Citizen Kane

  • Title:  Citizen Kane
  • Director:  Orson Welles
  • Date:  1941
  • Studio:  RKO Radio Pictures
  • Genre:  Classic, Drama
  • Cast:  Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten
  • Format:  Standard, black and white
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC  (2-disc Special Edition)

“One item on your list intrigues me, the New York Inquirer, a little newspaper I understand we acquired in a foreclosure proceeding, please don’t sell it, I’m coming back to America to take charge, I think it would be fun to run a newspaper.”  — Charles Foster Kane 

“The trouble is you don’t realize you’re talking to two people. As Charles Foster Kane who owns 82,364 shares of Public Transit Preferred, you see I do have a general idea of my holdings, I sympathize with you, Charles Foster Kane is a scoundrel, his papers should be run out of town, a committee should be formed to boycott him, you may, if you can form such a committee, put me down for a contibution of  $1000. … On the other hand, I am the publisher of  the Inquirer, as such it is my duty, and I’ll let you in on a little secret, it’s also my pleasure to see to it that decent, hardworking people in this community aren’t robbed blind by a pack of money-mad pirates just because they haven’t anybody to look after their interests!” — Charles Foster Kane

Citizen Kane is thought by many film critics and historians to be the best film ever made. Personally, I think that honor should go to Casablanca… but anyway. Citizen Kane is an odd film – the direction is incredible, and the shots, angles, tricks with shots, use of lighting, shadows, mirrors, are incredible. In fact, I’d say if you’re one of the people who doesn’t like Citizen Kane, I’d suggest try watching it with the sound off, just to notice the picture more.

However, it is true that there aren’t really any sympathetic characters in this movie. Kane, who is vaguely sympathetic when he starts out as the crusading newspaper publisher, also starts a war for his own aggrandizement and to sell papers (Kane even paraphrases the famous William Randolph Hearst quote, “You provide the pictures, I’ll provide the war.” More about Hearst later.) His personal life is in shambles, but not in a way that the audience can sympathize with – we know both of his wives left him, and his first wife died in a car accident along with his son. We know he was more or less sold off by his parents and raised by a banker and boarding schools, though with a silver spoon in his mouth, so to speak, without real love.

We’re not really sympathetic to the reporter who’s trying to discover the meaning of Kane’s last word either. Though the non-linear story-telling was probably revolutionary at the time (1941), now audiences are much more accustomed to even more complicated methods of explaining the plot. So the reporter’s running around interviewing old friends, acquaintances and ex-lovers of Kane’s seems more like a device for structure. I don’t even remember the reporter’s name – if he has one. And “Rosebud” is a verbal McGuffin, that is, “the thing everyone in the film is looking for – that may or may not be found.” In this case, only the audience learns that “Rosebud” is his sled.

Which brings me to the point of what the movie is about. As Kane’s life crumbles, his first marriage growing colder and colder, until she finally leaves, taking his son, and subsequently dying – he begins to acquire more and more – not only building his newspaper and radio empire, but buying statues, art, even parts of castles. In my opinion, this buying spree represents two things – the habit of the nouveau riche of buying expensive things to impress others, whether or not they like looking at them or even know anything about the art they are buying. And second, Kane’s obsession with a need to possess.  Whether it’s for a sense of security, or only a way of lording it over those who don’t have what he has, or even simply an attempt to be accepted in the highest circles of the wealthy is completely unknown and unanswered in the film.

Kane’s second wife is no better – she quickly becomes rude, screeching, mean-spirited, and even cruel, though in truth Kane responds in kind. Susan never seems to appreciate what Kane does for her (he did after all, build her an Opera house and a palace) but he’s also doing things that he thinks will impress her or make her happy, rather than what she wants. In the end, though it appears Kane married both women for love – in the end, neither loved him.

So Kane ends up, all alone, in his stately pleasure dome of Xanadu, probably pretty miserable, surrounded by his art treasures which are for the most part, still in their packing crates. It’s the ultimate story of stuff and things not being as important as love, living life, and caring about friends and family.

And Rosebud? I think besides being his sled, it represents the last time Charles Foster Kane was truly happy.

Course besides the incredible, incredible direction, the perfect use of shadow and light, contrast, basically just really, really good black and white photography, and the incredible shots and images (the breaking of the glass snowball, Kane towering over Susan, the increasing table size and growing physical distance representing the increasing coldness in Kane and Emily’s marriage, the row of Kanes as he passed the mirrored archway in his palace, etc., etc.) and then there’s also the famous “controversy” about Citizen Kane.

William Randolph Hearst hated the movie. He saw it as a direct insult to him, his wife, and his girlfriend, and set out to destroy the film and almost succeeded. Being a newspaper tycoon – he ordered bad reviews in all his papers (still a strategy that works today – you want something to fail, spread bad press about it), not only that – his movie theaters would not run the film. The 2-disc special edition includes a documentary about the feud between Hearst and Welles, which I watched when I bought the DVD set several years ago. I didn’t re-watch it this time, but in many ways it’s more interesting than the actual film. Especially if you’re interested in the history of censorship. So if the 2-disc special edition featuring the documentary is still available that’s the version one should buy.

Recommendation:  See it!
Rating:  4 out of 5 Stars
Next film:  The Commitments