When I was going to film school, I sometimes found it hard to sit through some of the movies the teachers made us watch, especially when I felt that even them must find their own selections rather boring, but were too conformist to do otherwise. ‘A film is old, and everyone says it’s a classic? Well, it must be, let’s make the students watch it!’ The teachers would then recite stuff they’d read about the film in an attempt to convince us that the film’s great, but I was never too keen on thematic analysis overkill. I believe that if a film is really that good, you don’t have to explain it during an hour to realise it. I have nothing against analysis, it’s just that the film itself shouldn’t be dead boring. Take “Citizen Kane”. Unlike most of the tedious and dry flicks I was forced to watch in class, here’s one classic that is as enjoyable as it is brilliant. It has a gripping story and dynamic direction, it doesn’t just stand there with nothing happening so it looks like there’s an hidden meaning.
As you know if you’ve browsed a while through this site, I’m not all that into golden age classics, I’m more into contemporary filmmakers like Scorsese, Tarantino or Paul Thomas Anderson. Well, even then, I am truly fascinated by Orson Welles’ timeless masterpiece, a film that actually feels more modern than most of what we see nowadays, sixty some years later. This is what I meant about how a film should be able to impress on its own. I didn’t need a teacher telling me “Kane” is a great film. Even first seeing it as a 15 year old punk, I was mesmerised. Not only was I not bored a minute, I was so enthralled that I had to watch it again the same day! I believe this might be the most visually rich movie ever made. You could literally watch it without the audio and just revel in the always inventive shot composition. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the story itself is fascinating!
It all begins with a riveting sequence showing us the death of Charles Foster Kane, a godzillionaire living as a recluse in Xanadu, his fortress of solitude on the desert coast of Florida. The camera travels smoothly from the main gate to Kane’s dying bed, as he drops a snow ball and his final word: Rosebud. We then see a purposely tacky “News on the March” segment on Kane’s accomplishments. The characters watching the newsreel (and us) are left feeling that the report is shallow and hardly satisfying. Who was really that rich newspaper tycoon who trapped himself in a humongous castle? And what the hell is Rosebud? Journalist Jerry Thompson (William Alland) is determined to find some answers, so he seeks out the important people in Kane’s life, and everyone has a story to tell. We learn that as a kid, Kane was sent to live with a banker, that he became extremely rich and took control a paper, the New York Inquirer. He was married to the President’s niece and ran for Governor, but things messed up. He divorced and ended up with Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingor), a simple girl who thinks she can sing. Kane wants to make her a star, but she just doesn’t have the voice. As time goes by, we see how all of Kane’s wives and friends leave him, and how he might have been responsible.
Of course, the story is much more complex than that. Welles and screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz did an amazing job, creating fascinating characters and situations. The narrative is very interesting, as the pieces of Kane’s life come together as those of a jigsaw puzzle. Orson Welles truly is a visionary filmmaker, and his direction is flawless. His use of deep focus, lighting and camera angles, the great work done with the soundtrack (with an evocative score from Bernard Herrman) and the memorable performances he got from actors new to motion pictures give you just a glance of his talent. Welles is an awesome storyteller who knows how to exploit the possibilities of cinema, “the biggest magic kit a boy was ever given”. He also stars as Kane himself, and his screen presence is unique. “Citizen Kane” has become the official answer to the “What’s the greatest movie of all times?” question, and one can understand why. This is a film that you can watch over and over and keep discovering new things.
The “Citizen Kane” DVD has got to be one of the most complete packages ever put together. Besides offering a gorgeous transfer of the film, it’s jam packed with extras detailing everything about its making, its release and its influence. We can see archival footage such as a newsreel about the premiere of the film, the original theatrical trailer (a rather odd but original bit of Welles whimsy) and stills of scenes and shots which didn’t make the final cut. Then there are not one but two commentaries. One is by Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert, who goes through the film nearly shot after shot, pointing out things about the actors, the sets, the lighting, the use of deep focus, or how so much was achieved with the magic of cinema, as the film makes us think we’re seeing crowds or grandiose locations that are not there. He comes to the conclusion that there are as many special effects shots in “Kane” than in any “Star Wars” movie! The second commentary is by Peter Bogdanovich, who wrote an Orson Welles biography and has made a movie (the upcoming “The Cat’s Meow”) about media tycoon William Randolph Hearst, who is widely believed to have been the inspiration for Charles Foster Kane.
Last but not least, the film comes with a second disc displaying a feature length documentary entitled “The Battle over Citizen Kane”. It tells the story of Hearst and Welles, two ambitious wonder boys whose massive egos clashed when the 25 year old filmmaker set his sights on the seventy-something millionaire. We see that they had somehow similar lives, and that the “fictional” story of Kane mirrors Welles’ nearly as much as Hearst. Little Orson never really had a normal life, being deemed a child prodigy early on, and going about directing plays and performing on radio serials as a teenager. Then, still in his early twenties, he was given the greatest contract in Hollywood history. No studio had ever offered such control to one person, and Welles intended to make the most of it. Today, all will agree he sure did, but back then his debut feature had one hell of a hard time being released.
When Hearst learned that the movie was a thinly veiled take on his accomplishments, his eccentricities and, most damning, his affair with the much younger Marion Davies, whom he strained to turn into a star, he was infuriated. Threats of lawsuits abounded, smear campaigns filled the front page of Hearst’s papers nationwide, and the bitter old publisher even attempted to tear down Hollywood as a whole and expose it as a nest of drunks, homosexuals and Jews! This worked to an extent, as studio moguls tried to buy the negative to “Citizen Kane” in the intent to burn the damn thing. It eventually made it through, but barely got a release, as nobody wanted to touch that hot potato. Learning all about “The Battle over Citizen Kane” in this fascinating documentary (originally made as part of PBS’ The American Experience series) makes it even more of a marvel that the film not only survived, but that it’s still cherished today as one of the major artistic achievements of the 20th century.