by Matt Levine
It’s tempting to begin with a valid concern about reviewing Citizen Kane: what more can be said? Constant contender for Best Film of All Time polls, fabled story of a Hollywood boy wonder rewriting the cinematic rules on his first attempt, thinly veiled biopic of news magnate William Randolph Hearst (who tried to destroy every print of the film after its release), a macabre allegory for the heights and horrors of American capitalism—it’s no exaggeration to claim that Citizen Kane is the most analyzed movie of all time. Because of this, most people—even some who have seen Orson Welles’ film several times—assume that Citizen Kane is a dry, dusty classic, studied beyond exhaustion, sitting in its insular cloud of acclaim, yielding no new surprises or delights after decades of dissection.
Director: Orson Welles
Producers: Orson Welles, George Schaefer
Writers: Herman J. Mankiewicz, Orson Welles
Cinematographer: Gregg Toland
Editor: Robert Wise
Music: Bernard Herrmann
Cast: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Comingore, Agnes Moorehead, Ruth Warrick, Ray Collins, Erskine Sanford, Everett Sloane, William Alland, Paul Stewart, George Coulouris
US Theatrical Release: May 1, 1941
US Distributor: RKO Radio Pictures
This assumption, then, is the most appropriate place to begin, because it’s absolutely wrong. Citizen Kane is one of those beloved masterpieces, like M (1931) or Rules of the Game (1939), that truly seems inexhaustible; despite its reams and volumes of in-depth analysis, it always takes on new life each time you rewatch it. As someone who first saw Kane in high school, trying to work my way through the AFI list of Greatest American Movies; then several more times in film school, told explicitly why it was so revolutionary; then a few more times on my own, hoping to give Welles’ complexity the attention it deserves, I can say that I’ve never loved the film as much as I do now, despite (or because of) its flaws. The movie is packed with formal innovations and cerebral themes, yes, but it’s also overflowing with life--Citizen Kane has more swagger and personality than any film from Hollywood’s Golden Age.
Maybe it was destined to be. Orson Welles, a mere 25 years old when Citizen Kane was released in 1941, had already taken Broadway and radio by storm; in 1936, he staged an all-black version of Macbeth in New York, and in 1938 his infamous radio broadcast of War of the Worlds, performed by his Mercury Theatre troupe, singlehandedly stoked mass panic in America. In 1939, RKO offered Welles a contract with unprecedented artistic freedom (including final cut privilege), luring the dynamic wunderkind—who had resisted the allure of Hollywood several times during the 1930s—out west for his cinematic debut.
Welles described RKO’s studios as “the greatest electric train set a boy ever had,” and for the next two years he would experiment with his new toy in a way few American directors had up to that point. After a few aborted initial projects, Welles and his co-screenwriter, Herman Mankiewicz, settled on this most titanic of American stories, the rollicking life of a poor boy in Colorado who is sent by his mother to be raised by wealthy bankers after a literal gold mine is found on the family’s property. Young Charlie Kane thus becomes Charles Foster Kane, and when he turns 25 his trust fund is handed over to him, allowing Kane to embark on a career as a newspaper man—initially, he promises, to provide honest journalism to the people of America, though this noble pursuit is quickly sidelined by greed and the quest for power. His meteoric campaign for the governorship of New York seems unstoppable—until the inevitable scandal and backstabbing, the descent into loneliness and the mad self-exile of old age. It’s the familiar story of a megalomaniac who achieves wealth, power, and fame only to lose it all, realizing too late that happiness slipped through his fingers long ago, never to be attained again.
But it’s not that familiar story; even if the plot points sound ordinary, there’s little that seems familiar about Citizen Kane even now, more than seventy years after its release. For one thing, there’s the dazzling narrative structure, which led Jorge Luis Borges to call it (disparagingly) “a labyrinth without a center.” The film opens with Kane’s death, a gloomy, Gothic prologue made nightmarish by its background matte paintings and Bernard Herrmann’s eerie score. (Herrmann’s first foray into film soundtracks, Kane allowed Hitchcock’s future favorite composer to spend months on the score; Welles even recut many scenes according to Herrmann’s music and eventually claimed the film’s success was “50 percent” due to Herrmann.) The editing in this foreboding prologue is haunting, dreamlike—scenes of falling snow segue into close-ups of snowglobes and muttering lips, as the legendary “Rosebud” becomes Charles Kane’s dying word. (Ingmar Bergman may have hated Citizen Kane, but the opening scenes of Persona and Welles’ film share something in common—a flinty cinematic modernism that Welles helped conceive and visualize.)
So we begin with our subject’s death, in a story structure still relatively audacious for Hollywood; then we veer into the jaunty News on the March sequence, a parody of the March of Time newsreels that played before Hollywood films in the ‘40s. Using the purple prose and handheld cameras that would have been familiar to American audiences at the time, Welles simultaneously plays with narrative viewpoint and formal context, lends the life and death of Kane a salacious, larger-than-life validity, and slyly digs at the yellow journalism for which its subject will become known—all while offering a taste of things to come, outlining Kane’s life in a matter of minutes, a biography that will become wildly refracted over the next two hours. While experimentation with narrative mode wasn’t unheard of at the time, even in Hollywood (think of Sullivan’s Travels, for example), it had rarely been used in such a bold and extensive manner.
The News on the March sequence is in fact being screened for a team of journalists, all of whom struggle to find an approach to Kane’s enigmatic life story. They focus on his dying word, “Rosebud”—a narrative gimmick absurdly meant to “explain” the life of a man, they acknowledge (as does Welles implicitly). The scene (the first that was shot, on the fly in an RKO screening room) is comprised of harshly contrasting whites and blacks, with most of the speaking characters smothered in shadow; these are the men who peddle us the truth, Welles seems to imply, purportedly faceless and unbiased in their approach. From the very start, in other words—from the News on the March sequence to this horde of silhouettes trying to understand a man they never met—Welles emphasizes the unknowability of truth, the fact that it will always be shaded and mediated. Gregg Toland’s landmark cinematography for Citizen Kane is praised for its deep focus—the fact that the foreground and background and everything in between are often in sharp relief—but his lighting deserves just as much credit; it goes beyond the shadows of film noir to something stranger and more extreme, a symbolic interplay of light and darkness.
From here we follow one reporter, Thompson (William Alland)—who remains mostly a vague shape, rarely portrayed head-on or in direct light—as he dances around Kane’s life story, interviewing his loves and acquaintances for something close to comprehension. There’s Walter Parks Thatcher (George Coulouris), the aristocratic banker with whom Charles is sent to live as a young boy, whose archived memoirs Thompson pores over in a mausoleum-like room. This provides the film’s first flashback, a marvelous scene in which Charles plays outside with his sled in a poetic snowstorm while his parents and Thatcher discuss the details of his guardianship. The seemingly infinite deep-focus of Toland’s cinematography is well-represented here (this scene has been extensively analyzed by David Bordwell, among others); while the three adult figures speak in the foreground and middle-ground, Charlie himself is seen distantly through the window, a figment shut out of mind (at least by his mother, for the moment). The visual planes in this scene thus symbolize various temporal planes—the past of Charles’ childhood, the future significance of this memory, the banal present of the adults’ conversation. The emotional power of the film’s final narrative twist depends primarily on this scene.
Utilizing techniques from his radio days, Welles uses a single line of dialogue to flash-forward 15 years, when Kane somewhat flippantly decides to use his inheritance to buy the Inquirer, a newspaper gobbled up by Thatcher’s company. Kane initially aspires to provide honest, ethical journalism to his readers—he even inscribes a Declaration of Principles, mocked by his best friend and partner, Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotten)—but by the time he hires the best newspaper men in the business from his rival the Chronicle, his descent towards yellow journalism has already begun. It reaches its nadir in the Inquirer’s (or make that Kane’s) treatment of the Spanish-American War; when one photographer claims there seems to be no conflict, Kane mightily responds, “You provide the pictures and I’ll provide the war.” (While Welles always denied that the film was exclusively about William Randolph Hearst, this aspect raises a clear connection; Hearst’s papers drastically swayed public opinion about the war, and this line of dialogue was attributed, almost verbatim, to Hearst.)
When Thompson visits Jedediah Leland, Kane’s “only friend,” in a retirement home, the candid old man provides grueling insight into Kane’s failed relationships. His first marriage to Emily Norton (Ruth Warrick), the niece of the US President, begins deteriorating almost as soon as it starts—conveyed in a dizzying montage set exclusively at the Kanes’ breakfast table, compressing 16 years of marital unrest into a darkly funny two-minute scene. Citizen Kane’s sense of humor is often underplayed in favor of its bolder, darker aspects, but the movie’s freewheeling wit is one of its most engaging elements—you can practically hear Welles thundering at you at a dinner party while you watch it, telling you the most entertaining anecdotes you will ever hear in your life. More to the point, Kane’s spiraling marriage coincides with his meeting of Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore), an aspiring singer with middling talent who becomes Kane’s mistress and second wife. It is this sex scandal that ruins any chance Kane had of being elected governor, and it’s his slavish devotion to her—his building of an opera house in her honor, despite the fact that her vocal coach resigns in disgrace; his creation of the gargantuan estate Xanadu for their later years of marriage, though it quickly becomes a ghostly repository for Kane’s vast collection of pricey artifacts—that destroys him and leaves him alone, trapped with feelings of lovelessness and his memories of a happier time.
This is much the same narrative structure that Rashomon would use nine years later: convey the same basic story from a multitude of perspectives, underlining the malleability of truth. Late in the film, one of the reporters claims they are essentially “playing with a jigsaw puzzle” in deciphering Kane’s life; another soon claims that it’s absurd to expect one dying word to define a man’s existence. No one can ever really understand Kane, no more or less than we can fully comprehend any single person; for a man, however, who demanded only the love of others and manipulated them until he got it, a man who distorted the truth in order to build his empire, this eternal unknowability takes on a sad and twisted fate. Later in life, Welles would criticize the dimestore psychoanalysis of Citizen Kane—irked, one senses, by the fact that few people ever asked him about his other movies—but the film in fact goes to great lengths to prove that Kane is still a riddle, even when we find out the meaning of “Rosebud.” Freudian to a fault, perhaps, though it certainly doesn’t seem like it when we watch the film; the dreamy beauty of that snowbound scene from Kane’s childhood, the haunting futility of those ashes climbing into the sky as Rosebud is burned, make the film’s ending incredibly moving rather than overly reductive.
Indeed, the vacillating treatment of Kane’s life—the fact that he’s repugnant one moment and sympathetic the next—might be partially attributed to the film’s writing process. Welles collaborated with the screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz on the screenplay, though they eventually worked separately due to the prolonged arguments they got into. Disregarding Pauline Kael’s tacky “Raising Kane” essay (which alleges, mostly due to hearsay, that Mankiewicz wrote the film while Welles demanded the credit), most evidence points to the fact that Mankiewicz wrote the first several drafts, which Welles added onto and embellished, turning Kane into a somewhat more tragic character. As Welles later stated, his contributions offset Mankiewicz’s “controlled, cheerful virulence… And that probably gave the picture a certain tension, the fact that one of the authors hated Kane and one loved him.” This tension can be felt with other characters as well, most notably Susan Alexander, who is initially sympathetic though she eventually devolves into a harping shrew. The late scenes between Kane and Susan are probably the film’s weakest, bordering on the cold and merciless—bringing to mind allegations of icy non-humanism that Stanley Kubrick is often accused of—but even these have their cathartic moments of dark humor, as when Kane repeatedly intones to a shrieking Susan, “I thought we might have a picnic tomorrow, Susan.” In any case, even if Citizen Kane sometimes seems to mock its own characters, it remains sympathetic to their need for love and understanding and their grandiose, often failed attempts to extort it.
The formal and structural innovations of the film are manifold, and many of them have already been raised. The deep-focus cinematography, harsh chiaroscuro lighting, sidewinding narrative structure, and meticulously timed musical score all create a formal construct that is incredibly vast and complex, yielding new aesthetic discoveries each time. There are also the fully-constructed sets—complete with ceilings, which few film sets had at the time in favor of hanging lights overhead—and the low-angle shots to take advantage of those sets, often distorting the space and characters to seem more massive than they really are; and, finally, the rapid, overlapping dialogue, like Robert Altman making a screwball comedy, with many lines swallowed up by a breakneck pace and a densely layered soundtrack. Citizen Kane marked one of the only times in Hollywood history that someone with no knowledge of filmmaking protocol (as Welles admitted) was given financial and artistic free reign, and that mixture of ignorance and audacity resulted in one of the most formally awe-inspiring American movies ever made.
From a thematic standpoint, Citizen Kane has been approached from an array of different perspectives. The psychoanalytic basis is obviously there, as is the allegory for an American class structure that prizes wealth and the attainment of goods as its own endpoint. Though there are no overtly abstract sequences, Citizen Kane dislocates us spatially and temporally as much as Last Year at Marienbad (1961), suggesting the power of memories and the past, not to mention the perpetually enigmatic nature of any human individual. One of the most striking interpretations of the film was provided by Laura Mulvey, who, in a 1992 monograph, claimed Citizen Kane functions as a critique of fascism—not only the Third Reich of Hitler (with whom Kane can be seen hobnobbing on a German terrace) but the impending Communist witchhunts of the US, which persecute Kane in the film as they would Welles in real life (Hearst's newspapers accused Welles of being a Communist in an attempt to discredit him).
So again I’m asking myself: what more can be said about Citizen Kane? These formal and thematic marvels have already been well-documented in the thousands of pages that have been written on Orson Welles’ masterpiece. And while I believe there is more to be said, it’s largely in the unexpected surprises between and within scenes—the screaming cockatoo that’s included as a wake-up call to the audience, supporting characters in the deep background whose mercurial expressions are barely readable, connections to other films and Welles’ own life that gain greater power in retrospect. (For example, Thompson’s interaction with a Kafkaesque clerk in Thatcher’s archives directly presage Welles’ own adaptation of The Trial in 1962—something I only explicitly noticed on this viewing.) Borges may have been right: Citizen Kane is a labyrinth without a center. But as with most great works of art, and as with most human lives, the pleasure and difficulty lie in trying to find it anyway.