Video Review: Citizen Kane
by Karl Bowman and Jonathan Walker
Many critics and film buffs agree that Citizen Kane is the greatest film ever made.
You may have seen it at the top of those ubiquitous top ten lists, narrowly beating out such time-honored classics as Gone with the Wind and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. So why haven’t you seen it? Maybe you’re afraid that this 1941 release will be outdated, intellectual, or just plain boring. What do critics know anyway? Well, if you were to watch it because it is the best film ever made, you probably would find it overly intellectual and boring. But if you watch it for its captivating story and powerful theme, you may be pleasantly surprised.
As he utters his dying word, “Rosebud,” influential millionaire Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) collapses, leaving a riddle behind. What did he mean? A reporter embarks on a search to find the answer by interviewing friends, employees, and wives of this enigmatic man. From these different perspectives, he attempts to piece together the meaning of Kane’s life. To this reporter, a muddled story unfolds, but the watchful viewer enjoys a scene by scene revelation.
When people talk of Citizen Kane being the greatest movie ever made, they aren’t just talking about how Orson Welles executes every cinematic, dramatic, and literary element with great artistry. If that were all, it would be a superb stylistic achievement, but it would not be enduring art. Kane‘s greatest achievement is that every frame, every noise, and every look in the film supports the theme. And equally as important, that theme is a fundamental truth of the human experience.
Rosebud is the Key
Many viewers fall into a trap when they watch Citizen Kane. “Rosebud” is definitely the key to unlocking the theme of the film, but every scene possesses the clues necessary for understanding it. In fact, writer/director and principal actor Orson Welles’ communication of that theme through his technique gives Citizen Kane its originality and staying power. Welles (only in his mid-twenties at the time) weaves together powerful performances, impressive lighting and camerawork, stunning sets, and sophisticated sound design to support the point of the movie. Jed Leland (Joseph Cotton) sums up this theme when he says: “Love. That’s why he did everything. . . That’s all he really wanted out of life-was love. That’s Charlie’s story-how he lost it. You see, he just didn’t have any to give.”
The story of Kane’s newspaper career reflects how he sought the love of the public. Told through flashback, we see him begin the endeavor by writing a “Declaration of Principles” where he declares himself the champion of the underprivileged. As he reads these seemingly noble promises, Kane stands in a dark shadow while his associates are well lit. The lighting creatively implies what Leland later proves–the principles were a dark stunt to increase circulation, and high circulation numbers are just another form of being loved. Kane unethically seizes employees from a rival paper and invents yellow journalism, choosing profits and circulation over truth and integrity.
Later, Kane goes into politics and in a gubernatorial race, rides high opinion polls on promises to expose a corrupt political machine. But in the face of a personal scandal, he misreads the acceptance of the voters. As the results of the election show, Kane does not own the people, nor does he possess their unconditional love.
In friendship, as in politics, Kane expects love on his terms. He believes his charisma alone is enough to inspire others’ affection. Leland, a co-worker, tires of the one-sided friendship and asks for a transfer to Kane’s Chicago paper. They don’t talk for several years, until Kanes wife, an opera singer, performs in Chicago. Kane finds Jed passed out drunk a few lines into a berating (and honest) review of her performance. In a mock sense of honesty, Kane finishes Leland’s review and then fires him. Punctuating the end of their friendship, Leland returns the original copy of the “Declaration of Principles” with his torn-up severance check.
Kanes turmoil continues in marriage. Bernstein (Everett Sloane) relates how Kane’s marriage to the Presidents niece has a rosy beginning, but deteriorates completely. A quick divorce leads to a second marriage to Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore). The “love on his terms” continues as Kane spends a fortune forcing her into an awful opera career. At one point, even she wants to stop singing, but Kane refuses to yield. Instead he lavishes her with his wealth, building her an opera house and an enormous mansion. None of this comforts her. The cavernous halls of their new estate only serve to emphasize the emotional distance between them. Her despair leads her to attempt suicide and ultimately leave him. Kane’s words reveal his inability to meet her half-way in the relationship, “You can’t do this to me.”
Citizen Kane meticulously lays out for us the paragon of egocentricity. Kane’s devotion to friends, generosity towards his wives, and his public service all promote one end: to secure the love of others. Kane’s weakness is not that he needed to be loved. It’s that he had no notion of what it meant to feel or show love for others. We probably don’t need to look at our own lives for very long before we see similar actions in ourselves. Any time we hold back a compliment, or when we expect another to bend to our will, or when we offer charity for the glory of recognition, we act like Kane.
The final clue to the movie is, of course, the viewers discovery of “Rosebud.” Thematically, it is much more than a possession. While Kane’s actions reveal what he wants, Rosebud symbolizes what he lost so long ago. Remember what Kane wants in every scene. What is he trying to get and why do his efforts fail? If you look at the film in this way, you will discover much more than the meaning of “Rosebud.” And you just may decide that Citizen Kane is, after all, the greatest movie ever made.
2001 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.