Citizen Kane is the greatest movie ever made, but it’s not the greatest movie Orson Welles ever made. In his lifetime, he described the movie as a millstone around his neck. No one could ever appreciate anything else he made because it was always held to that impossible standard. With some distance and critical reappraisal behind us, now we can see that he never really failed to live up to the promise of Citizen Kane. If anything, he surpassed it. Kane reinvented filmmaking, but it looks downright tame compared to later movies like Macbeth and The Trial. Welles never stopped blazing trails. The rest of the world just stopped following him.
But that shouldn’t diminish what he did his first time out. In many ways, Citizen Kane was only possible because it was his first time out. Welles has said that coming from theater and radio, he didn’t know what film could and couldn’t do. He didn’t set out to do the impossible. He just never realized it was impossible. He also says that’s why cinematographer Gregg Toland volunteered to shoot the film. Toland was itching for chances to do something new, and he knew that working with an amateur would give him that chance.
And even if it isn’t as raggedly experimental as those later, cheaper films, Citizen Kane still looks like something new even seventy years later. Like Sunil, I don’t have any illusions there’s anything new to say about it after all that time. And I think reading through what everyone’s already said would just intimidate me from doing what I’ve signed on to do. Like Welles, I’m an amateur, and I can only hope that lets me do something as fresh as he did.
And anyway, Kane is so rich it’s hard to imagine every startling moment has been covered as well as it deserves, even in all those shelves’ worth of books. What about that match cut from the photo of the Chronicle staff to the flesh-and-blood Inquirer staff? What about the flashing lights and shadows coming from the newsreel editor’s body as he blocks the window?
So much of what startled audiences at the time seems mundane after decades of imitation. It pioneered deep focus (where both the foreground and background are clearly visible) but that’s become so standardized we’re more likely to notice its absence than its presence. And yet…that scene of Joseph Cotten as Jed Leland walking across the long hall to see Kane at his typewriter (actually two shots composited together) is still dizzying.
Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper bafflingly dismissed the photography as “old-fashioned” at the premiere. That’s hard to imagine, but maybe there’s some truth to it. After all, the difficulty of adjusting to sound had made the movies of the past decade less daring than their silent predecessors. And like all of Welles’ best films, Citizen Kane sits in the (figurative and literal) long shadow of German Expressionism — he insisted on watching The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari on the set. Maybe trying to do something new was old-fashioned in 1941.
And then there’s the special effects. We wouldn’t think of such an alien-and-explosion-free movie as an effects showcase, but that’s only because the revolutionary aging prosthetics are so seamless they don’t look like effects at all. Then again, the actors do most of the work here. Joseph Cotten’s voice and body language make him almost unrecognizable, or at least no more recognizable than he needs to be, as the old Jed Leland in the framing sequence. And Welles moves just as laboriously at 25 as he really would have if he were 70. Tommy Wiseau’s attempt in The Room to recreate Welles’ iconic scene of Kane trashing Susan’s bedroom has been mocked for how slow and nonchalant his “outburst” is. But Welles’ version isn’t so different, because Kane’s body is too old to rage like his mind wants to. At one point, he’s out of breath, and you really believe it.
When I signed up to write about Citizen Kane, I was planning to keep going for the whole time just like that. I still had the idea of saying something new, and I thought that since I had written twice about Welles’ later films, putting Kane in the context of his filmmaking technique was the way to do it. I wanted to get away from the story with all its Big, Important Ideas and all that endless argument over who really wrote it. (And God, um, bless David Fincher for relighting that fire with Mank.) I had this idea that it was all irrelevant, because the script didn’t make Kane Kane, Welles’ direction did.
But as I actually sat down to watch the darned thing, I didn’t find too many images that hadn’t already been dissected to death. And that Big, Important Story, whoever wrote it, sucked me in.
I really wanted to avoid Rosebud. Everybody knows about Rosebud. Even Welles dismissed it as a “gimmick” (and he had no trouble giving Mank credit for that.) Jorge Luis Borges, in his past life as a film critic, was even harsher. “Citizen Kane (called The Citizen in Argentina) has at least two plots. The first, pointlessly banal, attempts to milk applause from dimwits: a vain millionaire collects statues, gardens, palaces, swimming pools, diamonds, cars, libraries, man and women….At the point of death, he yearns for one single thing in the universe, the humble sled he played with as a child!” (Spoilers, dude.) How am I supposed to argue with Borges?
And yet. And yet. Rosebud turned out to not be quite as banal as I thought. It’s not just “a symbol of lost youth and innocence” like the Simpsons parody called it. Little Charlie Kane wasn’t just happily playing with it when Thatcher came to take him away. He actually attacks Thatcher with it. Wealth and fame aren’t just passively unsatisfying to Kane. He actively resents them. And that matches up with the rest of what we see in Thatcher’s story, where Kane spends himself into the poorhouse trying to keep a failing newspaper afloat and uses it to attack his mentor every chance he gets. You don’t have to be Freud to see daddy issues are at play.
But Kane’s politics don’t progress past adolescent rebellion. Now that I’ve run in more leftist circles since the last time I saw Kane, some of the policies he advocates start to sound familiar. But after Kane loses the election, Leland gives the most stinging critique of affluent liberalism I’ve ever seen out of Hollywood:
You used to write an awful lot about the working man. He’s turning into something called organized labor. You’re not going to like that one little bit when you find out it means that your working man expects something as his right, not as your gift! Charlie, when your precious underprivileged really get together, oh boy! That’s going to add up to something bigger than your privileges! Then I don’t know what you’ll do! Sail away to a desert island probably and lord it over the monkeys!
In other words, Kane’s just another Thatcher.
And whatever Linus may think, knowing the answer to that question that poor reporter keeps going nowhere asking enhances your understanding of the film. It’s no coincidence that Kane meets Susan Alexander on his way to the warehouse to look through his late mother’s things — that is, to look for Rosebud. She’s his way out of the hole Thatcher dug for him. Their first night together doesn’t play nearly as sleazy or seductive as it sounds on paper. That scene of them sitting on the couch playing shadow puppets is the only moment of true tenderness in the movie, maybe the tenderest Welles ever created. And you’ll notice how important it is she doesn’t know who he is or all the hollow success he’s gained.
But just like with his political career, this escape attempt fails, maybe even more spectacularly. Kane thought Susan could be his Rosebud, but instead he becomes her Thatcher. If there’s anything new to say about Citizen Kane, it’s not about the tragedy of the great man, but the tragedy of the ordinary woman it contains inside it. She loses as much as he does, almost losing her life in a suicide attempt. (And isn’t that a great scene that still hasn’t been talked to death — the frantic, anxiety-inducing montage of the horrible frenzy of her opera career with that almost abstract recurring image of the stage light, finally fading out as the electronics relaying her voice to us wind down and die?)
And Kane loses her love because he’s too Thatcherish to remember why he loved her to begin with. Instead of breaking the cycle, he starts it all over again, forcing her into a career she doesn’t want and can’t sustain because he’s too saturated in his pride and class to let himself be married to an ordinary woman even though that’s exactly what he really wants.
(The conventional wisdom is that this is all a thinly-veiled version of William Randolph Hearst’s lover Marion Davies and her Hollywood career. Welles, a great admirer of Davies, vehemently denied it. And when you know that one of Hearst’s contemporaries actually did build his wife an opera house, that interpretation seems much less likely. Either way, Welles has a lot more sympathy for Susan than he’s often given credit for.)
In a way, Susan’s story isn’t a tragedy because she finds the strength to escape. Kane is the ultimate capitalist, who sees everything as personal property, even human beings. But she goes up to the most powerful man in the world and defies him, and there’s nothing he can do to stop her.
But waiting for that moment can be excruciating. That’s where Welles’ technique comes back in. Kane is famous for its ceilings, Welles and Toland’s use of unprecedented camera angles making them visible for the first time on film. They all look abnormally low or abnormally high, making characters larger than life or making the buildings themselves expressionistically enormous. Xanadu is the latter. Kane and Alexander try to hold conversations from opposite sides of the stadium-sized space, the sound design beautifully emphasizing its cavernous atmosphere. More of that “agoraphobic horror” Welles would bring to The Trial.
It’s the famous earlier scene of Kane and his first wife at breakfast, going from a small, cozy kitchen to opposite sides of an enormous dining room, exaggerated past the point of literal reality. It’s that sense of barriers Kane puts up, that even now that we have the skeleton key he’ll never let us really know him, that echoes across the film. Before those famous dissolve shots towards Xanadu, the film opens with an almost abstract collage of different fences, from chain-link to chicken-wire to wrought-iron. And we see it again in that wonderful scene from the fake newsreel, simulating furtive footage of the elderly Kane shot through the fence or by a cameraman hiding in a tree. Maybe that’s why there’s still so much to say about Citizen Kane after all these years. In a time when Hollywood films were designed to be as simple and direct as possible, Kane is hidden behind layers of secrecy that we’re still pulling back.