1941 • 119 Minutes • 1.37:1 • United States
Black & White • English • RKO
Cast: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Comingore, Agnes Moorehead, Ruth Warrick, Ray Collins, Everett Sloane, George Coulouris
Writers: Herman J. Mankiewicz, Orson Welles
Producers: Orson Welles, George Schaefer
Cinematography: Gregg Toland
Awards & Honors
Winner: Best Writing, Original Screenplay – Herman J. Mankiewicz, Orson Welles
Nominated: Best Picture
Nominated: Best Actor in a Leading Role – Orson Welles
Nominated: Best Director – Orson Welles
Nominated: Best Cinematography, Black and White – Gregg Toland
Nominated: Best Art Direction/Interior Decoration, Black and White
Nominated: Best Sound, Recording
Nominated: Best Film Editing – Robert Wise
Nominated: Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic Picture – Bernard Herrmann
American Film Institute:
AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Movies – #1
AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Movie Quotes – “Rosebud…” #17
AFI’s 100 Years of Film Scores – Nominated
AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) – #1
National Board of Review
Top Ten Films
Winner: Best Film
National Film Preservation Board
1989 – Inducted into National Film Registry
You know Mr. Bernstein, if I hadn’t been rich I might have been a really great man.
WARNING: Spoilers Ahead
Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’ magnum opus, examines the life of Charles Foster Kane, a wealthy newspaper baron who is heavily based on contemporary media mogul William Randolph Hearst. Kane, alone in his palace which he has named “Xanadu”, dies in his sleep, uttering one word before he passes: “Rosebud.” After leading such a public life where he accomplished many great things, the significance of his final word remain a mystery. Told through a series of flashbacks, a newspaper reporter tracks down key figures of Kane’s life to try and unravel the enigma that is Charles Foster Kane.
In 1938, Orson Welles produced a controversial radio broadcast of HG Wells’ science fiction classic, The War of the Worlds. The radio play was staged as if it were a real broadcast with a reporter live on the scene as Martians invaded and destroyed the Earth. The broadcast holds the notoriety of causing widespread panic, and the stunt elevated the stage actor’s presence to the point that George Schaefer, an RKO Picture executive, offered him an exclusive motion picture contract. The contract was unheard of in Hollywood, especially to a relative newcomer like Welles. Welles would be allowed to develop a film, by himself, with no studio interference, cast his own actors (of which he borrowed heavily from his Mercury Theater), hire his own crew and would final cut. After some false starts, including a point-of-view adaption of Heart of Darkness, Welles decided to write his own story with partner Herman J. Mankiewicz. Wanting to develop a script where the story was told from multiple viewpoints by the people that knew the protagonist, Mankiewicz and Welles wanted to use a public figure and eventually settled on William Randolph Hearst. Hearst was a newspaper magnate of the time that was known for using his newspapers to influence public opinion (to put it nicely.) Mankiewicz used to frequent Hearst’s Xanadu-esque parties and had plenty of inspiration and first-hand knowledge to draw from. While Kane does include elements of other notable figures like Howard Hughes and even Welles himself, the character’s foundation is clearly Hearst. There are many comparisons to be made between Hearst and Kane that are better explored in the documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane and the dramatization of the making of the film, RKO281. Needless to say, Hearst did everything in his considerable power to prevent the film from getting released, including planning a smear campaign on all of Hollywood, the goal being to get the studio heads to kill the film themselves. The top leaders of all the major studios at the time were shown a cut of the film with the idea that if they (or more accurately, their lawyers) saw anything that could be blatantly linked to Hearst, they would collectively reimburse RKO to shelve the picture forever. After negotiating with the studios to cut about 3 minutes out of the film, Citizen Kane was released to the general public in 1941. All of Hearst’s worries were for naught, however, as the film bombed at the box office and came and went without any real impact. The impact Hearst had was considerable, however, as even though the film was nominated for multiple Academy Awards the following year, it was roundly booed by the audience anytime it was mentioned.
“Ahead of its time” is a term often applied to films that push the cinematic envelope, but there is no film of which the term is more appropriate than with Citizen Kane. Almost everything about the film defied convention. As we’ve covered already, the pre-production for this film was unheard of. Welles had a unique contract that allowed him autonomy to do basically whatever he wanted, from story to production. He hired his own crew. He cast his own mostly unknown actors out of his Mercury Theater company. The set was completely closed, even to RKO studio heads. Legend has it that when said executives tried to visit the set, Welles would have his crew toss a baseball around and would tell the execs that if he wanted them to stop wasting time and money they’d have to leave the set. When watching the finished film and comparing it to other Hollywood productions of the era, the difference is astounding. Everything from the story structure to the editing to the cinematography was just not standard Hollywood filmmaking.
The story starts with the famous “Rosebud” sequence; somber, melancholy, mysterious. The story begins with the main character’s death. It then jump cuts abruptly to the “News on the March!” newsreel that depicts Charles Foster Kane’s entire public life for the audience. What some biopics do for their central character in 2 hours, this fake news reel accomplishes in about 5 minutes. So in the first 10 minutes of the film, the audience see the main character’s death and then learns about all the major events in his life. What is left? Well… plenty. The film is told in a fragmented style. A news reporter tries to unravel the mystery of Kane’s final word, “Rosebud.” He tracks down all the major people in Kane’s life and each person tells him a different part of the story. What makes it unique is that it all comes from that person’s perspective. Sometimes we see Kane as a young man, then as a boy, then as an old man, then a middle aged man. The story jumps around depending on the viewpoint of the narrator and it is up to the audience to make sense of it all. An underlying theme in the film is jigsaw puzzles. Kane’s second wife Susan is seen putting them together to pass the time in the palatial Xanadu. But this is what the film is… a jigsaw puzzle. When one does a jigsaw puzzle, they see what the finished product is supposed to look like from the picture on the box. In this case, the “picture on the box” is the newsreel footage at the beginning and the multiple viewpoints from the different narrators are the puzzle pieces. But in the end… do we get exactly what we expected? Or is it a different picture altogether?
At various stages of pre-production the film had different names such as John Citizen, USA or The American before finally settling on Citizen Kane. Those names are very telling as the story of Citizen Kane is an examination not just of the title character, but the American Dream as well. The story of “rags to riches” success is the myth the many strive for, yet this film destroys. While Kane becomes a great man, his idealism doesn’t allow himself to be seen as one because in his mind he didn’t achieve everything he wanted to. He was never satisfied and he knows that the presence of his wealth destroyed the idealism. He even expresses this resentment towards money late in his life this to his former guardian, Walter Parks Thatcher:
Charles Foster Kane: You know, Mr. Bernstein, if I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a really great man.
Thatcher: Don’t you think you are?
Charles Foster Kane: I think I did pretty well under the circumstances.
Thatcher: What would you like to have been?
Charles Foster Kane: Everything you hate.
The missing piece to all this, “Rosebud,” Kane’s final word, illustrates the concept of his lost idealism. More than just a plot device to move the story forward, it offers a great deal of symbolism. The mystery of Rosebud is as well kept a secret as who the killer is in Psycho or who Luke Skywalker’s father is or the twist at the end of The Sixth Sense, which is to say it isn’t a secret at all. But if for some reason you do not know, you were warned at the top of this article that there would be spoilers on this 70 year old movie. Rosebud, as we find out in one of the final shots of the film, is the name of Kane’s sled when he was a boy. We see the sled early on in the film when Kane, as a boy, is playing in the snow while his parents and new guardian, Walter Parks Thatcher, are deciding his future indoors. It is the first and last time the audience sees Kane as a pure innocent. The sled symbolizes his innocence, his lost childhood, what he spends his entire life trying to recapture but never again will.
Citizen Kane is an exceptional production on all fronts. We’ve talked at length about story but let’s examine other elements. Welles is most famous for directing this masterpiece, but it’s common to neglect his performance as an actor. We would see Welles’ brilliance in later films such as Touch of Evil and The Third Man, but in Kane he delivers an iconic performance as one of the screen’s greatest characters. His supporting players, specifically Joseph Cotten as Jed Leland and Everett Sloane is Bernstein, bring fully fleshed out characters to life as well. Robert Wise’s, the same Wise who would go on to become the Academy Award winning director of West Side Story, editing is amazing, considering a fragmented, multiple viewpoint story was certainly not the norm for classic Hollywood pictures, yet the film flows smoothly. While I won’t make the claim that Kane as the first film to feature this type of storytelling and editing, it certainly blazed the trail for films like Rashomon and Pulp Fiction. Kane also featured the first film work of legendary composer, Bernard Herrmann. Herrmann was a close friend of Welles and was hired because of his work for Welles’ Mercury theater as well as his radio broadcasts. Herrmann’s motion picture score debut was successful and catapulted him into becoming one of the greatest composers of all time going on to write scores for Vertigo, North by Northwest, The Twilight Zone and Taxi Driver.
Perhaps the greatest creative contribution to the film, aside from the story and direction, is the absolute gorgeous cinematography by Academy Award winning Director of Photography, Gregg Toland. Toland’s work on Wuthering Heights earned him the coveted Oscar, but also photographed The Grapes of Wrath, The Best Years of Our Lives, Song of the South, The Little Foxes and Ball of Fire. Besides Mankiewicz on the screenplay, Welles collaborated with Toland the most on this film. Welles clearly trusts Toland’s instinct and what resulted on film is one of the most beautiful and uniquely shot films in the history of cinema. The famous post-election scene of Kane and Leland was shot so low, to emphasize Kane’s emotional rock bottom, that the audience can see both the ceiling and the floor while the camera looks up to the characters. This was accomplished by literally digging a hole in the studio floor and putting the camera (and camera man) in the hole to be able to capture the shot. The film’s use of deep focus is also legendary and results in breathtaking visuals. Don’t take my word for it, look for yourselves.
The film was nominated for nine Academy Awards, but lost to How Green Was My Valley for Best Picture. Valley, in years since, has been unfairly criticized as an inferior film, when in fact it’s actually quite a good film but receives a lot of critics who are incredulous that Kane could have lost. Forrest Gump suffers a similar fate due to the passionate fans of The Shawshank Redemption and Pulp Fiction, both nominated in the same year. Kane only won 1 Oscar, for writing, which was seen as an award more for Mankiewicz than it was for Welles. After its initial theatrical run, the film disappeared from the public consciousness until the 50s when RKO sold rights to its movie library for television broadcasts, where Kane resurfaced. Due to World War II, many 1940s Hollywood features weren’t released in Europe, and, after the war was over, Hollywood films, Kane among them, came flooding into France sparking the movement that would become the French New Wave. François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard in particular have spoken about their love of the film. All of these factors plus articles by film historians slowly but surely led to the film’s rediscovering. In the half-century since, the film is now widely considered to be the greatest film of all time. It topped Sight & Sound’s Top Ten films of all time list regularly until it was finally displaced in 2012 by Vertigo. It still sits in second place. The American Film Institute has voted it twice as the #1 film of all time and the Library of Congress has inducted into its National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically and aesthetically significant.” Is it the greatest film ever made? That’s for you to decide. After all you love film on your own terms… and those are the only terms anyone ever knows.
Citizen Kane is available on a 70th Anniversary Blu-Ray release that also includes the documentary The Battle over Citizen Kane and the making-of drama RKO281. You can stream the movie for free if you have Amazon Prime. It is available for Digital Rental via iTunes, Google Play, Vudu, You Tube and Sony Entertainment Network. It is also available for Digital Purchase via iTunes, Google Play, Vudu, XBox. Physical disc rental is available via Netflix.
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