July 05, 2008

Citizen Kane (1941)

During one Sunday night in October back in 1938, a young actor and theater director named Orson Welles caused nationwide panic in the United States with the broadcast of his inventive radio play adaptation of H. G. Wells's "The War of the Worlds". His play, done in a documentary style mimicking a newscast bulletin, fooled people into thinking that a real alien invasion was taking place and earned Welles a place in the history of radio thanks to his innovative format. But this wouldn't be the only time the young prodigy would enter the history books, as thanks to the fame and notoriety he won with his radio play, Welles received an offer from RKO Pictures with what could be considered as "the Holy Grial" of all contracts: complete artistic control. The result of this offer would be an achievement as important and influential as his infamous radio play, as it was what is now considered as one of the most innovative works in the history of cinema: 1941's "Citizen Kane".

"Citizen Kane" is the story of media tycoon Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles himself), as told by the people who knew him and worked by his side. It all starts when Kane dies alone in Xanadu, his extravagant private estate, and an obituary newsreel is prepared about his public life. However, there is a mystery surrounding the last word Kane spoke, "Rosebud", as nobody can understand what was the importance of that word. Reporter Jerry Thompson (William Alland) is put on charge of an investigation about Kane's private life, hoping to discover what is the meaning of "Rosebud" in Kane's life and why was that word the last thing the richest and most powerful man in the United States thought in his lifetime. With this mission, Thompson decides to interview Kane's second wife Susan (Dorothy Comingore), but without much success, so the young reporter begins to dig deeper, looking for Kane's former employees and friends, and discovers the rise and fall of citizen Charles Foster Kane.

The brainchild of screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, "Citizen Kane" evolved into Mankiewicz's personal revenge against media tycoon William Randolph Hearst. Welles liked the original concept of the script, but wanted something more than a mere exposé, so he collaborated with Mankiewicz and developed the idea into a complex, dense tale about the mystery of a man's life. And this deconstruction of a man's life is what made "Citizen Kane"'s story so powerful, as Kane may initially appear as the caricature of a tycoon, a parody of a wealthy evil man (as Mankiewicz intended), but through the flashbacks we discover the many sides of Kane, the very different Kanes that struggle inside this man's (and well, inside us too) persona and what ultimately are what make him a person. The loving Kane, the idealist one, the ambitious one, the greedy one; in "Citizen Kane" Welles and Mankiewicz created a character that, like real people, may be a hero to some, a devil to others, and an enigma to just everyone.

Now, not only there was an innovative screenplay at hand, what truly makes "Citizen Kane" an achievement is how innovative it is in terms of film-making. Director Orson Welles' creative use of cinematography (a beautiful work by the legendary Gregg Toland), music (by Bernard Herrmann in his first work for cinema), editing (by Robert Wise) and other technical aspects results in what's essentially, a new film-making style. It's not that Welles had "invented" a new way of making a movie, but that he combined all previous styles into a definitive style for the sound era. Every scene feels perfect, powerful, as if their emotional impact had been carefully calculated, with every frame, every sound in perfect harmony with the whole thing. In my personal opinion, all the experimentation and discovery that took place through the 30s (the first decade of sound in film) finds its conclusion in "Citizen Kane", where all those innovations collide and result in "modern" cinema as we know it.

And of course, the cast is also instrumental part of this monumental miracle named "Citizen Kane", with most of Orson Welles' company of The Mercury Theatre debuting on cinema in this film. Welles' acting as Kane is one of those larger than life performances where an actor truly shows his best. But well, despite what it may seem, it's not all about Welles, as the rest of the cast truly make an awesome job too. As Jed Leland, Kane's best friend, Joseph Cotten is remarkable, making the best of many key scenes and giving a moving performance when his character is found at an old age. However, Agnes Moorehead may be the film's highlight as Kane's first wife, a role in which her delivers a powerful performance that manages to overshadow Welles at some points. Her expression is powerful, and sometimes she says more with her eyes than with words. As Kane's second wife, Dorothy Comingore is effective, fresh, and also fun (a trait her young and naive character requires), although somewhat struggles at some of the most dramatic scenes in the film.

What could be said about "Citizen Kane" that had not been said before? It has an enormous reputation as "cinema's best film" and tends to appear at the top of countless polls and lists of favorites. Well, for starters this is truly a case where the film lives up to its hype, as while probably nowadays it doesn't feel as innovative and original as when released, it still is a powerful and moving movie where everything is just in the right place to create a masterpiece. Certainly, the film may have lost a bit of its impact because of its own influence and reputation, because, as written above, being an influential movie its impact can only be seen in comparison with the movies of before its own time, as now that cinema follows the language reinvented in "Citizen Kane", it hardly feels like something modern audiences had not seen before. However, put in context, "Citizen Kane" is a landmark of film-making and a movie that can serve as a pattern of how to tell a good story, as despite its many technical innovations, the important thing in "Citizen Kane" has always been its storytelling.

Being a movie that has been studied and analyzed for years (and will definitely still be studied and analyzed in the future), it may be difficult to approach "Citizen Kane" without being overwhelmed by the movie's reputation. But that's the beauty of masterpieces like this, that they are not only huge artistic and technical achievements, but that they can also be what movies are all about: entertaining good stories. Sadly, "Citizen Kane" was the only time Orson Welles had complete control of a movie, as he constantly suffered from studio interference through the rest of his career, but fortunately, that one chance where a group of débutantes got a blank check from RKO Pictures was enough for those young artists to create a masterpiece.


Buy "Citizen Kane" (1941)


ackatsis said...

I don't think there's anything I can say about "Citizen Kane" that hasn't been said thirty times before.

As a side-note, Welles also had complete artistic control when he filmed "The Trial (1962)" (tellingly, one of his best films), though here he was plagued by budget difficulties.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

I think the most interesting thing about Kane is what it doesn't give the audience. It omits Kane's viewpoint, which is like the elephant in the room. Kane works well enough as a kind of facile biography, but when you get into the metacinematics of it, it turns into something quite different. It turns into a treatise on how unknowable everyone is to everyone else. I think this is what makes the movie as great as it is. There's a yawning existential abyss at its heart.

I think Jorge Luis Borges had it exactly right when he said that Charles Foster Kane is a "simulacrum, a chaos of appearances" and that the movie itself is a "labyrinth without a center."

By the way, have you seen Chimes at Midnight? It may be my favorite of Welles's movies.