The Most Famous Best Film in the World. Stunningly modern, stunningly Big, even today: when the RKO Radio signal and production credit fades, there it is in silently screaming faux neon: CITIZEN KANE. No film has ever made good on such immense ambition, no film has ever been so radically fresh in structure, tone, staging. It may take another art form to produce something as pure in its radical and daring arrogance.
The opening is a morbid montage right out of S.T.Coleridge & Hammer Horror films – a “No Trespassing” sign, unofficial thematic emblem; an ascending cyclone fence, some iron tracery and a gothic pile in the old despotic style, fit for Tamerlane. An air of desolation and decay (including an abandoned golf course and zoo), redolent of Ozymandias. Fog. Through the fog, sounds the grim Taxi Driver style horns of Bernard Herrmann, homage to Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. Looking up at a high leadlight window, we see the lights go out – from the inside, we see the ambient external light of night dimly alight on an aged bedridden figure of a man.
A snowdrift in a glass, a dying declaration (“Rosebud” – the MacGuffin) and as the snow-globe falls from a dying hand and breaks, a mock newsreel tells us of the key events in the life of Charles Foster Kane, a newspaper mogul with a passing resemblance to William Randolph Hearst.
The film thus gives away its ending in the initial minutes but Welles is able to give context and depth to the rest of his story, including establishment of the back story, whilst retaining a sense of suspense via his MacGuffin.
The various scenes in which the reporter, Thompson (William Allard) engages with people from Kane’s past – his school friend and drama critic Jed Leland (Joseph Cotton), his business manager Bernstein (Everett Sloane), his second wife (Dorothy Comingore) and through them, past people, such as his mother (Agnes Moorhead), his guardian Mr Thatcher (George Coulouris) and his first wife (Ruth Warrick) – are potently done, brilliantly scripted and shot (by Gregg Toland) and superbly, dynamically edited (by Robert Wise). RKO production values were then as good as any and helped create a sense of enormity central to the film.
Orson Welles (b. 6 May 1915) made Citizen Kane (his first film) like the early Kane ran “The Enquirer” – he didn’t know how to do it so he tried everything he knew. There are theatrical touches that had never been translated to film because of various advantages or disadvantages of that medium. Welles tried them out. As a result, despite several accidents on set and interference from RKO’s front office, there is a great freshness yet maturity about the production. And although Kane is a monster, of course, he somehow, with his faults all on his sleeve and his acknowledged sense of failure and loss, manages to retain our respectful sympathy.
There has been a famous and largely worthless debate over screen credit, in which Herman J Mankiewicz, fearful of being left out, asserted that the script was his. In fact, it was, but with Welles coming up with the original concept and then working on re-writes for several months before the cameras tentatively commenced to turn in June 1940, the credit to Mankiewicz and Welles would appear to be entirely apt.
Joseph Cotton is impressive, as a young and old man, but Welles’ other achievements in the film tend to obscure how great he is as Kane, a portrayal from a man in his 20s to one in his dotage, convincing us of Kane’s vitality, ego, arrogance and appetite (qua Welles himself?).
Not all of the performances work. Some of the key roles are taken by actors mainly versed in radio or theatre and the intimacy of the movie camera seems to have prompted an undue amount of mugging. Nevertheless, the main film crime is to be boring and the element of caricature does not defeat and may even enhance the overall theatrical effect.
In her biography of Orson Welles (1985), Barbara Leaming quotes him thus: “I have this terrible sense that a film is dead – that it’s a piece of film in a machine that will be run off and shown to people. That is why, I think, my films are theatrical, and strongly stated, because I can’t believe that anybody won’t fall asleep unless they are. There’s an awful lot of Bergman and Antonioni that I’d rather be dead than sit through. For myself, unless a film is hallucinatory, unless it becomes that kind of an experience, it doesn’t come alive. I know that directors find serious and sensitive audiences for films where people sit around peeling potatoes in the peasant houses – but I can’t read that kind of novel either. Somebody had to be knocking at the door – I figure that is the way Shakespeare thought…”
How could you visit San Simeon near the Californian coast, north of Los Angeles (see main building and outdoor pool above -indoor pool further below) and draw the conclusion Xanadu (immediately below) bears any resemblance to Hearst’s Castle?
Hearst’s relationship with Marion Davies was eerily similar to the Kane/Susan Alexander affair. As David Niven remarked in Bring On The Empty Horses, for example, Hearst meddled in her films to an intolerable degree “and usually insisted that somewhere in the picture, however out of place, Marion should sing a song.”
Hearst could be kind but he was also ruthless. One has little difficulty seeing him doing to a friend what Kane does to Leland in the Chicago office of “The Enquirer”, when, in response to Jed’s remarking on the fact they were talking again after years of estrangement, says to him “Sure we’re talking Jedediah…you’re fired.”
In any event, like Charlie, viewers can love this film on their own terms.