A Century of Film is an ongoing series where Devin Wilger watches one movie from each year between 1917 and today. For the year of 1941, it’s Citizen Kane.
Let’s say you watch a bad movie, something like Bad Moms, the comedy that dares to suggests that moms can be bad. You might be compelled to tell people that they should not watch Bad Moms, and inevitably you’ll find someone who will defend it. “I just want a fun movie to turn my brain off for a while,” they will say. “Not every movie has to be Citizen Kane you know!” The implication is that you don’t actually want to watch something like Citizen Kane.
No film has suffered so much for it’s good reputation.
The film’s dominance of the Sight and Sound poll of the greatest films has made it an unapproachable monolith of high culture for a certain crowd. They view it, wrongly, as a homework movie, something you watch if you want to seem smart but not something anyone would watch on purpose and enjoy. It has since been replaced by Vertigo at the top, and I doubt that Vertigo will suffer from the same reputation, both because people generally associate Alfred Hitchcock with fun and because it’s not advertised with an imposing Orson Welles standing in front of an even more imposing photo of himself. The perception of Citizen Kane as something important has made it unapproachable to some, because as a critically beloved film it is perceived to be, in some way, difficult. This even after the Simpsons did a tribute to it.
This is a shame, because Citizen Kane is not this unapproachable monolith. It is, instead, a fast-moving and ambitious biography of a fictional man.The man might be inspired by William Randolf Hearst - to a degree that Hearst tried to destroy the picture - but he’s as much director, writer and star Orson Welles and a vehicle for criticism of the media and the men behind it as he is a specific person. Kane in 2017 is going to read differently than he did in 1941, because Kane is a very particular style of American hero, the man that dominates the world, with hard beginnings which - in hindsight - weren’t that hard - Kane’s empire starts with a valuable gold claim, after all, the small loan of a million dollars of the 19th century - and who dies with all the things money can buy but none of the things it can’t.
The events of the film don’t really matter, the movie outright says this, after outlining the entire plot in ten minutes of newsreel footage it steps back and declares that they’re just a pile of events. The rise and fall of Charles Foster Kane is not really about the events themselves but the motivations behind them. Why did Kane build a newspaper empire? Why did he try to make his second wife a singer in spite of her lack of talent? Why did he collect so many sculptures, leading to some late film shots of piles upon piles of detritus? The movie is about a search for the motivations behind Kane’s actions, and it never really gives a clear answer, just suggestions.
One suggestion for the motivations is the meaning of “Rosebud,” Kane’s last word, which provides the structure for the film, as reporters ask people from his life what that word could mean and if it provides any answer. Whether or not it does is up to the viewer, the film itself lets you interpret it however you want. It works as its own critique, suggesting that as much as it’s built around there being one big key to unlocking the character, that character can’t be defined by a single thing.
As the work of a hot-shot young director coming off of some equally daring radio work - the infamous War of the Worlds broadcast - Citizen Kane wears its ambition proudly. Welles could have made this film simply, but instead fills it with incredibly complicated camera moves - some of which involve splitting tables and signs in half - an ambitious non-linear structure and some touches that are still being copied today. Every action movie that just flashes the title screen before getting right into the action is riffing on this. The opening on Kane’s Xanadu estate is shot like a Universal horror movie, the sheer delight Welles seems to find in patterns and textures is infectious and frequently the movie just looks cool. If the previous paragraphs about everything being up to interpretation are intimidating, don’t fear, at least you’re going to get to enjoy some great black and white photography with expert use of light and shadow.
You’ll also get to enjoy some great acting. Welles and his Mercury Theatre troupe are top class performers, and are able to inhabit their characters as they age and are moving through their life. The most challenging role has to be that played by Dorothy Comingore, which is Susan Alexander, Kane’s mistress and wife who he tries and fails to make a successful opera singer. Comingore has the difficult task of playing a bad actor, which only the best actors can do, since they have to fight against their own skills.
When someone says that not every movie has to be Citizen Kane, they’re dismissing what is rightly regarded as one of the great films, and they’re wrong. Every movie should be ambitious, visually adventurous and unique. Every movie should care about what makes the characters inside it tick above all else, especially a biopic, which is often in danger of being a list of things that happened - see Black Mass from 2015. Every movie should try to keep the audience excited. Every movie should try to do more than it needs to do. Every movie should be like Citizen Kane, because every movie should have the ambition to be great.
Next time, let’s learn about the Lubitsch Touch with 1942’s To Be or Not To Be.