Review: “Citizen Kane” (Film)

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.

When the film starts like this, you can probably guess that it isn’t a “feel good” movie…

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…

It’s a film about journalists researching a journalist. This is wonderfully meta 🙂

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.

Likewise, this is a “slow paced” film by film standards, but moderately-paced by novel standards.

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…

Yes, it might be one of the most well-known plot twists in history. But, when I actually saw it in context, it was such a powerful moment that I suddenly burst into tears.

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.

Likewise, Kane also thoroughly and completely contradicts the second point of his manifesto in the way he treats many other characters throughout the film.

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.

For example, this front page initially seems like a “plot spoiler” when it appears in the newsreel but we later see the full context behind it, which calls into question the reliability of the newsreel.

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 set design in parts of this film is absolutely amazing 🙂

Although this isn’t a “film noir”, it certainly does a good impression of one at times.

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?

Do you like our owl?

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.

Review: “N Or M?” By Agatha Christie (Novel)

Well, after seeing a vague comment on an online newspaper article mentioning a cleverly-placed clue in Agatha Christie’s 1941 novel “N or M?”, I was curious enough to track down a second-hand copy of it. This also reminded me of when, in 2009, I ended up reading Christie’s “And Then There Were None” after someone partially spoiled an unusual element of the ending (which made me curious enough to read the rest of the book to see if it was even possible to end a novel in this way).

Anyway, let’s take a look at “N or M?”. Although this review may contain some mild-moderate SPOILERS, I’ll avoid major ones.

I read the 2015 Harper (UK) paperback edition of “N or M?”, but I won’t include an image of the book cover here due to the presence of a WW2-related symbol. Although the book is clearly anti-fascist and the stylised cover art is meant to reference the story’s historical setting/context, I still thought that it was probably best to err on the side of caution with regard to displaying the cover.

The novel is set in early 1940. Middle-aged couple, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford are sitting around and feeling thoroughly miserable. Despite some past work for the government, they are considered to be too old for war service. But, after asking around, a military intelligence officer called Grant reluctantly offers Tommy a desk job in Scotland. However, when Tuppence is called away by a phone call, Grant tells Tommy that he’s needed for a mission of national importance.

A British agent has been murdered by German spies. His last message indicated that the spies were connected to a guesthouse in the seaside town of Leahampton called Sans Souci and there were two unidentified spies, going under the code names “N” and “M”. Given a false identity and warned not to tell his wife, Tommy sets off for Leahampton in the hope of winkling out the German spy.

Needless to say, it isn’t long before another guest shows up at the Sans Souci. Having pulled off a clever ruse and overheard Grant’s orders to Tommy, Tuppence comes up with a false identity of her own and decides to unofficially join the investigation. Even so, with everyone at the guesthouse suspicious in some way or another, the two undercover investigators have their work cut out…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it was surprisingly different to what I’d expected. Instead of a Poirot-like murder mystery, this novel is slightly more of a “topical” vintage spy thriller, albeit one with lots of elements from the detective genre. Interesting, although the first half of the novel reads a lot more like a detective/spy story, the second half is somewhat closer to the thriller genre than you might expect.

In terms of the novel’s detective elements, they’re the sort of thing that you’d expect to see in an Agatha Christie novel 🙂 Almost everyone is suspicious in some way or another, there are lots of subtle clues (that are explained at the end), a few red herrings, some clever twists and a solution that, whilst technically possible to guess, will seem both logical and surprising at the same time.

In terms of the novel’s thriller elements, although they’re more understated than a modern thriller novel, they still work really well. In the earlier parts of the novel, there is more of a focus on subtle suspense, secret identities, spy tricks and suspicion, with the second half of the novel having very slightly more of an adventure thriller/crime thriller like tone to it, with an emphasis on more dramatic types of suspense.

Interestingly, the novel blends these genres in a really clever way. Whilst the identity of one of the two spies is revealed in a more thriller-novel type way, the identity of the other is deduced from clues in a more detective novel-like way. Still, both genres support each other really well with, for example, the suspense about whether Tommy and Tuppence can maintain their cover and the fact that everyone around them is suspicous making the detective elements seem a bit more dramatic.

The novel’s historical context is fairly interesting too and it adds a lot of atmosphere to the story. Not only does this novel contain a surprisingly nuanced reflection of attitudes towards WW2 (which are, at times, more pessimistic than you might expect), but a scene where a character predicts that the war will last six years is eerily prescient (again, the novel was first published in 1941). Likewise, the novel also taps into the fears of a “fifth column” of German spies that seemed to have been a concern at the time.

Plus, although the novel shows that Britain was somewhat unprepared during the earlier stages of WW2, there’s a heartwarming “we’ll muddle through this” attitude to the story that was probably even more reassuring when the novel was originally published. Even more interestingly, looking on Wikipedia, Christie was actually investigated by MI5 after this novel was published since one of the characters is called “Major Bletchley”.

As for the novel’s writing, it’s really well-written. Yes, the novel’s third-person narration is – by modern standards- slightly on the formal side of things, but it is still very readable (after all, this book was mainstream popular entertainment in the 1940s) and the style really helps to add a bit of extra atmosphere to the story too.

In terms of the characters, they’re fairly well-written too. In addition to lots of witty dialogue between Tommy and Tuppence, they’re also presented as being a vaguely realistic middle-aged couple rather than expert detectives. Yes, they’re fairly intelligent, reasonably good at picking up clues and fairly courageous, but there’s a real sense of uncertainty (eg: about who the spies are, about whether they are in danger of being revealed as investigators etc..) that really helps to make them even more realistic and sympathetic characters.

The relatively large cast of characters are, as you would expect from an Agatha Christie novel, fairly realistic and complex. Almost all of the guests at the Sans Souci do or say something suspicious at some point in the story, with most of these things having logical non-spy related explanations. Likewise, the novel’s villains are – as you would expect- suitably chilling and/or menacing too.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. At about 243 pages in length, it never really feels bloated or over-extended. Likewise, whilst this novel is probably slightly moderately-paced by modern standards, the level of drama and suspense increases quite a bit in the second half of the novel. And, at the time that it was written, it was probably considered a more fast-paced thriller. Likewise, the novel also drip-feeds the reader clues and suspenseful moments in a way that really keeps the story compelling too.

As for how this seventy-eight year old novel has aged, it has aged really well 🙂 Yes, there are a few mildly dated moments in the story, but it is still a relatively fast-paced and compelling vintage thriller story. A lot of the novel’s subtle humour and witty dialogue still works, the characters are still compelling, the mystery is still compelling and the thriller elements are still suspenseful. Plus, as mentioned earlier, the story’s writing style is still fairly readable too (if a bit more formal than a modern novel).

All in all, this novel is a fairly interesting vintage spy/detective novel. Yes, it’s a bit different to Christie’s more famous “Poirot” stories, but it’s still compelling, atmospheric and intriguing. Plus, if you’re a fan of Sara Sheridan’s “Mirabelle Bevan” historical detective novels, then you’ll probably enjoy this story too.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get four and a half.