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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.

12 Responses

  1. You mention one of the most important things about the film in the first paragraph, cinematography. The look of the film is amazing, something that is as much a testament to the genius of Gregg Toland as the genius of Orson Welles.

    • Point well taken. “Citizen Kane” is one of those few films that has depth in all areas — the script, the acting, the cinematography and effects.

      • The “Deep Focus” technique allowing greater depth of field was developed on this film. Look at the detail and scope of the scenes, in many ways it is the first modern film.

  2. So………….I have never seen this movie……….


    *dodging tomatoes*

    I’ve had great intentions but never fully gotten there. Everyone who appreciates movies seems to have an affection for this film, and your review only furthers what I’ve heard from elsewhere, but of course with your special flair and insight.

    After reading this I vow to make a more active attempt to check it out.

    As usual, great review.

    • I didn’t see “Citizen Kane” until about a year and a half ago, so you’re not alone! For a long time it was part of my “shelf of constant reproach.” I’d say it is one of the few classic films — like “Gone with the Wind” — that stands up to all the hype. It is a masterpiece. There’s no other way to say it.

  3. Two classics that do live up to the hype are Casablanca and Doctor Zhivago. I don’t think they are in your top 100. Have you seen them? If not I recommend you do and would love to know what you think of them.

    • Thanks for the recommendations, Fandango — haven’t seen either film, as it happens, but both are waiting patiently around the 20s in my Netflix queue. I suspect I will agree with your reviews of them. Part of the problem with waiting until now to see them is that I’m used to modern technology and modern ideas. I mean, I had an impossible time relating to “Gone with the Wind.” Damn Gloria Steinem fish-n-bicycle philosophy ruined it for me.

  4. If you have this DVD – watch it once while Roger Ebert’s commentray is running. It’s really fascinating to hear him point out all the tricks and techniques that were used that we now take for granted sixty years on.

    Great post!

    • Alas I only have it on VHS

    • Though I don’t agree with plenty of Ebert’s reviews, he is a font of film information, kind of like a walking talking movie encyclopedia. I plan to buy “Citizen Kane” on DVD (watched it through Netflix every time), and I look forward to hearing his commentary.

  5. Citizen Kane is not by any stretch my favorite Welles film (I’d rank Touch of Evil, Chimes at Midnight, and possibly The Magnificent Ambersons above it), yet I completely agree with its placement at the top of nearly every film list out there. Jean Renoir pioneered Deep Focus photography with his masterpiece Grand Illusion and Rules of the Game (both of which I cannot recommend enough, as both are probably two of the 50 best movies ever), but Welles and Toland perfected it and every other cinematic technique that existed to that point.

    I never understand people who tell me that Citizen Kane is overrated because they find it boring. Are they expecting Die Hard? I find the personal drama of Charles Foster Kane as epic as Lawrence of Arabia, and as compelling as the tautest Hitchcock thriller.

    I’ve been reading a number of your other reviews and I very much enjoy your work, by the way. I added you to my blogroll 🙂

    • Thanks for the encouragement, Jake, and all your comments!

      On “Citizen Kane”: I didn’t see this movie for years and years because I was afraid it couldn’t live up to all the hype (same reason I didn’t see “Run Lola Run” or “On the Waterfront” — yeah, I’m a moron that way). But I was simply blown away by all the things Welles achieves in this movie: the first-rate acting, the cinematography, the use of costumes and makeup, the pacing, creating an epic but hugely flawed protagonist, the twist ending. And every repeat viewing shocks me again. There is no way “Citizen Kane” is boring. Inconceivable!

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