Money Can’t Buy You Love: Citizen Kane (Orson Welles – 1941)

The British Film Institute’s annual listing of The Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time came out last month. Having spent half a century in the number one spot, Citizen Kane (Orson Welles 1941) was ousted by Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). To be knocked off the top of the podium after spending 50 years as the greatest film of all time, as voted for by the world’s top critics, isn’t such a bad thing – especially if you concede your spot to a masterpiece by the master of suspense.

Very few films have been admired and eulogized in the same fashion as Citizen Kane; for its sheer magnitude in terms of plot, its inventive camerawork and as one of the finest first-time directorial offerings in the history of cinema. For more than seventy years it has been analysed and critiqued to such an extent that writing about the film now almost seems superfluous, and I will admit is a little daunting, but here goes…

The film charts the rise, and subsequent fall, of the enigmatic, illustrious and infamous newspaper man-turned media mogul-turned attempted statesman Charles Foster Kane (Welles). We begin at the end with Kane’s death in ‘Florida’s Xanadu’ – the great Coleridge-esque pleasure dome that he built for himself, and his then second wife, in the autumn years of his life. The gloomy opening shot of the film pans up to a NO TRESPASSING sign on the perimeter of the property but just as soon as we pass through the wrought iron gates, emblazoned with a “K” at their head, do we forget about infringing upon the private life of a man who spent his entire adulthood in the public eye.

A newsreel put together as a testimony of his life provides the broad strokes which will be filled in as the film progresses. Described as a communist, a fascist, a philanthropist and a capitalist within the space of a few moments, one thing  is clear from the outset – Kane divided opinion. Whilst a timeline is all well and good, the investigative team know that the real scoop lies in deciphering the great man’s mysterious final words, or in his case final word – “Rosebud”.

From here the film cycles and spins from present to past like a whirlpool as layers of the onion are peeled back. By means of interview flashbacks with those who were closest to the ambiguous Kane, the reporter Thompson (William Alland) – whose face we do not see throughout – embarks upon a quest to find out who, or what, Rosebud was and why it/they occupied our eponymous lead’s dying thoughts.

The use of Deep Focus – from foreground to backround the image is crystalline.

The humble beginnings of “Charlie’s” life at Mrs Kane’s Boarding House in Colorado are turned upside down by the discovery of the world’s third largest gold mine on the otherwise worthless property. Jackpot.

Kane’s parents, pictured left (Harry Shannon) and right (Agnes Moorehead) in this frame, decide to cart him off to the big city with the man from the bank who can supposedly give him a better life and help to manage his enormous inherited wealth. This man is Walter Parks Thatcher (George Colouris – centre); he would later become Kane’s guardian and his memoirs inform a great deal of the film’s flashbacks. Whilst the formalities of signing Charlie over to a rich man in a fur coat take place in the foreground, the young Kane plays in the snow outside, visible through the solitary window in the background of the shot. So often a camera will tell us where to look but where does our focus lie here given that all we see is in focus? The scene illicits a profound sympathy for the unknowing boy who plays outside with a rather significant sled.

citizen kane ceiling
Joseph Cotten in his first film role as Jeremiah “Jed” Leland, right-hand man and confidant.

The first image above shows a middle-aged Kane on a podium at a political rally. We naturally look up at him; however, this camera angle appears on numerous occasions throughout to exaggerate Welles’ height to give weight to his larger than life persona. This angled shot also enabled Welles to break ground by displaying the ceilings of his interiors – which had previously never been done. The theatre (or rather, opera) features prominently as a source of derision in the film, and Welles wanted to move away from the front-on rigidity of the stage, from which he had come, and push the boundaries of what cinema as an art form could achieve above and beyond it’s older brother.

Just as the newsreel that opens the film provided the broad strokes of a man’s life, so this review sits atop the tip of the iceberg that is Citizen Kane. I cannot say that the film will be enjoyed by all – you might laugh a little, you probably won’t cry. However, I do think it is a film to be respected and admired. Many of the cinematic techniques that we now take for granted found their routes in this revolutionary film. I think it needs time for reflection and multiple viewings to be fully appreciated but its essential message still resonates today. For those who might not have seen it before I don’t want to give too much away, so I will end with a question – if your house was on fire, what would you save first (after your nearest and dearest and the dog)? I sincerely hope it wouldn’t be your flat screen TV…

Citizen Kane is this month’s classic film at The Bookshelf – Wednesday 14th/Thursday 15th at 6:30pm – go see it twice!