Citizen Kane: Orson Welles’ Not-Actually-Overrated Masterwork

Citizen Kane

Image source. Charles Foster Kane, here looking extremely visionary.

Citizen Kane has been called “the greatest film of all time” so many times that watching it might feel a bit underwhelming. That’s a shame, because Orson Welles’ debut film truly is a masterpiece. Greatest is in the eye of the beholder, of course, but there’s no denying it’s at least very, very good.

In brief, Citizen Kane is the story of Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles), a media mogul based off the real-life William Randolph Hearst. Plucked from his home in the midst of the Rockies as a child, Kane grows up under the financial tutelage of a business magnate reminiscent of J.P. Morgan. He decides to enter the newspaper business by establishing his own small journal, the New York Inquirer. And from that moment on, he never looks back. The newspaper expands, Kane makes lots of money, and soon his newspapers are opening up all over the nation. He marries the president’s niece and rakes in enough dough to build a sprawling estate he calls “Xanadu,” which has zoos, gardens, and tons of Italian sculptures to boot.

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Image source. Notice the deep-focus cinematography.

And yet Kane’s life is not all success. His first marriage to the president’s niece falls apart. He makes a bid for New York governor, only to barely lose. And in the movie’s most memorable sequence, Kane tries to forcefully jump-start his second wife’s singing career, constructing multiple opera houses and thrusting her into all the lead roles. He’s bought newspapers. He almost bought the governorship. But Kane learns to his complete embarrassment that no amount of money can buy talent or acclaim for poor, off-key Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore). 20 years of such humiliation and heartache later, Kane finally passes away a broken man, isolated, his influence all but gone. The last word he utters: the all-too-famous “Rosebud.”

Before analyzing the meaning of Citizen Kane, you have to simply admire the handiwork that went into this film. The cinematography, with Welles making use of all kinds of angles, shadows, and deep-focus imagery, is some of the greatest and most memorable in film history. So many of the images in this movie will stun you with their beauty and symbolic resonance (some of which are shown here), like the rapid photo montage showing the precipitous decline of Kane’s first marriage and the image of Kane defiantly clapping alone after his next wife’s disastrous debut. Welles clearly thought about how to film this movie just as much as what he was filming, and the result is gorgeous.

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Image source. Turns out those windows aren’t so small after all…

If Citizen Kane were just pretty pictures and nothing more, we’d have another Tree of Life. But Welles makes sure his shots correspond to the ups and downs of Kane’s career. When Kane is riding high in the polls, we’re looking up to a large poster of his face and him dramatically delivering a speech. When his second wife leaves him for good, we’re watching him walk through an endless hall of mirrors, the recurring reflections shrinking slowly towards oblivion. This is a movie that smartly relies on the power of its images to impart its underlying message about fame and the media, one where the dialogue can only say half as much as a shot of Kane gazing forlornly down at his crumpled campaign poster.

Speaking of message: the story of Kane’s rise and fall abounds with thought-provoking ideas. In presenting Kane in all his successes and foibles, Welles has created a full, unflinching portrait of a man living up the American Dream. Ruthless materialism, tenacious acquisition, seizing opportunity no matter the cost – Kane views everything as an object to be obtained and exploited, whether that means expanding his newspaper conglomerate or forcing his wife to sing against her will. Everything must go his way. And yet…at the end, we look at Kane all alone in his vast mansion of paraphernalia, and we can’t help but wonder why he cared so much. What’s the point in building such a wonderful estate you don’t even really use? You’ve reached the top – great, now what? Kane has acquisitions that could take up several warehouses. But we still find ourselves thinking that nobody’s life work was more ephemeral. Is that what Kane was thinking when he said “Rosebud,” the name of the sled he played with as a child, right before he got whisked away to a completely new life?

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Image source. Note the light/shadows play.

We’ll never know for sure. What we do know, however, is that Kane is the face of the rags-to-riches American ambition we’re all familiar with: go, go, go, never settle for no. And that Citizen Kane comes closer than any other movie to capturing and questioning the meaning (and meaninglessness) of that ambition. Orson Welles started out making Citizen Kane as a simple attack on William Randolph Hearst. But he ended up with a final product that resonates beyond its purpose and time in presenting, and then critiquing, the very essence of the American system. And in such wonderful cinematic form that makes the final product marvelous to watch. Citizen Kane truly deserves all the acclaim it gets.

Vital Stats:

Citizen Kane (1941)

Starring: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten

Running Time: 119 minutes

Rating: PG

Produced by: Orson Welles

Directed by: Orson Welles

Written by: Orson Welles, Herman J. Mankiewicz