Since I was in the mood for a “high-brow” film, I thought that I’d take a look at Orson Welles’ 1941 film “Citizen Kane”. This is a film that I’ve heard a lot of praise about over the years and which has been referenced and parodied a ridiculous number of times. It is often regarded as a classic. So, I was curious about whether it was actually as good as people say that it is.
And, luckily, this film’s fame and reputation meant that it was fairly easy to find a reasonably cheap second-hand DVD of it 🙂 Seriously, this wasn’t the first “high-brow” film that I’d thought of watching – but all of the others I found during my search seemed to be way more expensive than I’d expected. Seriously, book publishers regularly reprint both public domain and copyrighted “classics” in affordable formats. The film industry is really missing something here.
Anyway, let’s take a look at “Citizen Kane”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS (yes, you probably already know the famous twist, but I’ll be explaining why it is so dramatic etc…)
The film begins with some ominous shots of a large gated mansion on a hill. Then we see an old man called Charles Kane (Orson Welles) dying alone inside one of the bedrooms. In his final moments, he drops a snow globe and utters the word “Rosebud”. Moments later, a nurse arrives to cover up his body.
We are then treated to a jaunty 5-10 minute newsreel about the life of Charles Kane. A newsreel that shows his life as a powerful newspaper magnate, his unsuccessful attempts to enter politics, his troubled love life, the building of his opulent “Xanadu” mansion, his meetings with some well-known people of the time (including a very evil one), a mixture of public opinions about him, hints about his influence on history etc…
When the newsreel finishes, we see that it is being watched in the gloomy offices of a magazine. The editor tells the assembled journalists that he doesn’t think that the newsreel really tells the whole story about Kane. And, remembering the stories he’s read in the press about Kane’s mysterious last words (presumably overheard by the nurse outside the room), the editor asks several of his journalists to interview people who knew Kane, in order to work out who or what “Rosebud” was…
One of the first things that I will say about this film is that, whilst it takes a little while to really become compelling, I can easily understand why it is a revered classic.
Or, to put it another way, when I started watching it, I initially thought “This is hilariously corny and old-fashioned” but, by the end, I was glued to the screen and quite literally moved to tears by parts of it. Yes, this film is a bit of a slow burn at times and it requires you to pay attention and to think in the same way that you would if you were reading a novel, but – like a good novel – it is well worth paying attention.
And, yes, this film should be compared to a novel. There is unreliable narration, complex character-focused storytelling, a frame story, moral ambiguity, deep ideas expressed in clever ways and all sorts of other stuff which you might not expect to find in an old-school Hollywood film. Even the structure of the film – a man’s life story pieced together from the memories of others – is almost novelistic in some ways, with the film quite literally consisting of people telling stories. If you are used to reading novels, then you’ll really enjoy this film or at least “get” what it is trying to do.
It also has a level of thematic complexity that might surprise you too. It is a film about journalism, about the corrupting influence of wealth, about fame, about power (and it’s limits), about unreliability, about life, about death, about loneliness, about truth – but, most of all, about memory. Not only is it a film about how we all live on in the fragmented and unreliable memories of other people, but one of the most powerful and tragic moments of the film is when we learn that Kane’s final memory is of the innocent days before he became wealthy.
Yes, pretty much everyone knows that “Rosebud” is a sled, but when you actually see the film, you’ll understand why it’s such a significant and emotionally-powerful twist. It’s the thing Kane was carrying in the moment before he was adopted by a wealthy banker, the thing he was carrying the last time he saw his mother etc…
All of these themes are handled through some of the best and most complex characterisation that I’ve ever seen in a film. It is practically novelistic. Not only do we see Kane’s journey from an idealistic and irreverently cynical young man to a bitter and lonely old eccentric, but all of this is presented in the kind of unvarnished – yet ambiguous – way that makes Kane feel like a complex three-dimensional person.
We see him at his best and at his worst, and everything in between. Unlike the newspaper that he runs, the film never leaps to judgement about him. Instead, the audience are left to make up their own mind and piece their conclusions together from the opinions of other people.
Although Kane is very much a tragic character – dying alone in an opulent palace built for a lover that he drove away – he is an extremely compelling one, whose life is filled with all sorts of contradictions and mistakes that make him feel real. His flaws and inconsistencies make him more than a typical movie character. He’s someone who writes a manifesto about truth, yet runs a scandal-filled tabloid newspaper, yet also upsets his opera-singer lover by “truthfully” completing a critical review of one of her concerts that a drunken critic has left unfinished. Yet, after this, the critic then implies that he’s abandoned his principles. It is these moments, these many contradictions, that make him such a fascinating and realistic character.
Kane certainly isn’t a “likeable” character by any stretch of the imagination, but he comes across as deeply human because of everything we see about him – and, more importantly, everything we don’t. One of the most interesting omissions in this film is the time gap between the sullen child Kane was when he was adopted and the cheerful, yet deeply cynical, twentysomething he becomes a decade or two later.
By not really showing this phase of his life, the film leaves it at least slightly ambiguous whether his flaws were inherent in him or whether the circumstances of his life drove him to become the bitter, lonely and controlling person that he is at his death. His nostalgia for the past implies the latter, but almost everything we actually see of him implies the former.
And, to reflect all of these contradictions and ambiguities, the film itself is structured in an unusual way. Not only is a lot of the story told through flashbacks that aren’t always in chronological order (though this never really gets confusing) and filtered through the perspective of several different characters, but even the “authoritative” newsreel at the beginning of the film – which a magazine editor later says isn’t the whole story – contains a brilliantly contradictory montage scene showing one person denouncing Kane as a communist and another person denouncing him as a fascist before Kane describes himself as an American (and, yes, the film can be read as a critique of all three ). Even the structure of this film is designed to make you think for yourself and come to your own conclusions.
Yes, all of this ambiguity requires you to pay attention to the film and actually think about what you see, but it results in a deeply compelling and powerful experience that is almost like reading a really good novel. Even though some parts of the film certainly show their age, this film’s focus on complex, naturalistic and ambiguous characterisation makes it pretty much timeless.
Not only is it a very unique and creative film, but it’s many points about the pitfalls of power could easily be seen as a satire of modern celebrities, politicians, journalists, “influencers”, corporations etc.. in the same way that the film was probably intended to be in the 1940s.
Visually, this film is spectacular. Not only are there lots of fascinatingly detailed and/or opulent locations, but there are also numerous clever uses of lighting, composition and perspective that really add a lot of visual interest to everything.
Likewise, the fact that this film is in black and white not only gives it a really interesting “film noir”-style look (which is another genre that focuses heavily on complexity, moral ambiguity etc…), but it also helps to leave a lot more to the audience’s imaginations too. Whilst colour film was around at the time, this film really wouldn’t “work” in colour. Amongst other things, the “unrealistic” look of the B&W film adds a lot to the film’s themes of unreliable memory and ambiguity.
The film’s lighting design is utterly superb too. Not only does the B&W film really help to add an extra level of drama to the lighting but this film was also apparently one of the influences on the amazing lighting design in “Blade Runner”. Need I say more than that?
Musically, this film is interesting. One of the most memorable musical moments is a jaunty music hall song (later parodied in “The Simpsons”) that is commissioned to celebrate Kane’s leadership of the paper. Not only does this scene emphasise the sheer size of Kane’s ego (and how powerful he thinks he is) but, in an absolutely genius move, an instrumental version of it is played over the ending credits just after the poignantly tragic ending.
All in all, this film is a classic for a reason. Yes, it takes a little while to really become compelling and some parts are a bit old-fashioned, but – as a whole – it is a timeless and extremely powerful film. It’s a film that has the thematic depth and complex characterisation of a novel, which does some really creative stuff with the medium and which also looks absolutely spectacular on a visual level too. If you can handle ambiguity (narrative, moral etc…), slower-paced storytelling and the idea of thinking for yourself, then this film is well worth a watch.
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get four and a half.