Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’ masterpiece and the first feature film he ever made, has come back into the limelight during recent months – if it ever left, that is – after David Fincher’s Mank (2020) dramatised the widely known melodrama of Welles’ commissioning of screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz. Fincher’s take highlights for us a key inspiration for the story that would initially fail to break even at the box office, only to become one of the most acclaimed films of all time. This is Mankiewicz’s tumultuous relationship with the titan of the news industry, William Randolph Hearst. This integral real-world relationship underlines one of the key themes of Kane – the impressions we have of those around us.
Dir: Orson Welles, United States, 119 mins, 1941.
After the news magnate Charles Foster Kane (played by director Orson Welles) dies, the reporter, Jerry Thompson (William Alland), is tasked with unravelling the mystery of Kane’s final utterance – perhaps the most famous phrase in all cinema – “Rosebud”. Through a series of encounters with those whose Kane’s sprawling influence touched, Thompson’s mission leads him to uncover the man’s life in its entirety: from his innocent, humble beginnings, via his thrust into affluence at a young age, to his eventual rise to power as an industrial titan and fatalistic collapse. Kane’s is a simple, yet powerful story of tragedy and power and loss. Thompson’s, on the other hand, is a tapestry, a document of one man’s kaleidoscopic identity as he himself is interpreted by different witnesses and beholders.
Citizen Kane is noted as being a landmark, not just in the history of cinema but also within that of the United States. A document of both a specific period and its socio-political baggage, as well as a revolutionary technical marvel. Of particular note is the film’s deep-focus cinematography and the way this allows it to play with perspective, its elliptical editing methods, and its circular narrative structure. All things to keep an eye out for, on what is likely to be many members’ second, third or even fourth viewing.
An astonishing film from such a young and inexperienced film-maker. Photography, pace and visual imagery were all knockout! Orson Welles’ acting skills weer also very high – I was very impressed with his ability, at age 25yrs, to portray a man in late middle age. My only disappointment was the revelation of the source of ‘Rosebud’ as his last utterance. A bit of a damp squib, I thought.
A marvel of cinematic history that still holds up today in both its technical mastery and engagement – also the story it weaves. The film interrogates what it means to have identity and who constructs it when we’re gone as well as less heady, more material subjects such as the rise and fall of powerful men and their place in society.
A tour de force at all levels – in its cinematic innovations, its bravura techniques, its conception and a prodigal mastery of its subject, that absolute power corrupts absolutely. No wonder it remained as critics’ The Greatest Film Ever for half a century! The on-screen chemistry between Welles and Joseph Cotten was remarkable – a portent of things to come for both of them. Could ‘Rosebud’ have been a reference to Kane’s first use of a weapon (the sled) to exert his power over others?
Certainly a peculiar film – unless you happen to know of any other that starts with the death of the main character followed by a newsreel about him! Watching this feels like a cinematic challenge – a classic you can dip into. With its creative cinematography, convincing makeup, strong performances and one of cinema’s most famous spoilers, you can well understand the universal praise for this 80yr old film. It is also an excellent period drama, with a strong element of mystery throughout. Whether you consider it to be The Greatest Film Ever is likely down to your taste and what you like about films as a whole.