Citizen Kane, RKO1941 dir. Orson Welles writ. Mankiewicz and Welles cine. Gregg Toland edt. Robert Wise star. Orson Welles (Kane), Joseph Cotten (Leland), Everett Sloan (Bernstein), Ruth Warrick (Emily), Dorothy Comingore (Susan), Agnes Moorehead (Kane's mother), Paul Stewart (Raymond the Butler)
Kane is like a Chinese warlord who intends to be buried with his closest retainers and an army of statues. But he dies alone, left only with his statues and the mausoleum he built to house them. Interesting imagery, yes, although the problem today is that Citizen Kane has become so enshrined within a myth of itself, that it's become a statue more than a movie.
The symmetry of its narrative is now a thing of worship -- and probably rightly so. "The greatest movie of all time!" the hustlers bray, no doubt eying new generations of undergraduates eager for icons and easy solutions. Is it even the best American movie of the forties? Maybe not, although its technical brilliance makes it the mirror in which Hollywood examines its aesthetic standard thereafter.
the theatre effect: space, time, and the retinal dream
It's not surprising that the "theatre effect" is so strongly in evidence in Welles' first feature, but what is surprising is that it doesn't slow the action in a stagey exercise of declamation and false poetics. You see it in the use of spotlights to isolate or conceal characters within light or shadows. You see it in the camera angles, which simulate the theatre spectator looking up from from below the stage or looking down from a box stage right or left. You see it in the cinematography, in the celebrated use of "deep focus" which recreates the spatial reality of live theatre. You see it too in the frequent use of the "play within" i.e. those scenes which use performers and performances as part of the setting.
Or you recognize it in the occasional use of ambient dialogue, natural to stage space and character point-of-view. Even the use of an actor reincarnating through the different stages (or identities) in the protagonist's life is a familiar method in live theatre. Welles was well used to playing old men and dual roles. Just prior to the making of Kane he was the 80 year old Captain Shotover in Shaw's Heartbreak House; in his formative theatre days in Dublin he played two middle-aged characters in The Archdupe. And in his famous radio persona of The Shadow, he played a character with two identities.
cannibalism and art: the medium is the narrative
This theatre production style is harnessed with the documentary montage method of the Newsreel. Just as he cannibalizes the live radio news broadcast in his famously subversive version of The War of the Worlds, Welles parodies the cinema news roundup with his "News On The March" montage. Montage is used in place of a narrator, which in turn reveals the overall debt to radio drama in the structure of the film. By 1940 Welles was famous because of his work in radio... and when considering the merits of Mankiewicz's disputed claim that he alone wrote Citizen Kane, you may well wonder how Mankiewicz so presciently constructed the narrative in the Wellesian radio manner. While the story and the dialogue might be his, the narrative is pure Orson Welles.
While the film begins and ends with Kane's death, his story is told through a series of five interviews which in turn frame dramatized periods of the tycoon's life. One is with a drunk, another with a dead man (via his journal)... the last one is with a butler, which is surely the biggest bromide from the stage.
Kane celebrates the success of his newspaper The Inquirer by bringing in some chorus girls and joining in with their performance as his employees enjoy the show with their dinner. Theatre. Kane stages operas for the futile benefit of his second wife Susan. Theatre. Even his show palace in Florida -- "Forty-nine thousand acres of nothing but scenery and statues" as Susan calls it -- is another "play within", even if its idea of theatre is perverse.
civilization, madness, and the great man theory
Kane is an imperfect movie because Kane's madness isn't fully realized. While Xanadu is his testament, the megalomania of its architecture and contrived environment of wild animals and European statues remains circumspect, vague images in the special effects or at best flash frames in the montages.
Unable to buy the people for the political power he craves, Kane buys statues in Europe in an obsession that not only reveals the psychology of a man desperately trying to control his fantasy of himself, but also works as an analogy to the growth of the American capitalist state through immigration. They come as slaves, they come as refugees, they comes as statues. It's the expression of an ideal, a megalomania as mad as a pyramid tomb or gun collecting.
And what of "Rosebud", the trigger for the hunt into the soul of Charles Foster Kane? This is what Strindberg referred to as "a secret made known to the audience either at the beginning or toward the end." It's an excellent device for driving the action -- the mystery of the meaning of Kane's last words -- and it functions in a vague psychological way when you discover that it was the name of Kane-the-boy's sleigh, his last object of desire when he was separated forever from his mother. That "Rosebud" also contains sexual innuendo is self-evident, although not within the context of the film itself, but as an in-joke concerning Marion Davis, "Citizen Hurst's" mistress. Thus it's a vaguely unsatisfactory device -- not because Welles says, "The mystery is there is no mystery at all" -- because it remains too obscure within the possibilities allowed by the story.
Yes, a great film... about a less-than-great man and his sleigh.
© LR 17/6/99
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