I was inspired to write this online journal by a line from Citizen Kane, arguably the best film ever made, or is it just the best American film ever made these days? Anyway, the young Charles Foster Kane writes to his guardian Walter Parks Thatcher, that he “thinks it would be fun to run a newspaper” and whilst most of us couldn’t dream to be able to afford the costs involved in running an actual newspaper like Kane’s New York Daily Inquirer we can effectively do just that courtesy of Word Press and the World Wide Web.
I am holding off watching Citizen Kane again on DVD to inform this brief review as I am eagerly awaiting it’s 70th Anniversary release on Blu-ray next year, you will soon discover that I have a passionate fervour for the Hi Def format and will be a constant advocate for it here. I have, however, seen Citizen Kane many times than I care to remember in my forty years on the planet. I seem to recall my first viewing was around my 14th birthday, at that time I was convinced that I was destined for an Actor’s life and I was drawn like a moth to a candle by the robust screen presence of Orson Welles, although up until that point I had no concept of what was going on behind the camera.
Kane was probably the first film that forced me to question why is the camera doing that, that’s a funny angle, the lighting seems almost theatrical surely this isn’t supposed to be realistic?! And so began my interest in cinematic style, direction and particularly those films that attempted to be removed from reality as we know it. This enlightenment was mirrored by my exposure to the surrealist painting of Salvador Dali, which in turn would lead me to an appreciation of the films of Luis Buñuel and David Lynch.
The expressionistic style of Kane is anchored by the more conventional trope of an investigative journalist, our narrative entry into the life of Charles Foster Kane, as he attempts to research the great man’s obituary. We soon discover, through flashback and interviews with those that knew him, that Kane was not so great. I was riveted by this as a teenager and fell hook, line and sinker for the ‘Rosebud’ enigma, or what Alfred Hitchcock would simply call the MacGuffin (I shall go into detail about that in a Hitch-related post).
Over the years I have tried to share with friends, relatives and lovers my passion for Welles and inevitably this leads to a screening of Citizen Kane and the reception is usually the same, initial intrigue which gives way to mild boredom as the pacing feels a little slow by today’s standards and the stilted, slightly stagey dialogue doesn’t help hold the viewer’s attention. However, nobody can doubt the bravura titular performance and marvel at the old age make-up that transforms the 26 year old Orson Welles’ to his late 70s.
I think the biggest reason that modern audiences fail to truly appreciate Citizen Kane, especially outside of America, is a lack of common knowledge about the real life of William Randolph Hearst who’s vast media empire attempted to burn the film before its release as it was clearly based on him (I shall venture into this more thoroughly in an upcoming review of RKO 281). Unlike Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator made a couple of years earlier, everybody knew of the monstrous leader of the Third Reich, and the physical similarities between the Little Tramp and Adolf Hitler were remarkable. A modern audience appreciates the satire and the pleas for humanity made by Chaplin but the same is not true of the nature of the Hearst Machine and the lives it destroyed.
Citizen Kane shall always be remembered for its visual impact, although most of its supposed ground-breaking techniques, like deep-focus photography and Dutch camera angles, had been seen before, this was a summation of all that talking pictures could do at this point and will serve as a practical course in cinematic possibilities for all time.