Citizen Kane (1941)


Today’s movie has got to be the winner of the oldest movie I’ll ever review. This 1941 film is one I have heard about seemingly forever, and it’s often times referred to as “the greatest film of all time”. And since all the professional film reviewers have called it thus, I feel like, in the very least, I should watch the thing if I want to call myself a film reviewer. But this movie is 9 years older than my mother, so how well can it possibly hold up to me? We’ll see, in my review of Citizen Kane, co-written, directed by, produced by, and starring Orson Welles, co-written by Herman J. Mankiewicz, and also starring William Alland, George Coulouris, Everett Sloane, Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Comingore, Paul Stewart, Agnes Moorehead, Harry Shannon, Ruth Warrick, and Ray Collins.

In Xanadu did wealthy news mogul Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) die, creating a massive news outbreak, especially regarding his mysterious last word: “Rosebud”. This fascination sets reporter Jerry Thompson (William Alland) out to interview everyone who was close to Kane in order to find – and report on – the significance of this word. His first interview – and Kane’s second wife – Susan Alexander Kane (Dorothy Comingore) refuses to talk, so he instead goes to the libraries of Kane’s guardian, Walter Parks Thatcher (George Coulouris), to learn about Kane’s youth, where his mother (Agnes Moorehead) and father (Harry Shannon) seemingly rented him out to Thatcher, to be educated (but not in the ways of love, I gathered). When he got older, Kane takes control of the newspaper, the New York Inquirer, that Thatcher had aquired. Thompson then interviews long-time friend of Kane’s, Jedidiah Leland (Joseph Cotten), who tells of Kane’s start with the newspaper, rise to wealth, brief marriage to Emily Monroe Norton Kane (Ruth Warrick), first mistress, attempt to get into politics, and then retreat from politics when his affair with future wife Susan Alexander became public thanks to political opponent, Jim W. Gettys (Ray Collins). Still no closer to finding out what Rosebud is, Thompson goes back to his second wife and to Kane’s butler, Raymond (Paul Stewart), in hopes of figuring it out.

I feel like a lot of this movie’s appeal is probably lost on my generation. I’m not willing to say it was a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination, but when you go into a movie knowing only what Rosebud is, and that everyone has said this movie is the greatest thing ever put on film, you have high expectations that no movie can possibly live up to. It’s a fine film, but not for any reasons that will really be explained in this paragraph, because it’s not really the story that sets it apart. It’s a pretty basic story of one man’s life that’s told in a way that was probably super innovative at the time, but has been used since. It basically ends at the beginning, with the story of the movie being told in flashback, and then the big secret ending that probably isn’t a secret now as it wasn’t for me. The first good chunk of the movie is told in an old newsreel style that most young people (who weren’t huge fans of Mystery Science Theater, like myself) will have no idea what they’re looking at. Then about 90 percent of the rest of the movie happens in flashback, but it’s all fairly intriguing and keeps you watching fairly well. But man, did people back in the day ever talk fast! So fast do they talk that they often times talk over each other. It seemed weird to me, but it is how people talked in movies at the time and does show how good these people were at delivering their lines. The entire movie moves pretty fast and actually manages to keep your attention without any real action, per se. It’s mostly just people talking, but it keeps your attention. Then you tie the film up with a scene of all of Kane’s accumulated statues and things that makes you think it either should’ve been the last scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark or evidence for why Kane should’ve been on Hoarders.

The look of this movie is what sets it apart, but I feel it’s very hard for me to figure out just how much it set itself apart, growing up with movies with the special effects that they have now. And, for most of these special effects and visual styles, I had to watch the commentary that was on the disc with fellow film reviewer, Roger Ebert. Oh yeah, I’m going there. I totally just referred to Roger Ebert as a “fellow reviewer”. This film did a lot of things for the first time that it should probably be applauded for. It did a lot of interesting things with focus and lighting and sets and transitions with a relatively low budget. Apparently it’s harder than I realize to keep things in the foreground and the background in focus at the same time, but they did a lot of that in this movie. It’s apparently also very difficult to keep things further away from the camera lit in a black and white movie, but they pulled that off here by having sheets act as ceilings and lighting and microphones above those to keep everything well lit, so kudos for that bit of innovation. The sets were more simple than the epic stature they appeared to be, mainly accomplished by putting the scenes on top of drawings, but they didn’t look like drawings when I watched it. I thought this was just a really expensive movie. So kudos for that as well. They did a lot of interesting camera compositions, from the framing of the characters to the movement of the camera that Ebert talked a lot about. He talked a few times about scenes where they designed the set pieces to split apart so the camera (back then mostly on tracks) could pass through. That’s pretty cool. They did things in the composition of the scenes like having the character whose flashback we were in sitting with his back to the camera, like we were watching it with them. My point about these things is that, while definitely being cool and artistic, don’t make a movie great all on it’s own. I’m not in film school or anything, I just want a movie with a good story. Problematically, I don’t know how many of these things in this movie are not as exciting now because I’ve seen them ripped off for so many movies since.

The performances were pretty top notch here. Orson Welles not only puts on a great performance in the movie, but he ages in a way that was so convincing I thought the movie might have taken a really long time to film. As he gets older, the make up effects are pretty convincing and, when he got older, he wore a back brace to aid his performance as an aging man. It was pretty convincing. William Alland didn’t do anything spectacular in his performance, but I did find it interesting that he was always in shadow. I don’t remember what Ebert said the meaning was for this, but there it is. Dorothy Comingore, Joseph Cotten, and Everett Sloane all put on great performances of their younger and older selves.

This is a fine movie, but I think it probably wouldn’t qualify for “Greatest Film Ever” amongst people of my generation onward. It does a lot of cool things in the cinematography, the lighting, the transitions, and even the performances, but I felt that, even though it kept your attention, the story wasn’t that interesting to me. Of course, most people of this generation probably don’t know William Randoph Hearst (the person who was the inspiration for Charles Foster Kane), or even Orson Welles, so that can make it a little less significant because we miss the comparisons. I still think it’s worth a watch, and you can get it from Netflix – as I did – so do so. Just don’t go in thinking it’s the Greatest Film Ever. It’s too hard to live up to that. Citizen Kane gets “I think I did pretty well under the circumstances” out of “I guess Rosebud is just a piece in a jigsaw puzzle”.

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