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Poster: Citizen Kane

Image courtesy
Nostalgia.com and IMDb

Citizen Kane

USA, 1941

Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Comingore

Directed by Orson Welles

119 minutes

Why did newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles), possibly the most powerful man in America, say "Rosebud!" right before he died? Every reporter in the country wants to know the answer to that question, and one intrepid scribe ventures out across the nation to talk personally with all of the people who were most important to Kane throughout his life, including Bernstein (Everett Sloane), his faithful general manager; Jedediah "Jed" Leland (Joseph Cotten), his former theatre critic and estranged school chum; and Susan Alexander Kane (Dorothy Comingore), his ex-wife. The reporter doesn't ever quite find his answer, it seems, but along the way he becomes privy to the private identity of a very public man, and takes a trip through the first half of the twentieth century as seen through the eyes of a man who was at the center of so much of it.

Well, this is it--the greatest movie of all time. Citizen Kane tops so many film polls that devotees of more recent pictures, like the first two Godfather films, sometimes suggest that its jersey be retired so other movies can have a chance at the top slot. If you're watching Citizen Kane for the first time, I should warn you, you're likely to be disappointed if you go in thinking that it will be better than anything you have ever seen, because no film can measure up to that kind of expectation. It has been more than sixty years, after all, and much of what made Kane groundbreaking has since passed into the realm of the commonplace. You shouldn't hold that against the film, any more that you should hold against Casablanca the fact that the entire screenplay seems to be made up of clichés--remember, they're only clichés because they were in Casablanca! To fully appreciate Citizen Kane's importance, then, it is necessary to understand how this film differs from others.

One of the most prominent aspects of the Kane mythos, and one of the least apparent to modern audiences, is Gregg Toland's pioneering cinematography.  Toland's work with unusual camera angles, light and shadow, and "deep focus" (a difficult technique wherein people or objects in the foreground and background are in focus at the same time) have informed more recent films so much that they're not even apparent to casual observers today--and, as with an accomplished stage magician, some of Toland's best tricks are the ones you're not even supposed to recognize. For example, Citizen Kane was one of the first movies to use sets with ceilings: most films sets, then and now, don't have ceilings because they're lit and miked from above. Toland's low camera angles necessitated that ceilings be added to most of the sets, meaning that the lighting and sound crews had to devise their own techniques. The on-screen result of all this chicanery is to play with the viewer's perceptions of the characters and their environment; when Welles wanted Kane to appear as a towering figure, he would have the cameras shoot him from a low angle against an artificially low ceiling. This is done so skillfully that you don't realize you're being manipulated unless you know what you're looking for.

Of course, Citizen Kane also owes much of its notoriety to the fact that it was blatantly a thinly-disguised portrait of a real, powerful, and at the time very much alive man, William Randolph Hearst, who was so infuriated that he tried just about every means he could think of to suppress the film's release, including trying unsuccessfully to buy and destroy the negative and every print. And indeed Kane is a highly unflattering portrait of its title subject, one of the richest and most powerful men in history who nonetheless is deeply unhappy, a man for whom the very qualities that made him a success beyond anyone's imagining would eventually lead to his undoing as well.

Orson Welles would later tell a story (which would eventually be dramatized in the HBO movie RKO 281, about the making of Citizen Kane) about being at San Francisco's famous Fairmont Hotel on the night that Kane opened in the city. Welles was waiting for an elevator, he said, and suddenly the doors opened and there stood William Randolph Hearst himself. Welles stepped into the elevator, introduced himself, and brazenly invited the older man to the premiere later that night--an invitation to which Hearst responded with stony silence. As the doors opened at Hearst's floor and he got out, Welles called after him: "Charles Foster Kane would have accepted!"

If Hearst himself had been a more self-aware man--and had had access to a time machine--he might have responded that there was no Charles Foster Kane, that he was just a character Welles had made up, and that the reason the younger man played him so well was that Welles suffered from the sin of hubris just like Kane himself, a hubris that would eventually prove to be Welles' own undoing every bit as much as his character's. And that, perhaps, is the final piece of the puzzle, our last and best answer to the question of why this film is different--it is, perhaps, our own Rosebud.

Points to ponder: