Citizen Kane (1941)
Mercury Productions - RKO Radio Pictures Director Orson Welles Producer Orson Welles Screenplay Herman J Mankiewicz & Orson Welles Director of Photography Gregg Toland Editor Robert Wise Score Bernard Hermann Actors Orson Welles Joseph Cotten Dorothy Comingore Agnes Moorhead Everett Sloane Ruth Warwick Erskine Sandford George Coulouris William Alland
"THATCHER: Is this any way to run a newspaper?!
KANE: I don't know how to run a newspaper, Mr Thatcher. I just try everything I can think of."
It might have been an act of folly for RKO to give Welles complete creative freedom over his first film project at the age of 25. Financially speaking it was, but the world has a lot to thank RKO for, not least in getting the picture released at all. The enormous pressure brought to bear on the studio by William Randolph Hearst, the legendary press baron upon whose extraordinary life the film was based, might easily have buried the film. It is certain that Hearst, on seeing the released picture, would have regretted not having tried harder.
Welles came to the table armed with three aces and a wild card: veteran Hollywood cinematographer Gregg Toland, co-screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz and the greatest film composer of them all, Bernard Herrmann, allied to Welles' magnificent theatre troupe the Mercury Players (none of whom had ever acted on film). Welles played his hand to perfection. Every frame of Kane resonates with youthful energy and insolence. Refusing at every turn to take no for an answer, Welles weaves together this ambitiously epic tale of greed and hubris with relentless invention: low-angle shots, split-screen dissolves, deep-focus tableaux, preposterous tracking shots, newsreel pastiche, flashbacks and sound distortions...none of these techniques had ever been deployed with such elan. Far from a simple bravado-laden box of tricks, they all perfectly serve a script whose wit and freshness would have ranked it as a classic had it only ever been played on the radio.
Not content to have revolutionised the way in which films were made at his first attempt, Welles also played the title role with such luminous virtuosity that it is hard to believe that he was making his screen debut at 25. For Welles, in his debut as director as well, to have taken on a character who ages forty years over the course of the film, ripening from youthful upstart to charismatic politician, until finally rotting into a bald bellicose brute, was an act of such self-confidence that it immediately divided the industry...an industry which simply wasn't ready for such a volcanic talent to emerge so quickly. Love or hate Orson Welles, very few sat on the fence.
Critics seeking to debunk Kane have pointed to its supposed lack of emotional resonance, claiming that its technical brilliance masks a lack of any real feeling in its subject matter, beyond a love of the technicity itself. It is ultimately for the viewer to decide whether they engage on an emotional level with the characters, but it should be pointed out that Citizen Kane is primarily a satire and thus takes a necessarily detached approach to its characters. Furthermore its central character is not blessed with typical emotions (though the bookend "Rosebud" hints at something suppressed throughout). It is possible to see, in the strength of Welles and Mankiewicz's contempt for the values of men such as Hearst/Kane which shines through the film, plenty of emotional resonance, albeit of a loftier kind. In addition, the film's depiction of Kane's disastrous second marriage incites pity for Susan Alexander and even for Kane himself on occasions, such as when he stubbornly seeks a curtain call for his wife at the opera whilst the rest of the audience have long since stopped clapping.
Ultimately, Kane is at worst Art for Art's sake. Here at orsonwelles.co.uk we do not actually see this expression as a pejorative one, but that is a debate for another time. Perhaps Citizen Kane is the "Greatest Film of All Time", perhaps not. But its influence on the medium is unquestionable. Like Shakespeare's Hamlet to the English language, the language of the Cinema owes much more to Citizen Kane than we might always appreciate. Above all, there are also few "classic" films which are so downright enjoyable to watch. Kane's sheer cheekiness is an infectious pleasure.
Pauline Kael's seminal book on the film, Raising Kane, published in 1971, has the dubious distinction of being at once one of the most supportive, and the most destructive, academic texts on the subject. Whilst acknowledging the importance of the film, Kael also seeks to divest Welles of most of the credit, attributing the real "authorship" of the film to Welles' co-screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz, and accusing Welles of stealing the limelight. The plain facts are that there is no case to answer. Leaving aside the question of how Kael supposes Mankiewicz helped Welles to light and direct the picture, for such a notable student of Film it seems odd that Kael failed to perceive in all of Welles' later work the personal hallmarks of his style (borne out of Welles' considerable radio and theatre work) which were first laid out in Kane to such acclaim. As far as authorship of the screenplay is concerned, it is palpably clear to any student of Welles that whilst most of the plot of Kane is probably Mankiewicz's, most of the dialogue is clearly Welles'. As Welles' friend and collaborator Peter Bogdanovich put it, Kael's book was simply "an attempt to assassinate Orson."
It is also tempting (for the lazier critics amongst us) to see in Kane a coincidental analogy with Welles' own life and career, but in the cold light of day this analysis does not stand up either. Hearst/Kane was a monstrous egotist who bullied his way through life and alienated all who knew him, whereas Welles was a victim of the resentment of lesser mortals, but was much loved by those with whom he collaborated and hugely respected by European critics and most filmmakers of distinction (he was voted the greatest film-maker ever in a BFI poll of directors) if not necessarily by the public.
Also, Kane became extremely rich and successful, whereas Welles might have been famous and, for a few moments at least, powerful, but he was never rich and never successful...his fall from grace started almost from the word go. Kane, for his part, was bitter and lonely when he died, railing at the perceived injustices that had led to his downfall. Welles, on the other hand, was philosophical about the hardships he encountered and whilst his life was filled with regret for missed opportunities, he often made light of his struggles in interviews.
Only Welles' nostalgia in later life for the early days when making films still carried an innocence he later lost and tried to recapture, does his life resonate with Kane's. Citizen Kane was a financial flop, but a critical success and RKO, buoyed by the cachet of having the boy wonder under contract, ankrolled his second film, The Magnificent Ambersons, ostensibly granting Welles the same measure of control as he had had over Kane. In actual fact, things turned out a little differently.
Citizen Kane is available on dvd in Region 2. We recommend the special edition which includes a restored version of the film and a commentary by noted Welles scholar Ken Barnes, as well as numerous other features.