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No. 8: “Citizen Kane” (1941)

“You can’t buy a bag of peanuts in this town without someone writing a song about you.”  ~~Charles Foster Kane

There’s a laundry list of reasons why Orson Welles’ sweeping character study “Citizen Kane” consistently ranks high — or at the tip top — on any Best Films Ever Made in the History of the World list. Cinematography, use of makeup, bold subject matter (biopic of a living, highly visible public figure), music, special effects, that punch-you-in-the-neck twist ending — all there, all faultless, all revolutionary. And though these qualities certainly contribute to the film’s greatness, what matters most, what makes “Citizen Kane” such a timeless stunner, is Orson Welles. He fills up every frame of the movie with his energy, his nerve, his presence and his passion. 

What Welles does so well, first and foremost, is create a vivid, flawed protagonist — the ultimate antihero — and populate his world with the people who believe they know him but, in the end, know even less about him than we do. That protagonist, of course, is Charles Foster Kane (Welles), an ultra-rich media mogul with a penchant for quotable observations and huge impulse buys, including the New York Inquirer (which he buys because he thinks “it would be fun to run a newspaper”). In fact, much of his Kane’s direction is determined by his whims and the way these wild fancies damage the people around him. He trades his first wife Emily Monroe Norton (Ruth Warrick) for a much-younger wannabe opera star Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingmore). His ability to consolidate power by manipulating people, the force of Charles Foster Kane, lays waste to his marriages and frays his friendships beyond repair. “You only want want love on your own terms. Something to be played your way, according to your rules,” his best friend Jedediah (Joseph Cotten) rages at him. How right he is.

This in itself would be a richly textured and fascinating film, but Welles, operating under the “more is more, and more is always better” philosophy, takes it a step further with the frame story: Kane, that larger-than-life figure, has died holed up a recluse in Xanadu, his sprawling, opulate and empty estate. The story becomes an international sensation, with reporter Jerry Thompson (William Alland) digging into Kane’s background and private life to discover his secrets, including the meaning of “rosebud,” his last word before dying. His interviews with Kane’s associates, including his business manager (Everett Sloane) and Jedediah Leland, reveal a man more interested in creating his own myth than using his wealth to become a spokesman for the common man. When he doles out his money or his affection, he expects to direct and control its flow, to rule unquestioned. What we learn in the final scene — Welles dubbed it “a gimmick”; that’s the understatement of the Aztec calendar — barely softens Kane’s razor edge.

It’s possible that this is precisely what Welles wants: to control us the way Charles Foster Kane attempts to control everyone around him. Yes, control defines “Citizen Kane,” makes the film a true work of art. Welles does, after all, make us wait and wonder about the tidbits we hear about Kane; he paints us a portrait of him as one way, then flips the canvas to show another side. There’s always a line we missed, something in the background that slipped right past while we sat, stunned, all wrapped up in Kane’s filibustering or awed by his swaggering presence. The control Welles exerts over his audience — which reveals itself oh so suddenly in the final scene — is mind-blowing. There’s just no other word for it.

Manipulation aside, the performances here cement the movie’s initial promise. There are no small parts, no throwaway characters. Cotten brilliantly shows the raw nerves exposed by years of badgering, the long, then sudden end of a dear friendship. Cotten in particular is a walking, oozing wound, so damaged by her husband’s bullying nature she’s a shell soaked in booze. But Welles … well, “Citizen Kane” revolves around his magnificent, destructive presence. He’s such a total force of nature that resistance is useless. But with a film this good? Surrendering to the storm is sweet, indeed.