In May 1941, the great Otis Ferguson was half-and-half on Citizen Kane — down on his knees for the genius-level landmark stuff (especially Gregg Toland‘s cinematography) but irked by “talk and more talk,’ or what he regarded as such.
Ferguson excerpt: “I believe we can look at the picture, and of course have been told to wait for that. The picture. The new art. The camera unbound. The picture is very exciting to anyone who gets excited about how things can be done in the movies; and the many places where it takes off like the Wright brothers should be credited to Welles first and his cameraman second (Herman J. Mankiewicz as writing collaborator should come in too).
“The Kubla Khan setting, the electioneering stage, the end of the rough-cut in the Marsh of Thyme projection room, the kid outside the window in the legacy scene, the opera stage, the dramatics of the review copy on opening night…the whole idea of a man in these attitudes must be credited to Welles himself.
“And in these things there is no doubt the picture is dramatic. But what goes on between the dramatic high points, the story? No. What goes on is talk and more talk. And while the stage may stand for this, the movies don’t. And where a cameraman like Gregg Toland can be every sort of help to a director, in showing him what will pick up, in getting this effect or that, in achieving some lifting trick the guy has thought up, the cameraman still can’t teach him how shoot and cut a picture, even if he knows how himself. It is a thing that takes years and practice to learn.
“And its main problem always is story, story, story — or, How can we do it to them so they don’t know beforehand that it’s being done? Low-key photography won’t help, except in the case of critics. Crane shots and pan shots, funny angles like showing the guy as though you were lying down at his feet, or moving in over him on the wings of an angel, won’t help. Partial lighting won’t help, or even blacking out a face or figure won’t help, though it may keep people puzzled. Tricks and symbols never really [amount] to much.
“The real art of movies concentrates on getting the right story and the right actors, the right kind of production and then smoothing everything out. And after that, in figuring how each idea can be made true, how each action can be made to happen, how you cut and reverse-camera and remake each minute of action, and run it into a line afterwards, like the motion in the ocean.
“Does this picture do this? See some future issue when I have the time to say it doesn’t, [not] quite.”