CINEMA CLASSICS #6: Citizen Kane (1941)

Who made it?: Orson Welles (Director, Producer, Co-Writer), Herman J. Mankiewicz (Co-Writer), RKO Radio Pictures.

Who’s in it?: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton, Agnes Moorehead, Dorothy Comingore, William Alland.

Tag-line: “Radio’s Most Dynamic Artist…The Man At Whose Voice A Nation Trembled…Now the screen’s most exciting NEW star! ORSON WELLES in the picture Hollywood said he’d never make.”

IMDb rating: 8.6/10 (Top 250 #38).

Citizen Kane may be the greatest directorial debut in cinema history. That’s certainly tough to argue. It’s just the “Greatest Film of All Time” tag that bothers me. It’s not a weight any motion picture should carry and Kane has routinely disappointed modern viewers who go in with sky-high expectations. But that is to be expected from a movie that highbrow critics routinely call the best ever made.

With such reverence, the production has entered Hollywood legend, fuelled no end by the story of its creator, Orson Welles.

Welles in the 1930's

A young prodigy, Welles seemed to possess a talent for just about everything. He could play music, act, write, direct and even pull off a magic trick or two. There are many apocryphal stories about Welles, including a childhood encounter with Harry Houdini, or his notorious perfectionism, that have given him a mythic reputation. To say he was gifted would be quite an understatement.

Welles sprung to prominence in his early twenties with a series of successful stage plays, produced by his New York troupe, The Mercury Theatre. Their adaptations of Macbeth and The Cradle Will Rock garnered rave reviews, eventually landing them work on radio. Welles, instantly smitten with the new opportunities presented by the medium, wrote and directed his now infamous version of sci-fi classic The War of the Worlds. The 1938 production, which was presented as a mock news broadcast, was so successful that some listeners believed a real Martian invasion was under way. While some of these stories are exaggerated or outright fabricated, the furore was enough to arouse the interest of Hollywood.

Welles was hesitant to become a filmmaker, valuing the stage over the screen. Yet his reluctance didn’t deter the studios and the offers continued to pour in. It was only when he realised that he needed funding for his next play that he finally relented, but not without making demands that most studio heads turned down.

RKO Radio Pictures president George Schaefer gave Welles an offer he couldn’t refuse: complete creative control.

To this day, the contract is something of a miracle for a first-time filmmaker. They gave him a two picture deal, his choice of cast and crew, and the all-important privilege of final cut. His contract also stipulated that no one could view rushes of the footage without his express permission. Such an incredible deal made Welles the most envied and ridiculed figure in Hollywood.

The newly christened film director didn’t jump into action overnight. His early plans to adapt Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness were dashed when the studio couldn’t commit to the budget (it would later be filmed by Francis Ford Coppola as Apocalypse Now). They also vetoed his back-up; an adaptation of the Cecil Day-Lewis novel The Smiler With the Knife, which was denied on casting grounds. Such setbacks were giving Welles a bad name in the industry, with many viewing it as proof that you shouldn’t work with amateurs.

Welles had been in Los Angeles for a year at RKO’s expense with nothing to show for it, revelling in the Hollywood high-life. The studio considered dropping his contract altogether, so he scrambled to write a third script which would be an original creation. Initially, he wanted to make a film about Howard Hughes, but the suggestion of basing a story on a powerful press baron, William Randolph Hearst, intrigued him more.

William Randolph Hearst

He hired veteran screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz – who had personal ties to Hearst – to work on the first draft, which he wrote under the working title “American” (it was Schaefer’s suggestion to call it Citizen Kane). It would follow the exploits of Charles Foster Kane (Welles himself), a figure whose history bore an uncanny resemblance to Hearst’s. This case of art imitating life was a gutsy move for the filmmakers, and one that would haunt the production for decades to come.

RKO finally green-lit production on a tight budget (estimated at $839,727) and gave Welles total autonomy. Reunited with his Mercury Theatre group, he proceeded to make a movie the likes of which Hollywood had never seen; a picture that subverted classical storytelling methods and attempted ground-breaking visual techniques.

On the surface, Welles’ film is simply a chronicle of the life and death of a fictional newspaper tycoon, Kane, who is introduced to the audience in his final moments. As we soon discover, he was arrogant, self-destructive and blinded by the power of wealth, sealing his fate. Despite being an ensemble piece – much of the plot relies on the actions of other characters – the focus is always on Kane. The story grows out of a mystery that unearths the past, rather than leading to events in the future; manipulating the typical “cause and effect” structure movie-goers were used to.

As with Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950), Kane features a fractured narrative, telling much of its events out of sequence and from different perspectives. These points-of-view are unreliable, coming from varied characters in a non-sequential fashion. This technique had been used before, such as in William K. Howard’s The Power and the Glory (1933), which Welles studied in order to grasp story construction, and RKO’s A Man to Remember (1938), directed by Garson Kanin. Despite this, Kane is considered to have revolutionised the non-linear structure.

The film is about so much more than just its title character. Citizen Kane covers just about every base imaginable; a tapestry invoking themes of friendship, rebellion, materialism, corruption, love, blackmail and loss. At the time, studios were producing formulaic crime pictures, comedies and feel-good propaganda, so Kane’s multifaceted script was something of a revelation in itself.

As the film begins, Citizen Kane makes its originality known, beginning without cast and crew credits. Only the title and Welles’ production company feature prominently. That wouldn’t be noteworthy today, but it was rare in the 40’s and resulted in critics calling Welles “pretentious.”

The famous opening scene depicts the end of Kane’s long life; the camera creeping onto the grounds of his dilapidated mansion-come-castle Xanadu. Before he passes, he offers one solitary word – “Rosebud.” Is it a person, or object? And so a mystery begins…

An eerie prelude, it doesn’t seem to fit the film it’s attached to, making the picture appear more like a gothic period piece than a drama, and the grim, otherworldly surroundings of Xanadu wouldn’t be out-of-place in a Universal horror picture from the 30’s. Welles is merely preparing the audience for a dark and mysterious tale, and the quiet, stirring bars of Bernard Herrmann’s score (his first) provide a sense of unease. And out of nowhere, the screen erupts into the “News on the March” sequence – a mock-newsreel documenting Kane’s life. It’s a bombastic, 10-minute charge of exposition that dutifully sums-up the character’s legacy.

From here the plot is established, introducing reporter Thompson (William Alland), who is tasked with discovering what Kane meant by his dying word. It’s merely a plot device, or a “MacGuffin,” as Hitchcock would say. The mystery provides an ideal reason to probe into Kane’s turbulent life, and as Thompson begins interviewing his associates, the film flashes back to highlight a particular moment in time. Several references are made to jigsaw puzzles, and the structure certainly resembles one. It’s up to Thompson and the audience to assemble the pieces and solve the riddle. As his superior states, “it isn’t enough to tell us what a man did. You’ve got to tell us who he was.” Welles attempts to do that, as the flashbacks paint a portrait of a man crippled by ambition and wealth.

In a traditional studio film, Thompson would have been the main protagonist. After all, Kane is dead, and it is the reporter who initiates the back-story, gleaning memories from those who knew him. Yet Welles keeps Kane at the forefront, and despite Thompson’s pivotal role we know little about him. The director also shoots the character in an odd way, filming him from behind, or keeping him to the shadows. Thompson gives Citizen Kane another genre to play with – film noir – although the lack of focus on the “detective” character makes it radically different to say, The Maltese Falcon, released the same year. Therefore Welles not only played with classical storytelling conventions, but he subverted genre too. In particular, the audience’s expectations of genre.

Once the investigation begins the flashbacks are continuous, ranging from the memoirs of his second wife Susan (Dorothy Comingore), to that of trusted friend Jed Leland (Joseph Cotton), both of whom differ strongly in their feelings toward Kane. Throughout, we’re aware that the stories presented are merely recollections and we’re never sure if the interviewees are being truthful. Have their memories become distorted over time, or are they lying? Such a plot device would be used decades later to great effect in The Usual Suspects (1995). Welles keeps up a fast pace and the audience has to work to form a chronological order of events in their mind, as the film flits between past and present at will. Rarely did the Hollywood rulebook allow such plot sophistication, and the Byzantine structure no doubt alienated some viewers in 1941.

In terms of assessing the non-linear narrative, the sequence in which Kane’s first marriage to Emily (Ruth Warrick) is compacted into a few minutes of screen time is certainly apt. A montage by definition, it has the characters sat at the dinner table, dissolving between different stages of their marriage as they become increasingly venomous toward each other (with an efficient use of prosthetics and wardrobe to depict the changing era). The manipulation of time is something Welles does frequently during Kane, and few stories allow the characters to grow older. In this case, played by the same actors in varying degrees of make-up – another innovation.

A discussion of Citizen Kane isn’t complete without highlighting the various filmmaking techniques Welles used to tell the story, and they’re as important as the screenplay or narrative itself, driving the plot forward and adding to its internal meaning. The beautiful camerawork by cinematographer Gregg Toland was cutting-edge then and has lost none of its lustre. Giving the film a look reminiscent of German Expressionism, the unconventional lighting predates the photography of many film noirs.  The compositions build atmosphere superbly, complimented by Herrmann’s sparse string music.

The most significant element of Toland’s work is his application of deep focus shots, which used depth-of-field to keep background and foreground in focus at the same time. Such a trick is most effective during character-building moments. Consider the scene in Kane’s childhood, in which his mother (Agnes Moorehead) is signing papers to place him into the care of Mr. Thatcher (George Colouris), a wealthy banker. Welles keeps the child in the background (seen playing outside in the snow), while his parents and Thatcher determine his future. The entire sequence is composed and blocked in only two shots, thereby allowing the director to have full control of the pacing. The casting of his seasoned Mercury Theatre actors also enabled him to indulge in long, uninterrupted takes without worrying about forgotten lines or missed marks. Such was the genius of Welles.

In many respects, he was a natural film director. His achievements are made all the more impressive when you consider he was only 26 when he co-wrote, produced, directed and starred in Citizen Kane. There isn’t a shot, moment, line of dialogue or music cue that feels out-of-place. There certainly isn’t an indication that it was made by a first-timer. The story goes that he learnt everything he needed to know about filmmaking from John Ford, by watching his elegiac western Stagecoach (1939) hundreds of times. But that still doesn’t explain how he was able to make a motion picture this diverse without so much as a short film to his credit. Directors like this don’t come along very often.

The “mistakes” in Kane are minor – the obvious make-up in some shots, the occasional wonky effect. Yet none of the film’s 70 years ever spoil the experience. I can even live with the mother of all plot holes; no one was around to hear Kane’s dying word, thereby fudging the main thrust of the story. Welles would later condemn Rosebud as a tawdry plot device and nothing more, but even with an inherent flaw the mystery is fascinating. It also gives the movie its final revelation and one of the more famous endings in cinema.

Such praise didn’t happen over night. Citizen Kane was a commercial failure, largely due to Hearst, who attempted to buy the negative from RKO to bury the film. He wouldn’t allow advertising or reviews for Kane in his newspapers, and saw to it that Welles’ name was dragged through the mud. Amusingly, reviews in non-Hearst papers were highly positive, but it wasn’t enough to save the film at the box office and RKO quietly withdrew it from circulation.

The final insult came on Oscar night. Despite numerous nominations, including Best Director, it received only one: Best Original Screenplay, shared between Welles and Mankiewicz. Ironically, the big film that year was John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley, but who remembers that?

Your enjoyment of Orson’s magnum opus will depend greatly on your appreciation for classic cinema, and those who stick up their noses at black-and-white movies should be ashamed of themselves for never giving it a go. For film aficionados it is somewhat of a litmus test. After seven decades, it is still discussed, celebrated and studied.

Citizen Kane isn’t the “Greatest Film Ever Made,” but it remains a magnificent one.

Best Scene

The “News on the March” segment is very interesting, not least because it predates many examples of a mockumentary approach, but because it handles exposition so well. A necessary evil in any story – allowing the audience to grasp the characters and their situation – this expository piece deftly tells us everything we need to know about Kane’s life, but still leaves us wanting to know more. Notably, the sequence dictates the entire plot to us. Each event covered here is later brought to life – unusual for any story, and certainly counter to Hollywood’s style of storytelling.

It is also a glowing reminder of Welles’ ability as an actor, playing Kane at various stages of his life over the course of 10-minutes and doing it all convincingly.

Watch the scene here. 

Choice Quote

Female reporter: “If you could’ve found out what Rosebud meant, I bet that would’ve explained everything.”
Thompson: “No, I don’t think so; no. Mr. Kane was a man who got everything he wanted and then lost it. Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn’t get, or something he lost. Anyway, it wouldn’t have explained anything… I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life. No, I guess Rosebud is just a… piece in a jigsaw puzzle… a missing piece.”

Useless Trivia

  • The film has been parodied countless times, most notably in The Simpsons (left).
  • Welles’s first experience on a Hollywood film was narrator for RKO’s 1940 production of The Swiss Family Robinson.
  • During filming, Welles received a warning from a police officer that William Randolph Hearst had arranged for a naked woman to jump into his arms when he entered his hotel room, with a photographer to take a picture that would be used to discredit him. Welles spent the night elsewhere, and it is unknown if the warning was true.
  • The scene where Kane destroys Susan’s room after she leaves him was done on the first take. Welles’ hands were bleeding, and he is quoted as saying, “I really felt it.”

  • At one point, Welles makes a sly reference to his War of the Worlds broadcast: “Don’t believe everything you hear on the radio.”
  • Xanadu’s design is based on Hearst’s elaborate home in San Simeon and Mont St Michel in France.
  • For the opening shot of the “El Rancho” sequence where the camera appears to move through a gap in the neon sign, a collapsible sign had to be built that could be split in two to allow the camera to pass through.
  • Welles spent two weeks directing from a wheelchair after injuring his ankle during a take.
  • The audience that watches Kane make his speech is, in fact, a still photo. To give the illusion of movement, hundreds of holes were pricked in with a pin, and lights moved about behind it.
  • The reporter interviewing an aged Kane in the newsreel is the film’s cinematographer Gregg Toland.
  • For the later scenes featuring an older Kane, Welles sat in the make-up chair from 2:30 am to be ready for a 9:00 am start.

  • Editor Robert Wise became a respected filmmaker in his own right. His directorial credits include The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), West Side Story (1961), The Sound of Music (1965) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979).
  • Bernard Herrmann would go on to score many of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, including Psycho (1960).
  • The original nitrate negatives are gone; they were lost in a suspicious fire during the 1970’s (probably at the behest of Hearst). Luckily, a duplicate negative was discovered and we can still watch Citizen Kane today.
  • The production of Kane was dramatised in the HBO docudrama RKO 281 (1999), starring Liev Schreiber as Welles. He was also played by Vincent D’Onofrio (but dubbed by Maurice LaMarche) for a cameo appearance in Ed Wood (1994), and by Christian McKay in Me and Orson Welles (2009).


La Haine (1995)


About Dave James

Editor-in-Chief @ Film freak, music minion, professional procrastinator.
This entry was posted in Cinema Classics, Movies and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to CINEMA CLASSICS #6: Citizen Kane (1941)

  1. Fantastic read, man.

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