Thursday, November 20, 2008

Repeat Viewing: Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles)

TSPDT placing: #1
Directed by: Orson Welles

Orson Welles' debut feature Citizen Kane stands as one of the twentieth century's most revered films, and, indeed, the title of "The Greatest Film Of All Time" has often been bestowed upon it, from as early as Sight and Sound's 1962 rankings, when it indefinitely dethroned De Sica's Bicycle Thieves (1948). After two viewings, I can't say that I find it to be the greatest film of all time, but any work with such a label would find it extremely difficult to live up to impossible expectations. Having said that, however, Citizen Kane is nothing short of masterful. In 1939, in an unprecedented studio contract, RKO offered young prodigy Welles, fresh from his success on the stage and the radio, a two-picture contract with full artistic control (a promise that ultimately wasn't kept). Borrowing elements from the lives of tycoons Robert McCormick, Howard Hughes, and Joseph Pulitzer, but especially American newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, Welles and fellow screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz weaved together the tragic story of Charles Foster Kane, poignantly highlighting the inescapable shortfalls of American Dream.

Charlie Kane (Welles) rises from humble beginnings to become one of the most famous and powerful people in America. At a very young age, Kane's mother inherits a gold mine and becomes suddenly wealthy, sending away her son to live with Walter Parks Thatcher (George Coulouris), his mother's banker. Proving something of a disappointment for Mr. Thatcher, Kane shows little aspirations for success until the age of twenty-six, when he decides to head the 'Inquirer,' for the simple reason that he "thinks it would be fun to run a newspaper." Kane eventually becomes rich and powerful through publishing "yellow journalism," which, though frowned upon by most critics, proves immensely profitable. Decades later, after two unsuccessful marriages and a failed bid for public office, Kane sits alone in his massive, unfinished Xanadu mansion (the most massive, impersonal and even sinister abode ever to grace the silver screen), pining for the lost innocence of his childhood. This is the story of a tragic life, and the ultimate testament that money can't buy happiness.

The most remarkable thing about Citizen Kane is its narrative structure. The film opens with Kane's death. As the image fades into a large "NO TREPASSING" sign on the gate of Kane's vast and lonely dwelling, we progressively cut to images closer and closer to his house, witnessing the enormity of Kane's wealth, and yet all his riches seem to be in disrepair. A lone lit window stands eerily amidst the snow, before the light inexplicably goes out, the figure hunched within suddenly plunged into darkness. We see Charles Foster Kane's withered hand clasping at a snow-globe, and his lips utter the mystifying words, "Rosebud." With a sudden crash, the snow-globe slips from Kane's hand and shatters on the floor. A maidservant enters the room and covers the dead man's body with a blanket. Following his death, the producer of a newsreel about Kane asks a reporter, Jerry Thompson (William Alland), to uncover the significance behind Kane's final words, a well-meaning but rather naive attempt to encapsulate a man's entire life in a simple seven-letter name.

A criticism often levelled at Citizen Kane is that it feels less like a warm, involving biopic than a formal masterclass in film-making technique. It's true that Welles was exploring largely unmapped cinematic territory at the time, and there's a certain sense of experimentation about the film. Mankiewicz and Welles constructed the screenplay as a series of fragmented, non-chronological flashbacks, each sequence filling in the missing parts of Kane's life, sometimes even showing the same event from differing perspectives. Greg Toland's elaborate cinematography makes unprecedented use of deep focus, in which everything in the frame – foreground, background and anything in between – is constantly held in sharp focus; the end result is a film that feels far more dynamic and "animate" than anything preceding the French New Wave. All innovation aside, anybody who suggests that the life of Charles Foster Kane is somehow uninvolving really needs to revisit the film; Welles pours his heart and soul into portraying the arrogant, tormented and ultimately lonely millionaire, and it's uncanny how the director's own tragic career drew clear parallels with that of his most memorable character.

Currently my #1 film of 1941:
1) Citizen Kane (Orson Welles)
2) The Maltese Falcon (John Huston)
3) The Wolf Man (George Waggner)
4) Shadow of the Thin Man (W.S. Van Dyke)
5) High Sierra (Raoul Walsh)


tosser said...

There can be little doubt it's a visual tour de force. However, an even finer film is Welles's Othello. Here in Kane you have outstanding visual structure, and Othello has the same. But it has the added bonus of absolute orgasmic exhilaration - completely achieved through camerawork...a feat mostly unmatched by 99% of other movies, I'd say.

Moral of the story: watch Othello.

Or Chimes at Midnight, for that matter...

ackatsis said...

Well, if anybody can make Shakespeare interesting, then it's probably Welles.

I'm seen his 'Macbeth,' though. 7/10

tosser said...

Eh, Macbeth is alright...