Citizen Kane is a 1941 American drama film directed, co-written, produced by, and starring Orson Welles. The picture was Welles’s first feature film. The film was nominated for Academy Awards in nine categories; it won an Academy Award for Best Writing (Original Screenplay) by Herman Mankiewicz and Welles. Often considered by critics, filmmakers and fans to be the greatest film ever made- Citizen Kane was voted the greatest film of all time in five consecutive Sight & Sound’s polls of critics, until it was displaced by Vertigo in the 2012 poll. It topped the American Film Institute’s 100 Years … 100 Movies list in 1998, as well as the AFI’s 2007 update. Citizen Kane is particularly praised for its innovative cinematography, music, and narrative structure.
Citizen Kane’s very title has become a superlative. “The Citizen Kane of its genre” is about as lavish an expression of praise as any film might hope to achieve. Citizen Kane’s unique status in the canon of American cinema is rooted in its singular place in Hollywood history. At the height of the Hollywood studio system, when studio bosses controlled every aspect of filmmaking from production to exhibition- there was a young guy aged 25 then who went on to make this incredible movie and that’s the very own Orson Welles.
While working on Citizen Kane, Welles joked that “If they ever let me do a second picture, I’m lucky.” He was only half right. He was lucky enough to make many additional pictures, some of them masterpieces in their own right. But the luckiest he ever got, which is more than lucky enough, was getting to make Citizen Kane itself. That unprecedented level of control and magical synergy was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity — and, to his immortal credit, Welles made the most of it. He made Citizen Kane.
The story is a film à clef that examines the life and legacy of Charles Foster Kane, played by Welles, a character based in part upon the American newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, Chicago tycoons Samuel Insull and Harold McCormick, and aspects of Welles’s own life. Upon its release, Hearst prohibited mention of the film in any of his newspapers. Kane’s career in the publishing world is born of idealistic social service, but gradually evolves into a ruthless pursuit of power. Narrated principally through flashbacks, the story is revealed through the research of a newsreel reporter seeking to solve the mystery of the newspaper magnate’s dying word: “Rosebud”.
After his success in the theatre with his Mercury Players, and his controversial 1938 radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds on The Mercury Theatre on the Air, Welles was courted by Hollywood. He signed a contract with RKO Pictures in 1939. Unusual for an untried director, he was given the freedom to develop his own story and use his own cast and crew, and was given final cut privilege. Following two abortive attempts to get a project off the ground, he developed the screenplay of Citizen Kane with Herman Mankiewicz. Principal photography took place in 1940 and the film received its American release in 1941.
Had the result been a merely good film, it would probably still have been remembered as an extraordinary achievement and one of the first cracks in the studio system, which came crashing down a few years later as a result of an anti-monopolistic 1948 Supreme Court decision. But Citizen Kane wasn’t just a good film. Rising to the challenge of their unique opportunity, Welles and his colleagues whipped up a cinematic perfect storm of technique and sophistication widely hailed as the apotheosis of all the innovations and advancements of the sound era.
Visually, Welles and legendary cinematographer Gregg Toland forged a dramatic style combining such techniques as extreme deep focus, varied camera angles including low angles revealing set ceilings, and unconventional use of lighting and deep shadows anticipating the film noir style. Individually, most of these techniques had been pioneered in other films, but Citizen Kane masterfully brought them together with unprecedented acumen and maturity.
Narratively, Welles and veteran writer Herman J. Mickiewicz jointly crafted a storytelling tour de force combining non-linear narrative, composite storytelling from multiple points of view (a technique that would later be indelibly associated with Kurosawa’s Rashomon), varying narrative forms including the famous opening newsreel segment as well as interviews and flashbacks, and a dramatic span of decades with characters aging from young adulthood (or even childhood) to old age. Their characters are complex and ambiguous, and their dialogue crackles with wit and insight.
Thematically, the film tackles the mystery of man from nearly every conceivable angle except religion — love, happiness, money, power, sex, marriage, divorce, politics, the media, celebrity, despair, death — in a sweepingly ambitious study that asks anew the 2000-year-old question, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?”
What’s more, Kane accomplishes all this not as a rarefied art film for the ambitious few, but as a popular story for the masses, a riddle picture with the most famous twist ending in Hollywood history.
This ending, of course, is the explanation of Charles Foster Kane’s dying word, “Rosebud.” The twist behind the twist is that while the final shot satisfyingly resolves the question with which the picture began, the whole notion that that the answer to that question would somehow provide the key to Kane’s life was only a journalistic conceit. The film answers the question, but refrains from offering any final explanation or judgment of its complex protagonist, suggesting that a man’s life is more than a riddle to be explained or resolved.
That’s not to say that Rosebud isn’t significant. It is. It signifies innocence lost, regret, and the failure of the American dream of rags-to-riches success. It also represents what Kane lost at an early age when he was taken from his mother and father and raised by an unloving guardian.
Deprived of love, burdened by too much money and power, Kane grows up with a ravenous desire to be loved despite being incapable of love himself, as well as an arrogance and sense of entitlement to getting his way. The tragedy of his life epitomizes the dark side of the pursuit of happiness, with failed marriages, broken friendships, dashed political aspirations, rapacious acquisitiveness, isolation, and despair.
Whatever the truth may be about it, “Citizen Kane” is a great picture and will always go down in screen history
- Produced & Directed by Orson Welles
- Screenplay by Herman J. Mankiewicz & Orson Welles
- Casting: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton, Dorothy Comingore, Everett Sloane, Ray Collins, George Coulouris, Agnes Moorehead, Paul Stewart, Ruth Warrick, Erskine Sanford & William Alland
- Music by Bernard Herrmann
- Cinematography: Gregg Toland
- Editing by: Robert Wise
- Studio: Mercury Productions & RKO Radio Pictures
- Distributed by RKO Radio Pictures (Original)
- Release dates: May 1, 1941
- Running time: 119 minutes
- Country: United States
- Language: English