Citizen Kane (1941)


(director/writer: Orson Welles; screenwriter: Herman J. Mankiewicz; cinematographer: Gregg Toland; editor: Robert Wise; music: Bernard Herrmann; cast: Orson Welles (Charles Foster Kane), Joseph Cotten (Jedediah Leland), Everett Sloane (Mr. Bernstein), George Coulouris (Walter Parks Thatcher), Agnes Moorehead (Mary Kane), Dorothy Comingore (Susan Alexander Kane), Ruth Warrick (Emily Monroe Norton Kane), Paul Stewart (Raymond, Butler), Ray Collins (James W. Gettys), Erskine Sanford (Herbert Carter), Buddy Swan (Charles Kane, as a child of 8), William Alland (Jerry Thompson), Philip Van Zandt (Mr. Rawlston), Harry Shannon (Kane’s Father); Runtime: 119; MPAA Rating: PG; producer: Orson Welles; RKO; 1941)

“The most auspicious debut film ever for a director.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The most auspicious debut film ever for a director is also the most influential and discussed film of all time, and also one that was controversial due to its stinging fictionalized representation of tycoon publisher William Randolph Hearst (accusing him of “yellow journalism” among other things–which upset the great man greatly and he proved to be a bitter lifetime enemy of Welles’, starting off by limiting Citizen Kane’s theater release by playing hardball with RKO).

The 25-year-old Orson Welles cleverly directs, writes and stars in Citizen Kane, begrudgingly giving co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz some credit when he threatened to sue otherwise. The film comes after Welles received notoriety from his hoax CBS radio broadcast on Halloween Eve, Sunday, October 30, 1938, that scared the American public into believing the Martians landed in the States. Welles was able to get full control in making the film the way he wanted to. It was to be about Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or the mogul Howard Hughes, but turned out modeled after a composite of tycoon publishers–including many similarities to Hearst.

CK was noted for so many innovative features that are now regularly part of a modern film, that the film itself can still be presented to film schools as ‘a film on how to make a film.’ The innovations include such things as stylistic camera movement, unconventional lighting–including chiaroscuro and a novel use of shadows, following in the tradition of German Expressionists, depth-focus and angle shots, over-lapping dialogue, flashbacks, non-linear narrative, frequent use of dissolves, long takes and many other marvelous technical feats. Welles assumes most of the credit, but I would think cinematographer Gregg Toland had more than some minor part in the innovations.

The narrative is like a soap-opera detective story, of finding the missing piece to a jig-saw puzzle. Upon Charles Foster Kane’s (Orson Welles) death in Xanadu, the most expensive monument ever built to honor one man, located in Florida, the editor of a NY newspaper, Mr. Rawlston, sends out his team of reporters to find the significance of the elderly Kane’s dying last word: “Rosebud.” Ace reporter Jerry Thompson begins by interviewing Kane’s singer second wife Susan Alexander, his stuffy banker guardian Walter Parks Thatcher, his newspaper’s general manager and most loyal employee Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane), and his best friend ever since their college days, Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotten), who was the first one hired when Kane bought the crumbling NY Daily Inquirer and made him a drama critic. Leland now lives in a Manhattan nursing home and tells how he got canned (receiving a check for $25,000) after being too drunk to write a derogatory review of wife number two’s opera debut–but it was dutifully finished by Kane in the same critical manner intended. In flashback, we learn of Kane’s impulsive marriage upon his tour of Europe collecting art works, to the niece of a president, Emily Monroe Norton, and how she left him after his affair with Susan Alexander became public knowledge by corrupt politician James W. Gettys in a bid to stop Kane from defeating him in the race for Governor of New York. Emily and their son died two years later in a traffic accident. Kane lost because of the affair, but married the low-bred Alexander and was so overbearing that she walked out on him despite his claim of building Xanadu for her. Through flashbacks, we learn of Kane’s childhood at eight and how his Colorado uneducated and unrefined mother Mary, who by luck inherited a fortune. Against her crude husband’s advice, Mary thought it best that Charles be raised by respectable banker guardian Thatcher back east. It was on that snowy day when Charles was clutching his sled named “Rosebud” that he was taken away from his parents to never see them again.

In the final act, the Xanadu butler Raymond can only tell the reporter he heard his master say “Rosebud” before dying and breaking a glass ball of snow, but doesn’t think it has any significance. In the end, the reporters fail to uncover what the mystery word means, but indicate it doesn’t really matter because no one word can describe a person’s life.

Though I find that I admire Welles’ Touch of Evil more than any other film he made, this film is a masterpiece that has a certain continual fascination despite its dazzling technical achievements that encourages repeated viewings and always seems to bring out something seen in a different light or something brand new. It’s an enigmatic film that invites comparisons to Orson’s own character, and one that invites further questioning about such things as art, authorship, fakery and film-making. Clearly an essential film that doesn’t seem likely that it can ever be entirely digested no matter how many times viewed.