on Monday, April 4, 2011



Orson Welles


Herman J. Mankiewicz (original screenplay), Orson Welles (original screenplay)


Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten and Dorothy Comingore

A film known to many and, perhaps, watched by too few, Citizen Kane lives up to the hype and adulation even if it's not the so-called best film ever made. On a man-made mountain, somewhere in Florida, squats the decaying and unfinished palace that is Xanadu. The home and folly of infamous recluse Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles), the years of neglect lie as suffocating as a shroud. Inside, on the brink of death, reclines Kane, insensible to the accumulated riches. From his numb, already chill fingers, a child's snow globe falls, chased by his death rattle - the talismanic word "Rosebud".

In a breath-taking edit, the focus shifts to newsreel footage of Kane's life, loves, enemies, successes and failures. From the very first public instant, when Kane took control of The Inquirer with Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotten) and Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane), Kane was a man to arouse strong emotion. One of the richest men in America, by luck rather than design, his holdings spread far and wide. The owner of factories, utilities, communications and even people, Kane was a man of influence and political aspiration. Active across the globe, whether conferring with European heads of state or buying their art wholesale, Kane made himself synonymous with America. Unfortunately, however, the reel fails to pinpoint just who Kane was and what made him tick, which is precisely what the editor Rawlston (Philip Van Zandt) wants to know. Thus, eager reporter Jerry Thompson (William Alland) is set on the trail of Kane and his elusive "Rosebud".

The lucky break for Thompson is that no matter what people thought of Kane, he was someone they remembered. Be it his long dead trustee Walter Parks Thatcher (George Coulouris) or his associates Leland and Bernstein, recollections tumble forth with alacrity. Each has their own angle on Kane and, to a degree; the fog lifts from his persona. None of them, however, interacted with him personally, impelling Thompson to track down Kane's second ex-wife Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore). The first, Emily Norton Kane (Ruth Warrick), is regrettably unavailable for comment, having died prematurely many years before, with Kane's only heir. Gradually a picture forms within Thompson's journalistic mind, one populated by characters such as the unsavoury Boss J.W.Gettys (Ray Collins) and Kane's mother Mary (Agnes Moorehead), yet this still fails to illuminate the "real" Charles Foster Kane. Perhaps he is destined to remain an enigma, side by side (ironically) with "Rosebud".

With a production as burdened by riches as Citizen Kane is, the principal critical difficulty lies in knowing where to begin. Perhaps, like the film itself, it's best to start with that which makes the most impact - the visuals. While the cipher of "deep-focus photography" is bandied about as the chief innovation of Citizen Kane, this serves merely as a disguise for Gregg Toland and Welles' genius for laying out, dramatically lighting and executing scenes. The ability to have almost everything in focus is both a blessing and a curse; it requires an intuitive feel for working in three dimensions, judging relative scales and knowing how to draw the eye to the heart of a scene without distraction. Fortunately, Welles and Toland together convert these potential problems into strengths, supporting the script without becoming intrusive. In tandem, many of the methods prevalent in the silent era are combined with (then) contemporary techniques. All in all, Citizen Kane is something of an exercise in virtuosity and how to use (rather than be used by) special effects.

The undercurrent which runs through Citizen Kane, giving it a unified vision, results from the combination of two factors. First, Welles was given absolute control over his creation. Second, by using many of his beloved Mercury Players, all accustomed to working together, Welles knew in advance that he was directing a stellar cast. As Kane, Welles is incomparable, utterly convincing as the self-deluded and ego-bound media baron, flawed by iron-will and an apparent search for something lost long ago. At no point does Welles encourage you to feel sorry for Kane, not there's any particular reason to do so, yet it's hard not to pity his isolation. Warrick and Comingore are both superb as his ex-wives, utterly opposed characters that are nevertheless bound by a shared weakness for Kane. In the end, both are destroyed by their association with him, for which they do deserve some consideration. In the larger circle of "friends", Cotten, Sloane and Coulouris stand out with their finely tuned performances, giving substance to the memory of Kane by reflection from their own personalities. Right on the edge, Erskine Sanford is rather amusing as Herbert Carter, the self-important editor of The Inquirer.

Moving from the visual to the aural, Citizen Kane again has several tricks up its sleeve. The dialogue, sometimes first-person and sometimes voice-over, is witty, believable, clever and well-structured. Thus, despite being highly non-linear, the plot never gets lost at any point. In addition, the script is extremely lean, saying what needs to be said and no more. Much of the credit for this brevity and focus must go to Herman J. Mankiewicz, the joint screenwriter with Welles (about the only area within which Welles shared the burden). A further neat point is that sentences tend to overlap as people argue and struggle to get their point across, just like in real life. On the soundtrack side, Bernard Herrmann (another member of the Mercury Players) composes a score of subtlety and uncanny resonance. In order to achieve such a tight relationship, Herrmann wrote his score on the spot while scenes were being shot (a fairly unusual tactic in itself). Needless to say, the dialogue and music mesh beautifully.

Many will find this film boring and lose interest within the first 15mins itself, do not blame yourself if this happens to you, this movie requires concentration and an open mind, therefore those with limited interest in films or only enjoy “chick” flicks will not appreciate this film on any level.

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