True Classics Presents: The Great Citizen Kane Debate
When I read about the great Citizen Kane debate that was raging through cyberspace (and hosted by True Classics), I had a hankering to lend my voice. But as you know, Shadows and Satin is devoted to my two cinematic passions – film noir and pre-Code. Citizen Kane, released in 1941, most certainly does not fit into the pre-Code category, and has never been known, to my knowledge, to pop up on any lists of film noir. Still, Kane certainly contains a generous use of light and shadow, and it’s practically brimming with flashbacks – there’s even a dark and rain-swept night, illuminated by a neon sign. Given these characteristics, let’s just say – just for today – that Citizen Kane will be considered an honorary film noir, so that I can share the things I love about this great movie.
I heard about Citizen Kane long before I saw it. It was always being labeled the greatest film of all time by this cinema institute or that film organization – it received more buzz than any movie I could name. And when I was in my early 20s, I finally got the chance to see for myself what all the fuss was about. I must admit, though, I was a trifle disappointed. It was a bit confusing – jumbled and disjointed. And, well, just plain odd. Ah, but I was a mere child then. For now, years later (we needn’t discuss how many, thank you), I’ve quite changed my tune. In fact, every time I see Citizen Kane, I love it all the more. Here are some of the reasons why:
There’s something pretty awesome about the opening credits. Or, shall I say, credit. The first thing we see is, “A Mercury Production by Orson Welles.” And then, filling the entire screen, as if it’s shouting at us: “CITIZEN KANE.” That’s it. No other words. No fanfare. Not a single sound – like the world was holding its breath, waiting in anticipation for what was to come. It’s kinda cool.
The film has an innovative way of telling its story, opening with a newsreel (prepared, by the way, by the actual newsreel staff for RKO) that shares with us the highlights of the life of Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles). And through a series of flashbacks from the perspectives of those who entered Kane’s orbit at different points over time, we learn more about this larger-than-life character. Within the flashbacks, the film takes us deeper into Kane’s life through inventive and economical techniques, such as the simple series of breakfast conversations over the years that illustrate the disintegration of Kane’s first marriage. What I saw as disjointed in my first viewing, I eventually came to admire as skillful, original, effective, and smart.
The scene where the reporter travels to the Thatcher Memorial Library to view Thatcher’s unpublished memoirs is exquisitely filmed. This scene has so much to recommend it. The exchange between the reporter and the staid, uncompromising librarian. The clipped sound of the librarian’s heels on the polished floor. The light shining down, as if from heaven itself, from the single window in the room. The close-up on Thatcher’s handwriting that leads us to the first of the film’s many flashbacks. It’s a brief scene, to be sure, but it’s awe-inspiring.
Agnes Moorehead is in one scene, on screen for less than four minutes, but she makes an indelible impression as a mother who makes the supreme sacrifice to do what she believes is best for her child. In the beginning of the scene, she is stoic and determined, signing away her rights to her son without hesitation. It is only when she calls out to Charles that her voice betrays the pain she is feeling. She quickly resumes her unemotional veneer, but later, she shows her deep love for her son with a series of barely perceptible acts – the way she gazes at him, smoothes his hair, adjusts his scarf against the cold. Her fleeting appearance leads us to suspect that Charles would have fared far better if he’d remained in her care.
When I think of attractive stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age, Orson Welles isn’t exactly the first person to come to mind. There’s Cary Grant, Charles Boyer, William Holden, Montgomery Clift, Tyrone Power . . . in fact, I’d venture to say that Welles doesn’t really come to mind at all. But the first time he’s seen in Kane as a young man, emerging from behind a newspaper as he casually sips a cup of something or other . . . well. Let’s just say his devilish smile, low, sonorous voice, and piercing eyes were quite appealing, and serve to add to my enjoyment of the film. (Welles himself later said he was made up just as much to look young and handsome in the film as he was when he appeared as an older man. If that’s the case, kudos to the makeup artist!)
One of my favorite scenes in the movie is the one where Kane’s wife, Emily (Ruth Warrick), confronts him at the home of his “friend,” Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore). “I had no idea you had this flair for melodrama,” Kane tells her. But, boy, does she – as does Welles, which he demonstrates here. The scene is filled with tension and gasp-inducing moments as the trio realize that they’ve all been set up by James Gettys (Ray Collins), Kane’s rival for governor, in an effort to force Kane into withdrawing his candidacy. Each of the four characters in that suffocating apartment displays a uniquely captivating point of view – Gettys is unabashedly determined, at any cost, to wrangle a near-certain victory from Kane. Emily cares less about her husband’s possible dalliance than she does about circumventing an embarrassing scandal. Susan wants only to proclaim her innocence. And as for Kane, he is resolute in his refusal to surrender: “There’s only one person in the world to decide what I’m going to do, and that’s me,” he says. “I’m Charles Foster Kane!”
Another great sequence focuses on Susan Alexander as she fulfills Kane’s plan to turn her into an opera star – or tries to, at least. We see her backstage on opening night, at the center of a maelstrom – as the company frantically moves props into place, she is badgered by her voice coach, dabbed with makeup, and frantically fitted for her lavish headdress. When the curtain finally rises and Susan begins to sing, the camera takes us up, up, high above the stage to the catwalk, where we see two stagehands listening to the performance below. Before the scene ends, one of the two men offers a silent review of Susan’s aria by holding his nose.
Citizen Kane is rife with little touches that make it distinctive, fascinating, and the justifiable subject of endless study. The way that we never see the face of the reporter who is determined to unearth the meaning behind Kane’s last word, “Rosebud.” The use of overlapping dialogue between characters. The frequent utilization of low-angle shots (reportedly, Kane was the first film to show the ceilings of rooms). If you can’t appreciate anything else about Citizen Kane, you’ll have to concede that it is one-of-a-kind.
So, there you have it: the many reasons why I love Citizen Kane and happily join the cast of thousands who have warbled its praises in the decades since its release. The writing, acting, cinematography, and direction all combine to create a film that can justly be labeled as a masterpiece.
Final note: One more thing that I love about Citizen Kane has nothing to do with the characteristics of the film but, instead, with the surfeit of fascinating trivia associated with it. For instance, Alan Ladd played an extra in the film – try as I might, I haven’t yet spotted him in the opening newsreel sequence in which he allegedly appears, but he can clearly be seen (and heard) in the final scene in the warehouse. Another tidbit: Orson Welles chipped his anklebone in the scene where his wife finds out about his mistress and he chases his gubernatorial opponent down the stairs – for two weeks, the stalwart Welles directed the film from a wheelchair. Also, Citizen Kane marked the film debut of a spate of performers, most of whom would go on to cinematic acclaim: Agnes Moorehead, Ruth Warrick, Dorothy Comingore, Everett Sloane, Paul Stewart, Ray Collins, and Orson Welles himself. And one final item: for the scene where Kane hosts a lavish beach picnic, the back-projection footage was borrowed from the 1933 film Son of Kong – if you look closely, you can see three pterodactyls flying through the air. Yes. Pterodactyls. (I told you this was a great movie!)