“Citizen Kane” (1941) starring/directed by Orson Welles

Radio’s Most Dynamic Artist . . The Man At Whose Voice A Nation Trembled . . . Now the screen’s most exciting NEW star! ORSON WELLES in the picture Hollywood said he’d never make! – A tag line from the film

Following the death of publishing tycoon Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles- just 26 y.o.), reporters scramble to uncover the meaning of his final word: “Rosebud.” The film begins with a news reel (which comes directly from RKO Pictures) detailing Kane’s life for the masses. Then, we see flashbacks from Kane’s life- his simple boyhood, life as an idealistic young newspaper publisher, attempt at politics in mid-life, and two (failed) marriages. As the reporters investigate more, we see a man’s rise to fame and fall from the top of his world. Kane (who died alone surrounded by statues and other treasures from all over the world) is based on media tycoon William Randolph Hearst.

Kane [in old age]: You know, Mr. Thatcher, if I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a really great man.

Young Charles Foster Kane (8 y.o.) comes into a LOT of money; his mother/owner of a boarding house, Mary (Agnes Moorehead), decides he should be sent away from Colorado to the East. He will be raised by his new guardian, a humorless banker named Mr. Walter Parks Thatcher (George Coulouris). Charles’ father (Harry Shannon) is reluctant to give up his son; though he’s an alcoholic w/ potential for violence, the boy seems to love him. When Mary is signing away the boy, there is the (then innovative) use of the “deep focus lens.” While the mother acts cold (calling him “Charles), his father takes a warmer tone (calling him “Charlie”). Upon reaching 25, Kane (handsome/energetic) comes into ALL his inheritance; he impulsively buys a newspaper (The New York Inquirer) against the wishes of Thatcher. His closest pal Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotten) becomes the theater critic; being from “old money,” Jed can scoff at high society. Kane’s general manager, Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane), is loyal/helpful until the end. When Kane writes up his “declaration of principles,” his face is almost obscured in shadow; this is a hint of things to come. Jed looks almost directly at the camera, saying that paper will be worth something one day.

Mr. Bernstein: Old age. It’s the only disease, Mr. Thompson, that you don’t look forward to being cured of.

Kane’s first wife, Emily Monroe Norton (Ruth Warrick), is the sophisticated niece of the president; they meet (offscreen) in Europe and have a whirlwind romance. Emily starts to resent the long hours Kane spends at the newspaper; their politics are also different. In a series of clever/concise scenes at the breakfast table, we see the deterioration of their relationship (from flirty/loving to silent/cold). One night, outside a pharmacy, Kane meets a 22 y.o. aspiring opera singer- Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore). It turns out that he can maker her laugh; Susan also doesn’t know who Kane is (being a naive girl new to the city). After Kane enters politics, his affair w/ Susan is uncovered by a private detective working for his rival. When given the choice between Emily (who was loyal to him for 15 yrs) and Susan, Kane chooses Susan (thus loses his political career).

Kane: Mr. Carter, here’s a three-column headline in the Chronicle. Why hasn’t the Inquirer a three-column headline?

Carter: The news wasn’t big enough.

Kane: Mr. Carter, if the headline is big enough, it makes the news big enough.

Mr. Bernstein: That’s right, Mr. Kane.

They get married and he even builds an opera house where Susan can perform; it turns out she’s a terrible singer (no matter how hard she practices). Kane and Jed have a falling out; Jed is drunk and gives his true opinion re: Susan’s “talent.” Their break-up scene where we are looking up at the characters was achieved by Greg Toland (cinematographer) cutting holes in the floor of the studio. Later on, there is break-up w/ Susan, after she gets tired of living a lonely/unfulfilled life in his huge California estate Xanadu (named for the “pleasure palace of Kubla Khan” in the poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge).

Jed [to Kane]: You don’t care about anything except you. You just want to persuade people that you love ’em so much that they ought to love you back. Only you want love on your own terms. Something to be played your way, according to your rules.

Once you see this film (or rewatch it a few times), you realize how influential it was to later films! It is very well made and ahead of it’s time, as I realized seeing it recently. Watching this film on TV, a young Scorsese began to notice editing techniques and camera moves (incl. the use of the “wide angle lens”). In previous American films, the camera didn’t move, Scorsese noted. As NYT film critic A.O. Scott commented: “Most of the scenes are shot a low angle, so we feel as if we’re sitting in an orchestra seat watching a play. It is also un-mistakenly cinematic… deep focus asymmetrical compositions and bold contrasts in light and shadow to get at themes not explicitly stated in the film’s script. Welles slows time down w/ subjective dream-like sequences and speeds it up w/ witty and inspired montages.”

[Susan is leaving Kane]

Kane: [pleading] Don’t go, Susan. You mustn’t go. You can’t do this to me.

Susan: I see. So it’s YOU who this is being done to. It’s not me at all. Not how I feel. Not what it means to me. [laughs] I can’t do this to you? [odd smile] Oh, yes I can.

Is this the best film ever made? I don’t think so, but it’s worth a watch for cinephiles. Citizen Kane is essentially a character study of a man who is rich, powerful, yet probably feels inadequate inside (as he can’t connect to other people). Love is something that Kane wanted all his life, both Jed and Bernstein tell the reporter. Most the the actors are newcomers from The Mercury Theater, Welles’ theater company. Cotten went on to have a fine career; he said he was proud to have appeared in several box office hits. He is perhaps best known as Uncle Charlie in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. Sloane makes a terrific villain in Welles’ film noir The Lady from Shanghai.

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