Historical Circuit: Citizen Kane (****)

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Let me be clear before I begin writing this and you begin reading…I do not believe for one minute that Citizen Kane (1941) is the greatest American film ever made.  Cue the howls of protest now please. Sorry.

Though the American Film Institute has twice voted the film such, in 1997 and again in 2007, and the annual poll conducted by Sight and Sound states the same, I think other films have gone past the film in terms of their brilliance, namely The Godfather: Part II (1974), The Godfather (1972), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), The Wizard of Oz (1939), Schindler’s List (1993), Raging Bull (1980), and The Searchers (1956) to name a few.  My opinion does not bring into the mix that Citizen Kane (1941) is not among the greatest films ever made, (it is), and it might be the most innovative film ever made, changing the way directors made their movies forever, but greatest of all time?  Nope.

That said and out of the way, let’s get down to celebrating the 70th anniversary of this extraordinary film, available now on Blu-Ray for the first time, the first film from 24 year-old director and wunderkind Orson Welles, who also co-wrote the film and starred in the picture as Kane.  Brash and brilliant, Welles was a sensation on Broadway and then on radio with his famous War of the Worlds broadcast, which enticed RKO to bring him to Hollywood to make a movie. Offered the chance to make anything he wanted, the boy wonder initially was going to make a film out of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but instead chose to make Kane after meeting William Randolph Hearst, the famous publishing magnate who owned most of the nation’s newspapers.  Very quietly Welles went off to make his film, sharing the writing with Herman J. Mankiewicz, neither of them ever admitting that they were creating a film about Hearst.  Originally the picture was to be called simply American, but that self-important title was cast aside in favor of the one that is now legend.

More interesting than the film itself are the countless innovations and storytelling techniques Welles brought into the mix in making the film.  For instance at a time when films were told with a beginning, middle and an end, he begins at the end of his character’s life.  Kane (Welles) sitting alone in his bedroom whispers “Rosebud” drops the snow globe and dies.  There is no one in the room with him, so he dies as he lived for the most part, utterly isolated and alone.  The film then becomes a study of Kane’s life told in a fractured narrative with time bent as the reporter goes on his search (which becomes ours) to find out the meaning of “Rosebud.”

An iconic shot...

We learn he was born into poverty, but his mother gives him away to a wealthy banker after striking rich.  Taken from his snowbound home, the boy leaves with his new guardian, though is none too happy about it.  He will bounce in and out of different schools, proving brilliant but troublesome.  The only work that interests him in his many holdings is a newspaper, which he decides will speak for the common man.  Kane marries, but the marriage slowly dissolves, leading him into a relationship with a younger singer, which his wife discovers on the eve of an election.  Running for governor, Kane is ruined when his opponent tells his wife, and threatens scandal.  Though plagued with scandal and tragedy, his first wife and young son are killed in a car accident not long after his divorce, Kane will never be truly happy.  He is searching for something he lost a long time ago, and even he does not necessarily know what it is.  Of course we do…or we think we do.  Torn away from his childhood, Kane searches for his lost youth, for his happiness, and he tells us that when he first encounters his second wife, Susan Alexander, telling her in almost a throwaway line that he is going through his mother’s belongings in search of something.  We come to learn that “Rosebud” itself represents that lost youth.

Welles was brand-new to movie making so to him there were no rules, everything was up for changing.  Among the many innovations within the film are the broken narrative, the use of deep focus cinematography, meaning everything in the frame is visible and clear to us, the superb use of sound (more on that), the use of art direction and camera angles to suggest character, the stunning use of editing to suggest the passing of time, and of course the documentary created for the film’s opening in which Kane’s life is told in a newsreel.

Where to start?  How about the editing?  There is a magnificent sequence in which Kane is sitting at a table with his new bride, they sit close and whisper to one another.  Then over a few seconds, we see their marriage fall apart as they get further and further apart at that table, there is less talk, tension, a vicious anti-sematic remark from her and finally silence with her reading the rival paper published in the city and not her husband’s.  Years fly past, and yet simple placement, dialogue (or lack of it) and performance allow us to see the complete failure of their marriage.

All this happens in a matter of seconds. The second moment happens earlier in the film as the young Kane unwraps a Christmas gift from his guardian who says “Merry Christmas,” cut to an older Kane, “and a Happy New Year” as his now aged guardian speaks to the adult Kane about his business.  Twenty years are gone in a heartbeat, and yet the cut is logical and perfect.  The final moment occurs as Kane and his friend look at a photo of the best reporters in town, writing for the other paper. We close in on the photograph, a sound of a flash goes off and Kane walks into the scene, having hired the men away from his rival, something that took him seven years.  No silly title cards, just words and cutting to suggest how time relentlessly marches on.

Look at the political rally and the choice of shots while Kane is speaking. He looks enormous, larger than life as he speaks to the masses. The director believed that like the stage, presence could be suggested by a look, and film, being so intimate allowed such a thing to happen in a single cut.  Yes when he is running for office Kane looks larger than life, just as towards the end of his life alone in his castle; he looks small and utterly alone.  At one point we see him walk past a fireplace that you could park a Buick in and he looks tiny.  What is fascinating about the political rally is that though the building looks to be teeming with people, the only live actors in the shot are those on the stage.

Being from radio he understood inherently the impact of sound, this we have trumpets and noise at the beginning of the newsreel about him, brash music through the first third of the film, and then things get terribly quiet as he ages and becomes alone with his memories and pain.

Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten gave sensational performances in Citizen Kane.

Of course the film is flawed, because sharp viewers and film buffs know that no one hears him say “Rosebud.”  That’s right; his dying word is not heard despite being the very plot device that sets the entire story in motion.  His butler claims to have heard him, but he was not first into the room, the nurse was, and the doors were thick, without a chance a whisper could be heard.  There are a couple of other flaws as well, though not the fault of Welles.  Sharp-eyed viewers will see a prehistoric bird with webbed wings fly into the frame and out during a party sequence on the beach while in another sequence a model of a bird meant to be alive has no eyes and we can see daylight on the other side.  Quibbles, quibbles I know, but it is believed all masterpieces are flawed.

What is not flawed is Welles astounding performance as Kane, a performance that has him age sixty years convincingly.  He is the arrogant and brash young man of the people, brought down by his own pride, finally left alone to die isolated and haunted by his deeds.  That Welles captured Kane as an old man was remarkable because many young actors have tried and failed to play older. Remember James Dean in Giant (1956)?  Terrible as the older Jett, superb as young Jett.  Welles is superb throughout and of all the Oscars he should have won, Best Actor to me is the one he most deserved, though his direction of the film is sublime.  Look how he moves as Kane, throughout the film, full of energy at the beginning, barely able to sit still, but finally, motionless in a wheelchair at the end, abandoned by everyone he ever loved, or allowed to love him.  Nominated for nine Academy Awards, the film won just one for its superb screenplay.

Welles never made another film of this magnitude, though he worked for the rest of his life on various film projects, finishing some such as The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) which was subsequently butchered by the studio, and Touch of Evil (1958).  He was active in television and the voice of many fine wines through the seventies. Acting jobs here and there and on other films paid the rent for him, and often as he did in Moby Dick (1956) he stole the film right from under the stars.

The DVD contains many of the features that were on the previous anniversary edition, along with the Oscar-nominated documentary about the film.

A masterpiece, no question, just not the best of all time.  How many films has this influenced?  Too many to count.

  • Jim Wilson

    I appreciate the technical mastery at hand, but Citizen Kane mostly leaves me cold. I’ve watched it twice and definitely enjoyed it more the second time, so perhaps it will grow on me. Nicely done John.