1941, RKO. Directed by Orson Welles. Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Comingore, Agnes Moorehead, Ruth Warrick, Ray Collins, Erskine Sanford, Everett Sloane.
Decent Films Ratings
|?Teens & Up|
Content advisory: Implied adultery; divorce and remarriage.
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By Steven D. Greydanus
Citizen Kane’s very title has become a superlative. "The Citizen Kane of its genre" is about as lavish an expression of praise as any film might hope to achieve. But Orson Welles’s legendary masterpiece isn’t "the Citizen Kane" of any particular subset of cinema (e.g., fictional biopics, or proto-noir). It’s just Citizen Kane.
Citizen Kane’s unique status in the canon of American cinema is rooted in its singular place in Hollywood history. At the height of the Hollywood studio system, when studio bosses controlled every aspect of filmmaking from production to exhibition, this film was made by a handful of brilliant artists who were given virtually the unprecedented creative freedom to do whatever they wanted. Incredibly, the film was spearheaded by an extraordinary triple-threat talent (Welles, who co-wrote, directed, and starred in addition to producing) who, at only 25 years old, had cut his teeth on radio and stage, but had never before made a film.
Had the result been a merely good film, it would probably still have been remembered as an extraordinary achievement and one of the first cracks in the studio system, which came crashing down a few years later as a result of an anti-monopolistic 1948 Supreme Court decision. But Citizen Kane wasn’t just a good film. Rising to the challenge of their unique opportunity, Welles and his colleagues whipped up a cinematic perfect storm of technique and sophistication widely hailed as the apotheosis of all the innovations and advancements of the sound era.
Visually, Welles and legendary cinematographer Gregg Toland forged a dramatic style combining such techniques as extreme deep focus, varied camera angles including low angles revealing set ceilings, and unconventional use of lighting and deep shadows anticipating the film noir style. Individually, most of these techniques had been pioneered in other films, but Citizen Kane masterfully brought them together with unprecedented acumen and maturity.
Narratively, Welles and veteran writer Herman J. Mankiewicz jointly crafted a storytelling tour de force combining non-linear narrative, composite storytelling from multiple points of view (a technique that would later be indelibly associated with Kurosawa’s Rashomon), varying narrative forms including the famous opening newsreel segment as well as interviews and flashbacks, and a dramatic span of decades with characters aging from young adulthood (or even childhood) to old age. Their characters are complex and ambiguous, and their dialogue crackles with wit and insight.
Thematically, the film tackles the mystery of man from nearly every conceivable angle except religion — love, happiness, money, power, sex, marriage, divorce, politics, the media, celebrity, despair, death — in a sweepingly ambitious study that asks anew the 2000-year-old question, "What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?"
What’s more, Kane accomplishes all this not as a rarefied art film for the ambitious few, but as a popular story for the masses, a riddle picture with the most famous twist ending in Hollywood history.
This ending, of course, is the explanation of Charles Foster Kane’s dying word, "Rosebud." The twist behind the twist is that while the final shot satisfyingly resolves the question with which the picture began, the whole notion that that the answer to that question would somehow provide the key to Kane’s life was only a journalistic conceit. The film answers the question, but refrains from offering any final explanation or judgment of its complex protagonist, suggesting that a man’s life is more than a riddle to be explained or resolved.
That’s not to say that Rosebud isn’t significant. It is. It signifies innocence lost, regret, the failure of the American dream of rags-to-riches success. It also represents what Kane lost at an early age when he was taken from his mother and father and raised by an unloving guardian.
Deprived of love, burdened by too much money and power, Kane grows up with a ravenous desire to be loved despite being incapable of love himself, as well as an arrogance and sense of entitlement to getting his way. The tragedy of his life epitomizes the dark side of the pursuit of happiness, with failed marriages, broken friendships, dashed political aspirations, rapacious acquisitiveness, isolation, and despair.
Controversy surrounding the release of the film has become an enduring part of its legend. The character of Charles Foster Kane was widely recognized at least in part as a fictionalized version of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, and Hearst furiously did his best to suppress the picture and have it destroyed.
While working on Citizen Kane, Welles joked that "If they ever let me do a second picture, I’m lucky." He was only half right. He was lucky enough to make many additional pictures, some of them masterpieces in their own right. But the luckiest he ever got, which is more than lucky enough, was getting to make Citizen Kane itself. That unprecedented level of control and magical synergy was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity — and, to his immortal credit, Welles made the most of it. He made Citizen Kane.
Marking its 70th anniversary with a Blu-ray “Ultimate Collector’s Edition” packed with bonus features. Most of the extras are available in earlier editions, but one is worth springing for: Welles’ second film, The Magnificent Ambersons, bundled with Kane exclusively from Amazon.com. Hard to find on DVD, Ambersons is worth the extra 10 bucks, even though it’s the shorter cut of the film.