Directed by: Orson Welles || Produced by: Orson Welles
Written by: Herman J. Mankiewicz, Orson Welles || Starring: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton, Dorothy Comingore, Everett Sloane, Ray Collins, George Coulouris, Agnes Moorehead, Paul Stewart, Ruth Warrick, Erskine Sanford, William Alland
Music by: Bernard Herrmann || Cinematography by: Gregg Toland || Editing by: Robert Wise || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 119 minutes
Orson Welles’ masterful Citizen Kane is frequently touted as the pinnacle of American cinema, an icon of auteur-filmmaking, and one of the few to be ranked alongside other Hollywood classics like The Godfather (1972), Gone with the Wind (1939), and Casablanca (1942). Citizen Kane (CK) tells the classic tale of a character’s fall from grace, a rise to dominance and unparalleled power that is undone by said character’s arrogance, greed, and lust for power. It is a classic, almost cliched tale, going back in narrative fiction as far as Shakespeare, Dickens, and even to ancient Greco-Roman civilizations. It’s one of those narrative structures, or tragedies if you will, that has become a staple of not just modern pop culture, but human storytelling as a whole.
In film, examples of this “fall from grace”-archetype can be seen in the backstory of Star Wars (1977, 1980, 1983), the rise and fall of Al Pacino’s Tony Montana in Scarface (1983), Pacino’s other major gangster role in The Godfather series (1972, 1974, 1990), as well as Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent/Two-Face character in The Dark Knight (2008). For such a popular narrative arc, it’s a wonder that so many attempts at it fail. The difficulty in this archetype’s execution dwells in making it believable. For a character to climb so high and then fall so far, there has to be foreshadowing of the individual’s downfall early in the story, and the fall from grace has to be established over a long period of time.
Needless to say, Citizen Kane works because it pulls off this tried and often not-so-true narrative miraculously well, and it does so by coming up with a realistic explanation for its central character’s tragic fall. The seeds of Kane’s downfall are planted near the beginning of the series of flashbacks that tell most of the protagonist’s life story. The famous “Rosebud”-revelation doesn’t answer the mystery word uttered in the opening scene until the end of the story, but that’s part of the movie’s unforgettable charm. It’s a twist, yet it really isn’t, because the answer to all of the titular character’s inner turmoil is in front of the audience the whole time; you have to pay attention and connect the dots.
The other main feature of Orson Welles’ story is how the process of Kane’s rise and fall stretches over his entire lifetime. It’s not abrupt, so it feels that much more believable. Additionally, Kane’s relationships with his two wives (in succession, not simultaneously) degrade and weaken Kane’s emotional state over the years until the man finally loses it in the greatest room-trashing scene in cinematic history. His downfall, like his rise, is long, drawn-out, and methodically setup in each act of the film.
As for its technical aspects, director-star Welles is a master at using special FX to tell the story of a fascinating character. The amazing backdrops, intimate cinematography, and sublime use of music to emphasize the emotional triumphs and struggles of Kane are powerful. Welles’ use of wide-angle ensemble staging, depth of framing, and intricate set-design set the stage for everything from bombastic biopics to action-packed blockbusters decades in the future. Even the makeup effects on Welles are great, illustrating the years of wear and tear on his protagonist as he nears his final days. The direction is so rich and exciting despite the story having no violence or action in it, save for the aforementioned room-wrecking fiasco. Many of the cinematic techniques pioneered by Welles were considered groundbreaking at the time, but that is not why Citizen Kane is so impressive — what’s impressive is how well it executes those techniques and uses them convey a cinematic story of a single man. Nothing is thrown in for show.
Citizen Kane remains the definitive cinematic tale of self-destruction, an engrossing character-study of a man with infinite power yet limited self-control. You feel like you grow up with Charles Foster Kane, feeling the dizzying highs of his success and fame, and then suffering the crushing lows as his life degenerates into a hollow, unfulfilled shell, forcing him to acknowledge the only time in his life when he was actually happy. Kane’s final revelation is the most powerful aspect of the film, yet that in no way dismisses the technical prowess and beautiful writing that built Charles Foster Kane’s entire life. A cliched tale it may be, but Citizen Kane makes this fall from grace feel as fresh and innovative as ever, even decades later.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Citizen Kane set the bar for tragic cinematic storytelling over 70 years ago in Orson Welles’ first feature-film. The reveal at the end is the most poignant and elegant part of the story, but every part of the narrative is wonderfully done. Welles’ direction is sharp and effective; he uses every camera angle and special effect to strengthen the impact of his story. Welles also delivers as an excellent lead actor, playing the conflicted character from humble beginnings to unquestioned cultural dominance to tragic downfall.
—> Citizen Kane receives MY HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION.
? You trash that room, Chuck.