Charles Foster Kane is the raw essence of every wealthy man, and he goes about his life as if he’s a tragic hero from a film noir. He rises from dust. He rises some more. He reaches the pinnacle and enjoys a luxury few people are privileged enough to enjoy. He makes some bad decisions and is caught red handed. He begins his downward spiral into loneliness and insanity. And then he dies among his riches without so much as a warm hand or consolation.
He is the film noir antihero without the guns and the gangsters. Instead he stands above such violence and seeks to justify himself through solid and professional journalism. Right at the beginning of Citizen Kane we are given a nutshell review of his life; how he was purchased as a foster child, how he betrayed those closest to him in order to build New York’s largest news agency, how he miscalculated some of his actions, and how he left behind a wealth and an estate so vast no man could estimate its value.
And then the story breaks up into a little smokey screening room, lit to look like a tomb. Men move in the shadows. More smoke rises into the single shaft of light coming from the projection room. They’re squabbling about the death of Charles Kane, and the meaning behind his dying word: Rosebud. What does “rosebud” mean? Why did he murmur it moments before his death? Is “rosebud” a former lover? Can’t be. If everything in his life was so fleeting, surely this “rosebud” must be something that has endured.
One of the men, a reporter by the name of Jerry Thompson (William Alland), takes it upon himself to interview former lovers and associates of Kane in order to determine the mystery behind “rosebud”. He visits Mr Bernstein (Everett Sloane), a chirpy fellow who worked for Kane in his youth. Bernstein tells Thompson one story, that Kane was young and brash, but smart, and that later on in his life he became reclusive and elusive, falling into legend. Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotten), Kane’s best friend and former co-worker, tells another story: Kane was a loyal friend, but his wealth and status dragged him down a dark path that ultimately strayed him from the comfort of their friendship. And then Kane’s former lover Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore) tells yet another story through gritted teeth. Her life was made miserable by Kane, who cared not for her happiness. Thompson goes through hard-to-reach records, he questions people, he wanders from lead to lead without so much as an ember as his guide. Through his search he learns much of Kane’s life, but nothing about who he was. What made him tick. What gave him inspiration and courage. All of that is lost. By the end of Citizen Kane both Thompson and us have been on a journey with nothing to show for it.
This movie is one of great ingenuity and panache. It has, on several lists and polls, been selected as the best film of all time. While I refuse to label any one particular film as being the best or worst, I cannot turn away and deny that Citizen Kane, if not one of the best, is certainly one of the most essential. On the surface it is filled with juvenile fun. Charles Kane, in his adolescent years, exudes the kind of energy and zest for life that pumps him forward. Every shot and frame is adorned with detail, whether it’s minute or glaring. The scenes seem to zip from one to the other, as if they too are happy to have known the man. But beneath the joy lurks a very dark, sombre, and harrowing story, told with clever foresight and bravery.
Citizen Kane was directed by Orson Welles when he was just 25, and having come from a successful — though possibly quite controversial — radio background, RKO Radio Pictures bestowed upon him the rare privilege of having full control over his debut feature. If you’re seeking to draw a contemporary parallel, consider Ryan Seacrest writing and directing his first feature film from, say, 20th Century Fox, and having the freedom to do with it as he pleased. No prior experience. No pitch. No nothing. Just the faith of a studio in a man with a vision. It was something unheard of back in the ’40s, when the Hollywood system was on the rise, and still today no director is allowed full authority over the final cut of a picture. The genius of RKO was not sharing in Welles’ vision, but in seeing the timeless quality within it.
Citizen Kane has, in every scene, a look that seems to teleport it to a time and place far removed from the constraints of early Hollywood. Consider the large halls of the department of records, with its towering centrepiece and grand marble floor. Consider the room Thompson enters. The characters stand in the light; they’re silhouetted. The entire space resembles the row of offices seen in the opening of Blade Runner — dark, misty, haunting. Blade Runner, of course, will not exist for another forty-odd years.
But it isn’t just in the sets and lighting that Citizen Kane shows maturity. The actors too possess qualities that range from versatile to subtle. Their utterances and deliveries are less rigid than many of the acting requirements of the time, and one would think them appropriate even for a movie of recent age. Imagine Charles Kane, as played by Welles, in Mad Men. Imagine him bickering. Imagine him fighting for control. He fits. And that’s the wonder of Citizen Kane’s performances. They fit, no matter the time, no matter the place, no matter the circumstance. The movie exists in 1941, yes, but its parts are universal.
Over the years, much has been discussed of the movie’s technical achievements. Indeed, they are extraordinary. Do I need to discuss them again? I doubt it. I will list them down though: Askew angles, long takes, use of mise-en-scene and props, lighting, blocking, depth of field, camera movements, framing, cross-cuts, non-linear storytelling, editing. All these aspects are handled with care by Welles and his team. To think, he was only 25 when he assembled these parts. It is proof, therefore, that Welles was not just a great visionary, but a great visionary of cinematic and technical arts. He knew how to compose and create, how to structure and express. From beginning to end you get the feeling that this is a movie made not by a skilled technician, but by an enthusiast forehead-deep in his field.
There are many wondrous moments to behold in Citizen Kane: The towers of Xanadu, rising high into the foggy night sky; the inexplicable shot of a young Kane playing in the snow while the camera tracks back to reveal his future being dealt with like cards by his parents; the crane shot of Susan Alexander’s nightclub; Kane addressing a mass of thousands during a political rally that carries some disturbing similarities to the rallies held by the Nazi Party; the shot of Kane’s snow globe dead on the floor, carrying the warped image of a frantic nurse; Kane demolishing Susan Alexander’s ornate bedroom; a photograph of The Chronicle’s employees suddenly springing to life.
They are but bonuses and additions to an already flawless film. I recall an episode of Friends. Rachel and Joey are in Central Perk, and they are talking about movies:
Rachel: Hi! Hey, remember how last night we were talking about that movie Cujo?
Joey: Oh yeah, I still can’t believe you haven’t seen Cujo. What is wrong with you?
Rachel: Relax! It’s not like it’s Citizen Kane!
Joey: Have you ever tried to sit through Citizen Kane?
Rachel: Yeah I know it’s really boring, but it’s like a big deal.