- Director: Orson Welles
- Writers: Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles
- Starring: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton, Dorothy Comingore, Everett Sloane, William Alland, Ruth Warrick, and Agnes Moorehead
- Accolades: AFI 2007 Top 100 list (#1), Sight & Sound 2012 Top 100 list (#2), Cahiers du Cinema 2008 Top 100 list (#1), 1 Oscar (Best Original Screenplay), 8 additional Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Director – Orson Welles, Best Actor – Orson Welles, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Sound)
- Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on HBO Max, Rent or Buy on Amazon Video, YouTube, or AppleTV
It’s hard to say things about Citizen Kane that have not already been said over the years. As you can see from the “Accolades” section above, it is the #1 movie the AFI Top 100 and, though there have been challengers over the years, it remains probably the most popular movie among critics worldwide. Some of the reasons are hard to see now, because we’re so used to the innovations pioneered here. I tried to explain some of these to my wife as we watched it this time, and I think I did it one time too many because they started announcing their own “firsts.” “First infinity mirror shot.” “First high shot of a room full of boxes.” I mean, probably.
Many of those innovations likely came from the fact that Orson Welles had never made a movie before and didn’t know what couldn’t be done. His background was in theater and radio, but he had become incredibly famous doing those things before reaching the age of 30. In 1938 Time put him on the cover dressed as a character from his current play. That same year, his Mercury Theater on the Air made even bigger headlines with their infamous broadcast of War of the Worlds, done as a fake news report that supposedly many of the more unsavvy listeners thought was real. The ensuing panic made Welles so famous that RKO Pictures made him an unprecedented offer to come to Hollywood and make two movies, with “final cut,” meaning bascially that the studio couldn’t tell him how to edit anything or what to do. Keep in mind that this was the height of the studio system and no one got final cut, much less outsiders who had never made a movie before.
After a couple of false starts (one of which apparently was an adaptation of Heart of Darkness told entirely from a first person camera, for which they had to literally invent a handheld camera), Welles and company hit on the idea of Citizen Kane. The film tells the life story of fictional business tycoon Charles Foster Kane, thought to be heavily based on William Randolph Hearst and other super-rich dudes of the same era (more on this later). He is sent away by his mother, inherits a bunch of money, buys a newspaper, gets famous, buys other newspapers, marries the President’s niece, runs for Governor, has his candidacy derailed when his secret mistress Alexandra is revealed, gets divorced, marries Alexandra, decides she’s going to be an opera singer, builds her the Chicago Opera House, smothers her, builds maybe the greatest gothic mansion in all of movies, she leaves him too. Then he dies, with his final word, “Rosebud,” confusing everyone. But that last part is shown first, and the movie is told through a series of overlapping flashbacks told by Kane’s various friends, business associates, servants, and ex-wives to a reporter (William Alland) assigned to find out the meaning of Kane’s final word. Even today the structure feels innovative, in 1941 it must have felt like complete insanity.
The biggest reason that Kane is rated so highly today is the sheer number of pioneering techniques it brought together in one movie. Today you’ll hear arguments that some of its innovations had been used before, especially in German Expressionist films of the 1920s (I love these, and will feature some of these going forward). But certainly they had never all been brought together in service of one story. Kane is today credited with being the first use of “deep focus” (i.e. keeping the entire picture in focus regardless of distance, so one person could be far away and another close up, and they’re both in focus). This can be seen in the scene where Alexandra attempts suicide, where her empty bottle of medicine is large in the foreground and Kane’s shocked face is still in focus in the background, or the scene where Kane’s mother signs him away to a “guardian,” while the Young Kane plays outside, oblivious, framed in the window. The movie is also credited with popularizing putting ceilings on sets so you could do shots from beneath the character. The dark shadows and slightly off-kilter “dutch angles” seem to invent the visual language of Film Noir on the fly. With his background doing radio plays, Welles revolutionized the way movies used sound, creating the overlapping dialogue, or the illusion that someone was talking from far away, in ways that movies had never really bothered with before. It certainly didn’t invent the technique of montage (that credit probably goes to Sergei Eisenstein), but the way it is used in the movie to advance the story was like a quantum leap. There are a couple of sequences that feel like the direct ancestor of every 80s training montage, except way more depressing.
The reason that Citizen Kane isn’t my personal favorite movie is that the story all of this is in service of isn’t that enthralling to me. His marriages breaking down goes to the themes of the movie, about a man who has everything except anything that he wants, but they’re not really fun to watch for me. I’m someone who can have fun watching the technique of even not-great movies, and Kane is one of the most fun movies to watch in this regard. But in the end it’s a complicated, extremely well-done portrait of a guy who’s not actually super fun to spend a couple hours with.
Most of the parts were played by members of Welles’ Mercury Theater, many of whom were making their film debuts. He and many of the other members of the cast play their characters over a number of years, in aging makeup much better than you’ll see in many modern movies. As an older Kane, Welles even wore contacts designed to make his eyes look older. He couldn’t see through them very well, fell off the side of a set staircase while shooting a scene, and had to direct for two weeks from a wheelchair.
There is something of a legend that Kane was too smart for the room in 1941, but in fact it did make a modest profit and was nominated for nine Oscars, so it’s not like nobody liked it (it lost the Best Picture award to a drama about a Welsh mining town called How Green Was My Valley, directed by John Ford, which is almost entirely known today as the movie that beat Citizen Kane). The movie did run into a couple of problems in its release, however. One was that, given that Europe was in the midst of the World War II, it received almost no distribution there at its initial release (in some ways this actually might have worked in its favor later on, as its rehabilitation into “the greatest movie of all time” is generally credited to post-war French film critics who were discovering it for the first time). The other was in the person of William Randolph Hearst, who believed, not without reason, that the movie was actually about him.
Hearst was the biggest media magnate of his day, sort of a proto-Rupert Murdoch (some have called Murdoch a latter-day Hearst). He was so incensed by Citizen Kane that he not only ordered all of the newspapers he owned (a not insubstantial portion of those in the country) to never mention it (initially this order extended to all movies from RKO), he engaged in a full range of other underhanded tactics. He threatened to (and sometimes did) sue various people vaguely connected to the movie for libel. He blackmailed various people with threats to publish defamatory newspaper articles about them (this is thought to be why the film’s scheduled premiere at Radio City Music Hall ended up being canceled). Many theaters refused to show the film, for fear of being sued by Hearst. Decades later, Welles claimed in an interview that an editor at one of Hearst’s newspapers, in an attempt to impress his boss, hid a 14-year-old girl in the closet of his hotel room, with a couple of photographers in the bathroom ready to take pictures. The plot was only foiled when Welles got wind and decided not to go back to his room.
Because of all of this, Welles denied, at least initially, that the movie was based on Hearst. Certainly, many parts of the movie, particularly the way Kane essentially starts the Spanish-American War, are cribbed directly from Hearst’s life. Welles may have had more of a leg to stand on regarding the single thing that may have incensed Hearst most, that he thought the character of Alexandra (Dorothy Comingore) to be an unflattering portrayal of his own mistress, Marion Davies. In fact, much of the storyline surrounding Alexandra, including Kane forcing her and everyone around her to pursue her opera career and building the lavish Chicago Opera House for her, appears to be much more closely based on the Chicago business tycoon James Insull and his second wife, which is how the real-life Chicago Opera House was built.
Comingore certainly gives the most memorable performance in the movie outside of Welles himself, but unfortunately her career seems to have gotten caught up in larger events outside her control. She was recommended to Welles by none other than Charlie Chaplin, who had seen her in a local Los Angeles theater production. After Hearst’s attacks on Kane, and her character in particular, she found herself the subject of much “yellow ink” and unable to find the starring roles she deserved. She also may have turned down many smaller roles, thinking them uninteresting. After the war, Hearst got her put on a government watch list for “distributing Communist literature to negroes.” This seems to be a reference to her doing door-to-door canvassing for a Democratic state legislature candidate (who won) in Black neighborhoods in Los Angeles. She did appear in a few movies until 1951, when she refused to testify before HUAC and found herself on the Hollywood Blacklist. She lost custody of her children in a divorce (her supposed communist sympathies used as evidence against her) and then was arrested in 1953 on charges of prostitution. She would always claim that her arrest was the result of a conspiracy by Hearst, HUAC, or both, but the exact circumstances may never be known. In any case, she never worked again.
As for Welles, he has since gained a reputation as something of the first auteur, before that was a term. It was the French film critic Andre Bazin who is first credited with making the case for Kane as a turning point in the history of film, and critics since have embraced the movie wholeheartedly. Roger Ebert wrote that it was both the greatest movie and also, by coincidence, his favorite. But this acclaim did not translate into the ability of Welles to keep doing whatever he wanted. Before he could finish the second film on that RKO contract, The Magnificent Ambersons, a loophole in his contract caused it to be renegotiated and he lost “final cut.” While Welles was in South America during World War II as a “goodwill ambassador” on behalf of President Roosevelt, the studio took the opportunity to cut forty minutes out of the movie and completely reshoot the ending (replacing Welles’ downbeat, Kane-esque ending with a happier one). The original cut of the movie is thought to no longer exist, though the possibility remains that there’s a copy in a vault somewhere and it has become one of the holy grails of film collectors. Even with the changes, you will still find some contrarians who insist that Ambersons is a better overall movie than Kane, maybe we’ll get to it one of these days.
Welles went on to a long career as an actor, narrator, and sometimes director, but he always had trouble financing any of his projects, paying for much of his later work out of his acting salaries. It didn’t help that he had a strong crazy streak: he spent much of the 1960s filming a movie that apparently involved Don Quixote going to the moon, then burned all of his film because he thought the 1969 moon landings rendered it “obsolete.” He never again had the creative freedom he so craved, and only achieved in Citizen Kane. But for posterity, it turned out to be enough.