COMMENTARY ON THE BEST AMERICAN MOVIE
Several current tidbits of media news are worthy of comment. In my last piece I mentioned the first exposé on the new CNN/Time TV newsmagazine, about the US using nerve gas in Vietnam. The second exposé was about how badly they screwed up on the first. Then there's the story that AT&T is buying TCI, the nation's largest and least-liked cable TV company. If AT&T wanted to get into cable TV in the worst way, they succeeded. And of course movie and early TV star Roy Rogers passed away. I used to watch Roy, Dale, Trigger, Buttermilk, and Bullet each week, but I always enjoyed sidekicks Pat Buttram and Gabby Hayes more.
What I really want to talk about is the publication by the American Film Institute of 100 Years, 100 Movies, its list of the 100 greatest American films. Any organization pompous enough to make such a pronouncement deserves criticism, and it's easy to quibble with the contents. For example, there are three Charlie Chaplin films but not a single one featuring the two funniest people who ever lived, W.C. Fields and Peter Sellers. But why waste time on the cheap shots. Let's go right to the top of the list.
According to AFI, and its blue-ribbon panel of 1500 silly, twisted souls, the finest American movie of all time is Citizen Kane, the 1941Orson Welles drama which is a thinly veiled biography of William Randolph Hearst. It's a monumental epic about the rise and fall of a tycoon, mostly through his own efforts. Plus it's a textbook on deep focus, cross cutting, mise en scène, lighting, camera angles and a wide range of cinematic technique. It should be no surprise that Citizen Kane was named the best. It's been at the top of many such lists over the past 50 years or so. The only problem with the choice is it doesn't belong there.
I've seen Citizen Kane, and I'm sure most of you have. Now let's be honest. How many of you would rush out to see it again? After the first time through, it loses its fascination for the general audience and becomes a exhibit for screenwriters and filmmakers. Is that the mark of a great movie? I think not. In fact Citizen Kane is not even Orson Welles' best film. A Touch of Evil is.
A film noir in a stark border town where the Mexican narc is squeaky clean and honest and the American sheriff is grubby and corrupt, A Touch of Evil is superficially a crime drama. Underneath, however, lies a tragic allegory of Shakespearean proportions. Beginning with an amazing continuous crane shot, Welles directs the audience through the Hellish environment, past the people who survive in it, to the denouement in a cesspool by an oil field. He complements his astounding portrayal of the sheriff by coaxing career performances out of Janet Leigh, Marlene Dietrich, and Charlton Heston. For a while you even forget he's Charlton Heston. Some old pals like Joseph Cotton and Zsa Zsa Gabor dropped by the set so Welles wrote them in on the spot. There are plenty of typecast character actors and a classy Henry Mancini score, pulsating with raunchy rock 'n' roll, wild Latin exotica, and tinkling player piano. It's a fun 108 minutes.
So my advice to AFI and the rest of the critics is to put Citizen Kane in a museum where it belongs. Meanwhile fix me a big bowl of popcorn, crack open a few Dr. Peppers, slide A Touch of Evil in the VCR and let's enjoy a good movie for a change. You may even want to watch it again.