Having success the first time around is very uncommon. Orson Welles's first
feature film richly realizes the full potential of excellent craftsmanship.
Citizen Kane is almost indisputably the greatest achievement in the history of
filming. In 1941, this film was considered by many as the best film ever made.
This film is about the enormous conflict between two twentieth-century icons,
publisher William Randolph Hearst and the prodigy of his time, Orson Welles.
The rather overwhelming beginning of an opening sequence is still as
electrifying as any in the history of movies. That tarnished sign on a
forbidding black wire fence is the first thing we see in Orson Welles' Citizen
Kane. Citizen Kane is a movie about perception and projection. Indeed, with
the complex theme the whole movie seems to be placed in a kind of
psychological trauma for the viewers. Citizen Kane is a portrait of a public
and private figure that remains tantalizingly unfinished. Excellent acting was
revealed for the first time as these new roles played out. Orson Welles was a
director ahead of his time and his portrayal of Kane shows his acting ability.
This film is one of the first films to rely heavily on style and visuals,
Citizen Kane uses camera, lighting, and set techniques to show Kane's rise and
fall from power. The movie as a whole -- though as artistically satisfying as
a picture can get -- also leaves us with certain unexplicated pieces of Kane's
life that only we, as viewers of Citizen Kane, can put together for ourselves.
There's no doubt that Citizen Kane is a great movie. It is a pioneering
film that forever changed film making. Its plot is one of the most creative
and original in all of movie history. Citizen Kane is a brilliantly made film.
I can't really take the full impact of it because it was made in 1941, and all
the film techniques Welle's used, are used frequently today. Nowadays, a film
has to be emotionally involving and have an original plot to get recognition.
But back in the 40s, no one had ever seen some of them before, and so it was
new and original.
Conversely, the film features rapid montage sequences permitting sudden
ellipses of time and space for the first time. This was a special technique
that Orson Well used time progressing. Opening and concluding with the famous
NO TRESPASSING sign outside of his palace, Xanadu, the film depicts newspaper
giant Charles Foster Kane's economic and spiritual rise and his eventual ruin.
The film opens with a long shot of Xanadu - the private estate of one of the
world's richest men. In the middle of the estate is a castle. We see, inside
the castle, a dying man examining a winter scene within a crystal ball. As he
drops it, it smashes, and one word is heard - "Rosebud". What
follows are pieces of newsreel like footage detailing how Kane amassed his
fortune, and turning around full circle at the end. Rosebud becomes the
elusive focal point for a newsreel reporter's investigation into the life and
times of Citizen Kane, an exploration which provides the plot framework for
the movie. The viewer first watches as Kane speaks his dying word --
"Rosebud" -- and then follows newsreel journalist Thompson who
interviews Kane's closest associates, hoping to find the meaning of
"Rosebud", and perhaps Kane's life. The structure of "Citizen
Kane" is circular, adding more depth every time it passes over the life.
The movie opens with newsreel obituary footage that briefs us on the life
and times of Charles Foster Kane. They provide a map of Kane's trajectory, and
it will keep us oriented as the screenplay skips around in time, piecing
together the memories of those who knew him. Curious about Kane's dying word,
"rosebud," the newsreel editor assigns Thompson, a reporter, to find
out what it meant. He triggers every flashback, yet his face is never seen. He
questions Kane's alcoholic mistress, his ailing old friend, his rich associate
and the other witnesses, while the movie loops through time.
Welles and Mankiewicz created an emotional chronology set free from time.
But in 1941, film had only been around for a few decades, making it remarkably
easy for a film to be original, not only because technology was improving, but
because the ideas were from fresh, new directors. Yet, Citizen Kane is still
original today. A film that can use so many different techniques and still
incorporate a good story has to be good.
Namely, that Citizen Kane is a complex, engaging story told with consummate
skills. At any rate, Kane seems to summarize quite well within the
above-described "layer" framework, and I hope to quickly demonstrate
In the search of "Rosebud" the death of publishing lord and
leading American Citizen Charles Foster Kane, a reporter is given the
assignment of finding the key to the manner and ceremony of his life. He is
directed to discover what Kane meant by the word he uttered on his deathbed -
"Rosebud" - and in doing so, gain the requisite knowledge to explain
Kane. The story of the film, then, is thusly couched: it is an attempt to peel
back the layers of Kane's life and illuminate the essential, inescapable truth
of Charles Foster Kane. The most logical place to start in that search is the
topmost, the epidermal layer: the Public Man. The deathly, dreamlike hush of
Citizen Kane's shadowy prologue jumps abruptly into that blaring newsreel
("News On the March"), which introduces us to the Official Version
of the Life of Charles Foster Kane. Hence the film's beginning with the
"News On The March" briefly summarizes the life of Leading American
Citizen, Charles Foster Kane through a parade of his various public
accomplishments. But when the film runs out, flipping on the reel of the
projector, we're left in the dark -- with that summarization, in its very
brief-ness, lacks something, and so the reporter is directed to seek further -
to seek the meaning of "Rosebud".
The next layer - Kane's financial underbelly, as neatly bookended by his
financial advisor, a Mr. Thatcher - provides more in the way of amusement
which build toward a more realistically characterized Kane, but still fails to
provide any information of final substance. So the closely related layers of
Kane's occupation and his ideals are pierced, are then peeled through the
recollections of a Mr. Bernstein who worked for Kane at one of his papers.
With no more success; we are left with a more fully drawn person, but one who
is still, essentially, unknown. Not a single person yet interviewed knows what
is the final words "Rosebud". Boldly, our reporter continues.
The next layer will surely reveal something of value, Jedediah Leland (who
says, at one point, "If I'm not his closest friend, he never had
one..."), we are still left with only a partial portrait.
"Rosebud" is still distant. So our reporter reaches what he knows is
as close to the core of Charles Foster Kane as he will get: he speaks with the
second Mrs. Kane. With a final, incredulous gasp, he (and we) learn that not
only does she not know definitively what "Rosebud" means, but that
she more than anyone failed to make sense of Charles Foster Kane.
Achievement is only further emphasized by Citizen Kane's expressionist set
design and Welles's genius as an actor and director. Kane's characters move
through the deep space of the film in real time, quite unlike any other film
before or since Citizen Kane. Herman Mankiewicz, an experienced screenwriter,
collaborated with him on the inspiration of the life of William Randolph
Hearst, who had put together an empire of newspapers, radio stations,
magazines and news services, and then built to himself the flamboyant monument
of San Simeon, a castle furnished by rummaging the remains of nations. As his
cinematographer, he hired Gregg Toland, who had experimented with deep focus
photography--with shots where everything was in focus, from the front to the
back, so that composition and movement determined where the eye looked first.
For his cast Welles assembled his colleagues, including himself playing
Kane from age twenty-five until his deathbed, using makeup and body language
to trace the progress of a man increasingly captive inside his needs. Thompson
(William Alland) interviews provides a different perspective, a contrasting
image of the same man: Charles Foster Kane. Also the screenplay by Mankiewicz
and Welles is densely constructed and covers an amazing amount of ground.
Including a sequence showing Kane inventing the popular press; a record of his
marriage, from early bliss to the famous montage of increasingly chilly
breakfasts; the story of his courtship of Susan Alexander and her disastrous
opera career, and his decline into the remote master of Xanadu. The film's
construction shows how our lives, after we are gone, survive only in the
memories of others, and those memories butt up against the walls we erect and
the roles we play
The movie is mostly told in flashbacks as this investigator track down
people who knew Kane and try to find the meaning of his final word. It is such
a simple idea, and yet, it allows Orson Welles to paint with broad visual
strokes. The movie is a work of art and uses so many different techniques,
that you have to admire the spirit and energy of the film. Its slow pace
allows Welles to reconstruct the life of Charles Foster Kane so that we
somehow begin to care for Kane. We progress through his childhood and end at
the deathbed, and as he says his last word and drops the paperweight, we feel
a sense of wonder and confusion. We still do not know what Rosebud means. No
one seems to. And no one ever will... except us--the audience.
In one of the film's most memorable images, Kane, having torn apart in
anger the bedroom of his wife, walks trance-like down an echoing corridor
lined with mirrors, where his reflection is multiplied a hundred-fold into the
distance. Other examples of techniques is of the camera surmounting several
layers/levels of fences and, in a series of dissolves focused on a lit window
in a distant tower, moves across the dark, spooky, deserted grounds of Kane's
Xanadu estate. That window remains in the same place in the frame -- upper
right-hand corner -- in each successive shot, including one that turns the
image upside down. As we approach the window, a light inside (and, soon, a
life) is put out. Another match-dissolve takes us almost gradually from
outside Kane's castle to inside his room, where it is snowing. A house sits
nestled in a soft, white landscape, but the camera pulls back rapidly and we
see it's one of those little liquid globes with fake flakes inside. This
wintry world held tight in the palm of his hand, Charles Foster Kane loosens
his grip on life. The glass bubble bursts on the floor as his disembodied lips
Welles knew that low-angle shots showed power, but the optical illusion was
something just first being capable of showing on film. One of the best scenes
in the film uses deep focus well, however, for an optical illusion, such as
deep focus to work, you need the use of lighting, sets, and camera angles to
make things look bigger, or smaller, than what they really are. In the scene
where Kane walks back to the windows, Kane is the object which shows that
those windows are much bigger than at first thought. In this scene, Kane hands
over the company in Thatcher's office. The windows in the background look like
normal, but after Kane signs the contract, he walks back to the windows and we
see that the windows are really much more bigger than at first thought. He has
suddenly become a small man. Of course, none of this could have been done
without the cinematographer. Gregg Toland creates the perfect mood for the
film, making the power of Kane look dark, dreary, and unappealing. Toland's
use of low-angle shots and optical illusions is what makes this film rise
above most great films. Welles knew that low-angle shots showed power, but the
optical illusion was something just first being capable of showing on film
In addition to its visual features, heightened sound is used in Citizen
Kane as a features of intricately detailed soundtrack, aided by Bernard
Hermann's musical score. Citizen Kane is a rare item in that it may be the
only perfect film ever made.
In radio Welles had developed a special montage technique using a gradually
increasing of voices, each saying a sentence or sometimes merely a fragment of
a sentence. This he carried over into film, photographing the various speakers
in close-up against a blank background. Spliced together in quick succession,
the shots gave the impression of a whole town talking.
In addition to the techniques the movie is filled with original visual
moments: the towers of Xanadu; candidate Kane addressing a political rally;
the doorway of his mistress dissolving into a front-page photo in a rival
newspaper; the camera swooping down through a skylight toward the pathetic
Susan in a nightclub; the many Kanes reflected through parallel mirrors; the
boy playing in the snow in the background as his parents determine his future;
the great shot as the camera rises straight up from Susan's opera debut to a
stagehand holding his nose, and the subsequent shot of Kane, his face hidden
in shadow, defiantly applauding in the silent hall.
Yes, we eventually find a symbolic meaning for the riddle of Rosebud --
even though none of the characters in the film is ever privileged to discover
it. But, in the end, the movie reverses itself and we back out of the life and
works of Charles Foster Kane the same way we came in: drawing back behind the
fence and coming to rest on that stubborn NO TRESPASSING sign, as the remains
of a man's life turns to smoke in the distance.
There's no doubt that Citizen Kane is a great movie. It is a pioneering
film that forever changed film making. Its plot is one of the most creative
and original in all of movie history. The cinematography is stunning. Citizen
Kane is about those images that we all reflect and project, the sum total of
which -the impressions we make on other people- are all we that leave behind
us. That central, unsolveable riddle of personality is at the core of what
makes Citizen Kane so endlessly watchable.
As Hearst began his empire with one small newspaper in San Francisco, then
expanded to New York, he always wanted more, and eventually he controlled the
first nationwide chain--with papers in Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, and
Atlanta. Soon, an estimated one in five Americans was reading a Hearst paper
every week. But in the course of making Citizen Kane, Welles' huge ego and his
youth would blind him to the extent of Hearst's power and reach; he tragically
underestimated Hearst's ability to counterattack. Indeed, Welles proved no
match for the old man. Hearst threatened to expose long-buried Hollywood
scandals his newspapers had suppressed at the request of the studios. His
papers used Welles' private life against him, making blunt references to
communism and questioning Welles' willingness to fight for his country. Major
theater chains refused to carry Citizen Kane.
Citizen Kane sparked so much controversy that it wasn't even known if the
film would survive the 40s. Some powerful people wanted the movie destroyed,
but the awesome grandeur of the film overcame the small-minded people. In
fact, this film is about those kinds of people. And I hope you don't take
offense if you are one of them. To see if you are one of them, watch the film.
If you hate it or don't like it, you are. If you love it and consider it one
of the best films of all time, you aren't. If you haven't seen Citizen Kane
yet, go rent it today because it is certainly worth your time and money.