Citizen Kane (1941)

… he expressed almost precisely my own hesitation in joining a chorus of uncritically adoring commentators, albeit on the subject of Citizen Kane.

An escalated commitment to exceptionalism


For years I intended to write a scholarly paper on Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941).  It never came.  Then I intended to write a review just because I hadn’t written the paper.  That didn’t come either.  Last time but one that I looked, I wanted to write a review as an adjunct to my equally unfinished treatment of film noir, and again I didn’t follow through.  The reason in each case was that I could not understand why it was that I don’t regard this film nearly as highly as so many academics, film connoisseurs, journalists, and sundry critics.  Worse, I thought it was because there was something about it that had eluded me, and that there could be nothing I might say that hadn’t been said a hundred time already.

Last weekend, however, I read the following lines in a newspaper:

… its reputation has soared to the point where it is regarded as a classic, a near-automatic inclusion on any list of “the 10 best films ever made”.

A number of books have been written about the film and its demanding director.

No, it’s not about Citizen Kane.  It’s director Bruce Beresford commenting on John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), a film of which he declares himself ‘not a huge fan … despite efforts through the years to convince myself it is a great film.’

I think Beresford’s reasons for not being enamoured with The Searchers are sound, though hardly the sole prism through which to examine that story, or the Duke.

More to the point, however, he expressed almost precisely my own hesitation in joining a chorus of uncritically adoring commentators, albeit on the subject of Citizen Kane.

As with The Searchers, I do not dismiss Citizen Kane out of hand.  It is, in its own way, a remarkable film, of remarkable cultural significance for American cinema and society.

Orson Welles himself is more of a cultural icon than either a landmark director or actor, even if he was no slouch in those regards either.  Proclaimed as a prodigy early in life, those who did the proclaiming had every bit as much reason to ensure he lived up to that reputation as he did.  It was an escalation of commitment to a legend that survived the trashing of that legend and today offers us a perspective of even greater mythical proportions than existed in Welles’ lifetime.

Orson Welles, Charles Foster Kane, William Randolph Hearst: larger than life, defeated by time..
Orson Welles, Charles Foster Kane, William Randolph Hearst: larger than life, defeated by time.

In the late 1930s, how could such a man, with the acclaimed success of the Mercury Theatre company, and the outrageous temerity of the War of the Worlds broadcast, actually do wrong?  Until he bit the hand that fed him, that is.  The hand that was the media itself, in the shape of newspaper tycoon and failed political giant William Randolph Hearst, seen by many as the model on which the character of Charles Foster Kane was constructed.  There was no secret about Hearst’s vengeful pursuit of Welles, and none at all about the steep professional decline Welles experienced after Citizen Kane was released.

Nor was Welles’s own arrogance and pursuit of all the pleasures of the flesh without some influence on his work, and his own flesh, as was made almost grotesquely clear by him when he cast himself quite literally in A Touch of Evil in 1958.  Pertinent to Citizen Kane, however, was the energy and arrogance of a man who had never failed at anything, and who was quite uncompromising in pursuing a singular vision which might have made a lesser man hesitate or falter for the adversity and opposition he encountered.

These personal dynamics aside, Citizen Kane was not without qualities to make it a stand-out piece of film-making in its time, and for some decades thereafter.

There is, for example, the highly atmospheric use of the ‘deep focus’, a technique for maintaining sharp detail for both foreground and background, which I found to be very effective in creating an unnerving, almost surreal tension.  The deep focus technique is ascribed to cinematographer Gregg Toland, who used both in-camera mattes and post-production ‘optical printing’ to layer different frames on top of each other for the desired effect.

There were also more conventional, yet tremendously atmospheric sequences in which set design and lighting alone achieved great effect, like the forbidding, monolithic appearance of the Thatcher library, resembling in its vast and empty but shadowy spaces the same kind of mausoleum as the cavernous Xanadu, whose Gothic grandeur echoes so desolately with the descending emotional chasm between Kane and his once beloved Susan.

Lighting alone is what makes one of the most powerful scenes in the film: reporters seen only in silhouette scheming how to spin the story of the dead enigma; there may be still no better metaphor for the conniving disingenuity of whole tranches of so-called journalism.

Though not immediately apparent to me the first couple of times I saw the film, it is also true that the low angle camera work in some scenes, including at least one for which a hole was cut in the studio floor, were very effective in adding an intimidating, intoxicated quality to parts of the story that went well with the device of telling the story in multiple, sometimes overlapping and conflicting recollections, as if adding something of the personal impressionability of the eye-witnesses.

These and other indices of technical ingenuity were undoubtedly influential on succeeding film-makers, but seminal only in the eyes of American exceptionalists demanding that everything must be re-invented in America, as an American property, in this case ignoring the highly artistic, impressionist work of European film-makers, perhaps particularly the German school snuffed out by the rise of the Nazis.

Deep focus: foreground and background in the same sharp detail.
Deep focus: foreground and background in the same sharp detail.

The technical aspects of creating atmosphere greater than that contained in sets and acting is probably also a leading influence in the school of American film that can legitimately claim membership of the genre film noir, an exclusive little ‘club’ which I have long considered as much narrower than the claims made for it today.

A great deal of speculation has gone into interpreting the story itself, which can be seen as the finger-pointing public ‘outing’ of Hearst as a deeply flawed and ominously ambitious man – a characterisation the newspaper tycoon unquestionably accepted and took to heart as cause for his petulant vendetta against Welles.  However, my lasting impression is that the story functions on no more profound a level than its progenitor: Faust.  Charles Foster Kane selling his soul for control over all that surrounds him, but ending up destroying or pushing away all that he hoped to control.  Not a bad re-working of the old tale, but not, I think, quite as quintessentially American, or Wellesian, as many people would like to think.  Nor was Hearst the first or last tycoon to travel that road quite so obviously.  In the end all capitalists serve capital, not themselves or the society whose adulation and control they seem to seek with routine predictability.

It might be considered heresy to invoke the ideas of disgraced German philosopher Martin Heidegger, but his conception of works of art projecting themselves into the world, and forward in time, to suggest or anticipate the shape of things to come, seems appropriate in describing how Citizen Kane came to be merely controversial in its own time, but evocative of something far greater in the following decades, perhaps because its harshly critical description of both show business and the news media was quite so accurate, and also because the fallen idol, Welles, was emulated so obviously for so long by so many American film-makers in a self-perpetuating commitment to the myth made all those decades ago.  Which is not to deny his influence on film-makers further afield, just to remark that his star shines most brightly in an American firmament.


2 thoughts on “Citizen Kane (1941)”

  1. In itself, the film did not invent anything and owes a lot for technique and storytelling to Броненосец «Потёмкин». But you knew that.

  2. Sergei Eisenstein didn’t come specifically to mind. Neither did Battleship Potemkin, but I did refer to European film-making. At that time Eisenstein might have been thought as part of that group, depending on whether you spoke French or not.

    Welles himself claims to have been ignorant of film-making altogether, and techniques in particular. He didn’t claim to have been the inventor or innovator some others say he was, but he did suggest he came up with his bag of tricks unaffectedly.

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