My Great Movies momentum has slowed immensely in the last few months. Roger Ebert’s list is (sadly) not getting any longer, but other commitments keep me from diving in as whole-heartedly as I would like. Nothing could keep me away forever, not even as daunting a task as watching Citizen Kane for the first time.
You’ve most likely heard of Citizen Kane because it is widely regarded as one of the best movies ever made. The best, in fact, in the minds of many people. Every ten years, the British film magazine Sight & Sound polls prominent directors and critics to compile a list of the greatest films ever made. This list certainly gives Ebert’s a run for its money. For 50 years, Citizen Kane reigned supreme, only to be ousted in the most recent poll (2012), by some movie called Vertigo. Orson Welles’ 1941 directorial debut will have to make due with second place until it gets another shot at the title in 2022.
“Debut.” Looking at the film now, it is incredible that such a piece could be crafted by a first-time director, and that a studio would be willing to let him try. But this was a different time. Synchronized sound was still in its infancy, and Welles had already made a name for himself on stage and over the radio waves. RKO Pictures gave him the freedom to do whatever he wished in exchange for signing with them, and what he made is still an amazingly ambitious film, even by today’s standards.
Welles stars as Charles Foster Kane, a media magnate akin to Hearst or Pulitzer (or Murdoch, his closest analogue in modern society). The film opens with Kane’s death, and his utterance of a final, cryptic word: “rosebud.” Reporter Jerry Thompson (William Alland) is assigned the task of parsing out the meaning of this word, sending him across the country on what could end up being a wild goose chase.
Thompson’s travels provide the film with its (at the time) uniquely creative structure. As Thompson reads and listens to more and more accounts of the man, we get a broader picture of who Charlie Kane really was. From the memoir of Walter Parks Thatcher (George Coulouris) we see a brash, petulant, idealist, whose hubris would ultimately crush him. In the eyes of his business manager Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane), he was a fine friend who could seemingly do no wrong. Only when Thompson meets Kane’s former friend Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotten) and Kane’s former second wife Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore) do we see the darker shades of the man who was larger than life.
It’s an excellent way to reveal the different sides of a human being, and it was surely an influence on Akira Kurosawa nine years later when he made Rashomon, wherein different people view a given event in different ways. Kurosawa uses the conceit in a different way, but the kernel of the idea belongs to Welles and his co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz.
What do I really have to add to the discussion on a film that has been talked about for over 70 years? Not much, I suppose. I was overjoyed to discover that I found Citizen Kane to be just as good as its reputation suggests. Sometimes you watch these canonized classics and walk away thinking, “Sure.” This is not the case with Citizen Kane. I can see why all those directors and critics voted for it for all those years. And it’s a movie that still makes us think. Does the “rosebud” reveal really matter? Was the real point in uncovering the remains of a man who remained a mystery even to those closest to him? We can continue to consider these questions for the next 70 years. Welles’s masterpiece (yes, that’s right) is the gift that keeps on giving.