Citizen Kane (1941). Film review of the classic drama, regarded as one of the best movies of all-time

Orson Welles in Citizen Kane (1941)


image four star rating very good lots to enjoy

Film review by Jason Day of Citizen Kane, the story of a newspaper baron corrupted by wealth, his friendships and his loves. Starring and directed by Orson Welles, co-starring Joseph Cotton and Dorothy Comingore.

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The corrupting influence of money, power and greed are examined in flashbacks are those closest to the colossally wealthy Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) who has just died in his palatial estate of Xanadu piece together who he was, by identifying who ‘Rosebud’ is, his last spoken words.

Review, by @Reelreviewer

I think it would be fun to run a newspaper!

A young Charles Foster Kane (Welles) has no idea what lies ahead.

Me and Kane #1

Citizen Kane – which has regularly topped critics’ lists of the greatest films of all time – is one of those movies I have never had the courage to write about.

As so many other people have reviewed Kane and rated it so highly as to be beyond mere thought of negative criticism, what else could I, little old blogging me, possibly add?

A bit like Sunset Boulevard (1950), the movie that changed my life forever when I first saw it aged 15. A film that lifted me out of my shoes, slammed me into the wall, dusted me down and said: “You love me, don’t you bitch?”

It took me a quarter of a century to put fingers to keys about Sunset so I am in a similar-ish situation with Kane, but I never loved Kane like Sunset.

So why write about it now? What new insights about its ‘excellence’ could my humble little fingers bash out? Especially when, as a 20-something film studies student, I didn’t rate it that much. Two words: Mark Cousins.

Kissin’ Cousins?

Cousins is a noted film critic – far more esteemed than I could ever be – who makes no secret of his love for Kane and his adoration of Orson Welles. To the point where he has made a documentary about the movie and Welles and which was recently screened on TV following a showing of Kane.

I was more intrigued by the documentary than the movie – my thoughts on that, as we shall come to, had not changed significantly – as the listing said it would touch on Welles’ non-film art and feature his daughter Beatrice. But what a strange, chimera The Eyes of Orson Welles turned out to be.

Cousins, waxing lyrical until his wick runs out, delivers a mix of extended, masturbatory arse-kissing and fantasy, artistic wish-fulfilment. Constructed in ‘Wellesian’ style and dimensions – so lots of canted camera angles – it comes across as MC’s own mini-Kane.

“Are you watching, Orson?” he repeats in narration, inviting the great man’s reciprocal worship from the afterlife. If he is, from ‘up there’ in God’s celestial picture palace, then given Welles’ notoriously cool arrogance about his own gifts as a filmmaker, you can imagine his stomach leaping.

Me and Kane #2 – a great start

This ‘love-in’ aggravated me to the point I thought enough is enough. I accept, Kane is a great movie but, for fuck’s sake people, wind your collective necks in! It isn’t ‘all that’ and now I’m happy to say why I think so, after I’ve dealt with what I like about it.

I love silent cinema and gothic horrors and all movies need a good opening, something to draw the audience in and grip, captivate or astonish you. For me, the opening shots of Citizen Kane do all of that in spades.

Opening like the creepiest of old dark house movies, the camera peers into the overgrown grounds of Kane’s Xanadu retreat, once palatial now mostly abandoned. We see part of his own zoo and his mansion, looming over everything, appearing like a ghost.

Inside, the old man breathes his last and, in possibly the most famous special effects shot in movie history, drops a snow globe. Smashing on the floor, his nurse enters and is seen in distorted, broken reflection in the shattered glass.

Joseph Cotton’s performance, for instance. I always associate him with bland characters, but his observational sarcasm as the older Jedediah is hilarious.

Same with Welles – with his unmistakable, mellifluous voice – if only the two had played comedy more often! In his movie debut, snaffling the lead whilst directing himself, Welles is a force of nature. The mighty self-confidence of Kane and Welles are perfectly fused. There’s no denying he is great in his debut; it’s an enthralling, multi-layered performance.

Welles was a gifted director of other actors and there isn’t a bad performance in this movie. Even Comingore whose career – like Welles’ – never quite lived up to the success Kane promised, is not to be neglected. As the ‘Marion Davies’ figure, Kane’s second wife, she impresses as the talentless, na├»ve singer he over-promotes to the point he nearly destroys her. The huge echoes that reverberate around the vast, cold, empty Xanadu symbolise her sad, lonely but prosperous life.

But the movie can only go downhill from that openeing and, for me, it does. Rapidly.

Me and Kane #3 – innovative or not?

For Kane, Welles chucks in every trick from the cinematic magic box of camera, screenwriting, editing and production design and, notably, includes a few new ones. One that doesn’t work is the uncomfortable shift from that ‘wow!’ opening to a dull, predictable, clunky flashback, heavy on narrative description.

After inviting us to use our eyes to drink in setting and meaning, Welles then proceeds to megaphone into our ears background detail and action…for a full 10 minutes.

I don’t mind the use of flashback, if used sparingly; here, it is overdone and irritating, unnecessary and even patronising, as if he and co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz are babying the audience, ladling information to them.

When I first saw this movie I thought that if the writers were so clever and innovative, why rely so much on this hoary old narrative device? Are they being satirical, taking a swipe at this style of news coverage, the sort real-life media baron William Randolph Hearst’s film crews would use? Either way, I’m starting to count myself out at this point. The movie is starting to annoy me.

On rewatching this movie, I had the same feelings about it that I did 20-odd years back and from this point on the movie, my ‘spidey-sense’ activated. I spot the same good things in Kane that critics more famous than I have written about but, rather than effusing and pontificating wildly about their greatness, I have different reactions.

Yes, the camerawork is incredible, but it also gets in the way. Like the (also excellent) cinematography in Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) which became a virtual advert for Steadicam, Kane loves to showcase Greg Toland’s use of deep focus (where people/things close to the camera appear as clearly as people/things in the background).

I feel that with each new, perfect shot using deep focus or Welles’ famous canted camera angles symbolising power as we see Kane looming large above and booming at everyone I’m expected to shout exultantly: “Gee, whizz! Look at that one! Thank you, Mr. Welles!”

Am I being too picky? Writing this I feel like I am, because part of making a great movie is about how the filmmaker(s) use the camera to tell a story. The camerawork in this movie is astonishing, but it shouldn’t overwhelm what is the most important aspect of the film – the story. Sometimes in Kane, like that horrible flashback/voiceover, its visuals are too much, there’s not enough balance.

Me and Kane #4 – I’ll shut up now

OK, I’ve said enough so but before I wrap things up. In short, this movie has been mythologised out of all normal proportions.

A great movie has been turned into a cinematic church and a religion with passionate parishioners has sprung up around it. Are the devoted too devoted to say anything other than the accepted text?

I started this review with a quote of irony from the film and close it with another:

Rosebud. It’ll probably turn out to be a very simple thing!

Cast & credits

Director: Orson Welles. 1hr 59mins/119 mins. RKO/Mercury Productions. (U).

Producer: Orson Welles.
Writers: Herman J. Mankiewicz, Orson Welles.
Camera: Gregg Toland.
Music: Bernard Herrmann.
Sets: Van Nest Polglase.

Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton, Dorothy Comingore, Agnes Moorehead, Ruth Warrick, Ray Wallis, Erskine Sanford, Everett Sloane, William Alland, Paul Stewart, George Coulouris, Fortunio Bonanova, Gus Schilling.


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