My latest viewing of Orson Welles‘ career-defining masterpiece was a palette cleanser, pulling me with great finality out of the quicksand of the 2011 Oscar race and refocusing my scope. Sometimes it takes a great film to do this, and through most of my career as a watcher I’ve used tent-pole titles to widen my perspective. This is a necessary joy at times, but Citizen Kane is, obviously, far more than just a refreshing film from another era. It is a complex portrait of one of this country’s most successful and monstrous businessmen, and the starting gun of a media war. It is the shining achievement of Welles’ career, as well as his undoing. It is considered by many to be the greatest film of all time.
“Rosebud,” whispers Charles Foster Kane (Welles) on his deathbed. Ancient, alone, and his empire a shadow of its former glory, news of Kane’s death and last word are a firestorm. When a young reporter is sent on a journey to discover the meaning of Kane’s last, ambiguous object of want, he unfolds the pages of the man’s life, speaking with friends and enemies and forming a tale in fits and starts. Kane is all things to all people. To the crony-ish Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane), Kane is a hero, making his own name and fighting underdog fights. His old compatriot and best friend Jed Leland (Joseph Cotten) remembers Kane as a good-hearted betrayer of the cause, more invested in his personal acquisitions then the principles he once stood for. Ex-wife and drunken has-been Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore) recalls a man powerful and sensitive, and expresses clearly the vacuum Kane could create in those he loved and left. Ultimately the portrait of Charles Foster Kane contains all of these things and many more, as the man (and the man the man is based on) is nothing if not vastly complex.
Want a reminder of how little you’ve accomplished in your life? Here it is: Orson Welles was 24 when he directed and starred in Citizen Kane. 24. Even ignoring his accomplishments prior to this (among them: a hugely successful Harlem production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, cast almost entirely with African-American non-actors; a wildly contemporary Nazi-tinged Julius Caeser set in Faschist Italy; the notoriously earth-shattering War of the Worlds broadcast) the fact of Welles’ unprecedented contract with RKO Pictures as an untested director is the stuff of legend. His was a legacy built as much on myth as fact, and he played his role beautifully. Welles had always been called a genius, and his career prior to Kane is certainly worthy testimony, but come on. Twenty. Four. Years. Old. Think about that for a moment.
Rarely are so many elements as perfectly assembled as they are in the case of Kane. Even the best films can’t claim the sum of parts that this film can. If you look at any of the endless praise for the film, you’re guaranteed to find vast esteem for Welles’ and cinematographer Gregg Toland‘s work behind the camera. Film simply hadn’t been shot like this before. Or if it had, it hadn’t been done with such creative energy. Utilizing absurdly deep shots and angles so low they had to dig out the floor of the studio, these two men assembled footage that amounts even now to pure innovation. It’s fascinating to read about the sort of in-camera manipulation and in-studio trickery Welles and Toland performed, and the more technical it gets the more impressive it becomes. These men were doing what James Cameron did with Avatar: creating style and technique purely from vision. Coupled with the film’s black and white palette, Kane’s pictures not only stand up to contemporary cinematography, but more often then not, suggest its origins.
Considering Orson Welles’ youth as a director is nothing if not remarkable, but watching him as a performer throws his age even further into contrast. Only for a brief moment in the film does Welles’ play something close to his age, otherwise playing a range as wide as any ever seen. This is helped considerably by the makeup work of Maurice Seiderman, who at one time or another ages all of the young cast well beyond their years. Still, it is Welles’ presence more than his appearance that ages him. As a young man he is jolly and brazen, and only rarely does he bare his teeth. The older versions of Kane however, are less and less joyful and more and more sinister. The link between Kane’s hunger for wealth and his happiness is evident ’til the last, and it is Welles’ performance that makes this distinction cogent. Surely as the director he was aware of the overall arch of Kane’s character, and his grasp on the performance from scene to scene could be related more easily to the performance as a whole, but there’s no point denying Welles’ immense talent as an actor. From his powerful and timeless voice to his tremendous presence, Welles was everything Old Hollywood wanted from its actors. In a film that is so truly great, Welles as Kane may be the most impressive and imperative aspect.
So where does Citizen Kane fit in with modern cinema? Though not impossible, it’s a challenge finding modern day filmmakers who aren’t falling over themselves with praise of the movie. Still, Kane has its moments of antiquity. The humor in particular feels mostly reminiscent of the time, and ends up falling a little flat. And as time continues moving forward the film will surely continue to become more mythological than objectively flawless. This is just the nature of something being the first of its kind; though it can always lay claim to seniority, it simply cannot always be the “best of all time.” The nature and the beauty of any art form is to innovate and build forward momentum, inevitably leaving its founders in the dust. Citizen Kane, though surely one of the most important films ever made, isn’t untouchable to the point of avoiding the natural weathering of time. In spite of all these inevitabilities, Orson Welles’ magnum opus will always be one of Hollywood’s most fascinating stories, both on and off camera.