The Influence of Citizen Kane

When a movie is considered the greatest film of all-time, a person sees the film with an almost impossible level of expectations. This was my experience with Orson Welles’s 1941 masterpiece Citizen Kane. While I recognize the high quality of the film, there is no possible way it could live up to the hype. With as much praise as Citizen Kane has received, it is bound to inspire parodies, imitation, and influence. While completely revolutionary at the time, many of the practices that Welles conveys have become standards.

Citizen Kane has been so embedded in film and in pop culture history that I felt like I have seen the movie before even watching it. Rosebud being the childhood sled of Charles Foster Kane is a staple of pop culture trivia and thus giving away the ending. Citizen Kane has been parodied in several different forms including the Simpsons episode ‘Rosebud,’ where Mr. Burns fills in Kane. The episode draws directly on several scenes from the movie including the snow globe beginning, Kane’s adoption, and the use of the “He is a Man” song.

Citizen Kane is the story of the corruption of a soul that is driven into isolation from the world. A man, who is so filled with optimism and idealism, he feels he can morph the world to match his views. A man who created a media empire with the purpose of having people like and respect him. If we look at the plot of the movie from this stand point, we can see a great deal of similarities between Citizen Kane and last year’s Social Network. Social Network, which also uses a non-linear narrative to convey the failed friendship between Mark Zuckerburg and Eduardo mirrors the relationship between Kane and Leland. Also, both main characters in the respective movies create to receive admiration. Kane wants the world to love him, while Zuckerburg wants to fit in.

A major influence of the film would be in the cinematography. The film uses numerous high and low angles. Kane’s power is illustrated throughout the film using low angles. Weaker characters like his second wife Susan are portrayed with high angles. To a viewer in the 1940’s this must have been completely bizarre to half a film incorporate so many camera angles into a film. Today it is still uncommon to have as many angles but it viewed as less experimental in a modern movie. Also, the camera uses distance throughout the film. The isolation of Xanadu is shown through the long shots used in those scenes accompanied with an echo when characters are speaking. Again, this is something that due to Citizen Kane’s influence is probably used more in modern films.

It is easy to see Citizen Kane as an overrated film, but almost impossible to not recognize Welles unique vision. For me, the real thrill of watching Citizen Kane was not just in story, but in its influence to pop culture.

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Blaxplotation and film noir in Jackie Brown (1997)

Quentin Tarantino has long been dedicated to create movies based on the films he loves and will commonly combine two separate genres to create a highbred film. In his 1997 film, Jackie Brown, Quentin Tarantino pays homage to two unique genres; film noir and blaxplotation. While these two genres are not entirely separate, Tarantino divides these film types through the two protagonists, Jackie Brown and Max Cherry.

As a fan of blaxplotation films from the 70’s and 80’s there are certain characteristics that define the genre. While I have not seen all of the films in the genre, I have seen most of the classics. The most notable are Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song, Shaft, Domlemite, Superfly, Across 110th Street, Coffy, and Foxy Brown. The clear attribute that characterizes blaxplotation is that the plots and characters are centered around African Americans. The protagonists are always black and the plots will often mirror social struggles of the day. The stories will regularly consist of the protagonists fighting against the man, a white villain who represents the establishment. Another feature of blaxplotations are the soundtracks which regularly use funk, soul, and R&B. The most notable are Isaac Hayes’s “Theme from Shaft,” Curtis Mayfield’s classic social album Superfly, and Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street.” The movies also share many characteristics with classic film noirs.  A film like Shaft, one of the most well known and reviewed blaxplotation films, can be classified as a film noir. The settings of both genres are inner-city and will frequently depict urban decay. The urban decay of blaxplotation is often conveyed through themes of poverty, prostitution, drugs, post war anxiety, and racism. The films also share many stock characters. For example, protagonists like Shaft and Dolemite are very much hard boiled detectives.

When you watch the opening scene of Jackie Brown, it is clear that Tarantino is drawing upon classic blaxplotation films. We open the film with a tile screen with the opening credits emerging. In the background is Bobby Womack’s classic blaxplotation anthem “Across 110th Street.” The song is also played during the end of the film which suggests a circular motion which is common in film noir. As the scene progresses we see our title character, Jackie Brown. Jackie Brown is played by Pam Grier, an actress who received fame while staring in blaxplotation films like Coffy and Foxy Brown. The name Jackie Brown is probably influenced by her previous film Foxy Brown.  The two title characters also are working women who barely get through and are thrown into violent circumstances. The racial social message of Jackie Brown is less blatant than blaxplotation movies of the past. While watching the film, you are under the impression that Jackie is restricted due to moving up in social class due to race and gender. Besides using “Across 110th Street,” Tarantino’s choice of soundtrack mirrors blaxplotation. When Ordell and Beaumont are walking outside, a funky base is present, which is similar to scenes used in Superfly.

The other protagonist in the film is Max Cherry, who takes on the form of classic film noir protagonists. Max Cherry can be defined as a standard protagonist at a disadvantage. He is quiet but also strong in nature. While watching I felt as though Max does not belong in the L.A. environment. In the L.A. environment, he seems very lonely and his one friend is his employee. Max is controlled by obsession and completely idolizes Jackie. From Max’s point of view, Jackie can be considered a femme fatal. He idolizes her and his obsession almost lead to his death. He buys and listens to her music, the Delfonics, when in the car. In the end of the movie he moves on from his obsession and the two characters separate. The two protagonists represent both genres of film, which blend together in terms of story.

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The Femme Fatale in Body Heat (1981)

The mystique of the femme fatale has long been a defining characteristic of film noir and 1981’s Body Heat is no exception. Our main character, Ned, has fallen victim to the lust filled trap of our femme fatale, Matty. While we have seen the ruthlessness of femme fatales previously in class, especially with Phyllis Dietrichson, none have been as clever as Matty. What separates Matty from all of the other femme fatales of the 40’s and 50’s is the level of intelligence she uses and the amount of sexuality she exhibits.

To quote Teddy in the movie “Anytime you try a decent crime, there is 50 ways you can fuck up. If you think of 25 of them you’re a genius and you ain’t no genius.” Throughout the movie Matty is able to manipulate and control her plan that makes you believe she thought of just about 25 ways, which elevates her to the level of genius. When first watching, it feels as though the plan to murder Matty’s husband is purely the idea of Ned.  In Double Indemnity, it appears that Neff and Phyllis arrive at the decision to kill her husband together. The part that makes Matty so powerful is that she makes Ned feel as though the murder is entirely his idea, when actually she planted the idea in his head. It feels as though she scouted him out from the very beginning the intent of using him for this murder.

From the first time they meet, we see that Ned is wrapped around Matty’s fingertips. She comes in wearing a white dress, which portrays her in an angelic form. Their conversation is flirty, as she teases him then shooting him down. It is clear that Matty has the upper hand, and in some ways emasculates him.  He follows her to prove his masculinity when it comes under attacked. Part of the initial attraction to Matty is her sexuality. She teases and we are under the impression that she is not faithful. Ned is clearly motivated by lust and by his desire to prove his masculinity, which is exactly what Matty wants. His lust blinds him from seeing the world that is in front him.

The first time we see them really connect, is the scene where Ned throws the chair through the window of the house. This is really the turning point of the film. The window represents several barriers for each character and as it breaks so do those barriers. For Ned this is the moment where his sexual desires express themselves. Interesting enough, the act of sexual passion is combined with the violent act. This combination is exactly what Matty wants. For Matty, it shows that she has chosen the right man to perform her plan. It means that she not only recognizes the violence that Ned is capable of, but also the amount of power she has over him.

Despite the fact that she is portrayed as a femme fatal throughout the film it is not until after the murder that we truly see just how intelligent she really is. We see this when we find out that she altered the original will. Matty intentionally revised it so terribly that it would then become void and the money will go to the widow. This shows that she has a complex understanding of the law and would sacrifice Ned’s professional career for money. In addition, this also puts a great deal of suspicion on both characters.

Towards the end we see her plan in full context. From the best of my understanding, Matty and Mary Anne switched identities. She married her husband with the intent of killing her and taking his money by using Ned to have an affair with. She used Ned because she thought he was weak and unintelligent, and for the most part she was right. The next step in the plan is to kill Ned and Mary Anne, making everyone believe that they had died. The only variable that she overlooked in her incredibly complex plan is just how competent Ned was. Although the only reason Ned really survives is the compassion of a career arsonist, he is eventually able to decipher her plan at the end of the movie. The only problem is that it is too late for him to act.

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The Redemption of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976)

In many film noirs our protagonists are on a quest for redemption, and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver is no exception. Our main character, Travis Bickle, is haunted by the isolating and corrupt New York City landscape. One particular event that resonates with Travis is when Iris enters his Taxi cab and he watches as she is dragged out helplessly back into the slums of New York. As the movie progresses we are given a violent and surreal ending that portrays Travis as a vigilante hero in his quest to save Iris.

For Travis, the only way redemption can be accomplished is through violence, which culminates in a blood filled conclusion. The potential for immense bloodshed builds up throughout the movie, until it explodes with an onslaught of gun shots. Besides the illegal purchase of various guns and the shooting of a thief, there is a visual motif that hints at the shootout. As Travis and Isis have more and more encounters the more prevalent the color red is. When Travis hires Isis, both of these characters are wearing red clothing and are in a reddish colored apartment. When they meet in the diner Travis is wearing a red flannel, Iris is wearing a reddish shirt, and in the background there are multiple red items. The red foreshadows the blood that will fall on Travis’s path to redemption.

Travis’s quest to be a hero in a setting of urban decay mimics that of J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. The first similarity is in the setting, which is New York City. In this city, the main characters have trouble adapting to sleazy environments that surrounds them. These two cynical characters have encounters with prostitutes, only they do not to have sex with them. The most striking similarity is in their mission to save a young girl’s innocence from the impure world. It is clear that the characters of Phoebe and Iris are mirrors of each other, which possesses innocence that Holden and Travis want to respectfully protect.

After the shootout, the story takes a turn into the surreal. Whether the ending is real or a fictional portrayal of Travis’s ideal imagination can be debated. The story has been consistently presented as a reliable narrative, and a switch to unreliable narration would be a strange twist. This would suggest that the ending is real. More likely, the ending is a romanticized version of Travis’s ideal version of the events. It is unlikely that Travis will be billed as a hero by the papers, be able to continue to work without criminal charges, and be able to have a conversation with his idealized beauty, Debby. It is also suggested that it is fantasy by the wooden reading of a letter by Iris’s parents. Martin Scorsese uses the same open ended conclusion in the dark comedy The King of Comedy, which also stars Robert Deniro. In that movie we are unsure if the main character, Rupert Pupkin, has truly become a comedy icon or if it is all in his head.

Whether the ending is real or not does not matter to Travis. In his mind he has achieved redemption by saving Iris and ridding the world of some of its slim. Our last shot is him adjusting his mirrors from his eyes, which represents what’s in front of him, to the city, which represents him putting the past behind him. In the end Travis is putting the city in his rearview window, as he leaves fully redeemed in his mind.

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Acting of the Major Charecters in Klute (1971)

The times, technology, and social attitude may have changed, but the paranoia from the post war era still remains in 1971’s Klute. In Klute we have three main characters, Peter Cable, John Klute, and Bree Daniels. Despite their numerous differences, they all share one particular characteristic. Throughout the movie these three characters are acting. By this I mean that the person who they portray themselves as in public is not necessarily who they are in private.

The character who most displays acting is our villain, Peter Cable. From our opening shot, we see Peter blending in with the soon to be murder Tom, his family, and Klute around a dinner table. He is all smiles on the surface, but deep down something diabolical brews. After the murder and the official police investigation, Peter hires Klute to privately investigate the case. This continues his ploy to act humanly despite his diabolical ways. Peter clearly lives a luxurious lifestyle, complete with a fancy office, a helicopter and a plethora of other resources. Underneath the glitz and glamour is a man with psychotic and sexually deviant behavior. He engages in fetishes with prostitutes, he stalks Bree, he records her voice, he murders several people, and he tries to cover it up by assuming the role as a well respected man of the community. Peter represses his deviance by acting like a successful businessman and will kill his friend to protect that image.

Along with actually being a struggling actor, Bree acts throughout the movie. Bree, as opposed to Peter operates on and uses her sexuality. While Peter hides his sexual urges in public, Bree uses hers for advancement, being that she is a prostitute. When Bree acts in everyday life, it is to cover up her paranoia. She pretends to be strong in daily life to conceal her weaknesses and fears. Bree faces judgment everyday in the acting world, and in some ways turns to prostitution as a way to feel secure. Bree is also very isolated in her single apartment before Klute shows up, despite the fact that she lives in a bustling city and is in a people business. In addition Bree is stalked by Peter throughout the film, adding to her paranoia. The only person to whom Bree can clearly open up to is her psychiatrist. She tells her psychiatrists that she only really feels comfortable when engaging with a client. This is similar to Peter, who only shows his real self when engaging in sexual activity. The choice of her being an actor could be an intentional way to draw parallels between her dream job and how Bree acts in public.

The hardest character to interpret is our title character, John Klute. Klute is a quite man, who feels like a fish out of water in the lively New York City environment. When Klute acts, it is mostly early on in the film, regarding Bree. He tries to ignore her sexual advances, but eventually falls to his urges after she visits him vulnerable in the middle of the night. In their first prolonged encounter, Klute even goes as far as to tell her to stop undressing to avoid sexual tension. Eventually he is involved in a weird father daughter relationship, but also a sexual one with Bree. When Klute acts it is only really in the beginning of the film, and that is to avoid complicating the investigation with sexual feelings.

The reason why most of these characters act is that they are unable to adapt to their environment. This is suggested through the end of the film when Bree packs up and leaves New York City, for a more suitable location. The theme of people covering up who they really are is suggested throughout Klute, especially in the characters of Peter, Bree, and Klute. While only during sexual encounters is the real personality evident. To paraphrase Bree’s voice recording, “Sometimes we just need to let it out,” can be seen as an overarching theme of the movie.

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The Infamous Tracking Shot in Touch Of Evil (1958)

In class we have seen a wide variety of unique opening sequences, but few are done with as much precision as the opening to Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil. The opening sequence is a three minute tracking shot set in a busy Mexican street that ends across the border into America. Through a three minute continuous shot, Welles was able to create an experimental beginning that establishes various themes for the rest of the movie.

The shot itself is a perfectly choreographed dance that is captured by a camera which moves throughout the streets. The movie begins with a clock attached with dynamite in the hands of an unknown assailant. This provides a running clock for the scene to take place. When the clock runs out of time, the car explodes and the sequence ends. The music in the background is one with horns and a steady Latin beat in the background, which sounds like the ticking of a clock. The bomb is set and placed in the trunk of a convertible, and the camera is elevated as a couple approaches the car. The couple turns on the car and radio as the camera continues to rise. Playing on the radio is a song that is heavy with electric guitars and contradicts with the Latin sound of the streets. The camera views the car pull through an ally way from roof level. It is then brought lower again as the car is stopped by a crossing guard. The car stops as the camera continues to role backwards with pedestrians and a cart are pushed passed the intersection.  Further ahead is the next crossing guard, and where are protagonists are first seen.

As Mr. and Mrs. Vargas walk, the Latin music is now restored. The pair walks hand and hand blending in with the various other people. The car with the bomb inside of it passes for a second and the electric guitars from the radio are restored. Mar. and Mrs. Vargas are able to almost dance through other pedestrians and traffic without changing their pace. The scene changes as we get to the border. As Mr. Vargas has a conversation with a border officer, the car explodes. This turns the peaceful well choreographed world into running chaos and ending the three minute tracking shot.

There is a clear change in the attitude of the streets after the explosion in the movie, which remains until the closing credits role. The explosion has thrown off the normality between the relationships of the two places. The people and vehicles that interweaved so flawlessly into each other do not flow well as they intersect. As people run to see the burning wreckage of the car, they often bump into each other as they scamper aimlessly behind Mr. Vargas. On the other side of the border we see Mrs. Vargas almost get hit by a car as she leaves the corner of the street. Through this short opening we become aware that the status quo is broken by the explosion.

In the opening we are also given a bit of a dynamic between the two sides of the border. While it appears that people cross the border frequently and with ease, there is a bit of distinction made between the two cultures. This is most notable through the sound of each place. Mexico is represented by the Latin rhythm with heavy horns while America is represented by a blaring electric sound. Mexico is seen as a place with a strong nightlife filled with sin. The first sign you see in the film neon liquor sign. While America, although rarely shown in the introduction is seen as desolate but formal.

The introduction to this movie is truly a unique beginning to a film. Many other films in the future would try to emulate or may have been influenced by this tracking shot. Quentin Tarantino uses tracking shots in many of his films and Martin Scorsese famously used one in Goodfellas. Probably the most influenced by this shot would be the opening scene of Boogie Nights, where all the major characters where introduced through tracking shot.

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Pandora’s Nuclear Box in Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

In Greek mythology, the story of Pandora’s Box tells about how all the evil in the universe was released. Pandora was told not to open the box for any reason. Of course, Pandora’s curiosity got the best of her, and all the evil was released from the box onto the world. This myth, fused with cold war paranoia, stands at the heart of the 1955 film Kiss Me Deadly. In Kiss Me Deadly, director Robert Aldrich uses the story of Pandora’s box to create an anti nuclear message in the nihilistic conclusion of the movie.

Towards the last thirty minutes of Kiss Me Deadly, the film takes an almost supernatural turn. The object that everybody is after is a leather briefcase at the bottom of a Hollywood gym looker. The object itself is perfectly cubical and emits a great deal of heat. Curious, our anti-hero Mike Hammer peaks inside the contents of the box. As he lifts the lid, an intense blinding light is given off, with what sounds to be screams coming from the inside of the box. This is reminiscent of the glow coming from the suitcase in 1994’s Pulp Fiction. After receiving burns from the box, Hammer seals it back up. While we still do not know what is inside of it, we do know that is dangerous. The heat, the bright glow, and screaming are all common characteristics that we associate with hell. It is clear that Aldrich is trying to create similarities between the contents of the box and hell.

As we move forward, we find out that the mysterious box is somehow connected to “Manhattan Project, Los Alamos, trinity.” This is trying to draw comparison to a possible man made nuclear device that’s detonation is the opening of the box. The box is being held by Dr. Soberin in his beach house and is being sold to the highest bidder. It is not Dr. Soberin’s intention to bring about the end of the world, only to make money. This is evident by his dying words “you must not open the box.” He like many of the other characters, including Hammer, is over come by greed.

The box then winds its way into the hands of femme fatal Lily. She obtains the box after shooting Dr. Soberin because she cannot receive the profit she feels she is entitled to. She despite, Dr. Soberin’s warnings opens the box completely. Steam rises from the box as Lily produces an ear rattling scream. Soon, fire engulfs her as a wounded Hammer crawls into the ocean with Thelma. Wild lights, smoke, and what sounds like screams come from the house until it completely explodes. The two embrace in uncertainty as all the evil in the world is released by Pandora’s Box.

The box is opened due to greed and curiosity. Greed got the box into the wrong hands, and curiosity opened it. It is clear that Aldrich believes that such danger, similar to nuclear devices, in the hands of man is too hazardous. The opening of the box is similar to the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, where the device that the protagonist searches for is beyond the capacity of mankind. During the 1950’s, when Kiss Me Deadly was made, cold war paranoia was at a high due to the nuclear arms race. Although the mysterious science fiction like device in the film is not revealed, it is clear that it represents the newly discovered nuclear weapons.

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