Thursday 1 April 2010

Citizen Kane (1941)

Director: Orson Welles
Star: Orson Welles

I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

This project seems set on debunking myths for me and a few of them tie in well to Citizen Kane. Most obviously, it's the greatest film of all time. Lots of people say so, including lots of people you should trust more than me, Roger Ebert for a start. I really can't say whether it is or not but it's certainly up there in contention, a powerful piece of art even today but something of a wake up call to the industry in 1941. Effectively Welles broke with Hollywood tradition and made a serious film using techniques he'd learned from the European masters like Fritz Lang, F W Murnau and Erich von Stroheim, though he famously suggested his preparation for Citizen Kane was to watch John Ford's Stagecoach forty times over. He had final cut privilege, which meant that what we see is precisely what he wanted us to see, the last time in his career that that would be the case. His 1942 follow up, The Magnificent Ambersons, was notably altered by the studio who imposed a happy ending. And it only got worse from there.

That leads to the myth that Orson Welles never lived up to his potential. He may have staked his claim in Hollywood in a particularly audacious manner with this film, given that at a mere 25 years of age he wrote it, produced it, directed it and starred in it, but he went quickly to seed after that and his subsequent work wasn't what it could have been. Well that's what they say. The first time I saw Citizen Kane I'd only experienced Welles out of his director's chair. Sure, he was powerfully memorable as Harry Lime in The Third Man, he was great on radio in that infamous War of the Worlds broadcast and his voice was resonant in narration. Yet as I gradually caught up with other films that carry his name, I found that they were often no less accomplished, all the way to F for Fake, the last major film he completed in 1973. The Stranger, Touch of Evil and The Lady from Shanghai are also great films that could fairly be Top 250 movies.

Another myth concerns the real life source material for the characters in this film. Newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane is supposedly newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, which is mostly true though he was a portmanteau character with other influences as well, not least Welles himself. Yet Kane's second wife, Susan Alexander, who he sets up as an opera singer by building an opera house for her, is supposed to be Marion Davies, Hearst's long term mistress, who he set up as a movie star by buying a studio for her. The myth is that Davies had as little talent as Alexander but that simply isn't true. With eighteen of her features under my belt, including all but one of her sound pictures, I can only exhort that she was a talented comedienne and impressionist with a couple of excellent films to her name, at least one true classic (1928's Show People) and a whole slew of great performances in other movies that didn't pass muster otherwise. To be fair, Hearst had her miscast in some dramatic films too but that doesn't diminish her stature.

But enough of myths, what about the picture? Well it's obviously a tour de force from moment one. The legendary opening sequence is a montage of images and it's as impeccably composed as its obvious influence, the original greatest movie of all time, Battleship Potemkin. We enter the grounds of Xanadu, Kane's huge mansion in Florida, wander the rundown estate that matches the foreboding music, his bedroom window constantly in view in the same spot on the screen. Then we see a house in the snow, zoom in to see that it's a snowglobe and watch Kane's lips mutter 'Rosebud' in close up before it tumbles from his fingers to smash on the stairs, reflecting the nurse as she enters the room to find him dead. This is amazing filmmaking and we can't help but wonder what it all means. We'll soon learn more as the story follows a journalist's quest to find the meaning of that last word, hoping to find in it the meaning of his life.

We get a quick runthrough, courtesy of a newsreel for News on the March, a take on the similar March of Time newsreels which Welles had narrated on occasion. Xanadu is the costliest monument a man has built to himself, with its collection of everything, the loot of the world, the biggest private zoo since Noah, but now it's master, America's Kubla Khan, is dead. He was born to the landlady of a humble boarding house and raised in near poverty, only for their fortunes to change when a worthless deed that a boarder leaves in lieu of payment turns out to be for land that contains the Colorado Lode, the world's third richest gold mine. Inheriting these riches at 25, he becomes the 'greatest newspaper tycoon of this or any other generation,' but opinions vary. Some call him a communist, some a fascist. He says he's just 'an American'. What he is is news. 1895 to 1941, 'all of these years he covered, many he was.' He stood for governor of New York State but was brought down by scandal. He made and lost fortunes. He was twice married, twice divorced.

Whew, we're exhausted and we're only ten minutes in, but it's a meaningful ten minutes. Citizen Kane's most obvious innovation was its non-linear storyline but there were many others, one of which lies in how it decided what was important and what wasn't, constantly setting us up and then knocking us down again, giving us contradictory opinions and inviting us to decide on what the real truth is. News on the March deluges us with information but perhaps it's all meaningless. It's really being screened for a set of faceless journalists and their chief, Mr Rawlston, doesn't like it. There's nothing there that he hasn't read in the papers. He wants a story and he picks his last word as the starting point. He said 'Rosebud'. What does it mean? Jerry Thompson is tasked with finding out and his investigations provide our story, mostly told in flashbacks during interviews with the people who knew Kane, worked for him or were married to him.

His second wife, Susan Alexander, runs a place called El Rancho in Atlantic City. There's a floor show, twice nightly, but we just watch her drunk at a table, dealing with the death of her estranged husband. Walter Parks Thatcher is his guardian, who takes him on in 1881 and manages his estate until he's 25 and he can take it on for himself. His reminiscences are found in his papers in the Thatcher Library. Bernstein was his general manager at the New York Daily Inquirer, perhaps the only consistently decent character in the film. Jedediah Leland was his closest friend who went to college with him and became the drama critic for his papers, but Thompson finds him in a nursing home pleading for cigars. They're all characters, including his first wife, Emily Monroe Norton, the president's niece who died in a car accident with their son, and they each give a perspective, an opinion on who Kane was in flashbacks that overlap.

As these opinions differ, it's impossible to know for sure who he really was inside and what he really stood for, but 'Rosebud' is indeed the key. He's a man of privilege, who bought everything he wanted but tried to extend that thinking beyond mere things, to people and a legacy and political office. When he comes into his riches, now the world's sixth largest private fortune, he tells Thatcher he isn't interested in most of it, just the Inquirer. 'I think it would be fun to run a newspaper,' he says. And he does, having a blast losing a million dollars a year but championing the people, taking over the competition, enforcing his beliefs. The arrogance is palpable, but he has a tendency to back it up. 'He happens to be the president, Charles, not you,' points out his first wife during a discussion of his front page activities. 'That's a mistake that will be corrected one of these days,' replies Kane.

He's everywhere in this film, even with dynamic actors like Everett Sloane on screen to steal our attention. The visual techniques Welles employs ensure that we're always watching him. At one point he hires the entire staff of his chief competition and sets up a dinner party to celebrate. He even sends in a marching band and majorettes through the dining room to sing a song about him and he's right there with them. While Leland and Bernstein talk at the table, Kane is kicking up his heels in the production number, and when the camera moves away from him it just picks him up again in reflection. As the title suggests, this film is all about one man and in Welles's capable hands as an actor and director, he dominates proceedings. Capable actors like Joseph Cotten and Ray Collins simply can't compete. Only Agnes Moorehead really doesn't have to play second fiddle, because she's his mother and only in scenes with the nine year old Kane.

He doesn't even care how he looks, as long as he's looked at. Later scenes in the vast echoing halls of Xanadu are hardly flattering but he keeps our eyes on him, even when he's trashing his second wife's bedroom. When he first meets her, he's covered in mud from a passing car and she has a toothache, but he spends the night trying to make her laugh, wiggling both his ears at once and making shadow animals on the wall with his hands. When his political ambitions falter because of the underhand tactics of his opponent, he's the one shouting down the stairs as Boss Jim Gettys and his own wife quietly and politely leave the building. Kane was loved and hated and we get the impression he really didn't care which, just so long as we didn't ignore him. Part of the attraction to his second wife is that she doesn't know who he is, even after he introduces himself, and he's drawn to remedy that, describing her as 'a cross section of the American public'. 'I run a couple of newspapers,' he says. 'What do you do?'

What struck me this time through, and I've seen this film a number of times over the years, is how much it plays out like a radio programme, hardly surprising for a debut filmmaker who had achieved his initial fame on the radio. When he takes over the Inquirer, we hear people reading the headlines all over the place, not just see them. When they welcome him home at the Inquirer with a huge cup, after a long period away buying statues in Europe, we hear Bernstein reading the words inscribed on it. Bernard Herrmann's score doesn't sit behind the story, it acts as a linking device, connecting the different scenes. It doesn't accentuate, it punctuates. And yet for something that we could enjoy as much without seeing it, it's visually stunning, so much so that the techniques used are still being discussed today.

Like Fritz Lang did with M a decade earlier, Welles mixes sound and visuals together in ways that weren't necessarily obvious. Indeed he uses some of the same techniques Lang did, such as turning the background sound off entirely for effect. Most obviously he uses lines of dialogue that begin with one person in one place and end with another person in another. Welles takes it a step further though and adds time. 'Happy Christmas!' Thatcher tells the nine year old Kane. 'And a happy new year!' he continues, though Kane is now 25 and he's dictating the sentiment by telegram. He also introduces the same sort of concept with pure visuals. A staff photograph he looks at on the wall of his chief competitor becomes the same people being photographed, six years later, after he hires them all away. Susan Alexander's door becomes a photo on the front page, ammunition for his political opponent.

There's so much here that's crammed into a short two hour running time that sometimes two or three things are happening at once, but somehow it never seems rushed except for that frenetic newsreel at the beginning. The cinematographer was Gregg Toland, who was one of the more experienced members of the production, but one who was frustrated with Hollywood's lack of innovation. Here he perfected his use of deep focus, a combination of lenses and lighting that ensured that everything on screen was in focus at all times. Toland was a genius who obviously benefitted from working for another one and between them they worked marvels. I always see something new in Citizen Kane on this front because everything has meaning if only we look at it the right way at the right time.

The choice of lighting helps to identify who we should be looking at, especially as the deep focus takes away the cinematic equivalent of a spotlight. The journalists early on are deliberately faceless, because it's what they say that matters. Nurses have their heads cropped off because it doesn't matter who they are, just why they're there. Perspectives change so that we can see who's important at any point in time. When the butler sees Kane after his wife has left him, he's a tiny unimportant thing at the end of a long corridor. When he's standing for office, he's small too but still the biggest thing in the vast hall and his huge image sits behind him as a reminder not just of the stature he sees himself as but that the image is more important than the man. When he fires Leland, he's so huge he's just a suggestion on the side of the screen that we look past while his dramatic critic is a much smaller figure who pales in comparison.

There are long shots and massive closeups. There are ambitious camera movements, as when we enter El Rancho from the roof, swooping up from the gate and moving in through the glass ceiling. There's plenty of use of reflection, important because Kane was all about image, not just who he was but how others perceived him. There are low angled shots that show us ceilings, something unusual at the time. There's the newsreel footage that is superbly aged, with all the varied shakiness, static and so on that comes from use of footage supposedly taken over decades. And of course, given that our story spans an entire lifetime and we leap around in time through flashbacks, we see Welles and the other members of the cast in different stages of aging makeup, which is mostly done very well indeed. Cotten in particular looks very believable as an old man.

It really doesn't matter if this the greatest film of all time or not. It's certainly a magnificent achievement for which the term 'tour de force' could have been invented, but not all of that credit goes to Welles. Most notably the script was mostly the work of Herman J Mankiewicz, with input from Welles and John Houseman, his long term collaborator in the Mercury Players. The non-linear script was a huge departure from the norm and the decision to tell one story from many perspectives predates Rashomon by almost a decade, though the aim is different. Pauline Kael has said, 'it was by an awful fluke of justice that when Academy Awards night came, and Welles should have got the awards he deserved as director and actor, the award he got was as co-author of the Best Original Screenplay.' In other words the only Oscar he ever won was the one that he wasn't really entitled to, while he was snubbed on all the others that he should have won.

At the end of the day, Welles achieved the status with this film that he assigned to Charles Foster Kane, in the process becoming something like the character himself. The story wasn't entirely based on William Randolph Hearst, but enough of it was to incur the wrath of one of the most powerful men of the era. He refused to carry advertising for the film in any of his papers and many theatres chose not to screen it even if they had received prints, for fear of angering him. The stories of Hearst's interference are legendary but what that all boiled down to is that the more he did to protest against this film the more he became associated with it, even his biography being called Citizen Hearst. And like Hearst and Wells both, Citizen Kane is loved and hated, envied and despised, but more than anything else it's talked about.


jervaise brooke hamster said...

I still wonder to this day whether or not there is still a complete uncut 2 hour and 28 minute version (the way Welles originally intended it to be before "Robert {The Sound Of Music} Wise" was ordered by unhappy studio executives to go to work on it with a pair of scissors) of "THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS" hidden in some obscure film vault somewhere in the Hollywood hills?, if it were ever found the person finding it would feel as though they`d uncovered perhaps the greatest and presumed lost cinematic treasure of the 20th century!!!.

Hal C. F. Astell said...

There are certainly lost treasures out there. This month the TCM Festival in LA is showing the new version of Metropolis with all the additional footage found in Brazil I can't wait till they screen that.

But I'm well aware that some treasures would disappoint. The reconstructed version of London After Midnight is fascinating but it doesn't look like the film would be up to Chaney's usual standards. If someone found it, we'd know, but...