Classic Reviews: Citizen Kane (1941)
Considered by many as the greatest film of all time – what is all the fuss about with Citizen Kane?
It’s fair to say that the fuss is justified. Orson Welles – with unparalleled creative license – creates a superb picture as director, co-writer and lead actor in the heat of Hollywood’s Golden Age. The image of Welles’ animated speech, flanked by Kane paraphernalia is as enduring as the whispered mutter of ‘Rosebud’ that drives the plot from there on in.
The narrative of Charles Foster Kane is told in a fittingly unique manner, beginning with his death and then relived first via news reels and then through a sequence of flashbacks. You are enticed by the initial video obituary of this enigmatic newspaper conglomerate who outlived his success so painfully soon. You can’t help but become embroiled in Kane the mythic and Kane the legend.
This is in part driven by the ever charismatic Welles who slips effortlessly into the lead role as the chirpy young Kane when he first takes over the Inquirer newspaper. This is no better demonstrated than by his famous line in response to the company’s troubles – shrugging that $1 million annual losses will take 60 years to break him.
Yet Kane’s transformation and subsequent decline is portrayed all too clearly. While the character at the forefront of the picture is always grandiose with his money, it is fame that cripples the man. Kane flirts with a career in politics, begins a bizarre chain of collecting and sees his personal life dissolve around him.
It is for these reasons that Citizen Kane is beautifully tragic in the man who has it all, having everything but love. His second wife fell for him without knowing his reputation but Kane betrays his own efforts in the face of his ego and hubris. The man that once filled the shallow ceilings of the Inquirer offices is later belittled by the house-come-mosaleum that is Xanadu.
However, it is the perfectly ambiguous conclusion of the Rosebud mystery that wraps up the film so beautifully. It’s easy to forget the Kane the viewer loved when he is made so brutal and insensitive in his latter gluttony by Welles. Yet in the closing minutes we are handed hope in a chillingly beautiful throwback to his childhood, before the money and fame, and with the innocence of youth.
And what better compliment to a film than it having such a poignant message. Even better to have it married to one of the most complex characters in cinema with a distinct arc so explored that it almost comes full circle.
What is also remarkable about Citizen Kane is that this is Welles’ first venture into directing. The American legend treats us to brilliantly quirky shots from the introduction of Xanadu to the visual presentation of marital collapse through the medium of furniture. There is no shortage of cuts; dips and dives between time periods but all effortlessly worked and edited.
Citizen Kane also sees the birth of a number of future Hollywood stars with Mercury Players distributing silver screen debuts. Joseph Cotton portrays the perfect foil for Kane – his close friend Jedediah – and can be forever recalled for his drunken newsroom monologue that touches on so many truths. Dorothy Comingore is superb as Susan Alexander, the naive second wife that eventually escapes Kane’s paranoia-born shackles.
Impressive performances can also be noted from Ray Collins, Paul Stewart and Erskine Sanford who revealed none of their inexperience.
Citizen Kane is justifiably classic and is no more elevated than by it’s unlikely circumstances. A first-time director surrounded by first-time film actors produced a picture that is still lorded by critics and recalled fondly by moviegoers. The eponymous character is perfectly enigmatic and it is his poignant arc that is so perfectly decorated by other points of merit that greatness is guaranteed.
If you aren’t prickled by the Rosebud reveal – the heartbeat of the picture – then get yourself checked out. 10/10.
Kobe Tong, YJA Senior Correspondent