Let’s send October off in style, shall we? Four Thursdays and several classics later, we arrive here at the fifth installment of TBT. And really, how can I ignore this one? It’s a film I saw a few months ago and I haven’t seen it since, so with any luck my memory will not fail me. I can finally now say that I have gotten to experience
Today’s food for thought: Citizen Kane.
Incinerating sleds since: September 5, 1941
How does one hope to reveal anything new or exciting about Citizen Kane, one of cinema’s most poured-over films and a release that’s now over 70 years old? The truth is, they can’t. The best thing that I can hope to do is nod my head and silently agree with everyone who has ever sung its praises. This is a film with such a reputation that it actually takes some effort not to watch it.
Some months ago now I pressured myself into ordering the DVD through Netflix. When it arrived it then sat on top of the Xbox for awhile before I finally decided I should just give it a chance. I carried a healthy level of skepticism going in because there was no way this film was going to be as good as everyone had told me it was. Fifteen minutes in I was completely entranced. Orson Welles’ most celebrated film, and please pardon the strange comparison, absorbs and entertains — and ultimately repulses — much in the same way as Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, creating an almost mythical character at the heart of the story and protecting him behind layers upon layers of exposition, each one invariably tainted by bias and prejudice. Both feature characters so much larger than life it takes at least 120 cinematic minutes to properly represent them.
In hindsight, Charles Foster Kane (Welles) might be easier to sum up than you would think. The word ‘enigma’ comes to mind. Even ‘celebrity.’ That’s an incomplete picture though. And really, that’s the impression Welles (as director) wants first-time viewers to have. His approach all but beckons those same viewers to watch again, to find out what pieces of the puzzle they have missed. Citizen Kane, in the mode of a film à clef, weaves a dense and complex narrative to paint a collage of impressions about who Kane was, what he represented, and how his legacy would proceed him.
Kane, himself a collage of real-life personalities, was loosely based upon American newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, Chicago business tycoons Samuel Insull and Harold McCormick, as well as aspects of Welles’ own life. Despite his incredible wealth and influence, Kane was, for all intents and purposes, an American everyman — someone who, if you saw him on the streets, you could walk right up to and touch. And you, in all your mediocrity, would matter to him. At least, that’s how it seemed.
Among the most fervently discussed aspects of this production is its inventive narrative structure, one which spindles out like a spiderweb to incorporate virtually every aspect of this man’s life, accumulating dramatic heft until a remarkable revelation. The core of the story is concerned with developing Kane’s professional life, detailing his impoverished childhood in Colorado, his subsequent adoption by a wealthy banker named Walter Thatcher (George Coulouris), and his meteoric rise to national prominence after entering the newspaper business and seizing control of the New York Inquirer, what many today recognize as the tabloid paper The National Enquirer.
Within this framework we see Kane (d)evolve from ebullient and idealistic publisher seeking immortality via his unfathomable business savvy — save for the little hiccup in 1929 where the stock market crash resulted in his forfeiture of his controlling share of The Inquirer — to a mere mortal set on gaining as much power as a man can have — he briefly dabbled in politics before an affair effectively put an end to that venture — while essentially destroying anyone who dared cross him, and God forbid, chose to marry him. One particularly memorable sequence depicts the gradual dissolution of his first marriage to Emily Monroe Norton (Ruth Warrick), a niece of the President of the United States, by staging a series of conversations at a dinner table.
All of these developments are relayed through flashbacks, which result from the many interviews conducted by modern-day newspaper reporter Jerry Thompson (William Alland). He’s seeking the significance of Kane’s last dying words (really, it’s a single word ‘rosebud’), at the behest of his newsreel producer. Interviews include friends and associates, some of whom are willing to speak freely about the man while others (notably Susan Alexander, Kane’s second wife) initially refuse to be interviewed. Even disregarding the immensity of the character being explored, Citizen Kane established its brilliance through this kaleidoscopic approach, using other people to inform a third party’s opinion about who this man was and why his death was so significant. As people are inherently complex, it only makes sense our best chance of gaining intimate knowledge of a single person is through the perspectives of many.
Quite simply, this is an extraordinary picture that almost suffers from an abundance of potential talking points. I haven’t even delved into how ornate and beautiful its imagery is. The symbolism. The scale. The humanity and the lack thereof, particularly during scenes at his elegant Floridian estate, known as Xanadu. The use of shadows to evoke danger and tension. The sharp suits and elegant dresses suggesting power and prestige both earned and usurped. The film has been praised countless times for its groundbreaking technical aspects, and while I claim to know little about that aspect of filmmaking, to my untrained eye it’s praise well-deserved.
To the uninitiated, Citizen Kane and all of its clout might seem a bit overwhelming and even off-putting. After all, lofty expectations usually serve to disappoint. In my case, I don’t think there was a way to prepare myself for how good this was. The film ends in an estate sale, wherein Kane’s bevy of personal possessions — most of them statues and busts and expensive paintings — are being divided up either for selling or discarding. It’s telling that this cavernous enclave is mostly filled with priceless items that, collectively, mean very little. They probably meant very little to Kane himself. The accumulation of wealth is so ridiculous it consumes the entirety of the frame. In fact, the only thing more consuming than his apparent obsession with gaining more and more stuff is that nagging sensation that we’ve missed the significance of the word ‘rosebud.’
Recommendation: Unforgettable. And quite simply a classic. Orson Welles truly outdoes himself in the lead and as a director, and if you are yet to see this film I urge you to put some time aside and give it a shot. I personally had grown tired of hearing how good a movie Citizen Kane was, but that was before I actually got around to watching it. Between the visual aesthetic and the scope and ambition of its content, this may not be the ‘best movie I’ve ever seen,’ but for all its comprehensiveness and elegant craftsmanship, it’s likely to remain in a fairly elite group for years to come.
Running Time: 119 mins.
TBTrivia: The audience that watches Kane make his speech is, in fact, a still photo. To give the illusion of movement, hundreds of holes were pricked in with a pin, and lights moved about behind it.
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