"Citizen Kane"

(1941)

"Citizen Kane," is considered by most film historians and film critics to be one of (if not the) greatest motion pictures of all time. Produced and directed by Orson Welles from an Academy Award winning screenplay, which was co-authored by Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz, this is certainly a tour du force of cinematic expertise.

Much of the films effectiveness is derived from the marvelous editing of Robert Wise and the beautiful cinematography of Gregg Tolland. Tolland's cinematography superbly enhances the complex presentation of Kane's character. In order to accomplish this he utilizes unconventional lighting in which shadows play an important part in the films distinctive visual style. When coupled with his frequent use of long uninterrupted shots to portray an action or an encounter, the character of Kane emerges as the driving and domineering force on the screen. Tolland was the first cinematographer to truly master the use of the entire picture from foreground to background. The film includes classic examples of truly masterful uses of high and low angle shots.

The films principle characters are Charles Foster Kane played by Welles who is as convincing as both a 24 year old and a 60 year old. Every member of the cast was a member of Welles' Mercury Theater Players. Most of these performers had no film experience they did however have radio and stage experience with Welles and RKO.

  • Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotten), whose dignity and devotion to principles is never undermined as he holds his own while sparing with Kane.
  • Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore) Kane's second wife is simultaneously common and vulnerable.
  • Emily Norton Kane (Ruth Warrick), Kane's first wife, the niece of the President she was raised by "old money" and looks down on Kane's sensibilities and his friends. She later went on to play Phoebe Tyler Wallingford on All My Children.
  • Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane)
  • Mrs. Kane - Kane's mother (Agness Morehead) - she later went on to play Endora on Bewitched.
  • What is "Citizen Kane" about? This is a thinly veiled account of the life of William Randolph Hearst. Welles' masterpiece carefully exploits Hearst the same way Hearst's papers exploited everyone else. By exploiting public interest in the life of the controversial Hearst Wells guarantees that he will have an audience and all the free publicity that a good controversy can generate. In the great tradition of yellow journalism it sacrifices the truth about Hearst for the sensational aspects of his story.

    The film opens as Charles Foster Kane is uttering his last word "Rosebud". Thus leaving historians and journalists with the task of attempting to discover what the significance of this is. From this point on our intrepid journalist will spend the rest of the film quizzing all of Kane's former friends and employees in an atempt to find a way to explain the great man's life.

    Ultimately "Citizen Kane" is a mystery story about one of life's great mysteries, how the more you find out about someone the less you understand their character. Just as the film begins with the camera penetrating mists, then passing through the barriers around the mysterious world of Xanadu, so it ends with the camera withdrawing until the mists cover the lens.

    This is a mighty exposition of American society and a devastating critique of the American Dream which, coming on the heals of the Great Depression found an audience that was all too aware of the shortcomings associated with a capitalistic free market enterprise system when it does not work. To a great extent the film is a contemporary version of Faust (a fact that was no doubt not lost on Hearst or Wells), the story of a man who gains the world and loses his soul in the process.

    Perhaps Orson Welles said it best himself "Citizen Kane" is, "a portrait of a public man's private life."

    Hollywood legend has it that Louis B. Mayer offered to reimburse RKO for the entire cost of the picture if they would agree to destroy the film and all of its negatives. Indeed,stories abound that Hearst ordered his subordinates to do anything and every thing to suppress the film's release. RKO, with a bit of skillful manipulation on the part of Welles, wisely refused.

    The newsreel sequence that is a satire on "The March Of Time" were achieved by rubbing the negative with sand to effect an aged look.

    "Citizen Kane" would not have been the classic film it is without the skillful direction of Welles (who was only twenty-five years old at the time). His decision to utilize overlapping naratives from numerous observers (which was probably influenced by "The Power and The Glory" 1933), is inspired. It only serves to enhance the depiction of the complex relationship between individual power and personal choice. None the less, the contributions of a host of talented performers both in front of and behind the camera make this film work. If it were not for the dazzling camera work of Gregg Tolland, the crisp editing of Robert Wise, the exquisite music of Bernard Herrmann and the exceptional performances of the Mercury Players "Citizen Kane" would not be the masterpiece it is. Indeed it is Welles' collaboration with Tolland and Wise that made "Citizen Kane" such a milestone in the development of cinema. Rather than contenting themselves with simple editing combinations of long-shots, medium shots, and close-ups they experimented with the use of deep focus composition within the frame. It is within this context that the true brilliance of Welles' direction emerges. Welles reveals much about the film's characters and their relationships by their positions within their surroundings in these sequences. Classic examples of this occur in the sequences where Kane dines with his first wife Emily, where he talks with second wife Susan as she assembles a crossword puzzle, where Kane walks alone through his mansion and in countless other sequences.

    "Citizen Kane" is, for all intents and purposes, an encyclopedia of the cinema. Its flashbacks, its uses of symbolism, its camera moves, its cuts, its deep focus, its structure, its sets, its sound track are a virtual catalogue of superb examples of what you can do in a film. No wonder the great french director Francois Ttuffaut once said that "Everything that matters in cinema since 1940 has been influenced by Kane."

    The first films of great filmmakers are generally talented but flawed. Film students look at them to determine the themes and motifs that become apparent in later pictures Welles' first film "Citizen Kane" is different, it leaps off the screen and announces the appearance of a new giant in the world of cinema. Welles went on to make other masterpieces: "The Magnificent Ambersons," and "A Touch of Evil," to name but a few. But his abilities never achieved the same level of recognition after "Citizen Kane". Instead he became a living symbol of the artist brought down by the philistines, inescapably linked to the character he first gained recognition for portraying. Certainly their is a degree of Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welles perhaps it was that very thing that allowed Welles to create such a stunning masterpiece.