Orson Welles starred in this film, directed it, and also co-wrote it, with Herman J Mankiewicz. This 1941 black and white masterpiece is considered by many to be the single most revolutionary and groundbreaking film in the history of the movies. Cinema reached new heights of excellence when Citizen Kane first appeared on the screen, and some say it has yet to meet its equal in any film made since.
What Makes Citizen Kane Great?
Why is this film so revolutionary? Well, because many techniques that we take for granted in cinema today were first seen in Citizen Kane to glorious effect. His use of melodramatic camera angles and intensive use of shadow and light can be seen, usually in lesser degrees, in practically every decent film made since. How he used the camera helped determine the way we responded to Kane the man; when the camera looks up to him, so do we. Later on, as a small and weakened man, we see the defeated Kane through the use of deep focus and higher camera angles.
Some argue that Welles 'borrowed' from other movies which used these techniques, but no one had used them all together in the way that Welles had. His technique was revolutionary and groundbreaking and subsequently, directors from Alfred Hitchcock to Stephen Spielberg have 'borrowed' from Orson Welles. Welles certainly deserves a great deal of credit.
The Story of Citizen Kane
Charles Foster Kane dies in his home. His final word was 'rosebud' and reporters are there the next day pondering the significance of this word. Why was it so important to him that it was his final thought before he passed away?
One reporter, Thompson, begins to investigate Kane's life, sharing the memories of those who knew him, and learning that there were several layers to this man. On the surface, Kane was a corrupt businessman. But this is not how he started out. We go back through his life to see him as a reckless young man, put in charge of a newspaper, and before that, a child ripped from the arms of his parents, taken away to live in a boarding school.
We watch Thompson attempting to understand the meaning behind the haunting word 'rosebud', meaningless to those who thought they knew him well. As viewers, we question our own mortality, the goals we set ourselves when young, and the awful sense of missed opportunites we feel in later life.
Based rather loosely upon the life of American newspaper publisher and media tycoon William Randolf Hurst, Citizen Kane is an attempt to explain the life of a man after his death. The attempt to fully explain - to truly understand - is ultimately futile. Yet, as the film progresses and as we see the images and sounds unfold before us, we think we understand.
Then, as we leave the cinema, that understanding evaporates and we are left with only more questions. Why did Kane make the choices he did? Could he not see the forest for the trees? Was he trapped in politics and complex social hierarchies? Did his hunger for money and thirst for power evolve from a desire in his heart to regain the innocence lost in his childhood? Is it true that none of us can truly ever go home again?
The Making of Citizen Kane
In his early 20s, Orson Welles was considered to be the boy genius of radio and stage. RKO Pictures lured him to Hollywood by promising him a troupe of actors and a stage, and letting him have almost complete freedom in the work that he did. At least that was until they began to realise what he was doing, but by then it was too late.
William Alland, Ray Collins, Dororthy Comingore, Joseph Cotten, George Coulouris, Agnes Moorehead, Erskine Sanford, Everett Sloan, Paul Stewart, Ruth Warrick and Orson Welles himself, all debuted as actors in this film, as the credits at the end note. Today, it would be rare to see a movie production company take such a gamble. None of these people had much experience in front of a camera. This was Welles's first film and he had little experience, before or behind a camera. He immersed himself into the craft, and brought to film the creative use of sound, he had so cleverly employed in radio
The film was made in near secrecy. Welles would often tell RKO that he was only 'testing the equipment' when he was secretly filming scenes he planned to put in the final film. But there was good reason for this secrecy. The tale Welles wanted to tell was quite obviously one that certain very powerful people did not want to be told.
Powerful Opposition to the Film
Though in his declining years, William Randolf Hurst was still very influential. Welles knew this tale needed to be told, but if the film's storyline was found out too soon, production would stop. Still, the film was completed, and as soon as Hurst's estate learned of it, RKO pictures was offered $800,000 to destroy the film before it was released to the public but RKO refused. Hurst did the next best thing. With the estate's power and influence, Hurst made certain that movie houses would refuse to carry it.
Welles's Greatest Achievement?
For many reasons, Welles was never able to rekindle the greatness of Citizen Kane. In his final years, he was mostly known for the occasional wine commercial. He shone so brightly as a young man, yet he was to be taken down in his prime. Some say he died a broken man.
And, with the passing of Orson Welles, those who so much enjoyed his greatest achievement were left to wonder. Was the drive to tell Hurst's tale in this fictitious form done out of spite? Out of curiosity? Or did Orson Welles identify with Citizen Kane because he felt it might tell the story of his own life?
And in a way, isn't the film speaking to all of us? About the choices we make; the friends and the enemies we make along the way. And is it that each of us is trying to regain a sense of innocence - a 'rosebud' - that somehow got lost along the way?
New Cinematic Techniques
Some of these cinematic effects which we now take for granted, were far from commonplace before Orson Welles used them in Citizen Kane. He included some of the following:
- Telling the end of a story at the beginning.
- Refusal to open the film with ten minutes of cast and crew credits, which was standard procedure before Kane. Today it's more common to see credits scrolling at the end of a film.
- Use of mockup newspaper headlines to dramatically move the plot forward.
- Film-within-film techniques, such as newsreel footage.
- Use of multiple flashbacks and storytellers to further the story.
- Framing ceilings in the shot (films were often made on 'open' sets that were required to let in light and sound equipment).
- Quick cutaways with the actors on the same set, showing time passing quickly with changes in costuming and hair styles (most notably the dining scene with Kane's wife and the long table).
- Use of matte paintings and miniatures for external shots (most notably Xanadu the mansion, near the end of the film).
David P Hayes and other critics have noted that many of these elements were used before Kane, and insinuate that Welles should not be praised for practically stealing from so many other directors. However, prior to this film, no one had used all of these techniques in the same film to such dramatic effect. They were techniques in Citizen Kane, taught in film schools today, which were rare to see in movies prior to 1941, and Welles revealed all of them masterfully.
Welles was perhaps a thief, but he was a great thief. And he was undoubtedly way ahead of his time.