay is already more sophisticated than almost any other,” because it’s about how we think about people, and it starts by showing us a way of talking about people that we’re all familiar with, which the point of the movie is to improve upon — but it doesn’t write off the newsreel a joke; it’s densely full of information. By the time you get to the end of the newsreel, not only has it mapped out the whole story, but it’s told you a whole lot of genuinely interesting stuff.

ADAM That’s the only reference in the whole movie to his son’s death.

BROOM And to the source of his money, essentially. The newsreel is already exciting in that the movie is declaring that it’s going to be about a made-up major public figure, and filling in that outline. That the game of the movie is to hypothesize a “Citizen Kane” of great fame and influence. If I had lived in the time of William Randolph Hearst, some of what is impressive to me about this movie might not be, because I would really get that it’s a thinly veiled speculative biography of Hearst, whereas to me now it feels like a pure display of invention. And what a canvas to be painting on! It’s not a zone in which fiction is usually made. It’s like fictional news; it addresses itself to whole idea of public figures and makes up this stuff. It’s already exciting, just to be told a story that way. And then the newsreel projector runs down and suddenly we’re in this world of shadows where the real movie is going to take place. And I just now had the thought that maybe the haunted house shadowy quality is a visual analogue to what the movie is about, that everybody carries this shadow reality, their emotional self, while they’re going about their business.

ADAM Behind their newsreel self.


BETH Well, isn’t this kind of the first movie about Twitter? When he said “News never stops, it’s 24 hours,” I was like, “Yeah, you just invented Twitter.”

BROOM I don’t know what you mean.

BETH That instant information, and branding, were represented here.

BROOM The connection is that people on Twitter are fake versions of themselves?

BETH Yeah, that it’s self-representation.

BROOM I see, self-branding. I wasn’t sure if you were talking about the media itself. Since the movie is about newspapers.

BETH Well, and the drive to be the first person to share information.

ADAM Also it’s like Twitter in that it has a mosaic quality; that everybody has a different story about him, and none of them is the right story but they all overlap to form pieces of this larger whole.

BROOM This is what I was leading to: the movie by its style feels haunted by something, and that something is his emotional life, this inner life. Which we are sort of told we haven’t seen anything of, that these stories are just surface stories, though that’s not entirely true: we glean and get a sense, and, as you said, there are several scenes where people are very explicit about how what he really needs is love. But that too is their interpretation. The inner reality is always behind what we’re seeing, it’s implied, it’s like the atmosphere that lets you know that a house is haunted. So that atmosphere infuses the whole thing because he’s the haunted house, and his feelings, that he doesn’t actually say out loud — we don’t really know what he feels like, even though we can speculate.

ADAM Or if he knows what he feels.

BROOM Yeah: he doesn’t know what he feels like. That’s the meaning of the scene at the end where he pathetically trashes the room, because he knows he’s having some feeling and thinks that maybe he’s supposed to wreck all this stuff. It has that pathetic quality of trying to perform something for himself. But it just seems spectacularly bold to put that on paper and then try to put it on screen. And be effective! So that I can I sit here and watch and pick up on all this and know what they intended. You have to have…

BETH Conviction!

BROOM Yeah, to just do it and not stop.

ADAM To be clear: I think we could talk about this for another hour. Not that we will, Emma.

BROOM She’s not reading these anymore.

ADAM That’s a testament to the density and quality of the material. But ugh, I’m ready for a caper. A sorbet.

BROOM Next up is Woman of the Year, which I think ought to suit you.

BETH We’ve already got it. You can watch it right now.

BROOM There are just very few movies that try to be so…

ADAM So literary.

BROOM That so baldly try to say something true about life, on this scale. It’s an anti-genre movie. You were talking earlier about how writers begin by depending on genre stuff in their heads, to get themselves going, which reminds me of something else I wanted to say — I know I’m talking seven times as much as you guys are, but you should just cut in if you want to say something! —

ADAM That’s okay. We’re used to it.

BROOM You should have cut in then, too!

ADAM No, we just don’t have as many thoughts as you do.

BROOM When I was a kid, I understood Citizen Kane to be this mystery movie about a man who says a word at the beginning, and you don’t find out what it meant until the end, and it’s not what anyone thought! It’s a thing you’d never have guessed, even though it was there on the first page all along. And that was it. And that was plenty: it’s a great form, it’s very satisfying. And it was almost satisfying enough for me to enjoy watching the whole movie — even though it was a bit long and I might get bored in the middle, when we’re dealing with Boss Gettys or something, which really doesn’t have anything to do with Rosebud. But really, it was just like a children’s book about “The elephant’s been with us all along! Did you spot him on page 2?” And what’s wonderful about the screenplay’s use of that structure is that what I just described is a completely cohesive understanding of the movie; it is not at all a misunderstanding of the movie. On the first page when he’s a kid and he just has his feelings as a kid: that was the secret of his whole life all along, and nobody noticed it…

ADAM You should put a spoiler alert at the beginning of this entry.

BROOM I had it spoiled for me by a Peanuts cartoon.

BETH It was referenced a lot when we were kids. Rosebud was everywhere.

ADAM I agree. It was spoiled for me long before I’d seen the movie.

BROOM In some ways — in most ways — it’s not really a spoiler. You like the movie better if you know what it is. Because if you didn’t know that it was going to be a sled, when you found out, you’d probably go, “Oh… Why was it a sled?” And then be like, “Hm, I guess because when he was a kid was the purest time in his life, and he felt nostalgic for that; whatever.” Whereas if you know at the outset that that is the entire point of the movie, you’re able to enjoy it.

ADAM Probably, but it would be interesting to actually see the whole movie without knowing it. Because the question is: is anyone actually invested in the mystery of “what is Rosebud”? Obviously we’re not.

BROOM I’m saying, for a kid, that was a totally legitimate way to watch the movie. And it’s exciting! To see the lips saying the word, and nobody knows what it means, and the glass ball breaks — it’s all very spooky and expressionistic; and then we have those shadowy guys in that room saying, “Rosebud, his last word: what does it mean?” Of course you’re invested in the mystery.

ADAM And it has a noir quality, that they don’t find out but you do. “The truth can never be told.”

BROOM And in this respect too, the movie is like a ghost story. It’s like The Ring or something: they have to go to the haunted island to interview the last person who saw the ghost. And right before he kills himself he says two words: what was he hinting at? And the old lady in the shack in the woods: what did she see?

ADAM “Redrum!”

BROOM There was an Indian burial ground here!

BETH “Pay me a thousand dollars and I’ll tell you.”

BROOM You feel almost worried; it’s scary: when is the revelation going to come? And then it’s a worthy revelation: it’s the thing from the beginning, and he’s already dead, and it goes up in black smoke. So it’s great that that is legitimately how this movie works; that is right. And all this sophisticated stuff about marriages, about journalism, and friendships, about real politics, and fake politics, and crazy people who build estates for themselves — Michael Jackson, and George Lucas — is the distraction from the real thing, which is that everybody is a kid inside, everybody’s got feelings. And there’s no way for him to get back to that at the end; he’s too old and too isolated, and he’s about to die. That’s why I get chills now: because the thing that I thought as a kid is still right. The paradigm of “But no it’s a twist ending!” is still correct. And I don’t think the cinematic device of the twist, the cheap ghost-story twist, as a kid understands it, could be used for a more profound purpose than this. Where the twist is that your life is not about the thing that you think it’s about; it’s about the other thing, the thing that nobody is talking about because it was too mundane, the thing on the first page.

BETH So do you think this will become the number one movie again?

BROOM After Vertigo?

BETH Because really, Vertigo is not about life the way this is. This is definitely a better movie.

ADAM I haven’t seen Vertigo in a long time.

BROOM Well, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t win Best Screenplay.

ADAM I don’t think any Hitchcock movie is going to win.

BROOM Yeah, I guess this is better, but the total unreality of Vertigo can serve a purpose in talking about real life. I guess what’s thrilling about Citizen Kane is that it contains both. Vertigo is just the psychodrama, just the nightmare version of things.

BETH And our culture is pretty consumed with the appeal of the nightmare right now.

ADAM Wouldn’t it be interesting to see a remake of this where you could see it with all of the lavish spectacle that presumably audiences saw in 1941? This would have seemed like really crazy special effects.

BROOM It doesn’t feel like that to you now? It’s visually very exciting.

BETH It still feels like that to me.

ADAM Yeah, but it still feels old-timey, because it’s an old-timey movie.

BETH Do you think if we’d made it fill the whole width of the TV that would have helped you?

ADAM I don’t know.

BROOM I think this Blu-ray image looks so crisp and fresh, and the photography is so stylized, that I don’t have a sense of it being old. I mean, obviously I do, of course, in a way that I’ve forgotten about. I just don’t think about it anymore. Yeah, this is from the past. But I’m so comfortable with it. And I feel spoken to very directly by it. So I’m not at all attracted to the idea that anyone should do it again. But someone could do a close equivalent. The material of “a big man’s life” — you could do anything with that.

ADAM You’re not interested in seeing it done by Baz Luhrmann? With rap music?

BROOM I’m not much of a fan of Baz.

ADAM I’m genuinely curious to see what the New York Times has to say.

[we read the review]

BROOM I always like Bosley Crowther. I know that he wasn’t very well liked in his time or by other critics.

ADAM Yeah, that was a review you can be proud of.

BROOM Yes, he “got it right.” His quibble is with whether the film should have told us more about Kane.

BETH I think the fact that it didn’t tell us more is powerful.

BROOM So I really don’t know anything about Herman J. Mankiewicz. Do you, Beth, reading that biography? Not yet?


BROOM What I’ve heard is that Welles didn’t really write it; Mankiewicz did.

BETH That’s interesting to me because there are many parallels with Orson’s life. So my impression is that he at least tinkered with whatever was written.

BROOM Well, maybe I’m wrong about that.

Last line in film:

— Throw that junk in.


This is the only video footage I can find that seems to be from the Academy Awards ceremony. Selections from the radio broadcast audio are available on this page, but the presentation of Best Original Screenplay is not among them.

The acceptance speech (winners not present; accepted by George Schaefer, President of RKO Radio):

GEORGE SCHAEFER: Mr. Herman Mankiewicz called me today and asked if I would be good enough to step up here tonight and receive this in his behalf. I’m flattered, of course. I’d be happier if he were here personally to receive it. Thank you very much.

Here is a photo of the moment. Preston Sturges, last year’s winner, is presenting.

April 5, 2014

Criterion Trophy Case Phase 1 (Spines # 1–51)

1 Grand Illusion2 Seven Samurai3 The Lady Vanishes4 Amarcord5 The 400 Blows6 Beauty and the Beast7 A Night to Remember8 The Killer9 Hard Boiled10 Walkabout11 The Seventh Seal12 This Is Spinal Tap13 The Silence of the Lambs14 Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto15 Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple16 Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island17 Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom18 The Naked Kiss19 Shock Corridor20 Sid & Nancy21 Dead Ringers22 Summertime23 Robocop24 High and Low25 Alphaville26 The Long Good Friday27 Flesh for Frankenstein28 Blood for Dracula29 Picnic at Hanging Rock30 M31 Great Expectations32 Oliver Twist33 Nanook of the North34 Andrei Rublev35 Diabolique36 The Wages of Fear37 Time Bandits38 Branded to Kill39 Tokyo Drifter40 Armageddon41 Henry V42 Fishing With John43 Lord of the Flies44 The Red Shoes45 Taste of Cherry46 The Most Dangerous Game47 Insomnia48 Black Orpheus49 Nights of Cabiria50 And the Ship Sails On51 Brazil

According to the 2014 edition of the “1000 Greatest Films” list at They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?, which purports to be the aggregation of all other such lists, the Criterion films thus far fall as follows:

1. Grand Illusion: 39
2. Seven Samurai: 10
3. The Lady Vanishes: 573
4. Amarcord: 77
5. The 400 Blows: 23
6. Beauty and the Beast: 234
7. A Night to Remember:
8. The Killer: 685
9. Hard Boiled:
10. Walkabout: 408
11. The Seventh Seal: 70
12. This Is Spinal Tap: 348
13. The Silence of the Lambs: 537
14, 15, 16. The Samurai Trilogy:
17. Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom: 186
18. The Naked Kiss:
19. Shock Corridor: 570
20. Sid & Nancy:
21. Dead Ringers: 488
22. Summertime:
23. Robocop: (2012 list: 764)
24. High and Low: 327
25. Alphaville: 391
26. The Long Good Friday:
27. Flesh for Frankenstein:
28. Blood for Dracula:
29. Picnic at Hanging Rock: 515
30. M: 49
31. Great Expectations: 447
32. Oliver Twist:
33. Nanook of the North: 246
34. Andrei Rublev: 25
35. Diabolique: 624
36. The Wages of Fear: 251
37. Time Bandits:
38. Branded to Kill: 742
39. Tokyo Drifter:
40. Armageddon:
41. Henry V: 647
42. Fishing With John: (N/A?)
43. Lord of the Flies:
44. The Red Shoes: 154
45. Taste of Cherry: 410
46. The Most Dangerous Game:
47. Insomnia:
48. Black Orpheus: 667
49. Nights of Cabiria: 176
50. And the Ship Sails On: (2011 list: 949)
51. Brazil: 225

Or, put the other way:

10 Seven Samurai
23 The 400 Blows
25 Andrei Rublev
39 Grand Illusion
49 M
70 The Seventh Seal
77 Amarcord
154 The Red Shoes
176 Nights of Cabiria
186 Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom
225 Brazil
234 Beauty and the Beast
251 The Wages of Fear
246 Nanook of the North
327 High and Low
344 This Is Spinal Tap
391 Alphaville
408 Walkabout
410 Taste of Cherry
447 Great Expectations
488 Dead Ringers
515 Picnic at Hanging Rock
537 The Silence of the Lambs
570 Shock Corridor
573 The Lady Vanishes
624 Diabolique
647 Henry V
667 Black Orpheus
685 The Killer
742 Branded to Kill

2012: 764 Robocop
2011: 949 And the Ship Sails On

None of

7. A Night to Remember
9. Hard Boiled
14, 15, 16. The Samurai Trilogy
18. The Naked Kiss
20. Sid & Nancy
22. Summertime
26. The Long Good Friday
27. Flesh for Frankenstein
28. Blood for Dracula
32. Oliver Twist
37. Time Bandits:
39. Tokyo Drifter
40. Armageddon
43. Lord of the Flies
46. The Most Dangerous Game
47. Insomnia
42. Fishing With John (N/A?)

is invited to the party.

By contrast, here is my personal critical ordering (as done just now with minimal deliberation):

5. The 400 Blows
34. Andrei Rublev
35. Diabolique
51. Brazil
12. This Is Spinal Tap
49. Nights of Cabiria
10. Walkabout
6. Beauty and the Beast
11. The Seventh Seal
42. Fishing With John
4. Amarcord
50. And the Ship Sails On
44. The Red Shoes
1. Grand Illusion
30. M
31. Great Expectations
26. The Long Good Friday
29. Picnic at Hanging Rock
48. Black Orpheus
3. The Lady Vanishes
45. Taste of Cherry
46. The Most Dangerous Game
24. High and Low
2. Seven Samurai
37. Time Bandits
22. Summertime
32. Oliver Twist
19. Shock Corridor
47. Insomnia
36. The Wages of Fear
20. Sid & Nancy
7. A Night to Remember
13. The Silence of the Lambs
39. Tokyo Drifter
9. Hard Boiled
18. The Naked Kiss
38. Branded to Kill
40. Armageddon
14, 15, 16. The Samurai Trilogy
21. Dead Ringers
41. Henry V
8. The Killer
28. Blood for Dracula
43. Lord of the Flies
33. Nanook of the North
23. Robocop
25. Alphaville
27. Flesh for Frankenstein

17. Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom N/A

Comparing this list to the ostensible critical consensus list above, we find that apparently by my estimation, the most overrated of these movies are Nanook of the North and Alphaville, and the most underrated are Diabolique and The Ship Sails On.


But wait, there’s “more.” It remains to reveal why I have chosen to pause for these obsessive festivities at this particular point, after 51 films.

Indulge me this alternate trophy case.


And from the front, tiny:


Those are the original spines and covers of titles 1–51, as they appeared upon release, beginning March 31, 1998, and running through the fall of 1999. These comprise the entirety of the releases designed to Criterion’s first DVD cover template:

TemplateA 000-051

With #52 they introduced the second template, a considerable ensleekening of the same basic idea:

TemplateB 052-341

This lasted until 2006 and #341. #342 is the first title with the third template, the longest-lived and still in use today, courtesy of the all-powerful “Paula Scher of Pentagram”:

TemplateC 342-700+

(If you’re wondering what number they’re up to now: #703 The Freshman was released on March 25.)

To obsess over this a little bit further — which is, after all, what they want us to do: Criterion does not release these exactly in “spine #” order. The numbering is apparently assigned early enough in the production process that delays can cause projects to fall out of order in the queue, sometimes far out of order. As it turns out, one of their longest-delayed titles was #1, Grand Illusion, which was put off for nearly two years because a better film source was located. It didn’t become available until November 1999, around the same time as #62. So its cover wasn’t actually designed until after the second template was already in effect. If you scroll back up you’ll see that it’s different from the rest.

You’ll also see that it has an all-around snazzier cover than most of the other first 51 releases. With the exception of the last of them, the very showy Brazil translucent slipcase 3-disc extravaganza, the packaging design of this first year’s releases does not yet seem to be the priority and hallmark that it has since become for Criterion. Certainly if you go back and look at the laserdiscs that they had been releasing since 1984, the cover designs are completely ordinary.

It seems as though the heavy design investment in the Brazil packaging marked the arrival of a new strategy, and that the sleeker branding of the new template that followed it is another manifestation of the same. To my surprise I can’t find the history of this epochal business decision documented online, despite its obvious geek appeal as a subject, but maybe I just haven’t searched hard enough. Anyway, Steve Jobs gets all these accolades for having made a fortune by betting on design above all; whoever steered Criterion to put its money into art direction was just as inspired, in a distinctly different sort of market. I mean, I don’t know the numbers. I just know that when you go to Barnes & Noble DVD department today, in the age of the digital download, “The Criterion Collection” gets its own aisle, on par with “Comedy” or “Children.” I think it’s the only brand in the entire store that gets treated like a genre unto itself. Design is why.

I have very deeply mixed — well-nigh tortured — feelings about design and its power, and Criterion is a perfect object for them to play on. But to dig into that now would be premature, because we haven’t yet gotten to that era of Criterion’s identity. The all-black spines and the frequently gawky covers seen above are the company in its adolescence, not yet a woman. So I guess I’ll save my sound and fury about design for our next pitstop, 20 years from now.

Suffice it to say, for now, that by the way I am delighting absurdly in ordering these rows of rectangles, and above all in investing myself in the numbered list (oh god yes the numbered list!), I am revealing the psychological opportunity that was essentially dropped in their lap, and that they were savvy enough to seize, but I am also revealing the roots of my ambivalence.

All old news, round these parts.

What remains at present is to address the fact that Criterion has complicated my perfect rows of rectangles by reissuing and redesigning their editions of many of these films, years later, but retaining the same spine numbers. Of the 51 titles above, only 13 are currently in print in the same editions/the same packaging. 14 of the others are simply out of print, generally because rights agreements expired. A full 23 of them were replaced by improved versions: completely new releases in new transfers with new features and new packaging, products of a much later period within the DVD age. Whenever possible I watched the newest and best version — the old ones are, in fact, frequently not of great quality, 1998 having been very early days for DVD. So of course I am going to have enumerate each of them.

To start with the dullest and most pointless: if you totaled up that breakdown in the previous paragraph, you noticed that there is 1 missing. That’s this guy, which mysteriously on later pressings had the second template replace the first on the cover, without anything else about the product changing (as far as I’m aware). Maybe for a minute they considered doing that for all of them, but then decided against it.

box047 box047-2

Next dullest: these here Samurai — remember them? — were gathered into a box set (good call; who’s going to want just part 2?) and got similar template upgrades in the process (plus they eliminated that Papyrus-y title font, of doubtful ethnic sensitivity. Another good call). The box is at right.

box016-set1box016-set2box016-set3 box016-set

Now we move on to the four that were genuinely rereleased in better transfers in the era of the second template, 1999—2006. Since I didn’t start watching my way through these until 2008, I got to see the new and improved editions of each of these four. These new covers are all improvements (though the loss of the 50s title treatment on The 400 Blows is disappointing).

box005 box006 box030 box036
box005-2 box006-2 box030-2 box036-2

(People who are really up on their Criterion OCD will know that there is actually yet another 400 Blows design from this era, as part of the “Antoine Doinel” boxset (spine #185, containing #s 5, 186, 187, 188). But I consider that as merely a component of release #185, only numbered “5” for old time’s sake and never sold individually as such. I thus am not addressing it here. I realize that I may lose some subscribers over this but we have always been guided by principle here at Broomlet. Today’s decision continues that fine tradition. Broomlet proudly embraces the spirit of the 21st century, in which no-one is excluded. However nothing matters more to us than your opinion. We want to hear from you! Please fill out a survey on your way out and let us know if there’s anything we can do to improve your experience.)

When the era of Blu-ray came around and necessitated high-resolution issues of otherwise old products, these same four releases, having already been brought up to a higher standard both internally and externally, simply had to have their designs adapted to current template.

box005-B box006-B box030-B box036-B

However you’ll see that in the case of Beauty and the Beast they did take the opportunity to rework it, using the same basic components for something tonally rather different. This then, I believe, is the single example in their catalog of a title with three different covers: a 90s, 00s, and 10s edition. It can be easy for me to forget how different those three decades have felt, but these Beauty and the Beast covers have it nicely mapped out for me. If I’d seen the 2013 cover back in 1998, I would have thought it looked lopsided and arid and completely uncool, some clueless Soviet stab at elegance. Sterility chic hadn’t yet been invented; I couldn’t yet conceive of the general public, or even the pretentious few, feeling aspiration or desire for bloodlessness, for an icily soothing stasis. Nowadays of course the Apple Store cleantopia is axiomatic, and tweaked or drained color is de rigueur for movies.

That is all a bad thing, right? It seems like a bad thing. But there is another part of me now that thinks the box looks pretty cool and would probably look especially cool next to many other boxes of the same dimensions.

Moving on.

(No wait, before I move on. To be more fair (to me in 1999), I wouldn’t really have thought this looked clueless and Soviet. I would have recognized the asymmetry and cold as notions of high-fashion intellectual-aesthetic stylishness revived from earlier in the 20th century. And I probably would have found that remarkably historically-aware and exciting, the way I felt about Rushmore in 1998: “Wow, the aesthetic vigor of decades past doesn’t have to be dead after all! We can do it all again if we like!” So it wasn’t that I couldn’t yet feel the aesthetic; I just couldn’t yet imagine that in only a decade, Rushmore would have brought about so complete a renovation of popular aesthetics that these same gestures would be rendered completely ahistorical, drained of their vigor, turned into mere anxiousness and compulsion.

Okay, NOW moving on.)

Brazil is now being sold in a single-disc edition (and Blu-Ray) with the third template on a cover that might look like it was completely redesigned. Actually, it’s the same illustration that was always on the first box of the set, once you took it out of the translucent blue slipcase. (Now that you know what to look for, you can sort of see him there, winging it, even in this tiny image.)

box051 box051-3

So here, at last, are the interesting ones, the nineteen (+one box) that were completely upgraded and redesigned after the Pentagram rebranding, at the (still ongoing) height of the company’s fixation on design.

On my screen the width can handle five at a time so I’m doing them five at a time. Hope this looks right for everyone else.

box002 box003 box004 box007 box010
box002-3 box003-3 box004-3 box007-3 box010-3

Of these five, I saw the new version only of Amarcord. A Night to Remember and Walkabout weren’t reissued until after I’d watched them, but I do regret not having taken the time to seek out the superior editions of Seven Samurai and The Lady Vanishes, neither of which looked too hot on the old editions that I watched. Those are the only cases where I watched an old version by negligence rather than necessity. But there’s no time to look back now; not when I still have 650 titles to go.

box011 box016-set1box016-set2box016-set3 box016-set
box011-3 box016set2-1box016set2-2box016set2-3 box016set2

The Samurai Trilogy, you’ll be happy to hear, is now only sold as a set. I missed out on all of these reissues, unfortunately.

box017 box018 box019 box024 box035
box017-3 box018-3 box019-3 box024-3 box035-3

The two Samuel Fuller titles with the new Daniel Clowes covers I missed out on, too. The rest I got to see in their new versions. (Well, except I opted out of Salo. But it was the new version that I opted out of.)

box038 box039 box043 box044 box048
box038-3 box039-3 box043-3 box044-3 box048-3

All of these I watched recently enough to get to see the updated versions.

That’s it. You made it!

So here at the bottom I’d like to announce: going forward I’m going to include the cover in each of my Criterion posts. The covers are irrelevant to the films but very important to what’s going on here. Whether I like it or not.

Update! on the occasion of preparing the post for #52–100.

It’s three horrible years later and naturally Criterion has seen fit to revisit a few titles from spines #1–51 in that time, meaning that the rundown of the cover designs is now less than exhaustive. Naturally I’m going to rectify that.

box020 box029 box037 box047-2
box020-3 box029-3 box037-3 box047-3

Soothing, isn’t it.