Citizen Kane

Dir: Orson Welles, 1941. Starring: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Everett Sloane, Agnes Moorehead. Classics.
Citizen Kane

Just because Citizen Kane is often cited as the greatest film ever made or the most important film of all time and just because you might have had to watch it in an "intro to film" class does not mean it’s homework. Unlike other landmark filmmaking oldies such as Birth Of A Nation or Battleship Potemkin, Citizen Kane is not a snoozer - it’s really amazingly entertaining. (Actually the "Odessa Steps" scene in Battleship Potemkin is a rather gripping piece of editing, but the rest of it is rather boring.) With his first film, Citizen Kane, the twenty-something wunderkind, Orson Welles, took on the Hollywood establishment (as well as William Randolph Heart’s publishing empire) and changed film, but most importantly made a fun, fun movie that still holds up quite well today.

The complicated plot of Citizen Kane famously mirrors the life of publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst. As a boy Charles Foster Kane is taken from his mother when he inherits a small newspaper. Eventually he grows up to be Orson Welles. The film follows him from a cynical kid fresh out of college who thinks it would be fun to run a newspaper, to old age when he dies a miser and an extreme treasure hoarder. But what really made Citizen Kane revolutionary in 1941 was the way the story was told (besides Gregg Toland’s groundbreaking camera work). It opens with a long Newsreel documentary after Kane has died which tells his life story (though a press eye view). On his deathbed his last word was "Rosebud" and” a group of reporters sets out to find what or who was Rosebud. They interview the key people in his life, each telling different versions of Kane’s story, in flashbacks, from their perspective.

Orson Welles' story may have been as amazing as Kane’s himself. As a teenager from the affluent Chicago suburbs he became the toast of the Shakespeare stage in Ireland. Then he took his act to New York, starring and directing a number of important theater pieces. He gained instant notoriety when his Mercury Theatre Radio show famously caused mania on a Halloween night with their broadcast of their radio drama, The War Of The Worlds. Listeners thought an actual alien invasion was happening and apparently a major panic occurred. The struggling low-end studio RKO offered what was then considered an unheard of contract for a novice film director, granting the young man total creative freedom. After kicking around a number of ideas, including an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Hearts Of Darkness (later the inspiration for Apocalypse Now), he settled on Citizen Kane.

Written with Herman J. Mankiewicz (The Pride Of The Yankees), Kane would break many of the rules of film structure. But in every area of filmmaking it was innovative. It’s no wonder with the all-star technical cast Welles assembled. Besides the great cinematographer Toland (The Grapes Of Wrath), who would help Welles create the look using such innovative camera tricks as deep-focus and miniatures, he also had Robert Wise editing it (later a major director himself - The Day The Earth Stood Still, The Sound Of Music, etc), and the score was composed by Bernard Herrmann (later he would do such influential scores as Vertigo, Psycho, and Taxi Driver).

Because of what a major influential director Welles was, it’s often forgotten what a great actor he was as well. In only his mid-twenties and in his first film he gives such an epic self-assured performance playing Kane all the way to his deathbed. It never feels like a gimmicky Curious Case Of Benjamin Button performance - you never see a young actor in old man make-up; he is one hundred percent believable. It helps that he has that amazing commanding voice; maybe only Richard Burton or James Earl Jones could compete for pure vocal power. After Kane, Welles would have a couple more great acting performances, usually in supporting roles, including directing himself as the heavy (and I mean heavy) in Touch Of Evil and as the towering lawyer in Compulsion. Perhaps his most memorable non-Kane role would be his brilliant extended cameo in Carol Reed’s The Third Man.

The rest of the Kane cast is rounded out with then unknowns who became successful in their own right. Joseph Cotten is great as Kane’s lifelong bud, Jebediah, who also lives his life as Kane’s conscience. Cotten would have a long career and continue to be in Welles' stock company, as well as shining in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt and playing opposite Welles in The Third Man. Also in important roles are Everett Sloane (The Lady From Shanghai) and Agnes Moorehead (Endora on Bewitched), who appears briefly as Kane’s mother. And a young Alan Ladd (Shane) pops up as a reporter.

As a director Welles would tinker with greatness with his Kane follow-up, The Magnificent Ambersons, and with the crazy Touch of Evil, as well as with a number of admirable near misses. But he would never match Kane and would famously struggle financially to get his films made, which would continue to compromise his visions. It’s too bad. If Hollywood had appreciated what they had in Welles and he hadn’t been so quick to battle the studios (and get bored by his own projects) who knows how many more Citizen Kanes he might have had in him?


Citizen Kane won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. It was nominated for eight additional Oscars: Best Actor (Orson Welles), Best Director, Best Picture, Best Black & White Art Direction, Best Black & White Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Dramatic Score,  and Best Sound.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Sep 2, 2010 2:14pm
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