Citizen Kane was voted the best ever American Film in a BBC poll and it is a miracle of cinema. In 1941 a group of stage and radio actors, a first-time director, an inventive cinematographer and a hard-drinking writer were given the keys to a studio and total control… And they somehow made a masterpiece.
For Citizen Kane is not just a ‘great’ film it is all the lessons of the emerging era of sound.
Orson Welles, 26-year-old boy wonder of radio and stage, was given freedom by RKO Radio Pictures to make any picture he wished and this was the result. Originally titled “The American”, its inspiration was the life of William Randolph Hearst, a man who had constructed an empire of newspapers, radio stations, magazines and news services, and then built for himself the flamboyant monument of San Simeon, a castle furnished by pillaging the remains of nations.
The film opens with newsreel obituary footage that briefs us on the life and times of Charles Foster Kane; a reclusive millionaire newspaper tycoon whose last word, ‘rosebud’, no one understands. The newsreel footage provides a map of Kane’s rise to fame and subsequent downward spiral, and keeps us oriented as the screenplay skips around in time, piecing together the memories of those who knew him.
Curious about Kane’s dying word, the newsreel editor assigns a reporter, Thompson, to find out what it meant. Played by William Alland, Thompson is a thankless performance for whilst he triggers every flashback, his face is never seen. He questions Kane’s alcoholic mistress, his ailing old friend, his rich associate and the other witnesses as the timeline loops. By flashing back through the eyes of many witnesses, the film creates an emotional chronology, independent of time.
Along with the personal story of a man is the history of a period. Citizen Kane covers the rise of the penny press (here Joseph Pulitzer is the model), the Hearst-supported Spanish-American War, the birth of radio, the power of political machines, the rise of fascism and the growth of celebrity journalism. The Oscar-winning screenplay is densely constructed and covers an astonishing amount of ground from a record of a marriage (early bliss to a montage of increasingly chilly breakfasts) to Kane inventing the popular press.
From his great rise, to his disastrous adultery and his decline into seclusion.
“I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life,” says one of the searchers through the warehouse of treasures left behind by Charles Foster Kane. But then we have the famous series of shots leading to the closeup of the word “Rosebud” in curling paint on a sled that has been tossed into a furnace. This was Kane’s childhood sled, taken from him as he was torn from his family and sent east to boarding school.
Rosebud is the emblem of the security, hope and innocence of childhood, which Kane spent his life seeking to regain. It is the adult yearning for childhood that we learn to suppress. “Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn’t get, or something he lost,” says Thompson, the reporter, “Anyway, it wouldn’t have explained anything.” And it’s true- it wouldn’t have explained anything but that’s the point: it’s a demonstration that nothing can be explained, even in film.
“Citizen Kane” knows the sled is not the answer: it explains what Rosebud is, but not what Rosebud means.
The construction of the film shows how, after we are gone, our lives survive only in the memories of others, and those memories don’t necessarily agree with how we presented ourselves or believed ourselves to be seen. One Kane was kind, one was mean, one chose his mistress over his marriage and political career. There was a Kane who entertained millions and he was the same Kane who died alone.
The film is full of dazzling visual moments: candidate Kane addressing a political rally; the doorway of his mistress dissolving into a front-page photo in a rival newspaper; the towers of Xanadu; the camera swooping down through a skylight toward the pathetic Susan in a nightclub; the boy playing in the snow in the background as his parents determine his future.
Orson Welles brought a subtle knowledge of sound and dialogue to the film but brought in experimental cinematographer Gregg Toland to aid his creation of the film’s visual wonders. Welles himself plays Kane from age 25 until his deathbed, using makeup and body language to tell the story of a man increasingly captive inside his needs.