Directed by: Orson Welles
Written by: Herman J. Mankiewicz & Orson Welles
Starring: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Comingore, Everett Sloane, Ray Collins
No matter the impact we make during our lifetimes, our legacy remains the people we leave behind and what they think of you. You can control plenty when you have so much money, but once you have physically left this Earth, you are then powerless to what the world truly feels about you. A harsh lesson but a necessary one found in the timeless and expertly crafted Citizen Kane.
After the passing of media giant Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles), a journalist sets out to interview the foundational figures of the man’s life to decipher the meaning of his last word “Rosebud.” As the journalist meets with these people, they give insight into who Kane was at various stages of his life.
Often heralded as the greatest film ever made, I would not fight any of the arguments because every detail of Citizen Kane exemplifies cinematic excellence. Groundbreaking in its presentation and incredibly daring in its narrative approach, it shows what can happen when a brilliant artist gets to display their vision. Told through a series of interviews and flashbacks to a young Kane, this film transports us to a different time and a story we have seen before in our reality.
The film famously opens with Kane laying on his bed, muttering the word “Rosebud,” dropping a snowglobe and then dying. It then cuts to a news program, which essentially details all of the highlights of the rise of this media titan and the influence he had at his height. Starting the movie by showing the major accomplishments of this man allows for the story we follow to fill in the details and focus on the man himself rather than his achievements. We get this coloring in by the people of his life, who look back at their time with Kane with a combination of regret, pity, and anger. This becomes the legacy of a man who many thought could become president.
Interviewing each person is a journalist tasked with getting to the true meaning of Rosebud, but the film does not center around him, obviously, as we barely even get to see his face. He remains a faceless person serving as a stand-in for us as we learn about the life of Kane. The story sucks us in just as Kane did with everyone around him. Flashing back to his life shows a kid given away by his parents but with all the opportunity in the world to pursue whatever endeavor interested him. The amount of power he possessed at a young age certainly left an impact on him and the strained relationship he had with his parents certainly dictates how he interacts with others for the rest of his life.
At the heart of the character of Charles Foster Kane shows a man who wants to be loved but will only love others on his own terms. As he tells one of his ex-wives, the reasons he chooses to love people satisfy him and he will be damned if he lets anyone else set the parameters for him. This breakdown of love appears in every facet of his professional and personal pursuits. He runs for office trying to be a man of the people when he truly doesn’t care about the cause. He wants to have his name up in posters and people cheering for him but he cannot appropriately reciprocate because he does not have the capacity. Sure, we can breakdown the psychological profile of this man and how his relationship with his mother has molded how he treats the women of his life but this could be its own analysis completely.
With his booming voice, Welles impeccably captures the size of Kane and how he towers over everyone. Welles stood at 6’2’’ but the way the film captures the character, he could have been 8’ tall. It’s what makes it necessary to describe this man as a titan because he has power not only with his influence but with his sheer size. This trick appears with the way the camera moves looking up at Kane when he begins to become assertive and determined in what he wants with people. It pairs well with the stunning cinematography on display in the way it utilizes the lighting to add depth to any room. Each character’s shadow comes into play, as it demonstrates their state of mind and what stature they maintain in society and in the story.
The amount of power held by Kane obviously gets to his head, because he can dictate things however he wants. One scene perfectly displaying this thought process where he’s asked what people will think of his actions. With conviction and confidence, he states the people will think what he makes them think. It allows for a conversation about media influence and how he possesses the executive power to mold the narrative of events happening in his life and of others. He uses it as a tool to wield against his enemies and not with the journalistic principles he set out with from the very beginning. Having Kane utilize so much power makes the moments where someone else has the upper hand so satisfying even if we root for Kane in some of those moments.
As a first feature film, to think Orson Welles could create something so invigorating and poignant should make anyone feel bad. Films could be made on his life and how he in some ways resembles Charles Foster Kane, as he progressed throughout his career. Coming from working in theater, he had the ability to do whatever he wanted and ended up making most likely the greatest film ever made at the age of 25. On the date of this review’s publication, the reviewer writing this essay sits at this very same age.
While most of the praise of this feature lies at the feet of Orson Welles because of his involvement in every aspect of this movie’s composition, the other actors contribute in potent ways. By far, the actor that measures up to Orson Welles’s performance as Kane is Dorothy Comingore as Susan Alexander. As the character who serves as the vessel of Kane’s darkest tendencies, she also delivers a form of catharsis in the story. While others praise the media titan at every turn, Susan calls him out for his true character and deficiencies. The performance by Comingore brings the ferocity hidden behind a cloud once covered by the affection she had for this man. She stands toe-to-toe with Welles in their scenes and she solidified herself as my favorite character in the entire feature.
Watching a film heralded with the praise this film has accrued since its debut in 1941 can be challenging because the expectations could not be higher. If something has been said to be the greatest film ever made, it may be impossible for it to measure up. In my estimations, the praise remains warranted because of the timeless nature of the story, the performances, and the impeccable craft on display. Citizen Kane displays the level of artistry that can be achieved in the world of cinema. It will forever shock me that Welles could accomplish this at such a young age, but it only speaks to his brilliance and how he unintentionally composes a story that would ultimately outline the tragedy of his own career. A stone-cold classic in every way and a masterpiece in every aspect of its creation.