Great Films: Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941, USA)

At the core of Citizen Kane is a mystery, but it is not that within the film’s plot, the identity of Rosebud, now the worst-kept secret in cinema. The real mystery is just how did a 25-year-old first-time director, an alcoholic screenwriter and a group of untried actors come to make what is commonly regarded as the greatest 119 minutes in film history? And does it live up to this tag?

Like any highly regarded work of art, whether it be the Raphael Stanze, Ulysses, Revolver or The Waste Land, it is impossible for a newcomer to appreciate Citizen Kane for the first time without some prior knowledge of the high regard it is held in. Indeed, like The Rules of the Game, The Seventh Seal or The Third Man, it is likely to disappoint the casual viewer coming to the film on the back of its reputation. I note that, although it has regularly topped the Sight and Sound decennial greatest film poll, it lingers in a lowly 23rd place on the IMDB chart, behind the populist likes of The Shawshank Redemption, Pulp Fiction, and even The Usual Suspects.

This may be a result of the very technical nature of the film’s aesthetic perfection, which the untrained eye is unlikely to pick up on on a first viewing. The technical innovation employed in the film has been a subject worthy of entire books, so it is rather foolish to scantily sketch the details about what Welles and cinematographer Gregg Toland managed to achieve here; just watch and marvel at the incredible deep focus shots, the odd camera positionings, and the quite frankly iconoclastic use of lighting and shade in some scenes. Similarly notice the interesting experiments with sound, diegetic and non-diegetic music, and the mastery of spatial positioning, camerawork, and some truly astonishing dissolves between scenes. All of this is purely technical, and demands a certain knowledge of the methods and processes of film production. If we could disregard all of this, would Citizen Kane still be a great film?

This, in a sense, is like trying to look at a Rembrandt and trying to assess its artistic value beyond the artists’ mastery of brushstoke: almost an irrelevance. Nevertheless, if one extracts the films other constituent parts, there are certainly other noteworthy aspects. The acting is terrific, not least by Welles himself, but also from Dorothy Comingore, Joseph Cotten and Everett Sloane, the latter two previously untried on the big screen. Welles had previously worked with this troupe of actors as part of his Mercury Theatre company, but it is to his great credit that he extracts screen-worthy performances from all of them; never do we feel that their acting is stagey, or overly dramatic. Many would go on to great Hollywood careers, most notably Cotten who later would star in the likes of The Third Man, Shadow of a Doubt and Welles’ later masterpiece, Touch of Evil.

There is also the daring screenplay; for this, Welles enlisted Herman J. Mankiewicz, an experienced screenwriter who had previously worked on, amongst other films, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and The Wizard of Oz, as well as acting as a producer on the Marx Brothers films Duck Soup and Horse Feathers. He was also, however, a persistent alcoholic and gambler, and had been fired from a succession of jobs before striking up with Welles’ Mercury Theatre company. Despite Welles’ later protestations, Citizen Kane would not have been possible without Mankiewitz; he was a friend of both William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies, the clear inspiration for Charles Foster Kane and Susan Alexander, close enough to be avle to satirise the corruption and bitterness underlying their existences. He was also the clear inspiration for Cotten’s character Jedediah Leland, the alcoholic theatre critic who feels both his friendship with Kane, and Kane’s moral fibre, have been betrayed by power: Mankiewicz was a theatre critic before turning to screenwriting. For years, his important contribution to the film’s core was neglected, but in recent decades this has been revised.

The film unfolds like Shakespearian tragedy; here we have a man thrust unwillingly into a world of wealth and status, and whose ideals are ultimately eroded by power and love. Everybody knows that the film is an attack on megalomaniacal newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, not least Hearst himself, who after hearing of the film’s subject tried to buy and destroy all of the prints of the picture. But there is also the subtext of the corruption at the heart of the American Dream at work, and this is for me the true genius of the film; as Kane is dazzled and eventually ruined by money, we can see the young United States of America too slowly lose its ideals and morals in favour of material gain, at the cost of increasing emotional isolation. That Kane ends up solely desiring his ‘Rosebud’ – a time of innocence and simple pleasures – but can only spend his final years filling his house with Rennaisance statues – culturally valuable in their own context, but ultimately worthless to a nouveau riche like himself – underlines this level of meaning. There has perhaps been no more elegant illustration of the need for Americans to plunder other histories to invent their own than in Citizen Kane.

It is impossible to detail every aspect of Citizen Kane that makes it such a rich and deeply meaningful film, one simply has to watch it over and over again, absorbing every image, every moment, every smooth gliding dissolve and let one’s self become engrossed in its world all over again. I think that only then can the viewer separate ‘Citizen Kane the greatest film ever made’, and Citizen Kane the great film.

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