Formerly at Epinions.com and written in 2009. I think I got this one right the first time.
I have seen this 1941 Orson Welles directorial debut several times, and have intended on reviewing it a few times too. I have never gone through with it until now. This, much-celebrated, much-analysed film is often declared the ‘Greatest Film of All-Time’ (though not really a success until its 1956 re-release), so what could I, celebrator of “Big Trouble in Little China” and “The Goonies” possibly bring to the table? (especially so, when you consider that just about every critic attempting a review of the film starts their review in similar trepidation to mine) What new insight could I possibly bring? Could a “Goonies” fan possibly even bring any insight at all?
But then it came to me. A bolt of lightning. A giant spark of profound inspiration, the likes of which the world has never seen. Well, an idea anyway. This is me we’re talking about, I laugh when someone spells ‘boobies’ on a calculator. Tee-hee...I said boobies. Anyway, back to the review (Going well, isn’t it?). Yes, I’m probably going to rehash a lot of what (most) people have already said in praise of this remarkable, timeless film (deal with it, naysayers. I’m no sheep, the hype is true!), but think about this; In all the reviews you have read of “Citizen Kane”, how many of them have focused on its entertainment value? And how much time is devoted to the performances in the film? These are things I find crucial in appreciating a film, so maybe, just maybe this review won’t be such a waste of time (and much effort, I hope you all appreciate!) after all. And hey, I may be a “Goonies” fan, but I’m also a lover of more serious-minded fare as “The Misfits”, “Days of Wine and Roses”, “The Best Years of Our Lives”, “Sweet Smell of Success”, and “Revenge of the Nerds”. What?...What did I say? (You didn’t think I was going to remove my funny bone entirely for this review did you?).
Although full of flashbacks and told in non-sequential order, the plot is somewhat straightforward (and based, in semi-veiled fashion, on William Randolph Hearst); the rise and fall of a powerful newspaper tycoon and aspiring politician, named Charles Foster Kane (writer-director-star-future ‘fatty’ Orson Welles). Born poor, but his mother (Agnes Moorehead, one of the finest character actors in cinematic history) inherited great wealth. His happy, if modest childhood is interrupted as he is sent off to banker Mr. Thatcher (George Coulouris), a most humourless, unfeeling man. No more would he be happily playing in the snow. Soon he will have taken over Mr. Thatcher’s newspaper and builds a powerful media empire of his own, eventually attempting to move into politics. But at what cost? Broken relationships (romantic, professional, and other), political scandal, and an out-of-control ego become the great man’s undoing. Meanwhile, a newsman (William Alland) is assigned the task of finding out the meaning of Kane’s dying word; ‘Rosebud’ (In real-life, the term was said to be Hearst’s euphemism for lover Marion Davies’...erm...special place). Joseph Cotten (one of the all-time great, underappreciated talents) plays Jedediah Leland, Kane’s trusted friend and colleague at the paper. Dorothy Comingore is the shrill (and I do mean shrill!), wannabe opera singer Kane romances and tries to turn into a star. Everett Sloane is Kane’s decent, loyal employee Mr. Bernstein. Ruth Warwick turns up as Kane’s long-suffering wife.
Before I indeed do get into my discussion of “Citizen Kane” as ‘entertainment’, I feel the need to reiterate what many have already said about the film’s cultural and historical significance, something that can never be praised enough, nor overlooked. All the naysayers who call this film ‘overrated’ and ‘boring’ really need to get their heads read. You really have to remember that Welles made this, his debut film at the age of 25 (as director, co-writer, and lead actor in a role that spanned decades!), and it was made in 1941 (it’s 2009 now as I write this, and the film still holds up just as well). Also, it is a film about a controversial subject, a thinly veiled portrait of a still living Hearst, who did everything in his power (still quite mighty at that time) at the time to make sure that the film had a rocky release. This was easily one of the most ambitious and controversial cinematic undertakings of the period, if not all-time. I mean, would anyone have the balls to do a scathing biopic on Rupert Murdoch? I doubt it.
Is “Citizen Kane” the most entertaining film I have ever seen? No, and that’s why it’s my #6 Favourite film of All-Time, instead of #1(which for me, is “The Misfits”). But there is no doubt that it has entertainment value greater than is often credited to it, and when coupled with its’ technical marvels...in fact, I would argue that there is much entertainment value in films that are technical masterpieces- Cinematography, themes, direction, editing, etc., all of these things can indeed provide entertainment value just as easily as a guy improbably outrunning a fireball in slow-mo with a shaky-cam. In fact, it’s a lot more enjoyable than shaky-cam riddled action scenes.
For me the most important factor in the film’s entertainment value, as is often the case for me, is in performance and character. “Citizen Kane” is, after all, a very early, and very brilliant example of a character study (hence, when I say ‘character’ is important, I’m also saying ‘story’ or ‘narrative’, as in a character study, the characters are the story, they drive the narrative).
Orson Welles. What can one say about his brave, star-making, thoroughly gripping debut film performance as the very complex Charles Foster Kane? “Citizen Kane” is probably the first film I think of when hearing the term ‘character study’, and not only do Welles and co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz create one of the most memorable characters in cinematic history, but Welles delivers an unforgettable performance of great power, enormous physicality (though cinematography helps, more on that later), and amazing assurance. I feel sorry for those who find Kane unlikeable and unsympathetic, because they obviously suffer from narcolepsy and missed every other facet of his character. He may have ended up a cold, ruthless, domineering man, but he was also once an innocent child. And Kane’s quest to make a name for himself, whilst it led to his ultimate downfall as he lost sight of everything else important in life, is surely the same hope and aspirations we all have. And let’s not forget the fact that Kane was somewhat based on a real-life figure, there’s always a gossipy fascination in that sort of thing. I was gripped, fascinated, and ultimately moved by this character, and yes, entertained too.
But Welles is just one of the fine actors (all Mercury Theatre colleagues of his) in this wonderfully acted film (even Dorothy Comingore, the film’s one weak link, seems better on repeated viewings. Her character is a caricature, and she plays it as such). It is criminal to me that none of the actors, particularly Welles, earned an Oscar nod let alone a win, for their extraordinary work here. But anyone who knows their cinema history, knows why that never happened. <cough> Hearst <cough>. If Welles as Kane is the film’s fire and passion and soul, then Everett Sloane and particularly Joseph Cotten are the film’s heart and humanity, and in Cotten’s case, charm. Like Welles, we see these men in old age too, with Cotten showing of a sly charm (and slight inebriation), and Sloane seemingly a sad and lonely man in old age, which is rather touching. Coulouris provides much of the film’s humour, generally at his character’s expense. Agnes Moorehead, meanwhile, is a part of my favourite scene in the film; It’s the scene where Kane’s parents are signing his life away, sending him off with Coulouris.
The reason I love the aforementioned scene is due to another entertaining aspect of the film, the cinematography by Deep Focus innovator Gregg Toland. Whilst the technique had been used before and would be after (Toland used it in the excellent “Best Years of Our Lives”), never was it more effectively put to use than here. It is a technique whereby the foreground and background would both be in focus, thus Welles could get Toland to direct us to wherever it was he wanted us to look on the screen at any given time, through composition and camera movement. So in the above scene I mentioned, we first see Kane’s parents, and then our focus shifts to an oblivious young Kane playing in the snow with his beloved sled. You hardly realise until the scene ends that both Kane and his parents, foreground and background, were in focus at the same time.
Whenever one talks about great cinematographers, Toland surely must sit at the very top of the mountain, for he had a keen understanding of how composition and focus could enhance the enjoyment of a motion picture, and Welles was very lucky to have the man on his film. The extraordinary shot with Welles as Kane standing in front of a broken mirror with all the reflections of him is another highlight of the film attributed to the camerawork.
And then there is ‘Rosebud’. Some of the naysayers of this film mock the revelation of ‘Rosebud’, thinking it trivial. In fact, these are the same people who find the whole film dated and unappealing I find these assertions gobsmacking. ‘Rosebud’ is everything. Without revealing the specifics, I cansafely say ‘Rosebud’ is what Kane lost in pursuit of wealth, power, and stature. The film works without the ‘Rosebud’ reveal I am sure, but with it, we have the extra cherry on top.
So hopefully this review has, in addition to calling out a few of the clueless detractors out there, given some insight into this masterwork’s technical achievements, but also its merits as entertainment, an oft-neglected aspect of the film.
One final thought; As amazing as it is that Welles should create such a brilliant directorial debut (at age 25, I must reiterate!), it is equally as heartbreaking that the only direction he had left after this was down, though several of his subsequent films are still fascinating. Oh well, one masterpiece is still one masterpiece, and that’s more than most filmmakers get in their entire careers!