Golden Oldies #14: Citizen Kane

After a year of blogs considering which films should truly stand the test of time, Michael Armstrong finishes on a solid note

Over the past year, while dishing out opinions on films new and old, it has struck me occasionally how possibly fruitless the whole endeavour of writing reviews may be. I like to think I know what makes a good film. I’m able to differentiate between artistic merit and pretentious wankery, and tell good-natured fun from vapid profit-making ventures. But often when you discuss a film with others, it is striking how differently we experience the same movie, and what we prioritize in our laundry list of what constitutes “good.” Some value emotional connection to the characters, others the technical skill of shot making, while many just value a good story well told.  

With such divergence in the audience’s expectations, it was unsurprising that when I cast my eye over a few reviews of Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’ 1941 directorial debut, it wasn’t that I disagreed with them; it was more that the technical feats they were praising seemed so secondary to what, for me, made the film truly memorable: Welles himself. The 25 year-old director cast himself in the lead role, creating a character as exceptional as he was tragic, and portraying him with a mix of exuberance and emotional depth that puts other filmmakers to shame. Grandiose yet insightful, the film leaves you in no doubt of the epic scale of the story as it unfolds, but afterwards, there remain interesting and unsettling questions over our own ambitions, desires and motives. 

Based to some extent on the life of William Randolph Hearst and Welles’ own experience growing up as an orphan in the care of a wealthy Chicago doctor, Citizen Kane tells the life story of media mogul Charles Foster Kane using flashbacks and the plot device of a journalist’s search to uncover the meaning of Kane’s last words. But where most biopics, real or fictional, tend to plod through the ups and downs of a person’s life, this film breaks all the rules and conventions of cinema within the first five minutes. Kane’s final moments are shot in a surreal, dream-like fashion, immediately unsettling the audience and making clear the significance of the ultimate cinematic McGuffin: “Rosebud”. This first scene is the only direct contact we have with Kane the man, as from then on his life story is told through a jarring and energetic newsreel that sets up the tragic arc of the film, and the recollections of his friends, enemies and lovers. With every testimony, another facet of his personality or stage in his life is revealed; from the exuberant and daring young newspaper owner, to the principled firebrand politician, and finally, the lonesome and aged tycoon, isolated in “Xanadu”, the unfinished palace built for a wife who left him long ago. 

What is amazing is that this life story is totally involving at every stage, due to Welles’ incredible performance and some surprisingly convincing make-up. Only twice during the film does the aging process look unrealistic: in a close-up of Kane in his dotage, and the aging of one of his former friends, Jebediah Leland (Joseph Cotton). But these are minor complaints in a film that even today has a unique artistry in all aspects of its composition: each shot feels rich with meaning and epic in scope, every line, however quickly delivered, informs and shapes our understanding of the story. The sheer energy of the film is undeniable, as is its confidence: the breakdown of Kane’s first marriage is told in one montage, with little dialogue, while his frustration at the riches he has built around him is conveyed by just one continuous shot as he lays waste to one of his palatial suites. 

The film has too many interesting characters and themes to mention here, but they are secondary to the complexity and pathos of Kane himself. Though he is destined to be corrupted by his wealth and power (the amount of Mr. Burns jokes based on this film in The Simpsons is astounding, while if you can’t place where you’ve heard a voice similar to Welles before, think Pinky and the Brain), we never become distanced, or revolted by him. Instead, we understand precisely why his craving for both public affection and private devotion can never be fully satisfied, and why he mistakes buying the affection of others for giving love from within, dooming every relationship he has to failure. His pursuit of wealth and power is an ill-advised means to secure happiness in a world he finds too mercenary, not an end in itself, and eventually he becomes so disappointed in the outside world that he retreats into the empty halls he has built around him. The film is unfalteringly sceptical of the nature of love, and our motives for wanting it. Kane, with a rational, almost transactional attitude towards relationships that is all too common in many men, is left mired in bitterness, self-hatred and bewilderment; when his second wife leaves him, he can only protest with impotence that “you can’t do this to me.” We know the nature of this man long before we find out who or what Rosebud actually was, and his story has a universality to it that gives the film the air of a parable. To a greater or lesser extent, we all have something we want, and this need shapes who we are, how we treat others and what we do with our lives. Kane’s life is a warning to those who know exactly what they want, but go about getting it in precisely the wrong way. 

Much has been written about what Citizen Kane says about the corrupting influence of capitalism and materialism, and no doubt these themes could be brought to the fore in any discussion of the film. Personally, however, I think Kane was much closer to Jay Gatsby than to Daniel Plainview, but perhaps being open to such different interpretations is what makes Citizen Kane such a masterpiece. Regardless of what stands out for any viewer, Citizen Kane truly deserves an accolade too often given undeservingly to many films: it is essential cinema, a unique achievement in the history of filmmaking.