Even heady proclamations like the ‘Greatest Film Ever Made’ cannot overstate how powerful this picture is. The story of a mercurial newspaper magnate who began his career as an idealistic entrepreneur raised with a silver spoon in his mouth who, over the course of his life, breaks down to an egomaniacal tyrant is like an insatiable addiction. Welles’ tale of American big business and the cult of personality which arises from unabated success has become as fundamental to cinema as The Odyssey is to classical literature.
Citizen Kane (1941) dir. Orson Welles
Starring: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton, Dorothy Comongore, Anges Moorehead, Ruth Warrick, Everett Sloan, Erskine Sanford
By Alan Bacchus
The layers of complexity and intrigue entwines itself both inside and outside this work of art. Not only the technical advances of the film's production, but the thematic connections of character and the fallibility of great men, the analysis of genius is fascinating, and even more so when connecting the filmmaking author of the picture Orson Welles to his target of attack, newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst - elements which converge like a perfect storm of culture, art, politics and the American dream. Citizen Kane is like a cockfight of monumental proportions.
The magnificent deep focus cinematography, the superlative transitions, the long take scene coverage, the time-compression editing and the structurally innovative narrative plotting are impossible not to miss. It’s a technical triumph, a stylistic landmark film, but we can’t look past some of the emotional moments which move us profoundly. One of the most striking scenes is the sequence which gets Kane to travel with his first wife by car to his mistress, Susan Alexander’s house. The sequence is built up to terrifying levels. We know where it’s going to go, outing Kane’s tryst with Alexander, which, as we know from the March of Times sequence broke up his marriage. But when Jim W. Geddes is revealed also in the house, we’re shocked into a stunned silence. The conversation in Alexander’s bedroom, which Kane, Geddes, Mrs. Kane and Alexander is the key turning point in the film and sends Kane on his descent into madness.
It's an arc as grandiose as the rise and fall of Michael Corleone, or Lawrence of Arabia. These characters, whether real or not, fascinate us because of what is kept hidden. Throughout the film we’re purposely kept a distance from Charles Foster Kane, his hubris and confident arrogance, acting like a impenetrable barrier to his inner turmoil. Welles’ restraint in keeping this from us is like a striptease of sorts – a theme foreshadowed in the opening montage where we get the public summary of his life. Through the film, the private summary of life is as beguiling and mysterious.
This is why the seemingly trite Rosebud maguffin works so well. It might feel like a wonky device used to drive the story. Until the last moment, the reveal of Rosebud ceases to be a maguffin, but an earth shatteringly profound revelation of Kane’s deep-rooted agony. In one image we get it. We get it all. Like Susan Alexander’s jigsaw puzzle metaphor, the piece which opens us up to Kane, however small and slight, the loss of his mother and the loss of childhood - a monumental tragedy worthy of the bible.