Citizen Kane: interesting film but it privileges style over substance

Orson Welles, “Citizen Kane” (1941)

Notwithstanding its tag as America’s greatest film or the world’s greatest film – usually bestowed by American film critics, of course! – “Citizen Kane” is actually an interesting film that challenges its audiences to think about how one man may easily become corrupted into arrogance, greed and self-importance to the extent that he makes errors of judgement and crashes into humiliation and ruin spectacularly. I daresay that while the film is about just one individual, its tale of the American Dream of rising from obscurity with perhaps an innocent or idealistic goal to success, fame and influence, only to fall into ignominy and oblivion with a loss of the original ideal or ideals, could apply to organisations and even entire countries as it does to people generally. However as a study of a man’s life and character, while it does a great job demonstrating the anti-hero’s faults and errors, “Citizen Kane” actually has little to say about how the man came to be so cynical about and nasty towards his fellow human beings.

The film’s narrative structure is very unusual for a Hollywood product of its time. It begins with a series of ghostly Gothic images appropriate to a horror movie – a bit of black humour on director Welles’s part perhaps – featuring a huge building and its surrounds, with the camera focussing closer and closer with each succeeding shot on a light behind a window. The window eventually takes up most of the screen, there’s a black-out, suggestive of a terrible event within, the light comes back on and suddenly the camera thrusts the viewer behind the window, inside the room. A close-up shot of a man’s lips whispering “Rosebud” appears, then the camera zips to a hand releasing a snow globe that shatters on the floor and there’s a mirror image of a nurse coming into the man’s room; the nurse moves to lay a sheet over the dead man. This artfully sequenced series of montages alerts us that the story to come will be in flashbacks or reminiscences and may not be conventionally laid out. Sure enough an obituary of media magnate Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) is presented by a news service “News on the March”, detailing Kane’s achievements and failures in full in a style typical of filmed news articles of the time (early 20th century) and even going so far as to feature blurry film footage of Kane in his wheelchair dotage. After the obituary ends, a group of journalists discusses Kane’s late word “Rosebud” and one reporter Jerry Thompson (William Alland) determines to locate and interview significant people in Kane’s life including Kane’s second wife Susan (Dorothy Comingore) and best friend cum Kane’s conscience Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotten) about their opinions of and experiences with Kane and what they think “Rosebud” means.

Through the interviewees’ recollections and Thompson’s research at the private library of Kane’s guardian Walter Parks Thatcher (George Coulouris), we learn that Kane came into a considerable inheritance when very young. At the age of 25, he enters the newspaper business by buying The New York Inquirer, hires the best reporters he can find and uses the paper to create and spread sensationalist news, and mould public opinion. The paper also criticises political and economic elites and their exploitation of the public with sharp business practices. A first marriage links him to influential people in politics and Kane prepares for a political career by campaigning for State governor. Both his campaign and marriage derail when his opponent discovers and publicises a secret love affair with singer Susan Alexander. Kane marries the singer after a quick divorce but from this moment on, he makes one blunder after another: he attempts to mould Susan into an opera singer but bad reviews and her suicide attempt kill off that ambition; he builds his extravagant home Xanadu complete with private zoo but fortunately for good taste the Great Depression hits the United States in 1929 and ruins Kane’s media empire utterly. Trustees take over what’s left of his fortune. Susan leaves him and Kane withdraws completely into seclusion.

The film’s not too clear on how and at what moment Kane becomes so consumed with his own success, power and influence that they sap any idealism he might have had and lead to gross errors of judgement. It’s plain though that Kane’s moral compass from young adulthood on is quite shaky and he eagerly exploits the yearnings of ordinary people to give them what he thinks they want – populist crusading on their behalf, based on a set of socialistic principles which Kane later repudiates – and to grow rich from fulfilling what other newspapers consider tacky and base desires. How Kane managed to avoid a solid grounding in ethics at home, school and college is not explained in the film and this might be considered its major failing. Although Kane’s character is based partly on the character and personality of William Randolph Hearst, the major US media magnate of Welles’s day, it’s not difficult for us seventy years later to imagine parallels between Kane and the current global media magnate Rupert Murdoch and many of his media industry peers around the world. However as the film relies on unreliable and often biased points of view, the picture of Kane that emerges is vague and fragmented and viewers may be forgiven for thinking, well how did such a man get to be so rich, so famous and so powerful if he made so many mistakes and did such stupid things? Thompson’s choice of interviewees itself is strange: second wife, a former best friend, a loyal business manager, a butler – these are people a trashy sensationalist biography might rely on. What about Kane’s business and political rivals and allies, why aren’t they interviewed? Is it because they might not offer juicy titbits worthy of celebrity gossip magazines? Hmm, that in itself isn’t a good reflection on Welles’s opinion of what movie-goers want to see!

Technically the film is excellent with every shot and series of shots set up, framed and presented carefully for maximum impact and to influence viewers’ impressions of Kane and the monster he became. A series of montages of Kane and his first wife sitting at breakfast demonstrates perfectly how their marriage deteriorates over the years: at the beginning of the montage, the two are sitting close together; each succeeding shot shows them ageing and talking at each other rather than to each other; eventually one shot shows them reading rival newspapers; and the end shot shows them at opposite ends of a long table. The placement of certain background props creates optical illusions – in some scenes, characters walk towards the background and end up being dwarfed by the backdrops (often paintings rather than actual built backgrounds) which may show how much their reputations have diminished – or establishes a mood or characters’ relationships to one another – when Susan walks out on Kane, she does so through a series of doors which shows beyond doubt that their marriage is finished and done with. Physical settings and clever framing of the actors and the action – in many shots, three actors are placed in such a way that their heads form points of a triangle and the lighting in the scene will focus on one actor and make that person the centre of attention – often indicate more than action and dialogue alone and together can do what is happening in the plot, how the actors’ characters relate to one another and even give a hint of what is to happen next.

The sequencing of the shots that move the plot back and forth in time can be very smooth and clever: in the segment of the film in which Jedediah Leland is being interviewed, the change in time is signalled by the background changing behind Leland while he is speaking and then Leland himself gradually darkens and disappears into the scene being remembered; when the film comes back to Leland in the present day, the foreground of a previous scene in which Kane is typing Leland’s last review becomes the background to Leland and the interviewer. The background darkens and Leland’s nurses later emerge from it.

The final shots of the film are amazing to behold, showing off the hundreds of art objects, furniture pieces, office equipment, toys and other bric-a-brac Kane accumulated in his life. These inanimate items perhaps reveal more about Kane and his desire to control and possess everything, everyone and every situation around him than all the interviewees have been able to say. We finally learn that the one thing Kane could not control was that moment in his childhood when his destiny changed – when he learned of his inheritance while he was mucking about on his sled – and his carefree and happy days were over: this is the apparently profound yet also very ordinary and hardly earth-shattering(?) secret behind “Rosebud”. The very last shot of the film of Xanadu behind the gate with its “No Trespassing” sign, the mansion’s chimney smoking furiously, the fires within its furnace erasing all memory of Kane, is more sinister than sad; Welles couldn’t have known while making the movie that Nazi Germany was about to move Jews, Roma and other groups of people to concentration and death camp complexes hidden deep in remote country areas in Poland.

Welles introduced a number of technical innovations in “Citizen Kane” including the use of unusual camera angles, strong contrasts of light and shadow, and deep focus shots (in which backgrounds are contrasted with foregrounds) and on these innovations the film’s reputation as America’s greatest film or the world’s greatest film lies. Much credit must go to the cinematographer Gregg Toland as to Welles himself. The acting varies from efficient to hammy and some individual performances (Cotten as Leland, Everett Sloane as the business manager) are better than others. The film’s narrative conceals or misses more than it shows and makes demands on the audience to fill in the missing gaps. We end up knowing that Kane most definitely is an arsehole but how he came to be such a miserable bastard and how the “Rosebud” sled ties into such a development, the film never comes close to even hinting at. Hate to say it but even with Orson Welles and “Citizen Kane”, style wins over substance. Kane himself might well be smiling (and Leland grimacing) at the irony.

Still there’s a valuable lesson in “Citizen Kane” in that it demonstrates how early success can be the ruin of people if they’re not sufficiently grounded in a moral code and are easily swayed by flattery and immediate though short-term fame and fortune about how important and influential they are.

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