In the end, it should not have come as any kind of surprise. When Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo dethroned Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941) as the greatest film of all time in Sight & Sound magazine’s international poll of critics in 2012, it felt like the culmination of a decades-long process, one that saw Hitchcock’s initially maligned masterpiece slowly inching up the ranks until finally overtaking the movie that had sat atop the list since 1962. But more symbolic than Vertigo’s rise was Kane’s fall (. . . all the way down to second place), which seemed to represent more than just one film’s edging out the other by a few votes. In the year 2012, when more work from all over the world was more readily accessible than ever before, cinephiles seemed to be questioning, more loudly than ever, the value of a canon in the first place.
For decades, these all-time-top-ten lists had been dominated by the usual suspects: a rotating, exclusive club of consensus classics (made mostly by American and European men) that rarely allowed in new entries. And of course, Vertigo wasn’t exactly a shocking rejoinder to mainstream taste or a striking blow for inclusiveness—it was a widely beloved, endlessly written about, beautifully problematic classic from a director who was way more conservative in his worldview (not to mention more financially successful) than Welles ever was. Even so, the fact that Hitchcock’s most complicated and personal film overtook Kane made it seem as if, at long last, anything was possible. Once blinding in its freshness and invention, Citizen Kane had come to represent for some the stodgy, unchanging nature of the canon.
That historical irony is fitting for a film that has always thrived on contradiction, from its inception. Indeed, that is what has made it so essential for so long—and continues to do so. Upon his arrival in Hollywood, Welles famously called his studio “the biggest electric train set any boy ever had,” and he proceeded to use it like one. Thus, Kane is an explosion of form, combining effects and techniques and stylistic flourishes from the preceding decades of filmmaking (and coming up with several of its own), all in service to an audience-unfriendly downer of a story that offers no uplifting messages or clear moral vision. It was at once the peak achievement of Hollywood’s golden age and a rebuke of it—the work of an auteur thumbing his nose at the studio system even as he took full advantage of the resources it provided him.
The contradictions didn’t end there. Kane was that most American of stories: a child comes from nothing and becomes a great businessman. But the tale’s tragic trajectory felt older, darker: the hero dies broken and alone, unredeemed, a predatory rich man made increasingly phantomlike by all his possessions, as if a curse has been placed on him. It was a work of the left that still seemed to understand the allure of money and power.
All this made Kane an ideal object of fascination for a postwar generation—some, in Europe and other previously war-torn corners of the planet, seeing the film for the first time; others, in America, in the theatrical revivals it was regularly given and on television—who were reaping the benefits of economic and cultural booms while discovering the psychic and spiritual discomfort that came with them. Structured like a puzzle, it was modern in conception—indulging in and even acknowledging the artifice of filmmaking—but postmodern in effect, its deeper meanings (about which one could argue for days, weeks, months) seemingly hidden beneath the self-aware workings of its arresting style. It was a psychological riddle whose solution was, depending on whom you asked, either deeply symbolic or deeply unsatisfying.
Citizen Kane was the perfect movie for the second half of the twentieth century. But its mystery and majesty have never really waned. It remains shockingly relevant to this day. And it’s still one of the most breathtakingly beautiful films ever made, by anybody, anywhere.
Before the Beginning
Unlike many other masterpieces—such as, say, Vertigo—Citizen Kane never went through an initial period of disfavor. True, it was a financial disappointment, but that had more to do with the partial suppression of its release by an industry feeling the heat from the powerful press baron William Randolph Hearst, on whose life Kane is loosely based. But Citizen Kane was a cause célèbre long before Hearst caught wind of it during previews. It was one even before the cameras started rolling. Before he was an actor and director of films, Orson Welles was a theater and radio wunderkind—a brilliant, charismatic, and impossibly young figure who had quickly become a bit too ubiquitous. By the time he arrived in Hollywood, “Little Orson Annie” was already the subject of parodies.
He was also a fervently political artist, not to mention a divisive one during the Depression years, when he closely aligned himself with Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. In the years preceding Kane, Welles gained renown for daring, politically confrontational stage productions that often angered conservatives: a Macbeth set in Haiti, with an all-Black cast; a modern-dress version of Julius Caesar set in a fascist dystopia; and the pro-union musical The Cradle Will Rock, which was shut down by the government four days before its premiere date. While he was finishing Kane, Welles was also working on directing a stage adaptation of Richard Wright’s Native Son cowritten by Wright himself.
Welles tempered his more overt political instincts for Citizen Kane. For example, one draft of the script had Charles Foster Kane’s son growing up to be a member of an American fascist organization. The political valence of the finished film is subtler, lurking between the lines in the very form of the picture, with its competing perspectives on a man who seems to have no center, and its evocations of horror-movie tropes to show his increasing wealth, power, and isolation. Perhaps its most relevant antecedent was the work that had led to Welles being brought out to Hollywood from New York in the first place: his 1938 CBS radio broadcast of H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, an adaptation that played out as a series of news bulletins and notoriously convinced many listeners that Martians had actually invaded the United States. The War of the Worlds may not have had any political qualities on its surface, but it was keenly aware of the political moment in which it existed: it took advantage of a listening public that had become accustomed to news reports interrupting radio shows to relay breathless updates about some new crisis or calamity, often in Europe.
The Shock of the New
Even today, much of the admiration for Citizen Kane comes from the fact that Welles was so young when he made it. He was twenty-four when, in 1939, he signed one of the most remarkable contracts in Hollywood history, with RKO Pictures hiring him to write, direct, produce, and star in two projects and giving him a vast measure of control, including final cut. This was unprecedented, and Welles knew it. Everybody knew it. And then to direct and star in such an ambitious, lifetime-spanning film at the age of twenty-five—to make Citizen Kane, eventually acknowledged as the greatest movie of all time—what kind of sorcery was this?
But Welles’s youth and inexperience may well have been the secret to the picture’s success. He knew the spotlight was on him, and that he had to deliver a work of dazzling artistry to justify it. More important, he knew that he knew nothing. (By some accounts, Welles was so green that principles of screen direction had to be explained to him early on in the production.) He had prepared by watching countless films (most notably John Ford’s Stagecoach), but he also showed up with a willingness to listen to his cinematographer, Gregg Toland, when it came to trying out new ideas. In 1941, Toland wrote a piece for Popular Photography magazine outlining his working relationship with Welles and detailing the lengthy preparation that went into the film’s most notable visual ideas:
Although it was Welles’s first effort in movies, he came to the job with a rare vision and understanding of camera purpose and direction. It was his idea that the technique of filming should never be evident to the audience. He wanted to avoid the established Hollywood conventions, most of which are accepted by audiences because of their frequent use. And this frequent use of conventions is dictated by pressure of time and reluctance to deviate from the accepted.
As a case in point, depth of field is nearly always sacrificed in Hollywood productions. The normal human eye sees everything before it (within reasonable distance) clearly and sharply. There is no special or single center of visual sharpness in real life. But the Hollywood cameras focus on a center of interest, and allow the other components of a scene to “fuzz out” in those regions before and beyond the focal point.
The attainment of an approximate human-eye focus was one of our fundamental aims in Citizen Kane. It took a great deal of doing, but we proved that it can be done.
Toland’s account makes it clear that Welles, while perhaps a tenderfoot in Hollywood, unschooled in the internal politics of the studio system, was not ignorant of technique, and that the style of Kane was not the result of “happy accidents.” The film was meticulously planned and fussed over, with months spent in preproduction experimenting with camera and film development techniques, not just to attain proper depth of field but also to be able to shoot long takes that wouldn’t require lots of cutting. Toland notes that they prepared compositions and camera moves “so that the action would take place simultaneously in extreme foreground and extreme background.” They tested low-angle shots, building their sets so that cameras could be placed at floor level. They also created ceilings for the sets—which on ordinary productions would have been open and festooned with overhead lights.
So many of the visual elements that Kane has rightly been praised for over the years were fully intentional, with Welles and Toland well aware that what they were doing was unprecedented in Hollywood. Ironically enough, this was really where Welles’s inexperience paid off, we might say: because he hadn’t been working in the industry, he hadn’t internalized the conventions and “rules” of filmmaking, many of which were basically just fancy ways of staying on schedule and on budget. He could follow his instincts, because those instincts, this early in his career, were still cinematically pure.
At the same time, it’s not hard to see, in Kane’s many innovations, a desire to bring in ideas from the worlds with which Welles was at that point far better acquainted: theater and radio. The film’s stark lighting techniques, including its use of spotlights, seem quite bold on-screen but would have been familiar on the stage. Even some of the mise-en-scène seems to be theatrical in origin: often in Kane, a group of people will be placed in the foreground and a character will enter through a rear door and walk up to join the group. This happens pretty much every night on the stage. On the screen, where character entrances are often cut out, it has a foreboding quality. Something similar could be said for the intense low angles: they were revolutionary on film, but they also replicate the point of view of a stage director watching from the front row, a perspective Welles had personal experience with.
Even the long takes that Kane became known for are, in some way, theatrical in nature. It’s hard not to be reminded of the stage when reading André Bazin’s famous early-fifties championing, in “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema,” of Kane and its use of deep-focus long takes, which the influential French critic felt played an important role in democratizing film style and liberating cinema from the stranglehold of montage:
The reputation of Citizen Kane is no exaggeration. Thanks to composition in depth, whole scenes are filmed in a single shot (a device known as the plan sequence), sometimes even without the camera moving. The dramatic effects which used to depend on the editing are all obtained here by the movements of the actors within a chosen framing. [. . .]
The modern director, in using the plan sequence with composition in depth, is not rejecting editing—how could he do so without reverting to a kind of rudimentary gibberish? He is integrating it into his visual style. The narrative of Welles and [William] Wyler is no less explicit than that of Ford, but it has the advantage of not having to forfeit the special effects that can be obtained from the unity of the image in time and space. It matters a great deal (at least in a work that has some style) whether an event is analyzed fragment by fragment or shown in its physical unity . . . Composition in depth is not just another cameraman’s device, like the use of filters or of a certain type of lighting; it is a vital contribution to mise-en-scène: a dialectical advance in the history of film language.
And this advance is not merely a formal one. Composition in depth, well used, is not just a more economical, subtle, and simple way of heightening an event; it affects not only the structure of film language but also the intellectual relationship between the spectator and the image, thus actually modifying the meaning of the film.
The truly visionary filmmaker, in Bazin’s conception, uses not cutting and close-ups to direct the viewer’s eye but rather mise-en-scène, performance, and subtler forms of emphasis, while maintaining the dramatic integrity and continuity of a scene by letting it play out in long, uninterrupted takes. But isn’t this what a stage director—who, after all, does not have the crutches of montage and close-ups—does?
Similarly, one of Kane’s most revolutionary qualities came in its use of sound—the overlapping dialogue; the moody backgrounds and echoes; the constant, pointed interruptions; the evocations of space; the ability to build entire worlds out of the timbre of characters’ voices. These innovations clearly had their roots in Welles’s radio work. As scholar Robert L. Carringer describes it, in 1984’s The Making of “Citizen Kane”:
Welles’s background in radio was one of the major influences on Citizen Kane. Some of the influence is of a very obvious nature—the repertory approach, for instance, in which roles are created for specific performers with their wonderfully expressive voices in mind. It can also be seen in the exaggerated sound effects. [Welles’s Mercury Theatre radio] shows alternated between prestigious literary classics and popular melodrama. Welles had a special fondness for the strain of melodrama filled with dungeons, crypts, secret passageways, and other such opportunities for exploiting extreme voice effects. [. . .] Citizen Kane provided an abundance of such opportunities, especially with two settings—the Thatcher Library, all clanking metal and high ceilings and empty space, and the great hall at Xanadu, a vast, echoing cavern.
As Carringer notes, Welles even brought in his own sound people to help create some of the effects, opting not to use the studio’s own engineers or its stock sound library. In his radio days, this kind of attention had obviously been crucial: a scene absolutely had to sound right—have the right echo, the right kind of room tone, the right kind of distance between the characters—in order for the aural illusion to work. On film, even though everything had been meticulously planned visually, Welles made sure that every scene, every voice, every line and effect sounded distinctive. He also made sure that the voices blended together, to evoke the controlled chaos of the world he was depicting.
The sound of Citizen Kane is still one of its most extraordinary elements—maybe revolutionary is the wrong word to use, for Welles’s revolution was never quite consummated. For the most part, other Hollywood filmmakers didn’t adopt his techniques, and within a few years motion-picture sound technology changed, with increased use of direct sound. Today, there are no other films that sound like Citizen Kane—save, perhaps, for The Magnificent Ambersons, the picture Welles made immediately following his debut, in 1942, and the last time he could command a proper studio budget.
The Protagonist Strikes Back
When he first came to Hollywood, Welles’s plan was to film Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, with the camera representing the protagonist, but that project proved too costly. The idea of making a picture based loosely on the life of William Randolph Hearst appears to have come from Welles’s cowriter, Herman J. Mankiewicz, who had spent time at Hearst’s San Simeon estate and been friendly with not only the imperious tycoon but also his vivacious mistress, Marion Davies. Many of the details of Kane’s life were not actually taken from Hearst’s—some came from other businessmen, such as Joseph Pulitzer and Samuel Insull, some from Welles’s own life. But it was the Hearst connection that turned the film into a cultural flash point, when Hearst’s bulldog gossip columnist Louella Parsons began attacking it (after, ironically enough, a tip-off that came from her rival Hedda Hopper, who saw the film in previews).
Hearst and his representatives not only targeted Welles and Mankiewicz, they also tried to pressure RKO into burying the picture. Hearst was close to the studio heads and could effectively extort them: He had worked behind the scenes to keep various Hollywood scandals out of his papers, which meant, of course, that he now had a treasure trove of juicy stories he could hold over them. He also threatened to start anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic campaigns against the studios, which, after all, were run by Jewish people and were hiring refugees from Europe. Most of the theater chains in the country, then controlled by the studios, refused to show Kane. As a result of all this pressure, the film never received the kind of wide opening regularly enjoyed by other major Hollywood productions.
But Hearst’s campaign against the film, and the studios’ refusal to book it, may have also helped light a fire under Kane’s admirers in the press. The early notices after its premiere in New York, on May 1, 1941—a premiere that had already been delayed due to the controversy swirling around the film—were not only filled with praise for Welles’s daring technique and accomplished performance, they were also stridently against what was being done to the movie by Hearst’s minions. Fiction writer John O’Hara’s review in Newsweek offers a fine example of the urgency that lay beneath many of the initial notices:
It is with exceeding regret that your faithful bystander reports that he has just seen a picture which he thinks must be the best picture he ever saw.
With no less regret he reports that he has just seen the best actor in the history of acting.
Name of picture: Citizen Kane.
Name of actor: Orson Welles.
Reason for regret: you, my dear, may never see the picture.
[. . .] A few obsequious and/or bulbous middle-aged ladies think the picture ought not to be shown, owing to the fact that the picture is rumored to have something to do with a certain publisher, who, for the first time in his life, or maybe the second, shall be nameless. That the nameless publisher might be astute enough to realize that for the first time in his rowdy life he had been made a human being did not worry the loyal ladies. Sycophancy of that kind, like curtseying, is deliberate. The ladies merely wait for a chance to show they can still do it, even if it means cracking a femur. This time I think they may have cracked off more than they can chew. I hope.
A recent online critical fracas ironically helps reveal the extent of the hype around Kane at the time of its release. In early 2021, the review-aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes unearthed a negative Chicago Tribune item from May 1941, written under the pen name Mae Tinee (get it?), which helped knock Citizen Kane’s “Tomatometer” score from 100 to 99 percent “Fresh.” As many entertainment news outlets reported—including, for some reason, the New York Times—this resulted in the 2017 family sequel Paddington 2 rising above Kane in the Tomatometer rankings. But what is perhaps most interesting about that 1941 review is its title: “Citizen Kane Fails to Impress Critic as Greatest Ever Filmed.” Even in May 1941, just after its premiere, Kane was already gaining a reputation as the greatest film of all time, a notion apparently so widespread that the headline of a negative review could cheekily refer to it.
So Kane was a critical hit, especially among the New York press, but not a financial one. It won best picture from the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Board of Review. It was also nominated for nine Oscars, of which it won only one, for its screenplay. (Many speculated that the win was a sop to Welles’s cowriter, the long-suffering, widely respected veteran scribe Mankiewicz. The film was reportedly booed when its name came up in other categories on awards night, which does prompt one to wonder if that Academy audience in 1942 dared to boo nominee Gregg Toland for his work on Citizen Kane.)
After a few months in which all anyone seemed to want to talk about was Citizen Kane, the film basically vanished for a time. The financial failure also caused bad blood between Welles and his studio, some of which fed into the tragic decision to reshoot and butcher the ending of The Magnificent Ambersons. “Showmanship in Place of Genius” became the RKO motto in 1942 after a new management team came in, something that Welles and others correctly understood to be a direct reference to the headaches he’d caused his studio. In part because of RKO’s troubles, Kane didn’t get the rereleases other major features did during this period. By the end of the forties, the once and future greatest film ever made was consigned largely to footnotes and casual dismissals, on the rare occasions that it was mentioned at all. Even when Hearst died in 1951, despite calls for a rerelease, RKO refused to put Kane back in theaters, noting that the studio’s dalliance with Orson Welles had already cost it enough.
Citizen Kane’s postwar canonization began primarily in Europe—the start of a growing, eventually dominant strain in international cinephilia that embraced thematic complexity over narrative clarity, and sensibility and vitality over importance of subject matter. The film was not released on most of the continent during the war years. Starting in the midforties, however, Kane made its way across Europe, opening in France in summer 1946, Italy in November 1948, Austria in September 1949.
François Truffaut, a teenager at the time, recalled in reverential tones his experiences seeing Kane over and over again alongside fellow cinephiles. Immediately following the war, France was overwhelmed with American films from the years of the occupation, and a generation of movie lovers had binged on the work of Hollywood’s golden age in record time. For them, Citizen Kane seemed to be not just the culmination of the American cinema they had recently become obsessed with but a quantum leap forward for the medium as a whole, the kind of work that both demonstrated immense technical expertise and laid bare the cinematic collision between art and technology. Kane was the rare American film to be shown undubbed in France, which allowed viewers to appreciate Welles’s experiments with sound even as they were marveling at the movie’s visual style. As Truffaut put it in 1959:
The appearance of Citizen Kane in 1946 was an extraordinary event for cinemaphiles of our generation [. . .] This film, I believe, consecrated a great many of us to the vocation of cineaste.
It was shown regularly for five or six years, and we went to see it at each showing—first at Marbeuf, it went then to L’Artistic, to Reflets, to Studio Raspail, to Studio Parnasse, and finally to Cine-Opera, which became the Vendôme, where it is shown again today. Despite its very bad subtitling (always the same, alas!), Citizen Kane, no doubt by the richness of its soundtrack, made us finally disgusted with dubbing.
We loved this film because it was complete: psychological, social, poetic, dramatic, comic, baroque, strict, and demanding. It is a demonstration of the force of power and an attack on the force of power, it is a hymn to youth and a meditation on old age, an essay on the vanity of all material ambition and at the same time a poem on old age and the solitude of exceptional human beings, genius or monster or monstrous genius.
Truffaut’s words should remind us that Kane offered international viewers a dark vision of America that, in the wake of the war, was starting to cut deep—a vision of unchecked power and individualism. This became particularly resonant in subsequent years, as Europe entered an economic recovery that saw the rise of a vibrant, sophisticated middle class, which in turn fed feelings of unease and ennui. These so-called boom years would go on to inspire cinematic works depicting the existential crises fueled by acquisition, competition, capitalism—everything from Ermanno Olmi’s Il posto to Federico Fellini’s La dolce vita to Michelangelo Antonioni’s and Jean-Luc Godard’s many eviscerations of bourgeois culture.
Although Welles had toned down the political notes of Kane’s story, the film spoke to this generation. For them, its social criticism was crystal clear. Indeed, it was downright revolutionary. For the Cuban novelist and critic Guillermo Cabrera Infante, writing in 1958 (in a review of Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd), Kane was as much about American power as it was a demonstration of stunning technique:
This film was a veiled biography of one of the four facets of the American spirit: the tycoon: the powerful lord, the smiler with a knife under the capitalist cloak, the new baron with a right of first flower over thought, rapist of all virgin ideas, champion of right-wing causes and imperialism. The man who boasted of having started a war in order to have his reporters write about it (precisely the war between Spain and the United States, which continued our own), a tireless worker and the boss of bosses: William Randolph Hearst, Homo americanus. To his make and likeness all the rest were cut (Morgan, Rockefeller, Mellon) and all wanted to escalate him: he seemed the Everest of success.
Welles, nevertheless, with the pinprick of a movie, had deflated him. The same vigor with which Hearst’s standard-bearers protested (Louella Parsons, for one) showed that he had hit the bull’s-eye: the colossus was a weak man, his shield was the shell of an oyster, a museum armor: inside there was nothing but emptiness. That was the life of the all-powerful man turned to dust and ashes and silence.
The postwar era was also a time of international outreach, of diplomacy, of expos and conferences and cultural exchange, especially in the West. Some of this was a response to the savagery of the war years, some of it an effort to build a cohesive cultural bulwark against Soviet expansion. The year 1952 saw a referendum of around one hundred filmmakers held in Brussels to determine the best films of all time; with its reputation still slowly growing across the continent in young cinephile circles, Citizen Kane was nowhere to be found among the finalists. History doesn’t discuss this particular event much, but the “Brussels Referendum” was the original inspiration for Sight & Sound’s first international poll of critics, which appeared a few months later. Kane did show up on that list—it was a runner-up, buoyed largely by votes from British critics. (There would be another poll of filmmakers in 1958, at the Brussels World’s Fair, where Kane came in ninth place, one of only three sound pictures to place in the top twelve.)
By the midfifties, RKO had become a shell of its former self, thanks to a series of political and financial disasters (including its purchase by the notorious aviation mogul and erstwhile filmmaker Howard Hughes, whom Welles and Mankiewicz had briefly considered using as their model for the character who would become Charles Foster Kane). In 1955, the studio’s library had been sold to C&C Television Corp., which meant that RKO films, including Citizen Kane, were regularly playing on television by the second half of the fifties. Kane finally received its first major theatrical rerelease in May 1956, partly to take advantage of Welles’s highly publicized return to Broadway in the title role of King Lear. After establishing a European foothold, Kane was finally returning to the U.S.
It was during this period that many future American filmmakers and critics were discovering Welles’s work, and for them Kane’s revival arrived at the perfect time. The fifties had seen the emergence of art-house cinemas, repertory theaters, and film societies across the country. (The Museum of Modern Art in New York held a major Welles retrospective in 1961, organized by a young critic and programmer named Peter Bogdanovich.) In 1962, Citizen Kane topped the second decadal Sight & Sound poll, barely edging out Michelangelo Antonioni’s extremely recent L’avventura and Jean Renoir’s once-maligned The Rules of the Game.
It would go on to top that poll for the next four decades, as its influence among critics grew, starting with the British, then moving on to other European critics, then American ones, before expanding even further abroad. At each step of the way, more and more factors would wind up consolidating Kane’s dominance. The sixties saw the opening of a number of major film schools around the United States, which coincided with the new waves of filmmaking coming from France, Italy, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom, and Eastern Europe. The visionary eclecticism of Citizen Kane—its boisterous confluence of genres, styles, and tones, as if it had collected and digested all the advances in filmmaking that came before it—made it an ideal teaching tool. More important, it made it an ideal learning tool: one didn’t need to be enrolled as a student to discover and obsess over Citizen Kane. The movie itself was a film school condensed into 119 entertaining minutes.
This is also probably one reason why Kane lost none of its power or stature as the home-video revolution made even more movies accessible to even more people. As mainstream cinephilia grew to encompass more regions of the world and increasingly different styles of filmmaking, Kane continued to stand out as the pinnacle of Hollywood’s achievement. It could be appreciated as at once a slick example of classical filmmaking and a journey through many decades of movie history—and not just the ones preceding it, because an entire generation of major American artists had been inspired by it. The so-called film brats—including names such as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Brian De Palma—went on to revitalize Hollywood in the late sixties and the seventies, and many of them wound up creating the most notable movies of the eighties, nineties, and beyond. (It’s not for nothing that Spielberg, probably the most influential and powerful filmmaker of the past fifty years, once owned one of the Rosebud sleds created for the production of Kane.) There was a poetic irony in this: the children of Orson Welles had come to rule the industry that had effectively destroyed him, and they forged a new American cinema over which Citizen Kane loomed like a beacon of perfection.
Let a Thousand Interpretations Bloom
Citizen Kane was the right title at the right time to benefit from crosscurrents in cinema appreciation and education: the creation of film schools, the rise of repertory programs, the increasing presence of movies on TV (and, later, home video), the newfound esteem for both classic Hollywood and the art-house picture, and Welles’s growing mythos as an auteur. Perhaps more than anything, however, what kept Citizen Kane at the center of so much discourse was its openness of conception. For a work that is otherwise so meticulously planned and filmed, it’s surprisingly malleable in its interpretations, supporting a variety of readings thanks to its own elliptical story line. To get at this idea, we can look to one of Kane’s more notable early critics, the legendary Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, who saw it in 1941 and was equal parts laudatory and derisive in his review:
Forms of multiplicity and incongruity abound in the film: the first scenes record the treasures amassed by Kane; in one of the last, a poor woman, luxuriant and suffering, plays with an enormous jigsaw puzzle on the floor of a palace that is also a museum. At the end we realize that the fragments are not governed by any secret unity: the detested Charles Foster Kane is a simulacrum, a chaos of appearances. (A possible corollary, foreseen by David Hume, Ernst Mach, and our own Macedonio Fernández: no man knows who he is, no man is anyone.) In a story by [G. K.] Chesterton—“The Head of Caesar,” I think—the hero observes that nothing is so frightening as a labyrinth with no center. This film is precisely that labyrinth [. . .]
The production is, in general, worthy of its vast subject. The cinematography has a striking depth, and there are shots whose farthest planes (like Pre-Raphaelite paintings) are as precise and detailed as the close-ups. I venture to guess, nonetheless, that Citizen Kane will endure as certain Griffith or Pudovkin films have “endured”—films whose historical value is undeniable but which no one cares to see again. It is too gigantic, pedantic, tedious. It is not intelligent, though it is the work of genius—in the most nocturnal and Germanic sense of that bad word.
What Borges gets at—“the labyrinth with no center”—may well be Kane’s defining feature and Welles’s greatest achievement, as well as another key to its endurance. Kane is a detective story that simultaneously offers a resolution in the form of Rosebud the sled and denies us any kind of closure. (“I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life. No, I guess Rosebud is just a piece in a jigsaw puzzle—a missing piece,” observes the journalist Thompson at the end.) For all its chiaroscuro condemnation of Kane’s ossified wealth, the film never quite settles on a vision of him: he is alternately noble and petty, self-reflective yet deranged. We see him delusionally and angrily clapping for Susan Alexander’s opera performance on the same night that he goes back to the newspaper offices and almost cheerfully finishes the drunk and incapacitated Jed Leland’s vicious review of her performance. Which of these is the real Charles Foster Kane? The mad millionaire or the principled newspaperman? That both images of the man feel plausible is a testament to Welles’s performance and the behavioral acuity of the script. The real Kane is elusive, maybe even unknowable, but each version of him is furiously compelling and believable.
Future Welles efforts would similarly be built around the slippery nature of truth—from 1955’s Mr. Arkadin (a film with more than a few similarities to Citizen Kane) to such late-period masterpieces as The Immortal Story (1968) and F for Fake (1975)—but this had been a decidedly unorthodox approach at the height of Hollywood’s golden age, when clean character arcs and clear moral visions reigned supreme. The whole film is built around Kane’s enigma, pulling us this way and that with respect to his character without ever quite resolving itself. This absent element fascinates us precisely because it is absent. Citizen Kane may be a perfect example of what could be called earworm cinema—the kind of film that obsesses us and loops around in our brains because some key element seems to be deliberately missing, or concealed.
Kane’s openness in turn clears the way for all sorts of different readings. One of the more fascinating comes via Laura Mulvey, who applies a feminist interpretation in her book-length BFI Film Classics study of the movie, first published in 1992. As she notes, Kane is the rare Hollywood production from this period without a female romantic lead. Dorothy Comingore may be wonderful as Susan Alexander, whose initial meeting with Kane is quite charming, but the film has no beautifully photographed feminine object of desire. And yet a male-female tension is built into the very structure of the movie, Mulvey observes, in the way that Kane, a child raised by a bank, seeks a symbolic return to his mother, thereby revealing the inadequacy of the patriarchal order to give his life meaning and fulfillment. Mulvey’s remarkable analysis suggests that the second half of Kane, as well as its open-ended finale, is symbolically dominated by the trauma of separation:
The first, male-dominated, section of the film tells the story of the radical, Oedipal, Kane continuing to battle against his surrogate father. The second, Susan-dominated, section shows him isolated from public life and fetishistically amassing things, attempting to fill, as it were, the void of his first loss. [. . .]
[. . .] Freud, in his short essay “Fetishism,” discusses the mind’s ability to separate knowledge and belief. Out of this perverse refusal of socially accepted value, a worthless object is elevated to the status of cult. For Freud, fetishism is a symptom of an unconscious disavowal, and is also closely associated with the mother. [. . .] Within the concept of infantile loss, the lost objects that signify loss easily either merge into one another or carry their affect across from object to object.
The Oedipal drama is narrative. It brings conflict, desire, and then resolution. It takes the male child away from his mother’s apron strings and promises him his father’s future, if, in the meantime, he obeys his father’s law and order. Fetishism, on the other hand, holds time in check. It is fixated on a thing which artificially resists the changes that knowledge brings with it. The fetish is the legacy of one single, traumatic moment in time, which then remains frozen in the unconscious mind, and the trauma transmutes into an obsession with an object. The object links back to the original scene and substitutes for it.
Mulvey’s breakdown of the picture isn’t just an impressive interpretation through an unexpected lens; it is genuinely eye-opening. Once one sees Kane from this perspective, the film feels completely new. And yet again, one marvels at the complexity of the movie’s achievement, at the fact that it is so true to its characters, so rich in detail, that it can support a form of analysis that likely would have been impossible at the time of its production.
These qualities have also fueled contentious debates about the film—about its very nature and even its authorship. Surely the most dramatic of these came when Pauline Kael argued in her 1971 New Yorker essay “Raising Kane” that Mankiewicz was almost solely responsible for the screenplay, despite his credit’s being shared with Welles. Kael felt that Kane was, first and foremost, the pinnacle of a thirties tradition of sharply written satirical newspaper pictures—a tradition she felt had been overlooked by modern-day critics and students valuing poetry and personal vision over professionalism and entertainment:
There is another reason the American talking comedies, despite their popularity, are so seldom valued highly by film aestheticians. The dream-art kind of film, which lends itself to beautiful visual imagery, is generally the creation of the “artist” director, while the astringent film is more often directed by a competent, unpretentious craftsman who can be made to look very good by a good script and can be turned into a bum by a bad script. And this competent craftsman may be too worldly and too practical to do the “imaginative” bits that sometimes help make the reputations of “artist” directors. [. . .] The thirties, though they had their own load of sentimentality, were the hardest-headed period of American movies, and their plainness of style, with its absence of false “cultural” overtones, has never got its due aesthetically. Film students—and their teachers—often become interested in movies just because they are the kind of people who are emotionally affected by the blind-beggar bits, and they are indifferent by temperament to the emancipation of American movies in the thirties and the role that writers played in it. [. . .]
[. . .] Those who admire Citizen Kane, which is constructed to present different perspectives on a man’s life, seem naively willing to accept Welles’s view of its making, namely, that it is his sole creation.
Kael’s essay was considered a broadside against Welles—and, by all accounts, he took her attacks personally—but her true target lay elsewhere: in the auteurist school of criticism, of which Andrew Sarris was the chief practitioner and high priest. The auteurists had been among the earliest champions of Welles’s work, and Sarris had helped lead the critical charge on behalf of Kane during its 1956 rerelease. In her zeal, however, Kael fell prey to some shoddy reporting, much of it debunked by responses to her piece by Bogdanovich (in collaboration with Welles himself) and critics and scholars such as Jonathan Rosenbaum and Robert L. Carringer. She also seemed to miss something essential about the appeal of Kane. In his own response, published in the Village Voice several weeks after Kael’s essay came out, Sarris got to the heart of the matter:
[If] Welles has never been singularly generous to Herman J. Mankiewicz, he was always more than generous to Gregg Toland, and I would support the majority view on Kane (against Kael) that the movie looks more extraordinary than it sounds. Indeed, it is bewildering how Miss Kael can evade the responsibility of systematic visual analysis in the case of a cinematographic landmark like Citizen Kane. [. . .] Instead, she employs Kane as a club to batter many of her pet targets all the more vulnerable for being so vague. One would never read Pauline Kael to find out why the camera moves mystically toward and into the mirror after Kane and his myriad reflections have filed past. This would take Miss Kael into those dangerously stylistic speculations that are the great glory of film. But if we are to believe Miss Kael’s protestations on the subject, she deplores any trace of mysticism or even mystery in the medium. The lights must be on at all times, and the mind clear, and the intellect engaged.
[. . .] The great appeal of movies is emotional rather than intellectual. To believe otherwise is to lie to yourself and to your readers. Worse still, you spend your whole life scolding your most charming seducers because they do not go out to seek honest work. I think it is a mistake for critics to scold artists, or even to bemoan their bad luck.
Sarris’s ultimate point is disarmingly simple: regardless of who wrote the admittedly excellent screenplay to Citizen Kane, what makes Citizen Kane Citizen Kane is not its screenplay. The film is notable for the ways in which it transcends its script.
Of course, this was one of the tenets of auteurism: that a director’s handling of the material—the sensibility they bring to the visual style and rhythms of a film—is more important than the material itself. Kael may have disagreed, and in fact much of “Raising Kane” makes a powerful (and often convincing) case for the importance of the script, especially in the Hollywood studio system of the forties. But by getting into an argument over the authorship of this specific screenplay, she may have blunted her overall point.
There is something else Sarris says in his rebuttal to Kael that is worth discussing, however, for it captures another paradoxical (and ultimately farsighted) truth about Citizen Kane:
If we shall always remember Welles from Citizen Kane, it is not so much because he created it as because it created him, and because also, in some ineffable way, he has never been unworthy of it. Indeed, Citizen Kane has been enriched in retrospect by Welles’s extraordinary tenacity in maintaining his personal vision in an often impersonal medium.
Sarris wrote this in 1971. Welles would go on to complete only two more films: 1975’s F for Fake and 1979’s Filming “Othello,” both of which achieved only limited release. He would spend years trying to finish The Other Side of the Wind, Don Quixote, The Deep, and a number of other projects. Conventional wisdom has always maintained that Welles started at the very top with Citizen Kane and spent the ensuing decades working his way down to obscurity. (He even jokes about this in F for Fake.)
It wasn’t really true, though, was it? As an actor, a late-night host, a raconteur, a celebrity pitchman, a narrator, he was never far from the limelight; over the course of his career, he remained one of the most recognizable faces and voices in pop culture. And as a filmmaker, he always continued to pursue personal projects. One might even say that this was his biggest problem—that he never sold out as a director.
After Welles’s death in 1985, more books poured forth—biographies, memoirs, and other histories, as well as critical studies and essay collections—a steady stream that continues to this day. Citizen Kane has never stopped inspiring a multiplicity of critical and scholarly interpretations; see John Hutnyk’s comparison of Kane to one of the “pantomime villains” that Karl Marx dissects in Das Kapital, or Tony Jackson’s study of Kane’s quest to reject the power of the written word and return to orality, or Richard Schwartz’s and Ted Billy’s analyses of the film through the lens of evolutionary psychology. Along the way, more and more of the filmmaker’s non-Kane legacy has been reassessed as well. Othello (1952) and Touch of Evil (1958) were restored and rereleased in the nineties. It’s All True, a documentary about Welles’s efforts to make a three-part film in Latin America in 1942, containing reconstructions of the unfinished segments, was released in 1993. Two competing versions of his unfinished Don Quixote project emerged, as did new cuts of Mr. Arkadin, along with restorations of The Trial (1962), Chimes at Midnight (1966), and others. Meanwhile, F for Fake, which had seemed like such an odd work in the early seventies, turned out to be an early example of the essay film, as daring and pioneering in its own way as Kane had been. And the lost footage from The Magnificent Ambersons continued to grow in the popular cinephile imagination as an archival holy grail of sorts (and is, sadly, about as likely to be found as the Grail itself). The year 2018 saw the momentous release of the newly assembled The Other Side of the Wind, the incredibly ambitious and stylized magnum opus that Welles had spent his final decades struggling to complete. (It had, to no one’s surprise, plenty of Kane-like overtones.) Orson Welles, it seems, is still releasing movies from beyond the grave.
All of these works are compromised in some way—a result of either a lack of funds, protracted productions, lost footage, or simply their unfinished nature. And each new piece of material that has emerged from Welles’s long career seems to remind everyone of what a special place Citizen Kane held in its creator’s life. He had always followed his own muse, but Kane was the one time, it seemed, that he had been able to do so without being interrupted or sabotaged (though not for lack of trying on Hearst’s part). After all is said and done, even those of us who prefer F for Fake, or think that the complete version of The Magnificent Ambersons might have proved to be an even greater achievement than Citizen Kane, are left to marvel at what an incredible achievement Citizen Kane remains.
At times, the film’s power as a beacon of integrity seems downright supernatural. In the late 1980s, when the cable TV mogul Ted Turner began using colorization technology to “enhance” some of American cinema’s most notable black-and-white classics—including Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, and My Man Godfrey—his project seemed to crash upon the rock that was Kane. Welles himself had, not long before his death, reportedly urged his friend Henry Jaglom not to “let Ted Turner deface my movie with his crayons.” (The quote, however, may be apocryphal, or at least embellished. As Harlan Lebo points out in his excellent 2016 book “Citizen Kane”: A Filmmaker’s Journey, Turner hadn’t yet joined the colorization cause at the time of Welles’s death.) That may not have meant much legally, save for the fact that Welles’s original RKO contract, it turned out, not only gave him full artistic control over Kane but also specified that it was to be a black-and-white film. In other words, Turner, despite owning the rights to the picture, had no right to colorize it. Within a few years, his whole colorization project ended in ignominy.
Citizen Kane is, in many ways, a living document—one conceived in such a way that it becomes richer as the years pass. Each new controversy, each new development in film culture, not only further solidifies the movie’s status as a masterwork, it changes the way we see it. Take, for example, the release of David Fincher’s Mank in 2020, a partly fictionalized drama about Mankiewicz’s efforts to write Kane while cloistered away in a rural cabin in Victorville, California, with Gary Oldman playing the screenwriter. Fincher’s drama revived much of the debate around Kane’s authorship. But, as with Kael’s essay, these arguments merely reinforced Kane’s significance and vitality. After all, Netflix had financed a major production about the bedridden alcoholic who had cowritten the film; surely there aren’t too many pictures one could say that about. (Interestingly, Mank wasn’t even the first narrative feature about the writing of Citizen Kane; that honor belongs to Benjamin Ross’s Emmy-winning 1999 HBO movie RKO 281, starring Liev Schreiber as Welles and John Malkovich as Mankiewicz.)
But Mank also points to something about Kane that is likely to keep it resonating into the future. In Fincher’s film—its script credited to the director’s late father, Jack—Mankiewicz’s drive to complete Kane comes from the disillusionment and outrage that he feels after socialist candidate Upton Sinclair’s loss in California’s 1934 gubernatorial race, a loss powered by a film industry that helps create fake newsreels that slander Sinclair. Mank reminds us yet again that Citizen Kane is and has always been a political work. That fact should not be lost on us. Kane was born amid the fires of one of the most politically explosive periods in American and world history, and its depiction of a man who could start wars with the stroke of a pen, and who understood the power of illusion in shaping the world around him, spoke to the shape of things to come.
This has been one of the most powerful trends in discussions around Kane in the twenty-first century. James Naremore, in the introduction to his 2004 book of essays, Orson Welles’s “Citizen Kane”: A Casebook, puts it eloquently:
Kane tells us something about American politics, and its central images keep returning in the national life: Richard Nixon secluding himself at San Clemente, or Howard Hughes, just before his death, living in a Bahamas retreat he called the Hotel Xanadu. But even though Kane gives us the definitive satire of a certain American type, it also depicts that type with a fascinating ambivalence, using Freud as much as Marx to understand him.
Over and over again during the past two decades, we have found our reality reflecting Kane in uncanny ways. Mulvey notes, in the introduction to the 2012 reprinting of her BFI volume on the picture, that it had regained its political dimension in the age of influential press tycoons such as Rupert Murdoch, and in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008–09. Then, in 2016, the film wound up becoming headline fodder all over again when documentarian Errol Morris released footage of Donald Trump talking about his fondness for Kane. (Lest anyone worry that Trump had anything interesting to say about the film, he seemed to think its main message was “Get yourself a different woman.”) The interview may have been from 2002, but it was hard not to sense some unnerving echoes between the billionaire basket case who ascended to the White House through a combination of faux populism and megalomaniacal bullying and Welles’s delusional mogul turned candidate (even if, in the end, Charles Foster Kane at least had a bit more charm).
Trump, however, is but one example. Today, as we suffer through a new age of techno-robber-barons, we still recognize, in Kane’s portrait of the corrosive power of unchecked wealth and authority, a vision of the world that remains all too familiar. After all the debates and interpretations and polls and reassessments, this eighty-year-old film, about which more ink has probably been spilled than about any other title in cinema history, still carries with it the power of prophecy.
Portions of this piece have been adapted by the author from an article that appeared in Vulture on December 4, 2020.
Once Upon a Time in China: The Complete Films: Past Master
Tsui Hark’s epic martial-arts saga revolutionized Hong Kong cinema by presenting a complex portrait of modern Chinese history and setting a gold standard in action choreography.
Life of a Legend: A Brief History of Wong Fei-hung On-Screen
Starting with his first movie, in 1949, the Cantonese folk hero became a pop-culture phenomenon whose personality evolved to suit the times.
You have no items in your shopping cart