Classic Review: Citizen Kane (1941)
Orson Welles was a man of complexity, brilliance and mess. In 1941 the world of cinema was changed, when theatre company man Orson Welles brought a masterpiece before the film industry, but he admitted that Citizen Kane’s success had everything to do with purity, “The gift I brought to Kane, it was ignorance.”
As such, modesty wasn’t exactly the nature of the first time film director, but this really didn’t really matter; Welles created a technically proficient production that continues to be considered one of greatest film’s of all time. Citizen Kane reflected a socially critical story of corruption that ironically mirrored aspects of Welles’s own life in the spotlight. However, as history speaks, the film was controversially molded to reflect the life of celebrity media tycoon William Randolph Hearst.
Imitating Hearst in the film is Orson Welles himself, as the risen newspaper publisher Charles Foster Kane, who eventually falls to the pressures of his relationships, morals, money and own expectations. At the beginning of the film the death of Charles Foster Kane is the headline across all newspapers and one newspaper journalist Jerry Thompson (William Alland) is sent out to find out the meaning of Kane’s last words, “Rosebud” through interviews with Kane’s ex wife Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore), Kane’s business manager Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane ), and Kane’s best friend Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotton). Rummaging through the stories and private archives Thompson uncovers glimpses into the troubled life of Kane.
With the excellence of cinematographer Gregg Toland there are many visual highlights of Citizen Kane, and this aspect is beyond anything of its time. Deep focus is one technique that really adds to the depth of particular scenes of the film, literally. A flashback of Kane’s childhood shows the boy distinctly playing in the snow through a window in the background, while at the same time the main action in the foreground is also visually perfect. Toland has created a visual enigma that allows more layers of narrative to each scene; many things are present in which an audience can find clues to the broader investigation of Kane.
Structurally Citizen Kane defies all narrative rules and this again highlights the unbridled imagination of Orson Welles. Most of the story is presented through a series of flashbacks, opposed to the conventional, linear mode of narrative in most blockbuster films of the era and of today. Each narrator is a significant person in the life of Kane, and snippets from each character’s depiction of Kane forms a persona of a ruthless man who lost his moral compass; the beauty of the story lies in the fact this man doesn’t get to speak for himself. So in the end how are we to really know the story of Mr.Kane? The film explicitly sets out to show portions of truth but ultimately alludes to a notion that no testimony can truly reflect one’s true persona.
Welles provides an unflinching performance of Charles Foster Kane, from depictions as a young idealist, to a flailing old man. The intensity brought to the role is something only the director’s vision can create, and it’s almost as if the understanding of the character was too perfect not to be personal. Even with the help of an incredible make-up transformation there is no question Welles played two very different facets of Kane’s life with immense conviction. More notable is the excruciatingly emotional performance of Dorothy Comingore as Susan Alexander, a romantic opera performer and eventual cliché Hollywood alcoholic. Comingore brings an unbearably irritating menace to her character toward the end of her relationship with Kane and this is intriguingly compelling.
Beyond memorable is the playground for the actors; each set is something spectacular and grand. Vast spaces in Kane’s mansion ‘Xanadu’ encapsulated Citizen Kane’s ability to translate emotion and feeling from raw imagery. Scenes in Xanadu highlighted the disconnection of the characters to each other, in particular Charles Kane and Susan Alexander. Wide angles allowed the absurdity of the living arrangements to be cleverly enhanced. Even Susan’s haven – at the once flashy downtown bar – is a story within itself, displaying an important portion of Susan’s persona.
From Kane’s odd collection of statues to his ongoing motivation for endless success, Citizen Kane is merely an exploration of how a person can slowly loose integrity and childlike innocence. With so much freedom given to Welles by RKO Pictures there was no limit to his endeavour, he delved into the heart of real life inspiration and un-restrained creativity, but the greatest power of the film is how it dealt with narrative through visual innovations. It’s no secret Gregg Toland was a world-class cinematographer and contributed to the film’s critically acclaimed heights; Citizen Kane won an Oscar for cinematography, which is unfortunately its only Oscar win. There is no doubt this drama has some lesson’s and reflections of society that will not soon be forgotten; it will remain timeless.
Original Release Date: 1941
Directed by: Orson Welles
Starring : Orson Welles, Dorothy Comingore, Joseph Cotton, Everett Sloane ,William Alland and Agnes Moorehead