Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)
Since this is one of the films that has been analyzed and dissected the most in Cinema history, this review will try to be original, fresh, with a new look on this monument in filmmaking. Orson Welles’ first film, technically avant-gardist, with a structure in flash backs, telling the different aspects of the story of Charles Foster Kane and his different personas and the way the people around him perceived him. Well, Welles was not alone in this adventure, on the script he was working with Herman J. Mankiewicz who brought many of the ideas of the story. There was also cinematographer Gregg Toland who worked before with the great John Ford. Robert Wise soon to be the director of classics like West Side Story, The Day The Earth Stood Still, The Set-up and many more was the editor of Citizen Kane. Without forgiving the wonderful cast of Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Comingore, Agnes Moorehead, Ruth Warrick, Everett Sloane, and Orson Welles himself.
He was already a huge star in America with his legendary broadcast of War of the World. Also the director of many Theatre plays, Welles wasn’t a simple man put in the director’s chair.
The story opens with the death of Charles Foster Kane, head of a huge corporate media in the USA. The films opens with many shots of his vast domain, Xanadu, where decadence is just a simple word. On his dying bed his last word will be Rosebud. A journalist is charged to find what that word meant to discover the mystery of that intriguing man. The first meaning of the whole film is that we cannot resume someone’s life with a simple word. We have to take the many angles and how the man was perceived by his peers to be able to learn a little about him. Kane’s public life, from his adoption to his fall after his failed Presidential campaign was resumed by the News on the March following his death. This facet of the film is amazing when put back in context, because the news seem real and the paparazzi (this term was invented with Fellini’s La Dolce Vita in 1961) feeling of them is unsettling, the shots with the greats of the time are particularly effective. A parallel with the life of media tycoon William Randolph Hearst has always been made with the life of Kane. The story was widely inspired by the Art collector misanthrope especially when you compare Xanadu with Hearst castle in San Simeon in California, which I had the luck to visit in May 2010. The decadence and saturation of luxury of the place demonstrate how fortunate and disconnected to the “proletarian” Hearst was.
However, the story of Charles Foster Kane isn’t only about Hearst’s empire, it’s also about Orson Welles himself and how to create a myth about a public figure. Welles was a man of myths and a man who told anecdotes and stories about his life that some may be true and some aren’t. The way Citizen Kane is constructed is a lot like when someone has to live with his own lies and work around them, every character has his own vision of Kane and how he really was. The perception of everyone is unique and Kane shows that.
Moreover, Citizen Kane is a critic of the American Dream, in the early 1940’s being financially successful, popular, powerful, and beautiful was and still is the main occupation of capitalists in America. Charlie Kane was those things and he represented the rise of a man starting as someone who would be a poor worker before being adopted by a successful man and starting from a simple newspaper he made it to become a respected wealthy magnate trying to get to the White House. Juxtaposed, you have his fall and his descent, the attempted suicide of his wife, and his recluse final days. Like Howard Hugues who stayed in his Hotel room for years afraid of everything and everyone. Citizen Kane demonstrate that in some ways wealth and popularity are vile values that can turn a man into his misery.
The technical aspects of Citizen Kane, often praised for the invention of the deep focus and the presence of ceilings in the frames but cinematographer Gregg Toland was indeed invented by Toland on The Long Voyage Home directed by John Ford. This director is one of the major influences of Welles along with Jean Renoir. Welles told Peter Bogdanovich that every day during the preparation of Citizen Kane him and Toland were watching Ford’s Stagecoach and Welles was asking how to shoot this and that. They both dissected every frame and every scenes of the film because for Welles it was a strong film. Perhaps, even if Citizen Kane didn’t invented those technical effects, it shows a great mastery of them.
As stated in the first lines of this review, this is not an attempt to analyze and describe Citizen Kane in its whole but more something like my interpretations of its meanings and the understanding of the theories about it. It’s difficult to be negative about a classic that’s been sitting on the top of the world of filmmaking for so long, with few other films Citizen Kane is the kind of oeuvre that can’t be judged amongst men but amongst gods, if you permit the comparison...