FILM REVIEW: CITIZEN KANE
By Michael Wilmington
Chicago Tribune Movie Critic
"Citizen Kane" is my favorite movie. And always will be.
Orson Welles' 1941 masterpiece about a tragic newspaper tycoon, his complex life and the mystery of his dying words ("Rosebud") - revived again starting Friday at the Music Box - remains the movie that I've loved the most, seen the most times (more than 60 at last count) and been most inspired by.
I watched "Kane" for the first time at 12, on a flickering TV with the sound turned way down low, so I wouldn't wake up the rest of the house. I looked at part of it again last night, on a crystal-sharp DVD. I've seen it in classrooms, theaters, outdoor arenas, huge auditoriums and on a desktop Moviola. Always, it affects me powerfully, though by now I know the story, the characters and the lines ("I think it would be fun to run a newspaper!") by heart.
I'm not alone in this response. This movie - a vast fictional bio-drama about journalism czar Charles Foster Kane, who's recalled after his death by his banker-executor, Walter Thatcher (George Coulouris); his business manager, Bernstein (Everett Sloane); his onetime best friend, Jed Leland (Joseph Cotten); his ex-wife, Susan Alexander Kane (Dorothy Comingore); and his butler, Raymond (Paul Stewart) - is a filmmaker's film, a cinephile's delight.
"Kane's" most passionate fans have always been other filmmakers, movie critics, cinema historians and hard-core buffs from everywhere in the world. Five times, in the '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s and this decade, it's been ranked first in the Sight and Sound international "all-time best films" poll of moviemakers and critics.
Critics and filmmakers love it for its cinematic bravura, of course, but also for its dramatic and political daring. "Kane" was loosely inspired by the life of the then-still powerful America media giant, William Randolph Hearst, another "great yellow journalist" (the film's words for Kane) who had been a friend of "Kane's" co-writer, Herman Mankiewicz. Mankiewicz, a crack, hard-drinking newsman who worked for the Chicago Tribune and The New York Times and was the first drama editor of the New Yorker, was a frequent guest at San Simeon, the mansion hideaway of Hearst and his mistress, movie actress Marion Davies. He knew, just as does Raymond the butler in "Kane," where all the bodies are buried. Some of that inside dirt, transmuted, found its way into Welles' movie.
But gossip is not the heart of "Kane," even though it's structured as an investigation into Kane's life by a movie newsreel reporter (the faceless Thompson, played by William Alland). More than anything, it's the great American success story, twisted inside out: the tale of a supposedly great man who turns out - despite high charm, intelligence and brilliant gifts - to be a sometimes sham, a self-destructive tyrant and, in the end, a lost boy crying out for the childhood that was stolen from him. (In these, as in many other things, he partly resembles Welles.) Kane, like some Horatio Alger pop myth hero, rises from more modest circumstances to wealth, but only because of luck: a defaulting tenant leaving a "supposedly worthless" deed to his mother, boarding house owner Mary Kane (Agnes Moorehead), that turns out to control a huge gold mine, the Colorado Lode.
Kane soars to journalistic prominence partly because of his money, which he spends willfully until he's "busted." Projecting himself as a "fighting liberal" and the friend of the "working man," he becomes instead a secretive tycoon, hiding in his San Simeon equivalent "Xanadu" or standing on a balcony with Hitler. He will end finally in that dark, lonely room where we first saw him - with somewhere in the shadows, Raymond watching him - dropping a snow-scene glass ball paperweight and brokenly whispering "Rosebud."
As written by Mankiewicz and Welles and acted by Welles' Mercury Players, this would be a great, fascinating story even if it were made only conventionally. But the filming of Kane was anything but conventional. Bold photographic angles and compositions, startling editing and virtuoso visual effects: these were all in the bag of tricks young Welles mastered on his very first studio film. He was a quick study and a magnificent pastiche artist, and the story commences (after Kane's gothic death scene) with an ingeniously faked newsreel on Kane's life, "News on the March," a parody of the '40s newsreel "The March of Time," which then gives way to a shocking transition: the journalists realistically flailing and yelling away in the darkened projection room.
Sight and sound in "Kane" equally ravish you. The movie's great composer, Bernard Herrmann (Welles' regular radio symphonist and later Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho"/"Vertigo"-era mainstay), turns the film into grand cinematic opera - and among Herrmann's achievements here is the fake opera "Salammbo" (title taken from Gustave Flaubert's novel), which Susan Kane sings to slake her husband's obsession with her career. The fabulous cinematographer Gregg Toland, whom Welles admiringly gave a screen credit almost equal to his own, shot most of "Kane's" scenes in extreme deep focus, with a richness and clarity that enabled Welles to work what director Robert Rossen called his special magic, the ability to tell whole stories in a single shot.
These Toland frames drench us in multilevel imagery that creates Kane's world, inside and out, as others see him and perhaps as he sees himself.
Then there are Welles' Mercury Players. Above almost anything at that time, Welles was a man of the theater, with a Shakespearean conception of drama best realized by his own troupe. Real-life buddy Joe Cotten is the only choice for elegant best pal Jed. (Later, Cotten would play another betrayed friend opposite Welles in "The Third Man.") The role of courtly, cold Thatcher was perfect for Coulouris, as was brusque, straight-talking politico Big Jim Gettys for Ray Collins, the suave and sinister Raymond for Stewart, and shrieky, bullied Susan Kane for the pre-Judy Holliday childlike blond Comingore (later a 1951 blacklist victim). Moorehead makes overprotective Mary Kane resonate forever, though she has only minutes on screen.
They're all wonderful. But the actor who, like Welles, achieved his greatest performance in "Kane" was Everett Sloane as Bernstein, the chairman of the board who has "nothing but time." Bernstein is the touchingly wily businessman who looks after Kane and Jed, who tells Thompson that hair-raising story about the girl with a white parasol in 1896 that he "only saw ... for a second," and who murmurs those fate-soaked lines, "Old age ... it's the only disease you don't look forward to being cured of."
Finally there's Welles himself, as the young, beaming, energetic, roguish Kane, gradually growing into a defeated man, sparkless and old - as if the actor secretly knew the sorrows and disappointments in store for him in real life.
Welles had been hailed as a prodigy since his boyhood, a playwright-director-star at 10, a professional in his teens, a Broadway and radio star in his early 20s, then a national phenomenon at 23, when his Oct. 30, 1938, Mercury Theatre radio play "War of the Worlds" hoodwinked much of America into believing the planet Mars was invading us. That "Worlds" notoriety helped get him carte blanche for "Citizen Kane," a movie that works perfectly on every level - literary, dramatic, technical, visual and aural - and offers up such a feast that you can never exhaust it.
Watch it 60 times and you'll still be making discoveries. And you'll probably still get a chill at the end, when the camera cranes over the sea of treasure and junk in Kane's Xanadu and suddenly, while Herrmann's music soars and crashes, gives us our glimpse of Rosebud.
These days younger moviegoers sometimes find "Kane" overcelebrated. How wrong they are. "Citizen Kane" was made by a genius at 25 and no filmmaker at that age ever showed more talent, guts, brilliance, heart - and that Wellesian word, genius. No movie ever breathed with more of the joyous impudence and dare-anything bravery of youth than "Kane." It's both revolutionary and classic, a young man's movie disguised as an old man's lament and the young and rebellious should always be its first audience.
In the end though, we should all treasure it equally. No movie ever gave more to the cinema and the people who love it than "Citizen Kane."
Directed by Orson Welles; written by Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz; photographed by Gregg Toland; edited by Robert Wise; art direction by Van Nest Polglase; music by Bernard Herrmann; produced by Welles. A Warner Brothers release of an RKO Radio Pictures production; opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre. Running time: 2:00. No MPAA rating (acceptable for nearly all audiences).
Charles Foster Kane - Orson Welles
Jedediah Leland - Joseph Cotten
Susan Alexander Kane - Dorothy Comingore
Mr. Bernstein - Everett Sloane
James W. Gettys - Ray Collins
Walter Parks Thatcher - George Coulouris
Kane's mother - Agnes Moorehead
Raymond - Paul Stewart
Emily Norton Kane - Ruth Warrick
Kane's father - Harry Shannon
Thompson the reporter - William Alland