Orson Welles changes film history as Citizen Kane
Entire books have been written about seemingly every aspect of the film’s creation. Welles’ original intention was to call the film American. It’s a fitting title. Citizen Kane is perhaps the finest film ever made on the corruption that ambition, money and power bring to the American spirit. Kane starts out as a pioneering idealist, but his fatal flaw his is need for power. That need to seize control of everything extends from buying all the art he can find in Europe to controlling the lives of all around him. It’s the mentality that will force his second wife into an opera career she is hopelessly unsuited for. It will eventually leave him sitting alone in his huge mansion, surrounded by wealth but bereft of friends. A large part of the American Dream is about “making it big” – and few make it bigger than Kane, and have so little to show for it at the end.
The film is a character study of ambition and power, using a framing device of the late Kane’s final word: “Rosebud”. What did he mean? Will finding out provide the key to understanding this powerful, elliptical man? A reporter (William Alland) aims to find out by interviewing key people from Kane’s life. From their recollections, the story of Kane’s life slowly comes together in a non-linear style. Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) as a young child inherits one of the world’s largest gold mines. Coming of age, Kane decides to use his wealth to become a press baron. He builds a news empire and runs for Governor – but the public revelation of his affair with amateur singer Susan (Dorothy Comingore) ruins his campaign. He builds a mansion on a man-made mountain, Xanadu, but is isolated and friendless in the echoing rooms of his own mausoleum.
Welles worked with cameraman Gregg Toland to push the film into a whole new visual language, deeply influenced by German expressionistic film. It’s a beautiful film to look at, and each shot is covered with meaning, Welles’ eye for the theatrical image matched with Toland’s genius for visual language.
If that wasn’t enough, Toland uses angles Hollywood films hadn’t dreamed of. For some scenes, trenches were dug into the set and the camera placed in it, allowing the camera to stare up, with the actors towering over us. Citizen Kane is often claimed to be the first film where ceilings needed to build for the sets, as Toland’s angles and camerawork frequently made them visible. It’s not completely true, but it speaks to the visual impact of the film. Nothing really like this had been widely seen before. And I’ve not even mentioned the soaring, swooping tracking shots that pass through signs and buildings, the sort of inspired movement of the camera so many directors before had avoided in favour of stationary recording of the story. It’s visionary stuff.
The same was true for the film’s sound and music. Welles used his experience from radio to turn the soundscape of the film into something truly different. In radio, all cuts are managed by sound, but film had traditionally used only visuals to mark edits. Here, sound is used as often as visuals. When Kane runs for Governor, the sound and vision cut seamlessly from Leland on the stump for Kane to Kane finishing the same speech at a cavernous rally. Early in the film, the words “Happy Christmas” are skilfully cut together to leap forward years. Bernard Herrmann’s spare but perfect score, rather than laid over every scene, only comes in (as on radio) where emotional or transitional change is needed.
But then this is a film that uses editing as a way to tell story that few films before had tried. The sequence showing the collapse of Kane’s marriage to President’s niece Emily Monroe Norton (Ruth Warwick) is the perfect example. Over about two minutes of screen time we see several short scenes, all set at the breakfast table. Each scene shows a progressive step in their relationship collapsing, from loving exasperation to annoyance to anger to mute loathing. The scenes are no more than 20-30 seconds each, but the film perfectly moves from one to the other. The music slowly changes from a romantic waltz to a cold discordant rhythm. Transitions are marked by wipes. In each scene the actors move further apart at their breakfast table, the dialogue becomes harsher, sharper and more confrontational as the room they sit in becomes grander. In a few moments, an entire marriage story is told. It’s quite simply marvellous. The sequence is bookended by matching camera movements, gliding in and then out from the room.
There’s controversy over who wrote the script. Welles and Herman J Mankiewicz are credited – although arguments have been made that each deserved the lion’s share. Whoever did create it, the script is quite simply superb. Economic, but packed with wonderful lines and some extraordinary speeches (Mr Bernstein’s speech about a powerful memory of a young woman he saw once from a distance is quite simply one of the best small-scale speeches you’ll see). Every scene is brilliantly assembled, and gives fabulous material to an extraordinary cast of actors.
It makes for a compelling character study, wrapped into a series of brilliantly done vignettes. Each set of recollections – from Thatcher, business manager Mr Bernstein (Everett Sloane), old friend Jedidah (Joseph Cotton) and ex-wife Susan (Dorothy Comingore) – makes for a fabulous series of self-contained scenes, each gaining richer and deeper meaning with every subsequent reflection that follows. There are so many sensational scenes I hardly know where to begin: you could write an essay about each one. Thatcher’s serio-comic reflections of the roguishly cheeky Kane are wonderful. Bernstein’s memories of the chancer coming good – with a brilliantly playful celebration scene – wonderfully entertaining. Jedidah and Susan’s far more tainted reflections of the man’s flaws make for wonderfully constructed drama, presenting a corrupted and bullying Kane. In every scene there is a beautiful moment of dialogue or drama which sticks in the memory.
The acting is equally good. Cotton settles into the groove many of his finest roles would fit into – the never-quite-grew-up schoolboy, who slowly realises his hero has feet of clay. Comingore is wonderfully fragile and then increasingly bitter as Kane’s ill-used second wife, forced into a humiliating career because Kane won’t be married to a failure. Sloane is charmingly loyal, with beautiful moments of profound sadness, as Bernstein. Coulouris is brilliantly funny as the exasperated Thatcher. Ray Collins’ is smooth and unabashed as Kane’s political rival. Agnes Moorehead is tinged with sadness and ambition for her son as Kane‘s mother.
The only tragic note about Citizen Kane is that this wasn’t the first in a career of non-stop genius from Welles. Instead, flaws in his own personality, combined with his ability to make enemies and lack of ability to focus on the task in hand, increasingly consumed Welles, making him eventually a lost great, a man wandering from film set to film set, taking on small roles for cheques that might one day help him make a film. But he’ll always have Kane, the sort of film that is a marvel which can never, ever disappoint. With every scene a classic, every moment compelling, every beat in it perfectly judged, its influence stretching to almost every film made since the late 1940s – it deserves its place as the greatest film of all time.