Sunday, May 3, 2015

Sight & Sound Sunday/Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Citizen Kane (1941)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly weekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

*CROSSOVER SPECIAL: this post is also part of the "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" blogathon at The Film Experience*

2012 poll rank: #2

At this point, Citizen Kane doesn't need an introduction. By the time he made his directing debut with this film in 1941, Orson Welles (whose centennial is May 6) had already established a reputation for himself as a pre-emenant artist. He had earned raves onstage, becoming heavily involved in the Works Progress Administration's Federal Theatre Program and mounting productions of Macbeth, Faustus, and The Cradle Will Rock. He helped establish the Mercury Theatre, a theatre troupe that included Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorhead, and Ray Collins, and put together a hugely-popular production of Julius Caesar (set in Fascist Italy) in 1938. Later that same year, as the troupe began working in radio plays as well, Welles became a national name for his infamous October 30 broadcast of "The War of the Worlds;" the production was written as a news broadcast, and many listeners mistook it for news of a real alien invasion. Finally, Welles arrived in Hollywood, worked on a script with screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, cast mostly from the Mercury Theatre (most of whom had never acted onscreen before), and released Citizen Kane to the world. Though it was unevenly received at first, it would go on to become a legend: it topped Sight & Sound's "best films of all time" poll in 1962, and held onto that spot for the next 50 years, as Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo claimed the top spot in the most recent poll.

And Welles managed to do all of this by the time he was 26.


Citizen Kane tells the story of Charles Foster Kane (Welles), a newspaper magnate (believed to be modeled on William Randolph Hearst) in the early part of the twentieth century. On his deathbed, Kane utters the word "rosebud," kicking off a journalistic investigation by Jerry Thompson (William Alland) into what the word could possibly mean. Interviewing several major figures in Kane's life - his second wife Susan Alexander Kane (Dorothy Comingore), his personal business manager Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane), and his best friend/reporter for the New York Inquirer Jed Leland (Joseph Cotten) - Thompson begins to put together an idea of who Kane was. The majority of the film is told through these flashbacks, as it charts Kane's impoverished Colorado childhood to his acquisition of the Inquirer and subsequent rise of prominence to his loss of everything, including his palatial, incomplete home of Xanadu.

For a film that's so concentrated on a man of prominence, it makes sense that it would begin with what is essentially a newsreel hagiography of Kane. But it's that newsreel that belies exactly what the film is: a mystery noir about the identity of a man who spent his whole life in the public eye, only to be an enigma in death.

More after the jump.


Before that newsreel opens, however, Welles presents the following two moody images to set the tone of the film. The first is a "no trespassing sign" on the fence that surrounds Xanadu, while the latter is a view of the house itself, the gate branded with a large "K."



The most striking thing about these images, especially in the latter, is the influence of German expressionism. Welles would employ a number of visual innovations throughout the film, but the gothic surrealism of these images establish exactly what kind of film Citizen Kane will be. The "no trespassing" sign becomes a cheeky warning for the film's mystery: though the characters will be obsessed with discovering what "rosebud" means, the search will ultimately come up fruitless. The image of Xanadu is remarkable for presenting the estate as a gothic castle, only the palm tree present feels out of place. It's a place that can only exist because its the monument of a man who desperately tried to have everything.

That place is enormous, and Welles recreates that sense of enormity throughout the film. He uses deep-focus photography - a technique that uses strong lighting to keep everything in the frame in focus, rather than blurring the background or foreground - to give every shot a sense of detail and grandeur. Every room, every office, every theater is shown in its full expanse, so that even when it's just two men standing in the frame, it feels monumental:




Yet having so much space in the frame does more than just add scale to the story. It also scales down Kane the man. Throughout the film, Kane is treated by the American public as something closer to a god than a mortal man, and at times he seems to fully believe his own hype. Here is a man who, as a child, was snatched from poverty by his guardian Walter Parkes Thatcher (George Coulouris), who rises to power in the newspaper industry by committing so strongly to "yellow journalism" (sensationalism) that he's able to amass a media empire, steal reporters from competing papers, and even start an international war - all in the name of selling papers. He marries the president's niece, makes a run for governor with sights eventually on the White House, and when his second wife can't get a gig as an opera singer, he builds an opera house in Chicago just to book her. There's nothing that Kane won't have, and if he won't be given it, he'll force it into being.

This is the Kane that the public, and even the people that Thompson interviews, know. But it's not the Kane that Welles is presenting in the film. Welles isn't afraid to dwarf Kane within the confines of the frame, making him appear small compared to his surroundings. He'll let the room swallow him, at least in terms of physicality. Kane's gusto and brio may command the attention of anyone within earshot, but Welles often positions him on camera as a little guy, someone who chance made into a big shot and could just as easily strip his power from him. The deep-focus photography brings Kane back down to human scale, a visual reminder that even though he may seem like the most powerful man in the world, he can still seem insignificant against the backdrop of an empty, incomplete manor.


Welles' use of chiaroscuro (high-contrast photography) gives the film its noir look, and contributes to the idea that Kane is hiding something. As evidenced in the shot above, the film is littered with shadows, creating a striking contrast with the brightly-lit parts of the frame. It would be easy to interpret this as a visual representation of "good" and "bad," darkness and light, but most noir were morally colored grey. That's more or less the same with Citizen Kane. Kane may commit a number of misdeeds - saying himself, "I might be a good man if I weren't rich" - in his own self-interest, including sacrificing his first marriage and his campaign for another woman. But he isn't fully presented as a villain, either. There's still good in Kane, even if its become twisted and delusional through fame and wealth. For all of his extravagant spending and high-life living, he's still searching for something, something that Thompson also believes he's searching for.

But that something isn't really "rosebud" the object; it's now common knowledge that it's a sled from Kane's childhood, a totem of a lost childhood that he could never reclaim. The measure of a good mystery isn't necessarily that actual solution, but rather the journey in discovering that solution. The sled is just a MacGuffin, a plot device meant to take Thompson into the investigation of who Kane really is. When it's finally shown in the film's final moments, tossed into the furnace with all of Kane's other "worthless" possessions, we see the gloss melting off of it as it burns. There's significance in that reveal, but the significance isn't "it's a sled." It's that Kane would have thought of something so inconsequential in his dying breath. Why would this sled be Kane's obsession in his final days? That's the film that Welles is posing in the reveal.


And even then, he doesn't really provide any easy answers. The accounts of each interviewee have slight variations in Kane's characterization, and though they're not exactly inconsistent, there's enough difference to suggest that each flashback in the film is constructed from their point of view. This casts each character as an unreliable narrator, so that we in the audience understand that what we're seeing is subjective based on who's telling the story. Each one of them sees Kane as a brash, charismatic man, but where Mr. Bernstein's account is tinged with impish admiration of Kane's behavior, Leland's account is more measured, describing Kane less as a puckish showman and more as a self-obsessed megalomaniac who nonetheless cares about his best friend. Susan Alexander's recollections are colored with both romantic longing and cold detestation, a yearning for the Kane she first met and a distaste for the man he turned out to be. He was a man who would applaud her performances, but only because he wished to be recognized for his role in them.


If there's a single shot in this film that manages to capture all of these competing ideas, it's one that comes toward the end of the film. Susan Alexander has walked out on Kane, tired of her problems always being about him and his inability to see her as an equal. Kane destroys the room, thrashing about and breaking everything in sight. He is placated by a snow globe - the same he was holding as he expired at the beginning of the film - and wanders out of the room, the whole staff looking at him. He mutters "rosebud," then turns and walks down the hall, passing by a large mirror that at first goes unnoticed by the audience:

*Best Shot*

In the hands of most other directors, this would come off as pure showmanship, a filmmaker showing off the techniques that he's learned. But in Welles' hands, in this film, it comes across as his mission statement, the final clue to unlocking the mystery. Everyone has presented a different version of Kane, and in his own life he's adopted many different personas. The question of which account of Kane's life is the "true" story is answered with "all of them." Each one of the Kanes seen in flashback is Charles Foster Kane: the rags-to-riches story, the conniving megalomaniac, the hotheaded salesperson, the humble man searching for the one thing that would make him complete. Here he's refracted and reflected, every version of himself in step with one another. For a brief moment, every facet of himself is in-sync, a full picture of the man formed before the audience's eyes. This is Charles Foster Kane: a man as full of contradictions and complexities as the rest of us, impossible to contain within a single account.

On the next "Sight & Sound Sunday:" Persona (1966)

"Hit Me With Your Best Shot" is going on a brief hiatus, but Nathaniel assures us that it will return later this summer.

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