Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)

04Jul10

Agnes Moorehead (Mary Kane), Orson Welles (Charles Foster Kane). Screenplay by Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles. Directed by Orson Welles. Rating: U. Running time: 119 minutes.

The last word Charles Foster Kane mutters before dying, alone in his grandiose mansion, is the word ‘Rosebud.’ Until the last seconds of Citizen Kane, it is kept a mystery to us what this word is referring to. Then we see a seemingly worthless sledge being burnt in Mr. Kane’s furnace, along with the mass of other material possessions he acquired throughout his wealthy lifetime. We soon remember a flashback to his time as a child, and his playing in the snow outside the wooden shack where he lived in relative poverty. From here he was sent East by his parents, ensuring his education and quality of life would be better than their’s. From here he was propelled into the inheritance of riches from the man who practically adopted him, and with it Mr. Kane indeed becomes what he considered to be a Citizen of the highest order: a public informer of political affairs, through the vast media empire he created stretching across the entirety of the United States.

The film is in love with its main character, opening with a prophetic newsreel upon the learning of his death which boldly narrates the virtues of this greatest of public figures. It’s sharp, it’s lively, and it takes time for one bad word to be muttered of the man that everyone seems to revere without question. Kane, as the New York Chronicle’s editor and owner, even has a Declaration of Principles in which he vows to report honestly and thus ensures the rights of American citizens to the information they are entitled. His commitment to the Declaration is questioned when he runs for political office himself, and a rival opposition figure attempts to blackmail him into dropping various stories in return for him keeping quiet regarding Kane’s relationship with a woman other than his wife. He refuses to be bought, but largely out of a commitment to being his own man and not budging for anybody, rather than because he has any categorical commitment to honesty. The ‘scandalous affair,’ which really had little substance at all, ends his hopes of becoming Governor, and from here Kane’s decline into a man of a much lower quality begins.

His most foolish venture comes when his determination to make his second wife an opera star firstly puts unwanted pressure on her, but also displeases the audiences of the venue he has acquired, and causes a conflict of interests with the critics he employs that throw his dedication to honesty right back into his face. Arguments result, relationships disintegrate, and Kane’s left as the lonely man I described him to be at the time of his death, surrounded only by impersonal servants.

New Deal populism of some sort, this most probably is. Citizen Kane came out in light of and amidst America’s newfound understanding that money does not necessarily by happiness, and other such revelations. Kane’s only happy memory is of a time before he lived in financial luxury. But the film is about a lot more than this; it’s so remarkably and innovatively told, from the aforementioned beginning newsreel-style story telling, to the criss-crossing accounts of people who knew him that hurl us backwards and forwards in time. Kane really is represented as an enigma, and as a much more controversial citizen than he himself would like to believe.

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