movie film review | chris tookey

Citizen Kane

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  Citizen Kane Review
Tookey's Rating
10 /10
Average Rating
9.80 /10
Orson Welles , Joseph Cotten , Dorothy Comingore
Full Cast >

Directed by: Orson Welles
Written by: Herman J. Mankiewicz, Orson Welles

Released: 1941
Origin: US
Colour: BW
Length: 119


A reporter tries to interpret the last words of a newspaper proprietor (Orson Welles, pictured).

Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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The movie that carries the burden of constantly being voted Best Film of All Time.
Welles’s theme is the corrupting nature of power, fame and worldly success, which he both condemns and finds fascinating.
This is the thinly veiled biography of W. Randolph Hearst, a wealthy press baron who moved into film-making. He owned the most extravagant mansion on the West Coast of America, San Simeon, and one of the most flamboyant lifestyles in America.
He openly kept a mistress, the actress Marion Davies, and did his best to build up her film career as a serious actress, even though her talents lay as a comedienne. He wrecked her life, much as Kane in the movie ruins the career of his opera-singer mistress.
Citizen Kane was a brave film for anyone to make, let alone a first-time film-maker such as Welles. It was a scurrilous attack to launch on so powerful a figure, and critics have always admired Welles’s courage in doing so.
But in some ways it’s a bizarre choice as Best Film of all time.
Citizen Kane has never been popular with audiences. Many people find it slow and uninvolving, a cold film about a cold man for whom we care little.
Though now reckoned to be a critics’ favourite, it received mixed reviews on release.
Hollywood’s leading gossip writer, Louella Parsons, pronounced the picture “repulsive" - but then she was one of the top columnists working for William Randolph Hearst.
Hearst, with characteristic ruthlessness, tried to buy up every print of the movie, then insisted that his critics rubbish the picture.
Predictably, his behaviour proved counter-productive. Though it failed initially at the box office, Welles’s supporters in the press campaigned vociferously for it as a masterpiece.
Cynics might note that this was the kind of exuberantly muckraking film about a press baron which might be expected to appeal to journalists, who traditionally feel little love for cross-media-owning proprietors, and often delight in biting the hands that feed them.
Despite the press campaign, it won only one Oscar, for its screenplay, losing out as Best Picture to the now-forgotten How Green Was My Valley. It was defeated by that film’s director John Ford for Best Director, and by Gary Cooper (in the flag-waver Sergeant York) for Best Actor.
Viewed today, Kane has rough edges. Some of the fake backgrounds, added in post-production to save money on sets, are awful.
So why does it repeatedly win polls, especially of film-makers and critics, as the greatest film ever made?
First, the bad reasons. Citizen Kane has become the favoured film of those who wish to berate Hollywood for treating movie-making as an industry, not an art. It’s seen as a one-off, hugely personal film by an artist who fell foul of the system.
Such is the Orson Welles aura that there are still those who try to make out that his conflicts with the studios were entirely the fault of Hollywood, and claim that his other films, especially The Magnifcent Ambersons and Touch of Evil, are much better than they really are.
Citizen Kane has become a token film with which supporters of the “auteur” theory - that all great films are essentially the brainchild of one man - can belabour the Hollywood system.
One problem with the auteur theory when applied to Welles is that, partly because he believed in the theory himself, he never created anything as good as Kane again.
Welles’s hubristic sin was the same as that of his fictitious creation, Charles Foster Kane: vanity. One reason he never got to direct a script as good as Kane again was that Welles claimed all the credit for the script himself - and unsurprisingly fell out with his co-writer, Herman J. Mankiewicz, an established craftsman who could have taught Welles a lot.
Rarely are great films the work of one man - famously so, in the case of Casablanca, the closest rival to Kane for the title of Best Film of all time.
Several of the technical innovations for which Welles has been praised, such as deep-focus, wide-angle photography from floor level, were not Welles's idea.
His cinematographer Gregg Toland had refined these techniques through years of shooting every kind of film from horror to period drama. Many of the so-called innovations of Citizen Kane are visible in the film that Toland shot for John Ford the year before, The Grapes of Wrath.
So why does Citizen Kane deserve to be considered a masterpiece? The screenplay remains a witty lesson in how to depart from chronology without losing your audience. The way it borrows from different genres (detective, newsreel, film noir and biopic) yet weaves them into a consistent style still seems daring.
The lighting and cinematography are stunning. Never has a flat cinema screen looked more three-dimensional.
Bernard Herrman's score (which was Oscar-nominated, and should have won) is masterly.
Indeed, the use of sound is brilliant throughout. It is one of the very few pictures that is gripping and atmospheric even if you close your eyes - a legacy of Welles's radio background, and proof that cinema is not only about pictures.
Welles’s anti-hero is as majestic in his hubris as a Shakespearean hero - a reminder that, even as an infant, Welles had staged Shakespeare’s tragedies in his playroom.
The 26 year-old Welles's portrayal of the man's disintegration is as charismatic as they come.
Most of all, it’s a brave film. Welles has often been praised for standing up to Hearst, whose hostility to the enterprise ensured its early commercial failure.
But it’s also courageously autobiographical. Welles based the character as much on himself as on Hearst. Like Kane, Welles had a wealthy father. Like Kane, he became the ward of another man. Welles even mischievously borrowed his guardian's name, Bernstein, and gave it to the manager of Kane's newspapers.
Like Kane, Welles was rich and a media phenomenon by his mid-20s - the Kenneth Branagh of his day. Like Hearst, Welles had as a lover an actress (Rita Hayworth) whose career he hoped to help, but whom he actually helped to ruin by taking her, albeit temporarily, out of the Hollywood studio system.
The course of Citizen Kane’s narrative predicts Welles’s own life story - early success followed by years of controversy, marital problems, reclusiveness and failure - with startling accuracy.
Citizen Kane is among the most intensely personal films to emerge from Hollywood, and reveals just how powerful is America’s obsession with glamour and financial clout.
But is Citizen Kane the best film ever made?
I think it is let down, artistically as it was commercially, by a certain lack of humanity - and not only towards the central character.
There’s a hint of cruelty and condescension towards the female sex that runs through the film. Kane’s talentless opera-singer wife is a distasteful and rather unfair slur on Hearst’s real-life mistress, the actress Marion Davies.
And the use of the word “Rosebud” as Kane’s dying word is a puerile joke by Welles. “Rosebud”, it was widely rumoured around Hollywood, was the name that Kane gave to an intimate part of Miss Davies’s body.
Citizen Kane’s is a flashy, young man’s movie that doesn’t truly engage the emotions. So, great though it is, I’d always rank it below films that can be relied upon to stir audiences and make them cry, movies such as Casablanca and It’s a Wonderful Life. But that’s only my opinion...

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