Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles), an unimaginably wealthy publishing kingpin, drops his snowglobe and dies alone in his bed. His last dying word, “Rosebud,” sends the national newspaper journalists into a frenzy, all eager to discover it’s true meaning, in the hope of shedding some light onto the tycoon. Led by Jerry Thompson (William Alland), the reporters speak with Kane’s former wife, friends, employees, business partner and butler on their search for the truth. Could it be the name of a girl? A dog? A boat? Or just the rambling ravings of an insane old man?
Up until last year, Citizen Kane has topped Sight and Sound magazine’s Greatest Film Of All Time list, but was recently toppled by Vertigo. It’s been a little while since I’ve seen Hitchcock’s classic, so I can’t vouch for whether the change is correct or not, but I can say that I have no problem with Citizen Kane having been up there for quite so long. This film actually appears on all four of the lists I’m currently working through, and so great is its reputation that I can’t imagine a respected film list denying it a place. I mean, it spawned the prefix “It’s the Citizen Kane of…” as a way of saying a film is the greatest of a specific type. And heads up, this isn’t going to be the Citizen Kane of Citizen Kane reviews. So what makes it so important? Why is it revered by so many people? Will every paragraph in this review end in a question mark?
No. Well, maybe. I haven’t written the rest of them yet. In terms of just why everyone considers it to be incredible, there are almost too many reasons to mention. The most famous of course is that Orson Welles directed, produced, starred and co-wrote this masterpiece, and all at the age of twenty four. That’s one year younger than I currently am, which sends me into an impossibly steep downward spiral of self pity at how comparatively little I’ve achieved in a similar amount of time. What makes it possibly worse is that Kane was Welles’ first feature length foray into film-making, having previously only worked on two shorts and an uncredited role as a narrator in Edward Ludwig’s Swiss Family Robinson. It is almost impossible to separate the character of Kane from the figure of Welles, as they both launch onto the screen with unparallelled levels of ambition, confidence and fervour. This is currently the only Welles film I’ve seen (other than The Muppet Movie), and by the looks of it I’ve got some great films ahead of me, and I look forward to seeing if any of them have such a well rounded creation of a character as Charles Foster Kane.
Born into nothing and sold by his poverty stricken parents,Kane built an empire from his new ward’s meagre New York Daily Inquirer, which he initially took over because it sounded fun. His intense confidence and high sense of self drove him on to greatness, as did his sense of what the public wanted, converting his conservative news journalism into a publicity and celebrity gossip rag, as that way there’d be more ‘news’ to print. You can say what you like about his ideals, but he was certainly correct in his endeavours. Welles ably displays Kane’s changing virtues and opinions throughout his years, as what becomes most important to him slowly changes, from garnering wealth and power to trying to please those closest to him. His wealth eventually becomes too much to handle, and his inability to control his spending destroys every relationship he ever had. His wife Susan (Dorothy Comingore) dreamed of singing on stage and living in a palace – so he builds her an opera house and the largest home ever seen, regardless of whether she can actually sing or stand to live with him. He makes the world what he thinks it should be, but just like John Hammond in Jurassic Park, he only thought about whether he could, he didn’t stop to think if he should.
Some scenes have not fared well from copycats and mimics in the many years since this was released, and it is often clear in which direction the film will head – when Kane’s associate Leland (Joseph Cotten) keeps Kane’s original hand-written copy of the newspaper’s manifesto, there is no chance of it not coming back to bite Kane later on in the film. And if you’ve seen the film before but had somehow forgotten the meaning behind Kane’s famous dying word, the solution is pretty well rammed down your throat at the start of the film.
By far my favourite aspect of the film in the innovations in cinematography, and the wide variety on show here. Be it the camera descending through a storm-lashed skylight into a high-ceilinged, cavernous bar to rest on Susan Kane being questioned by reporters, the dining montage between Kane and his first wife Emily (Ruth Warrick) keenly showing the gradual but inevitable distancing between the couple as his work becomes increasingly more important to him or the film’s use of light and shadow, with characters (often reporters) shrouded in darkness, there is much to be learned from Gregg Toland’s work here. And that’s before even discussing his innovative deep focus photography technique, allowing every aspect of the screen – fore-, back- and middle-ground, to be seen clearly simultaneously.
The make-up and prosthetics are also incredible, with the same actors used to portray the various characters throughout their lives (except as children), and in many places it looked just as good as Guy Pierce’s appearance in Prometheus.
One thing that surprised me was how unimportant the search for Rosebud’s meaning was. In terms of plot it sets the whole thing up as a nice maguffin, but the more important aspect is seeing Kane’s life through the eyes of those that were most important to him, rather than necessarily discovering the solution to the initial quandary. In fact, the plot device is all but forgotten until the last scene, set in Kane’s never-ending warehouse-like home full of the clutter he’d collected throughout his life (I’m positive the ark of the covenant is in there somewhere). Instead, the film sets out to join the dots laid out in the opening montage of Kane’s life, filling in the gaps with the details behind the legend.
So is it the greatest movie ever made? Probably not (that’s Jurassic Park), but it could well be one of the most important. Kane‘s legacy and influence cannot be overestimated, and it remains technologically impressive at over seventy years old.
Choose Film 9/10