Citizen Kane (1941)

I have always seen people talking about Orson Welles's Citizen Kane with awe and reverence, but, much more interestingly, as a movie that made them think in a completely different way about movies, their style, grammar, and composition. After hearing this, I developed a fantasy that I tap into every time I watch Kane: that I have never seen a movie before and am just stepping unsuspectingly into the theater for the first time to see what Mr. Welles has to offer.

It does not work, of course, because it can't. I have seen hundreds of films and television programs and videos that came after Citizen Kane and used it as an inspiration, and lots of things that came before. So while I can study Citizen Kane and what came before and after to find the innovations and the real daring of it, I can never quite get that feeling of complete originality that others experienced. Maybe I'll start my kids on Birth of a Nation and make them watch silent films and early talkies until their eighteenth birthdays to preserve it for them. Or maybe not.

Anyway, my little fantasy does allow me a bit of wonder, a bit of a keener eye in trying to pick out and appreciate the innovativeness of Welles's style. Some contemporary critics dismissed Welles's style as "showing off." Of course he was "showing off," but can it really be called that when most of what he does works in such an effective and integrated way? I think that's just called "talent" and "acumen."

Whatever camera angles and specific techniques Welles uses--these have been studied and catalogued to death--the main impression that Welles creates is one of hugeness, perfect for the character of Charles Foster Kane. Everything is done just to the point of being overdone, so that, for a black-and-white movie, it is amazingly flamboyant. The neon sign above Susan Alexander Kane's nightclub is not white or shades of gray, but a bright, garish yellow, and it jumps in the rain like the real thing. Even when Welles is using his most obvious miniature effects--the snow globe, Xanadu's dark towers in the distance, the audiences for Kane's gubernatorial candidate address and Susan Alexander Kane's operatic debut--the audience is beyond that, moving inside the picture along with the director's vision. The taste of that feeling of immensity leads the audience to want more and more until we look back and see, not that we were tricked by the director or the film, but by Charles Foster Kane himself.

The basic conception of Citizen Kane is one that promises something new and spectacular: a noir bio-pic. And in the genre of "bio-pics," only presidents, T.E. Lawrence and perhaps Oskar Schindler have received the kind of searching, deep analysis that Welles gives here to newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Shakespearean in scope, Citizen Kane constructs a very rare thing, that is, an American legend. Charles Foster Kane becomes America's Richard III or, if Richard Nixon has already claimed that crown in the public mind without a classic movie, perhaps a more uniquely American tragic hero.

The most amazing thing to me about Citizen Kane is that it burst out of Hollywood and simultaneously established Orson Welles as a brilliant writer, director, and actor. No one has even come close to matching that feat since (only Chaplin did it before). Richard Attenborough, Laurence Olivier, Kenneth Branagh, Dennis Hopper, Quentin Tarantino, Tim Robbins, Spike Lee, Steve Martin, Robert Redford, Kevin Costner and Clint Eastwood all aspire, and get better for the aspiring.

Welles pulls emotions of sympathy for the character of Charles Foster Kane out of the audience with skill and perfect timing, also inspiring feelings of bafflement, hate, distrust, and simply like for this warped, tragic man. Joseph Cotten as Jedediah Sloan is so much the best friend that one wonders whether his friendship offscreen with Welles could have been that close, and for such a young man, his curmudgeonly old Jedediah is so warmly grandfatherly and yet so much the same character that it's hard to believe. I mean, that kind of prosthetic magic never works.

Citizen Kane is an amazing experience. Is it the best movie of all time? Does it matter?

Links for Citizen Kane

Internet Movie Database Entry

Roger Ebert Review


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