Some Notes on Citizen Kane

Regarded by many as the finest American movie, the foremost example of auteurism on film, the most influential work on the bounds of cinematic art and the greatest feat in the history of its medium, CITIZEN KANE stands alone in its acclaim. It has been more studied, more written about, more pondered upon, and more glorified than any other film.

Francois Truffaut in his "Citizen Kane" writes:

I only understand today...why CITIZEN KANE is the film it is and in what it is unique; it is the only 'first' film directed by a famous man....[His] shooting [was] awaited so avidly that he was forced to make not a film which permitted him to get started in the industry, but THE film, the one which sums up and prefigures all of the others.

Truffaut's observation adds the dimension of Orson Welles' angst to the well-worn story of CITIZEN KANE's birth: RKO Pictures, looking to increase its prestige, offered Welles, then of "War of the Worlds" and Mercury Theater fame, an opportunity to create two films with full artistic control. Over the next two years, Welles formed two potential productions that were shelved indefinitely, all the while absorbing the Hollywood establishment's venomous contempt for both his outsider status and his golden contract. Many accused him of resting on his laurels during this time, but he used it well, assembling the creative team that was so vital to the success of KANE: Herman J. Mankiewicz, the screenwriter; Maurice Seiderman, the make-up artist; Perry Ferguson, the art director; Bernard Herrmann, the composer; and especially Gregg Toland, the cinematographer. In interviews, writings and press releases, Welles applauds each of them (even Mankiewicz, whose name Welles once tried to remove from the credits), celebrating their grand craftsmanship and contribution to the final product. And his appreciation of the Mercury Players, his own acting troupe, can only be quantified by the ending credits.

Many think of KANE as the work of Welles, the auteur, which is surprising, given that its most remembered aspects are credited to Welles' crew: Toland developed his deep-focus photography while shooting THE LONG VOYAGE HOME (1940); Mankiewicz had long desired to create a multiple flashback plot (to which he added the Rosebud gimmick); and Perry Ferguson gave Kane's house the sense of infinite depth with clever innovations of muslin ceilings and incomplete sets bordered by black velvet. Robert Carringer in The Making of Citizen Kane, while insisting on the collaborative nature of this and all films, lauds Welles' role in collecting and collating the contributions of others. Before we reject the idea that KANE is primarily Welles' film, we must remember that it is through his crew that an auteur shapes his work. With the talents of those surrounding him, Welles created the first celluloid version of his world filled with beams of light and pools of darkness. The film also delves into the themes of power, perception, passion and love that pervade his body of work. Though the innovations may not have been his, he encouraged their use and melded them into a cohesive whole. Doubt not--this is Welles' film.

Sadly, Welles would never again be able to create a film of the same magnitude, scope, or with the same epic vision, Because of rampant similarities between Kane and William Randolph Hearst, who was a powerful newspaperman at the time, Hearst's papers boycotted all mention of CITIZEN KANE, and it is rumored that anyone from Louis B. Mayer to Hearst, himself, offered RKO around one million dollars to destroy the film entirely--a figure which exceeds the production costs. But since Welles had shown it to many industry luminaries and members of the press (not to mention that Welles' golden contract guaranteed that the movie would be distributed), RKO ignored the offer as well as many threats and released the film. Unfortunately, CITIZEN KANE was a commercial disaster and failed to turn a profit, even on its minuscule budget.

For Welles, it was the beginning of the end: his next film, THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942) was sabotaged and butchered by his producers. Then came IT'S ALL TRUE, filmed in South America and "completed" in 1993, which was aborted, ending Welles career with RKO. In all, he was only to direct nine more movies after these two, but none measured up to CITIZEN KANE's polish, prowess or daring. [Actually, in the decade since this was written, I've concluded that TOUCH OF EVIL is Welles' finest film--while it may not be as well-regarded as KANE, it certainly is a lot more interesting and fun.]

Some other notes from the literature:

  • Welles may have had real political motivations for the subject matter. Andrew Sarris talks of "a collision between the enfant terrible of the left [Welles] and the grand old man of the right [Hearst]." Welles also was an unspoken critic of fascism and the right's ties to it, which rears its head when Kane and Hitler are seen together in the newsreel.
  • The film seems to be divided into masculine and feminine halves. In the male-dominated section of the film, between Kane's separation from his mother and his meeting with Susan, Kane rules his world, crusading against Thatcher "for the common man" and nearly winning an insane bid for Governor. But once Susan appears, Kane begins to flounder and fail, most notably with Susan's singing career.
  • KANE has had unparallelled influence on the course of cinema, especially American cinema. It brought German Expressionism into wide use, most notably in film noir; it had a lot to do with the rise of auteur theory among the Cahiers du Cinema crowd; it also was quite influential on the American directors from the 70's on.
  • Its use of memory, self-reference, and aural and visual transitions is amazing for its time period; the craft used to produce these is impressive even now.

So, instead of trying to analyze KANE in all its complexity (a task I leave to those more qualified than I), I give you with some of the more insightful observations about the film:

Bosley Crowther in his review: "And so we are bound to conclude that this picture is not truly great, for its theme is basically vague and its significance depends on the circumstances."
John O'Hara in his review: "It is with exceeding regret that your faithful bystander reports that he has seen [what] he thinks may be the best picture he ever saw, [for] you, my dear, may never see the picture."
William Whitebait: "We can get Kane out of our mind, but not Kane's dream."
Peter Cowie in his "Study of a Colossus": "Kane is all things to all men."
Jorge Luis Borges: "CITIZEN KANE is a labyrinth without a center."
Francois Truffaut in his "Citizen Kane": "We [the French cinephiles] loved this film because it was complete: psychological, social, poetic, dramatic, comic, baroque, strict, and demanding. It is a demonstration of the source of power and an attack on the force of power, it is a hymn to youth and a meditation on old age, an essay on the vanity of all material ambition and at the same time a poem on old age and the solitude of human beings, genius or monster or monstrous genius."

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