Citizen Kane

An American Masterpiece

Citizen Kane
Orson Welles. Citizen Kane

Widely viewed as the finest movie ever made, Citizen Kane is a uniquely  American masterpiece. A tragedy made by a young prodigy about an aging tycoon, it was a titanic clash of fierce brilliance, iron-willed spite and all-consuming ego, both on screen and off. The men themselves are long gone. The movie lives on.

The Plot

Citizen Kane is a thinly veiled biography of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, with threads woven in from the life of director/star Orson Welles.

The movie tracks the life of "Charles Foster Kane," beginning when his mother, a cold boarding house proprietress who comes into a gold mine claim, sends him off to boarding school out East to learn how to be rich and powerful.

In a deft series of vignettes, we see him grow from lonely, willful boy into a dissolute man. Charlie takes no interest in managing his vast holdings save for one small asset, a minor newspaper, the San Francisco Inquirer. There he arrives with his drinking buddies and cronies to become a crusading publisher, standing up for the little guy against the rich and powerful. At least at first, he's fully cognizant of the irony.

Like Hearst, Kane builds a newspaper empire and uses it to break opponents both personal and political. He marries a politician's daughter and runs a populist campaign for governor, only to be undone when his affair with a young singer is made public.

His political career in ruins, he retreats to build the outrageously opulent "Xanadu," a castle and grounds that mirror Hearst's construction of his castle at San Simeon in California. There Kane grows increasingly isolated and bitter, surrounded by luxury but slowly losing all human connections.

The movie begins with his death, using the flashback device of a newsreel reporter sent to solve the mystery of the great man, and why he died with the word "Rosebud" on his lips.

The reporter visits the people Kane knew in life, seeing him from their point of view. It’s brilliant story-telling, a big tale told with breathtaking cinematography, audacious from start to finish.

The Cast of 'Citizen Kane'

Welles dominates the film as Kane, fairly leaping off the screen with intensity. He’s best as the young crusading editor, but believable still when heavily made up as the aging tycoon. His unprecedented creative control of the movie allowed him to bring many of the players from his storied Mercury Theatre company in New York, including Joseph Cotten as his best friend and drinking buddy, Jeddediah Leland, and Agnes Moorehead as his stern mother.

The cast is almost uniformly excellent. Particular standouts are George Coulouris as Thatcher, the frustrated Wall Street banker entrusted with Kane’s money and upbringing, and Everett Sloane as Mr. Bernstein, Kane’s trusted business manager at the Inquirer. The only real disappointment is Dorothy Comingore as Susan Alexander (the movie’s equivalent of Hearst’s paramour, starlet Marion Davies. After their affair is exposed, Kane tries to mold her into a great opera star to redeem his own status. He uses his newspapers to build her up, but her meager talent leads to failure.

A better performance would have made her a heartbreaking figure, but Comingore squanders the role of a lifetime with a shrill, superficial turn.

By contrast, Ruth Warrick is wonderful as Kane’s classy first wife. A famous series of breakfast scenes shows the happy couple slowly growing cold and apart as Kane’s ambition consumes him.

'Citizen Kane' -- the Cinematography and the Music

Many of ​cinematographer Gregg Toland’s groundbreaking techniques were created or perfected for Citizen Kane. Welles came from the world of the stage, but with Toland at his side, he created a cinematic triumph. Never before had audiences seen the deep focus technique used as it was here, keeping objects in both the foreground and the background in sharp focus. The use of light and shadow remains matchless.

The camera’s point of view and the ingenious set designs also broke new ground, including some of the first sets to include ceilings, so characters and scenes could be shot from low angles.

The images are indelible. Kane astride a pile of newspapers, on top of the world. Two stagehands high above a lavish opera set, wordlessly panning Susan’s performance. The hollow grandeur of Xanadu as Kane walks alone down a mirrored hall. The snowglobe dropping from the great man’s hand.

The score by Welles' friend Bernard Herrman was also influential. Rather than playing music under every scene, Herrman wrote “radio style,” bringing in the music when it was needed to evoke emotion or build tension. Herrman and Toland both went on to have long and successful careers, powered in part by their work on Citizen Kane.

'Rosebud’ - Spoiler Alert

As Kane dies, he whispers “Rosebud” as the snowglobe crashes to the floor. In the movie, it turns out Rosebud was the name painted on his childhood sled, the last toy he played with before Thatcher took him away from Colorado to New York. The reporter never discovers the secret, leaving Xanadu just as the sled is tossed into the flames.

Why "Rosebud"? It was a tawdry in-joke, designed for risque Hollywood cocktail party chatter, guaranteed to infuriate Hearst. Turns out it was Hearst’s pet name for an intimate feature of his mistress’s anatomy. Tsk, tsk.

The Backstory

Welles, just 25 at the time, was given unheard-of creative freedom when he left  Broadway for Hollywood. A natural showman, he gambled that taking on Hearst, who was 76 at the time, would generate controversy that would help propel the movie. He miscalculated badly.

Hearst’s power and pockets were both deep. He nearly managed to gain control of the film and destroy every copy. Failing that, he used his newspapers to keep the film out of important venues and refused to carry advertising. Despite universal critical acclaim, Citizen Kane struggled. Hearst ensured Welles would never have such broad creative control again.

There is controversy over the screenplay as well. Some claim screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz wrote every word, while others claim it was a collaboration between Welles and Mankiewicz.

John Houseman, Welles’ partner at the time, gave Mankiewicz the lion’s share of the credit.

'Citizen Kane' - the Bottom Line

Almost destroyed, a financial failure, Citizen Kane stands as the single most influential film ever made. Fortunes may be won and lost, stars fade, but a masterpiece endures.

Just the Facts

Year: 1940, Black and white
Director: Orson Welles
Running Time: 119 minutes
Studio: RKO Radio Pictures

If You Liked ‘Citizen Kane...'

You may like other Orson Welles films, including ​​​The Third Man, The Magnificent Ambersons, and Touch of Evil.