Produced and Directed by Orson Welles
May 1, 1941 (Palace Theatre) / September 5, 1941 (United States)
The mysterious final words of a once a powerful media magnate propel an investigation into the man’s life and the meaning of what he said on his deathbed.
Citizen Kane is one of the great works of film and I can only hope to do it justice here. This is one of those movies that every movie lover should see at least once in their lives. Citizen Kane has a visual style unlike any movie today and unlike few of the era in which it was made. Welles was not only trying to do a film here but a work of art and this is a work of art.
This is a classic piece of cinema by the great Orson Welles that tells the story of one Charles Foster Kane through the eyes of reporters trying to track down the meaning behind his last words of “rosebud.” The character of Kane is said to be a composite of William Randolph Hearst, Joseph Pulitzer, Samuel Insull, and Harold McCormick. These may not be household names now, but they were very big deals back then. Reportedly when the film came out Hearst banned it from being mentioned in his papers.
Rosebud. That one word is what starts it all. If you do not know the meaning behind “rosebud,” I will try not to ruin it for you but hints at what it is appear within the first third or so of the film and after that you do not get anything more until the finale. Or maybe I will ruin it for you. I have not finished writing this yet, so I do not know. Stay tuned.
The first few minutes of the film are set up as a newsreel to give you an overview of the character of Charles Foster Keene to help frame everything. For you youthful individuals out there who do not know what a newsreel is they were short news blurbs shown at the beginning of feature films featuring the news of the day. And in the context of the story the death of Citizen Kane it was THE news story of the day as would the death of any of the people he was based on would have been.
The film begins with Kane, clutching a snow globe, uttering the word “rosebud” and dying on his palatial Florida estate Xanadu (not to be confused with the movie-not that I know if they are related or not). The once immensely wealthy and immensely powerful Kane has died a shadow of his former self and as with any fallen figure of greatness the media vultures circle the carcass and look for an angle on the story and quickly settle upon what was behind his mysterious utterance. News on the March reporter Jerry Thompson (William Alland) is tasked with solving the mystery and goes about interviewing those that knew the tycoon.
We get an interesting look at his life and how he was literally picked from poverty and raised in wealth. They craft a rags to riches story that hints at Kane becoming trapped in a cycle that at the minimum began with his father. His mother came into a deed for a goldmine that was apparently played as payment from a deadbeat boarder. She uses that money to get her son away from his abusive father. The depiction of his father was more direct than other depictions I have seen from the time and was probably shocking for audiences then.
Citizen Kane has an interesting connection to the original Stagecoach. Welles claimed that Stagecoach was a perfect example of filmmaking and reportedly watched it around 40 times and with different individuals that he peppered with questions in preparation for making this movie. Watching both (and I think you should) you can see so many similarities in pacing and structure. The major difference when it comes to filming is the use of deep focus which is a technique in which the foreground, middle-ground, and background are all in focus.
The film is told almost entirely in flashbacks through the use of different narrators. Different figures in Kane’s life are interviewed and give insights to the character but also leave questions about the man as they knew him in only a superficial way. Kane knew how to buy people and buy things, but he did not know how to have relationships. He can buy love and he can buy friends and he can buy newspapers and again buy what he wants but he cannot make anything meaningful.
Two names that jumped out in the cast to me were Agnes Moorehead of Bewitched fame as Kane’s mother Mary and Joseph Cotten who went on to star in multiple well-regarded films. In fact this was Cotton’s big break that set him on the road to be one of the bigger screen stars of the 40s.
Citizen Kane is not an action film but a character film. There is a lot of dialogue and a lot of story. No exciting chases or spectacular fights. Just well-acted scenes with sharp dialogue delivered by great actors helmed by a Hollywood legend at the very beginning of his career. It was so close to the beginning of his career that he had never directed a film. Yep. He created greatness on his first try.
RKO (where this was made) wanted him to make a film called The Men from Mars (not sure if this ever got made in any form) to ride the coattails of his famous “The War of the Worlds” radio play. Welles said he would consider it but wanted to make a different film first but did not inform them that he was already filming Citizen Kane under the title “Orson Welles Tests.” Talk about ballsy.
I went into this viewing knowing exactly what rosebud was referencing. Old cartoons and mentions on forgotten TV shows clued me in. And what is interesting is that the audience learns what “rosebud” is but the reporter as well as those in the film do not.
Rosebud represents the hope of his youth and everything intangible that Kane has lost or just never had. Rosebud is a thing that symbolizes what Kane has been trying to buy but money cannot buy. It is a metaphor.
Citizen Kane is one of those movies I should not have to tell you to watch. It is a magnificent film with a fantastic cast and a good script and just about everything you want in classic film. Watch it dammit!
2 thoughts on “Citizen Kane”
Very nice review, you pretty much nailed it. I first saw the film on late-night television many years ago when I was a lad with no idea what it was about or indeed who/what was Rosebud. To say it blew me away would be an understatement; I will just point out that the film gets better with age, and every time I have since watched it I have taken something new from it. Such a mature and thoughtful film.
You raise a good point regards what Rosebud is, how we as the viewer discover the answer but for the in-film characters it will always be a tantalising mystery that never gets answered. How we discover the answer, purely visually with that soaring music from Bernard Herrmann, is absolutely Pure Cinema, and that feeling of ‘knowing’ something that the in-film characters can never know…. genius, frankly.
Have you seen Touch of Evil? That’s a pretty great noir from Welles which was undone by Hollywood. How Hollywood could turn on someone who created such a timeless classic- well, Hearst had no small part in that no doubt as he pretty such destroyed Citizen Kane (almost literally as he wanted to buy the film and destroy all prints/trace of it) and Welles career never really recovered. When I grew up, Welles was a big rotund character on tv commercials every Christmas selling a brand of Sherry- I didn’t realise at the time that this was the man who made possibly the Greatest Film Of All Time. So very Kane.
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I have not seen Touch of Evil in recent memory if ever.
For me Welles was always a film genius though I was long at a loss as to why until I got older. My exposure to him was usually through references in old animation.