By the time he was 25 years old, Orson Welles was already acknowledged as a theatrical genius and radio drama innovator. When Hollywood came calling, Welles was given an unprecedented deal for a first time filmmaker in the days of the studio system — complete creative control over all aspects of production. At the age of 26, he directed, co-wrote, and played the title role in Citizen Kane (1941), generally considered one of the best movies ever made — if not the best. Loosely based around the life of yellow journalism tycoon William Randolph Hearst, Citizen Kane tells the story of the life and death of Charles Foster Kane, a fabulously wealthy businessman and newspaper publisher who never finds fulfillment in his riches. More specifically, the movie follows an attempt by a reporter to decipher the meaning of Kane’s cryptic dying word: “Rosebud”. Citizen Kane freely jumps back and forth through time, abandoning narrative convention as it examines Kane’s life through interviews with former friends, lovers, and associates. And it looks gorgeous as it does so, deploying extreme camera angles, brilliant use of light and shadow, and deep focus photography to chart an elaborate course through the big, complex life of a big, complex man. (119 min.)
J. – I suppose to start, I will simply say that I love Citizen Kane. I first watched it during my final year of high school and was fascinated with it. I’ve probably seen the film about a dozen times since. Citizen Kane is a movie with so many facets that it pretty much grips you by the lapels and demands you watch it again. And it is well worthwhile to do so; there is always something new and wonderful to spot during every viewing.
But enough vague lauding, let’s get to some specifics. There’s plenty to say about the unusual narrative and excellent performances in Citizen Kane (and we will get to all that), but what always grabs me right away is the gorgeous look of the movie. In our previous yammer on The Grapes of Wrath we spoke in glowing terms of the cinematography of Gregg Toland. The Grapes of Wrath is an undeniably beautiful film, with its chiaroscuro lighting schemes, penetrating use of shadow and darkness, and interestingly composed frames, but Toland and Welles went hog wild with Kane. I feel like the opening minutes of Citizen Kane really drive this home, making strong uses of deep black silhouettes and bizarre compositions like the distorted shot of a nurse as seen through the curved glass of a broken snow globe. But the film goes even further, having the snow within the globe also consume the image onscreen, depicting perhaps the mind of man teetering on the edge of death, but I think, more importantly, done because it looks cool and mysterious. And that really does set the stage for a lot of the visual bravado of Citizen Kane — there are tons of moments where Welles and Toland are probably doing an unorthodox shot simply because they can — a sort of gee whiz form of filmmaking that I think has a lot to do with Welles having never made a movie before. He didn’t know what he was doing was “wrong”, and thankfully he had a collaborator in Toland who could pull off this unusual vision without ever making it feel self-indulgent. The Grapes of Wrath has moments that make you think, “How lovely”; Citizen Kane‘s visual fireworks, despite being much showier, are always subservient to the story and the performances — the film is usually too engrossing to even notice these flourishes at all except perhaps on a subconscious level. But hit pause at pretty much any frame of the film and you can see how remarkable it all is.
S. – This was my third viewing of Citizen Kane and thus far it has improved in my estimation each time. My reasons for warming slowly to what is such a well-regarded film will no doubt emerge as we discuss it, but its visual appeal was immediately evident. Having the talents of Toland on board is clearly an excellent starting point, and a new level of storytelling is achieved via the creative use of deep focus, camera placement and shadow. While there are a generous smattering of fancy experimental shots what impresses me the most is the construction of scenes around conversations. There is a theatrical flavour to the way these scenes play out that comes from the way the spatial proximity of the characters on screen reinforces the dynamics at play.
For instance the confrontation that occurs in singer Susan Alexander’s apartment between Kane, his political rival Geddes, his wife Emily and mistress Susan superbly demonstrates the depth added to the story by the way scenes were choreographed. Geddes and Emily are closest to camera framing the scene and having the conversation that will determine Kane’s future while Kane remains in the centre of frame but at the rear of the action and cast in shadow. In the middle of all three is the lovely Susan looking like a deer in the headlights as she is reduced to window dressing by the three powerful personalities that have gathered in her home. Many confrontations occur as the story of Charles Kane is extracted from various narrators and they all share this quality whereby the construction of the scene adds another layer of meaning to the words that are being exchanged.
J. – I think that scene in Susan’s apartment is a perfect one to pick apart, because it does combine that theatrical element you mentioned as well as the very cinematic photography of Toland. The scene is basically two very long takes with the characters very precisely arranged in the frame — there’s your theater element. But there is more going on with the lighting. Geddes has taken the initiative and he dominates the right half of the screen and is fully lit. Kane is witnessing his political career and his marriage go up in smoke before his eyes, and he is placed well to the rear which makes him look tiny and diminished. And as you said, he is in the shadows, which gives perfect access to his mental state as well as his predicament. It’s hardly the only time the film makes great use of shadows. Indeed the reporters that are trying to find out the meaning of Rosebud are also always in shadow, making the film’s framing device largely anonymous. And when Kane signs his “declaration of principles” for his first issue of The Inquirer, he once again is in shadow, while his more upright friend Jed Leland (Joseph Cotten) is in the light — you know right away that those principles are going to be violated, and violated badly.
But despite the long takes and the involved, expertly acted conversations, some of the best work in Citizen Kane is done through quick cuts and elaborate montages. The opening scene is a perfect example of that, setting an uneasy and morbid mood through its succession of images. Even more remarkable is the news reel that gives the viewer a complete run-through of Kane’s life before the movie even really gets going (News! On the March!!). It’s an amazing jumble of stock and original footage, some manipulated to look like it is decades old (the editor actually scraped some of the film across the floor to intentionally damage it). This sort of material is starkly cinematic, and the kind of thing that would be impossible to replicate on a stage. And the film is full of these moments, particularly in its juxtaposition of scenes as a means to illustrate the passage of time — and time is a very fluid thing in Citizen Kane. There is, for instance, the amazing jump of 17 years that happens between the words “Merry Christmas” and “a Happy New Year”. But I particularly like the montage tracking the deterioration of Kane’s first marriage, as Kane and his wife grow more and more distant over a series of increasingly bitter breakfast conversations (culminating in one of the best visual gags of the movie).
S. – The breakfast sequence is fantastic and tells you everything that you need to know about a span of years in around a minute. The fluidity of time fits so well with one of the main themes of the film: memory. Viewers have their own personal experiences with the capriciousness of memory recall, so the frequent and massive deviations in the chronology of the story seem natural rather than confusing. Conversations or incidents where something dramatic or unusual happened take on huge significance and many of the ordinary occurrences have been filtered out. The narrative skips around restlessly, just as describing a memory can trigger others that send your thoughts lurching off either forward or back with little regard to the passage of time. The cuts back and forth follow no obvious pattern, some are brief, others protracted. You end up relying on the number of wrinkles being sported by the main players to orient yourself in time. Speaking of which, the actor transformations are pretty spectacular. The 26-year-old Welles is convincingly thrust into middle age and elderly guises along with his newspaper chums with the aid of make-up, props and body language. Yet another area where the careful attention to detail adds legitimacy to the story.
J. – Memory is definitely a major component of Citizen Kane, and I think you are right about how our own experiences with memory recall help keep the movie coherent despite its jumping around. But for me, what is fascinating is the degree to which it jumps around. Certainly the flashback had been established as a thing by this point in cinema history, but I’m not sure any film prior to Citizen Kane had messed with narrative structure to this degree (well, Luis Buñuel‘s surrealist works excepted). Citizen Kane does Kane’s death first, and then goes back to explore his life. And it first does so through the newsreel I mentioned above. And that newsreel is quite thorough — so thorough, in fact, that you arguably don’t learn anything more about Kane during the rest of the movie. Sure, you pile on details, but you’ve actually already heard the whole story. The next bit of the film jumps from Kane as a child, to Kane in his mid-20s, to Kane around 60, and then goes back to Kane in his 20s, and so on. These days its not that unusual to mess with time in films — check out, say, Pulp Fiction as a prime example — but this was some daring stuff at the time, and few movies since have been as non-linear in their storytelling.
Where the memory aspect becomes an issue for me is not the timeline but the telling of the story. You get accounts of events in Kane’s life from five different people — his banker/guardian, his general manager, his estranged former best friend, his second wife, and (briefly) his butler. Each has a different agenda and a different perspective, but what is interesting is that the film doesn’t necessarily present itself in a way that betrays any narrator bias. Nor does it have any two narrators’ memories contradict each other (so there are no Rashomon moments). I’ve never been able to tell when watching Citizen Kane whether what we are seeing is supposed to represent the memory of the person being interviewed or a window onto what really happened (that is, the interviews simply serve as a framing device to jump into the actual events). And the movie complicates this. For example, the bits told by Kane’s guardian and by his second wife relate strictly to events for which those people were present. But the account of Jed Leland — his estranged friend — contains lots of stuff that Leland didn’t see and, because of the breakdown of his relationship with Kane, never would have been told. So what is going on there? Are we seeing the truth as it happened, or are we witnessing Leland’s fancy or imagination at work as he tells of the fall of a man he came to despise?
S. – I think the ambiguity you are describing with regard to just who is telling this story is the reason why I didn’t feel especially engaged with Citizen Kane on the first viewing. It skips around through various narrators without a relatable point of contact to allow me full access into the story. This anchor could have been achieved via the reporter chasing down the meaning behind Kane’s last word but, as you mentioned, J., this role was intentionally kept in the background. This left me with a rather disappointed first impression; the movie certainly looked amazing, I just didn’t feel that I really connected with it. However, it is quite the mind-worm and it’s hard not to keep wondering why they tell you everything in the first newsreel and spend the rest of the film unable to fill in any of the gaps? Is the whole point that you can never really know someone? Or are our memories so flawed they are only reflections of ourselves and not capable of faithfully representing another? So you watch it again, and while you may not be rewarded with a definitive answer to your questions you do discover more to appreciate.
A major part of the watchability comes from the performances, so much is unsaid in the scenes and depends on demeanour. Welles oozes charisma and is deftly able to convey a congenial persona covering a mysterious inner life. Of the narrators I found the interaction with his pal Leland the most compelling viewing, firm friends that diverged into brooding animosity. In terms of their financial situations their lives were on opposite trajectories, as young men there was enough of an overlap that this wasn’t a problem but as they got older, Leland was immune to the glamour of Kane’s wealth and increasingly disturbed by what was either Kane’s inaccessibility or an absence of personal integrity. You get the impression that even after Kane’s death Leland doesn’t know whether his friend was unable to open up to him or just had nothing to give.
J. – For all the camera trickery and unorthodox plotting, the heart of Citizen Kane really does lie in the performances. That sounds like a thoroughly empty bit of critical nonsense, but I do think its something that gets swallowed up in most discussions about the movie. Citizen Kane is essentially a two-hour character study and therefore particularly relies on the actors to hold everything up, given that there isn’t exactly a plot that will keep the audience interested. In my early viewings of Kane, I also always zeroed in on the relationship between Welles’ and Cotten’s characters. But I’ve come to get more and more enjoyment out of the performance by Everett Sloane as Kane’s general manager Mr. Bernstein. It’s a very sly and cagey performance — Mr. Bernstein is a man who is often used for comedic purposes and appears to be a gross sycophant, but he’s clearly incredibly bright and capable. I also like how the movie drops these hints of antisemitism in the way certain characters respond to Mr. Bernstein; it’s never overt, but it allows these quick bits of insight into the psyches of supporting characters (particularly Kane’s first wife). And Sloane’s performance is perhaps at its best when his elderly Mr. Bernstein is talking to the reporter. There’s still a hint of the clown, but he’s also a man of considerable clout and insight — and his wonderful speech about the woman on the ferry is possibly my favorite bit of dialogue in the movie.
But the movie really belongs to Orson Welles, who is so utterly riveting as Kane. With the possible exception of Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc, it is likely the greatest lead performance in any film I’ve ever seen, if only because he tackles so many aspects of the character over the span of decades and just nails them all. The mere fact that he can not only play the jokey, smiley Kane in his 20s and the room-trashing, hollowed out Kane in his 60s, but actually convincingly link these two disparate performances into a cohesive, convincing whole is nothing short of miraculous. Welles goes all out in the role of Kane in a way that I’m not sure he ever really will again in his career.
But this brings us neatly to the great questions of Citizen Kane — if this is a character study driven by great performances and essentially has no plot, then what does it all mean? What is the meaning of Rosebud? Does Rosebud even have a meaning? (And for those reading, we are going to assume from here on out that you already know what Rosebud is. I think most people, whether they’ve seen Citizen Kane or not, already know, but if you are lucky enough to not know, then please see the movie before reading any further.)
S. – The big Rosebud question teases us all throughout the movie and is given a very small answer in the closing scene. Such a clever device and the jumping off point for many discussions, analyses and arguments. The cynical part of me would argue that it is a random memory that returned to him just before he died and has no real significance other than the romantic notions that people like to attribute to such occasions. But I guess the more sentimental would see that all of Kane’s shortcomings grew out of the circumstances of a young boy being sent away from his loving family to a wealthy, yet impersonal existence. His sled “Rosebud” a symbol for the last time he knew the comfort and happiness of family life. What really makes Citizen Kane great for me is all the possibilities this story opens up and invites you to think through. The attraction of a rags to riches story with a man who can buy anything yet cannot get what he really wants is amplified by Welles’ magnificent storytelling that provides you with some interesting landmarks but largely trusts you to find your own way.
J. – Just before the reveal of the sled, the reporter gives a speech stating that Rosebud probably wouldn’t explain anything anyway and that it is, in any case, impossible to sum up a man — particularly one like Kane — in a single word. And I think that speech is the message of the movie, even if the final moment seems to undercut the reporter’s words by hitting you with this symbol of Kane’s lost childhood. But I think that Rosebud is something of a bluff — a bit of pop psychology to distract the viewer from the real significance of the film’s story, which is that there is no significance. And I think it is there that the movie draws its real power. It refuses to give any easy answers. The more you think about the sled, the more you realize how trivial it is. And the more you think about the film, the more you realize that it tells you everything and nothing about Kane. Sure, you get all the big events, but you never get to really know the man. And it makes you wonder whether you can really understand anyone, no matter how well documented their days might be.
As you said, S., the movie forces you to find your own way through the byzantine life of Charles Foster Kane, rather than wrapping everything up in a nice neat package. And I think this is one of the reasons why first time viewers are left underwhelmed by this “greatest movie ever made” (the other major reason being that so many of Citizen Kane‘s innovations have been so fully absorbed into mainstream movie-making that it is hard to see them as innovations anymore). People expect great answers from great movies and great books, but Citizen Kane only offers great questions. The film has endless layers to peel back and poke around under. I mean there was so much to yammer about that, contrary to custom, we made a brief outline for this post in order to rein ourselves in — and this is still by far our longest post to date. But I think that complexity is why Citizen Kane serves as one of the best movies to rewatch, and likely why it held the #1 spot on the Sight & Sound list from 1962 through 2011. But it has now been relieved of that burden, and perhaps it can be better appreciated when people aren’t expecting it to be the greatest thing ever. (Although it really is really, really great — I mean, really.) Now it’s Vertigo‘s turn to befuddle and deflate the casual movie viewer — I’m curious to see what it will do to us.