Quest for the Classics: Citizen Kane

by Tom Ingram

Citizen Kane is generally considered to be the greatest film ever made. Orson Welles is given the title of genius for his role in this movie. It’s tempting, for a certain type of person, to wonder if it lives up to the hype, to go into it thinking there’s no way it can possibly be as good as everyone says it is. It’s easier to believe that film studies majors just have their heads up their asses than that a movie can be just that good.

The film begins with a shot of Kane’s Florida home, Xanadu, a castle with a full-on cheese-gothic look. Kane dies in his bed. The last thing he says is “Rosebud.” This rather serious scene fades to black and is jarringly interrupted by the upbeat music of a newsreel about Kane’s life. When the newsreel is over, we see a room of reporters watching it. The editor says that it’s a good reel, but it needs an “angle”. All it does is tell a bunch of disconnected facts about Kane’s life. It needs to show who Kane was as a person. He recommends that the reporter who compiled the footage investigate the word “Rosebud” and find out what it meant to Kane.

This kicks off the journey to meet everyone who was significant in Kane’s life, to find out from various different points of view what kind of man he was. Because the different narrators jump around in time and only tell part of the story each, we get a nonlinear narrative where things are revealed when they will have the most impact, rather than in chronological order. You can trace the influence of this movie to modern films like Pulp Fiction and Big Fish.

Welles has to portray Kane through a whole range of ages–the only time a different actor is used is for Kane as a boy. This shows just how good an actor he was, and emphasizes how well-applied costumes, makeup, and hairstyling can drastically affect the way you see a character. Welles looks the part through the whole movie, and as much credit should go to the costume people as the man himself.

I’ve been starting to pay more attention to cinematography in films, and it’s amazing how subtle visual cues can completely change the way we perceive a scene. Citizen Kane is famous for its cinematography, popularizing a number of camera tricks. Notice all the extremely low angle shots of Kane as an older man. At the rally for his campaign for governor, the camera starts up above Kane looking down, and slowly moves into the floor, tilting up until it’s a full-on Hitler Cam. Legend has it that Welles pried out the floorboards so he could get the camera lower into the ground.

Think about where the camera must be in this shot.

The score for this movie is excellent. It’s done by Bernard Herrmann, who was basically John Williams before John Williams was. Dozens of incredibly influential movies carry music by him–pretty much anything by Hitchcock (his Vertigo score is especially good), The Devil and Daniel Webster, Taxi Driver, The Day the Earth Stood Still, as well as The Twilight Zone. However, even better than the score is the judicious use of silence. Pure silence is so rare in modern movies and television that when it is used, it creates a powerful, uncomfortable atmosphere. Just after Susan leaves Kane, and just before Kane goes on an angry rampage through the house, there’s a minute or so of complete silence. I thought the sound had cut out. Herrmann was a brilliant composer, but it’s in this moment where he doesn’t say anything that he says the most.

In the end, we find out that Rosebud was Kane’s sled from his abruptly-ended childhood. The reporters never do figure it out, though, and one of them says that “I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life.” Ironically, this particular word, and the history behind it, does explain Kane’s life. The workers who are emptying the junk out of Xanadu find Rosebud and toss it into a furnace. You know the ending, but if you haven’t seen it you probably don’t know the rest of the film. Rosebud must have been a surprise to the moviegoers of 1941, but it’s not the totality of the movie. You need to see Citizen Kane from beginning to end.

Is it the greatest film of all time? To be honest, I’m not sure. I can see where they get it from, but I liked Casablanca a little better. Citizen Kane is the moody middle child of the classic movie family, where Casablanca is sweet and sentimental. Calling Kane the better film smacks of saying that human suffering is inherently “deeper” than happiness. But really, is arguing over what movie is better really all that productive? We’re talking about Citizen Kane and Casablanca here, folks. At this level, any measurement of what’s “better” ceases to be useful.

Quotes: For such a famous movie, there aren’t very many well-known quotations. I have a couple of personal favourites, though. In a letter Kane sends to Mr. Thatcher, he writes that he’s coming back to America to run the New York Inquirer. “I think it would be fun to run a newspaper,” he says. When Kane first meets Susan Alexander, she says that she doesn’t know anyone. He replies, “I know too many people. I guess we’re both lonely.” After the Kane newspaper empire starts to fail, Kane says, “You know, Mr. Bernstein, if I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a really great man.”

Moments to watch for: When Kane loses the election for governor, Bernstein looks sadly at the front page they had already printed that says “Kane Elected”. He says they’ll have to run the other one. He lifts the other one to reveal that it says, “Kane Defeated: FRAUD AT POLLS!”

Right after the election rally, Kane meets his son. They talk very briefly, and his son seems happy to see him, but the first Mrs. Kane drags him away and sends him home. This perfectly mirrors the scene where Kane as a young boy is sent away from home by his mother, never to see his parents again. He enjoys his life as it is, and he really connects with his father, but the decision is made for him.

Watch for Fortunio Bonanova as Susan’s singing instructor. This scene is particularly funny if you’ve ever had music lessons.

The best moment in this movie, though, is the opera scene. Without a single word, Welles manages to create humour and contrast it with the genuinely terrifying machinations of Kane’s mind. Look at that facial expression and just try not to wet yourself.

Next time on Quest for the Classics, we delve into Rashomon.