“You know, Mr. Bernstein, if I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a really great man.” – Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles)
Although Citizen Kane is by far Orson Welles’ greatest achievement as a filmmaker (actor, director and writer), it’s also been heralded as the greatest picture ever made. Is such praise deserved? That’s hard for modern audiences to say, but there must be something to the fact that the debate hasn’t ended since it began in 1941.
Charles Foster Kane (Welles) dies as a legend of a man whose rise and fall is well-known but whose final word — “Rosebud” — remains mysterious in meaning. Itching for a new angle on the story, a reporter named Thompson (William Alland) interviews business partners, family and caregivers to learn the secret behind the death rattle whisper, and in doing so uncover the dirty details behind a man blessed with wealth but cursed with an unending thirst for power, privilege and notoriety.
Citizen Kane was received as (and continues to be considered) a take on the media tycoon William Randolph Hearst, whose rags-to-riches background, newspaper empire and palatial estates are echoed in Kane’s similar boom and bust. But regardless of its intent, the film succeeds in portraying the very sad story of a man who was handed all the opportunities in the world and squandered them for his own benefit. From his mishandling of the Daily Inquirer (“You provide the prose poems. I’ll provide the war” as a way of creating news) to his tumultuous marriages and political career — both of which coincide dangerously —Kane is an example of someone who can’t seem to get out of his own way. He even jokes about choking on the silver spoon and not knowing what to do with all the money he’s been given, at one point blaming his fortune for the bad person he turned into as he grew older. These little, albeit hardly sincere, facets of his personality make him sympathetic despite his corrupt and self-serving actions.
Interestingly, Welles is much like his protagonist — self-centered and obsessed with his own greatness. Technically, the film sets the precedent for lighting, makeup, acting and set design. Although the script leaves a bit to be desired, it was the first great example of a film told through a journalist’s reporting, not linear events. One of the most innovative filming techniques Welles uses is when Thompson interviews Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotten), Kane’s former colleague. Cotten, like Welles, is aged to perfection with the right amount of makeup and acting techniques, but what makes the scene memorable is the way the camera sits in for Thompson, leaving Leland to speak directly to the audience. It’s documentary merging with fiction, and it would set a trend that lasted the next 80 years of filmmaking.
Citizen Kane clearly deserves accolades for being an important film to the history of cinema. Is it the greatest? There are many others that come before it in terms of acting, writing and directing. But something about the way Welles blended some of the most daring and human aspects of the movies into one piece place Citizen Kane definitely toward the top of the list, if not at the pinnacle.