Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Citizen Kane (1941)

Citizen Kane
Here is a movie that has been topping a number of lists as best movie ever made.

So, this is as good as it gets.

The question is, is it that good? Does it warrant this glorified position as top dog among films?

This was basically the question I went into this movie with. Not particularly fair if you just want to enjoy the film, but difficult to avoid when you get a movie with these accreditations. With such expectations it is too easy to disappoint because it is up against some very difficult odds.

Let me say right away that this is a very different movie. I have seen nothing like this picture going through the list up to this point. Though many of the elements have been copied in pictures since, back then in 1941 this was really new thinking. A film that is basically a portrait of a man that many people knew of but very few people really knew. We see him from all sorts of angles: the official angle in a mock-up newsreel doing a documentary portrait upon his death, the bitter words of his guardian who describes him as an irresponsible rebel, the trusted employee to whom he was a genius and enigma, the bitter friend with whom he had a fallout, the former wife who saw him dissolve and the butler who was there when he died.

Every time we change angle we get a new tone and a different facet to the person and gradually we get to know him.

The agent of this storytelling is a journalist doing his necrology who has been charged with a mystery: What was the meaning of his last word “Rosebud”? His search takes him through all the above contact points and gradually he learns the story of Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles), the newspaper magnate, an early Rupert Murdoch, whom everybody knew, yet was an enigma to the public.

The quest is in vain. We never learn the meaning of “Rosebud”, but we learn so many other things that the question becomes irrelevant because this is a life story far beyond the ordinary.

This is what makes “Citizen Kane” special and remembered. An entirely new form of storytelling.

Another point in favor of this film is the filming and cutting itself. There are lots of interesting angles, from below, from above, in a distance, beneath giant paintings or posters demonstrating how the image (and ego) of this giant dwarfs the people around him. The picture jumps days, months, years, even lifetimes in a single cut and we go back and forth in time in a way that makes “Daybreak” from 39 look amateurish. That is dazzlingly well done.

Then we have the story itself, the life story of Charlie Kane. This is not a happy end story of a man who strive for his dream and get all he wanted, but instead the story of a man who could have had it all, but ended up losing everything he really wanted. I have been thinking a lot about this since last night when I saw the film, because at first it did not make sense to me. The first half of the film Kane is getting his fortune, then seeing a newspaper rise out of obscurity to become an empire, he gets a beautiful wife and runs for the position as governor representing the “working man” (read: the good guys”) against the corrupt elite. Everything is good. Then the story snaps and the rest is deroute. He has to abandon his political career at the doorstep of victory and he loses his wife and son (strangely we do not see his reaction when they die in a car accident). His new wife is an obvious miss and he seems frantic to pursue an imagined dream of hers. His friends are leaving him and he becomes isolated in his fortress in Florida surrounded by art and statues bought more or less at random in Europe. He dies a broken man.

What on Earth happened?

I think the closest I got to an answer is from his old (former) friend Leland. Kane craved loving, but he had no love to give. It became an obsession for him and he got into the habit of forcing the world to fit his head and that was exhilarating when he succeeded, but also blinded him because he never asked or really listened to what people actually wanted. It was always him him him.

That is a curious and not very common portrait and not usually a winning formula for a blockbuster.

On top of all this Kane may be a fictional character, but is modeled upon a real character that felt so targeted by the film that he sued Orson Welles ass off and practically ruined his career as a director. Talk about a Michael Moore moment.

Orson Welles had a special talent for the controversial. His radio drama “War of the Worlds” in 1938 was using the media so brilliantly that people thought the Earth was really being invaded by evil Martians. He told that story as news interruption into an otherwise ordinary music program and the radio station had to repeatedly calm the public that this was only fiction, we were not being invaded from space.

In “Citizen Kane” the tone is the same. This looks real, especially in the beginning and we could easily get the impression that we are talking about a real living (well, dead) character.

As mentioned earlier “Citizen Kane” has be copied from ever since to larger or smaller degree. I am particularly reminded of a Danish TV-series “Matador” from around 1980 that is focused around a character that in many ways remind of Charlie Kane. I can highly recommend that series.

So, is it the best movie ever? I would not stretch it that far. A lot of water has run under the bridge since then. But this is a very unique picture and a cinematic milestone and certainly a must see for anyone interested in movies.


  1. One note: we do find out what Rosebud is.


    It's his sled. We see it at the end when the sled is burning.


    I saw this film many years ago. I had also heard about it being the "best ever". I have a somewhat cynical view of the opinions of professional film critics even now, and I was really suspicious of them back then (I would usually like the movies they trashed and dislike the movies they praised back then.)

    Usually, if my expectations for a film are too high I inevitably get disappointed. As it turns out, I liked Citizen Kane a lot. It was actually the first film I saw that critics praised to high heaven that I also liked.

    1. Yes, you are right. I went back afterwards to see the end and lo and behold there it is, on the sled. I was very tired there at the end of the movie and I simply missed it. To me it actually would fit this sort of storytelling if we were never to find out what it meant. The real mystery is the uncovering of Mr. Kane.

      I know what you mean with critics. If they rate up to 6, 5 would be a good score, but a 6 I probably would not want to see. On this one however they were right, allthough the best movie ever? I don't know about that.

  2. I really like this film a lot. Chip is right on the meaning of Rosebud, but if you aren't looking carefully, it will go by without you seeing it.

    For me, it's Joseph Cotten who really makes the film. I love Jed as a character, especially the older version of him.

    1. Well, I feel really stupid for missing the Rosebud clue at the end, but this was my (shame on me) first time watching "Citizen Kane" and I was very tired.

      Older Jed is great, but in general the performances were very good.