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Citizen Kane (1941,USA)

29/08/2011

Director: Orson Welles    Starring: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton, Dorothy Comingore

I’m always reticent about watching so-called “classic” movies. Sometimes the hype and praise heaped on a film raises expectations beyond a reasonable level resulting in inevitable disappointment when it fails to meet such unrealistic ideals, sometimes a film will be loudly hailed as a work of genius by people who think they will seem intellectual, cultured and refined in doing so, when in fact the film in question is dull and execrable (anyone seen Magnolia?) and brings to mind the story of the Emperor’s new clothes. Sometimes (and I freely admit this is a personal failing rather than anything to do with the films themselves) universal adoration of a particular movie sets me into opposition from the outset  and the experience is marred by my constant search for evidence to undermine the prevailing view of said film.

Given its consistent position at the top of Greatest Film of All Time polls and its seventy years of critical and popular adoration, Citizen Kane has sat for a long time in my “to watch” pile. It’s one of those films I’ve always intended to see but have had to wait until I was in a suitably open frame of mind to watch it from a neutral position and sufficiently insulated from third party viewpoints to not watch it from a hyper-critical perspective. I even spent the last couple of days watching pretty poor horror films in an effort to cleanse my cinematic palate, leaving me hungry for something with a little more depth.

I wasn’t disappointed. The first fifteen minutes of newsreel style footage did chill the spirit a little as I braced myself for two hours of being shouted at by an Ed Wood level announcer dissecting the life and times of Charles Foster Kane but when this presumably deliberate affectation came to an end and the story itself began, I was mesmerised.

For those who don’t know, the film follows a journalist trying to get to the heart of Charles Kane (Welles) in order to publish a sutiable obituary to the ultra-wealthy newspaper magnate. He doesn’t have a lot to go on, just the man’s dying words “Rosebud” and, convinced that the key to understanding Kane is to find out who or what Rosebud is, he sets out to interview those who were closest to him in life. As such, the story of Charles Kane is spelled out in flashback, each new character bringing a different perspective to his life and filling in the gaps in the chronology as they go along.

Kane’s story is a rise and fall affair, pushed into money and power when his mother inadvertantly takes possession of a highly productive goldmine he is put into guardianship of a bank officer as a small boy. Brought up to run his empire, he eschews his broader responsibilities, choosing instead to focus his energies on a daily newspaper in New York. Starting out with principles and ideals and kicking against the privilege which has fallen into his lap he becomes corroded by power and money, a fact that pushes those who love him away, leaving him to die a tragic, lonely death surrounded by the trappings of his wealth.

Epic in scope (and in production) Welles never lets the scale of the film overshadow the humanity of it. Kane has great depth as a character, forcibly evicted from his childhood by an ambitious mother, his moments of emotional brutality are explained if not excused as is his constant desire to be loved by others whilst being incapable of giving love himself. It’s a genuinely tragic tale. Raised out of poverty by chance sounds like the sort of break we all want but ultimately, all the money and power in the world aren’t enough for Charles Kane. As the song says, money can’t buy you love and it’s the hollow achievement of spending money that characterises his later years, leaving the elderly Kane to die alone in his vast, extravagant Xanadu.

When you consider Citizen Kane was not only Welles’ first feature film but that he put it together at the tender age of twenty five with a cast drawn almost entirely from his Mercury Theatre Troupe (responsible for many radio dramatisations including the now legendary War Of The Worlds) it’s a miracle that the film was made at all. RKO pictures no doubt regretted indulging Welles when the film was released and universally flopped at the box office but clearly Welles’ film was years ahead of its time.

Never mind the outstanding performances and wonderful writing, it’s a technical triumph. It’s worth watching for two moments alone. One transistion when the elderly Jed Leland (Cotton) begins his tale of Kane’s life sees the nursing home behind him dissolve into Kane’s dining room with a flair and precision any filmmaker would be proud of today, an effect achieved entirely optically and a long time before green screen and computers made such things commonplace. The other moment that has now imprinted itself on my mind is when, during a particularly intense expression of rage Kane, imposing his will on his second wife, casts a deep black shadow over her, obliterating her with darkness in a fantastically visual expression of the darkness that has consumed him as a person. The film is packed with moments like these.

The fact that Citizen Kane lives up to its reputation is a relief and a pleasure. If, like me, you have been reluctant to see it for fear of it being overrated or pompous my advice to you is put all of this to the back of your mind and give it a chance. Relieved as I am, I do regret the fact it has taken me so long to see this work of art. Greatest film of all time? I don’t know if I can view cinema objectively enough to decide but if I was to choose, Citizen Kane would definitely be a contender.

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