Distributor: RKO Radio Pictures
Director: Orson Welles
Writers: Herman J. Mankiewicz, Orson Welles
Composer: Bernard Herrmann
Starring: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Everett Sloane, Ray Collins, George Coulouris, Agnes Moorehead, Paul Stewart, Ruth Warrick, Erskine Sanford, William Alland
One time superstar, radio host, and Shakespearian actor broke into Hollywood in 1941 with the release of what many people have come to consider the greatest film of all time. Seventy-seven years later and it still holds up as one of the most important films in the history of the film medium.
Violence/Scary Images: One transition paired with a loud bird squeak.
Language/Crude Humor: One character says “darn.”
Drug/Alcohol References: Casual smoking/drinking.
Sexual Content: Severally scantily clad women, a character has an off-screen affair.
Spiritual Content: No major references to religion.
Other Negative Content: None.
Positive Content: Negative depiction of spousal abuse, adultery, corruption, and greed.
Citizen Kane has garnered one of the most consistent and vital reputations in the history of film. It’s rare that something can so easily be declared the greatest example of its medium and yet nearly from the outset of its birth and upon generation after generation of evaluation and discussion the film has become immortalized as the greatest accomplishment of an entire medium. That’s impossibly high praise and some that many directors would likely contest. Many directors have produced works of near importance and similar depth and artistic value.
Federico Fellini, Jean-Luc Godard, Francis Ford Coppola, Alfred Hitchcock, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, and dozens of other vital filmmakers have created works of near similar stature that deserve more attention than they regularly receive outside of the hallowed halls of film criticism. The genius of some of Welles’ other films is often lost in comparison to Citizen Kane with brilliant films like Touch of Evil, The Trial, and Chimes at Midnight going widely underappreciated. Yet here it stands with the proudest and most deserved title in the history of the form. Citizen Kane may very well be the greatest film in history.
This coming week brings with it the release of one of the most important films of all time. Orson Welles’ final film Other Side of The Wind is being released to Netflix. The film has been entrapped in legal red tape since Orson Welles’ death in 1985 and was only near completion at the time of his death, meaning that the remaining footage and audio needed to be organized and put through post-production before the film could be made even presentable. Now that the film’s been complete, partially through its 2015 Indiegogo Campaign and partially through assistance from Netflix, it remains to be seen how the film’s release will be marked.
For now, I wish to poetically change pace. If Other Side of the Wind represents the end of Orson Welles’ career then Citizen Kane definitely represents its beginning. Let’s go back and see how that career started and what it meant. All of that said, I’m very hesitant to talk about Citizen Kane. The film represents a veritable minefield. Every subject from its writing, to its cinematography, to its editing, to the production history is a hole deep and worthy of diving into merely to glimpse at its maze of complexity. I’m afraid I might undersell the fullness of Citizen Kane‘s fascinations.
The history is where lies the key to understanding the context of what Citizen Kane was to its generation. By 1941, Orson Welles was a veritable superstar personality. His infamous War of the Worlds radio-drama was behind him and he’d gained rounded across the country for both his impressive work as a radio announcer reading for radio-dramas like The Shadow. He’d also gained renown as a well-established Shakespearian actor working with the Mercy Theater in New York City. There he staged famous and widely topical productions such as a Julius Caesar set in a fascist state and an all-black production of Macbeth. The name of Orson Welles was a national icon and a protege of the stage.
Hollywood wanted in on the action and approached him in 1939 to come to Los Angeles and work for RKO Radio Pictures. The 25-year-old wunderkind was given an unprecedented contract that afforded the novice filmmaker an unheard of level of creative control. The studio system at the time was known for its rigidity and inflexibility. Giving complete power to Orson Welles was an enormous gamble and one never before seen. Welles would describe the free reign and power he possessed as “the largest train set a kid ever received.
Welles immediately began to prepare himself for the task of building a major studio film from scratch with total control. Initially, he placed scriptwriting duties in the hands of screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (brother of Joseph Mankiewicz who wrote All About Eve). Welles became enwrapped in learning the business of filmmaking. He sat with cinematographer Gregg Toland and began learning the processes of filmmaking. Of all the filmmakers he sought mentorship from the one he found his most influence in was the works of legendary Hollywood director John Ford. Toland had collaborated with Ford on his most recent films The Grapes of Wrath and The Long Voyage Home and accompanied Welles through the early stages of learning the nature of the business. Welles famously sat in one of the screening rooms at RKO for weeks on end watching and rewatching John Ford’s classic Stagecoach to dissect the film and learn from it.
After months upon months of waiting for Mankiewicz, Welles took stock of his progress on hundreds of pages of a script titled The American which loosely resembled the final product of what Citizen Kane would eventually develop into. Here Orson Welles put one of his greatest skills into action. Welles was one of the greatest condensers of stories born into the 20th century. He once famously condensed Shakespeare’s Hamlet, normally a four-hour play into a half-hour radio drama. Welles set to work organizing and condensing the hundreds of pages of ideas and nonsense Mankiewicz had developed until he found himself with the tighter, more manageable final script.
The story Welles and Mankiewicz conceived together was, in theory, a rather unconventional one. Structurally it’s rather awkwardly told. Information isn’t dolled out by the actions of characters so much as it is gradually discovered and reimagined by a group of people who remember the central character of Charles Foster Kane in the aftermath of his death. His life was grand and tumultuous and we see much of the breadth of a great man through the eyes of his family, business associates, and friends. As such, the film isn’t structured around a group of characters with personality and motivation. The investigators researching the man that was Kane are doing this because it’s their job. For most of the film, they’re relegated to the shadows, merely images of men walking down hallways or sitting behind the camera of interviews listening to men describe the personality of Kane.
Our investment as the audience comes from our desperate desire to learn more about this alluring and tragic figure that is Kane. We want to know what his dying word means and that drives the film forward more than anything else. Toland’s cinematography embraces the depth his shooting style affords him to place Kane and the people he loves/hates/talks within different depths in the frame. His shooting style had become famous for its revolutionary use of deep focus shooting that gave nearly everything in the frame a perfect focused look was new and here it’s used perfectly. This is a story about people remembering, connecting, and disconnecting from one man and gradual separation is one of the film’s constant visual motifs.
For all its strengths and innovations through the film nearly didn’t finish production. As the film neared completion, RKO found itself under fierce media scrutiny from media mogul William Randolph Hurst who correctly surmised that elements of the film’s story were based on his life and that the film was viciously satirizing him. He wasn’t going to allow some mere movie to not-so-quietly besmirch the image of one of 1941’s largest political voices. The film’s central character of Charles Foster Kane was a media mogul whose quest for power and love caused him to make friends with bad people, betray those he loved, and attempted to drown himself in wealth and control over others. As far as satire goes it was a pretty clear analog for Hurst at the time. It’s even guessed in some contexts that the film’s titular quote “rosebud” was an inappropriate jab for a nickname that he used in one of Hurst’s adulterous relationships designed to directly call out.
When Hurst found out about the film he went to war with RKO Pictures. He offered to buy the whole film and have it burned. The film was subsequently ridiculed and dragged through the mud across dozens of newspapers. Citizen Kane’s release was delayed and ultimately when it did premiere it severely underperformed and wasn’t shown publicly again for years outside of arthouse theaters that kept their prints. While the film’s lambasting of Herst may seem harsh the film ultimately portrays him as a tragic figure. We come to see Charles Foster Kane as a man in full even though the film meditates on whether that’s even possible. He’s a man who inherited great wealth, power, and talent from numerous places, used that ability to attempt to shape the world before the power eventually consumed him.
While the film’s ire was clear there’s a strong case to be made for just how much the film near prophetically runs parallel to Welles’ own life. The life of Orson Welles had his career trajectory planted him at the starting line as an unquestionably brilliant mind before gradually throwing him into exile, public embarrassment, and disregard for largely arbitrary reasons. As Welles himself said in F for Fake, “I began at the top and I’ve been working my way down ever since.” He would never fully have the privileges that Hollywood afforded again. His subsequent films The Magnificient Ambersons and Touch of Evil would be mutilated and reshot in post-production and Welles’s eventually self-exiled to Europe to make films privately.
If there’s one true lesson that anyone should walk away from Citizen Kane it’s that cinema isn’t a one-man show. Later in life, Orson Welles would become an outspoken critic of auteur theory, that being the idea that a director is the sole credited creative voice for a film. When Welles first arrived in Hollywood, he quickly set to work building his inner circle of reliable creative minds capable of assisting him along the path to success. He made friends with the Hollywood elite, brought his fellow Mercy Theater actors with him to star in his film, fell back on the advice of industry experts, and generally worked with the team he created. He was the driver and his talents gave him the mindset to innovate where others hadn’t conceived to but he never took sole credit for Citizen Kane. In fact, he later criticized the film for what he perceived as minute technical imperfections.
One scene he particularly hated was where the camera accidentally caught a brief glimpse at his girlfriend’s bracelet he’d been gifted and was wearing under his costume during the shoot. Late in his life he much preferred his later European films like The Trial and Chimes at Midnight. Either way, Citizen Kane to him wasn’t something that totally belonged to him entirely. The film was a group effort of the greatest filmmakers and storytellers coming together for a rare moment of perfection.
+ Innovative Use of Deep Focus Cinematography + Topical, Uniquely Told Story + Relevant Political Themes
The Bottom Line
Citizen Kane is widely regarded as the greatest film of all time. There's a reason for that!