Some kind of a man: revisiting Citizen Kane

Some kind of a man: revisiting Citizen Kane – Film As Text

Richard Armstrong

WHEN CITIZEN KANE APPEARED IN 1941 it received good reviews but audiences stayed away. Responding to the film’s attack on his ethics and reputation, William Randolph Hearst–America’s leading newspaper publisher and the media magnate of his day–made sure that no newspaper in his syndicate mentioned Citizen Kane. Such was the clamour that New York’s most famous cinema–Radio City Music Hall–wouldn’t run the film. Citizen Kane premiered at the smaller RKO Palace Theater, but those New Yorkers who read the Hearst papers would not have known this. When it failed at the American box office, Citizen Kane was consigned to the RKO studio vault.

In the 1950s, television screenings of the film began to generate fresh interest. In 1952, RKO re-released Citizen Kane in cinemas and its reputation grew. In 1962 it was voted Best Film of All Time in the prestigious British Sight and Sound magazine poll. It has come first in every Sight and Sound poll ever since, and continues to rate highly in polls around the world.

We have to wonder what this film has to say to successive audiences. To see it now is to be astonished by its play of theme, technique and execution. Few films have used cinema to say such powerful things about what it is to be a human being.

Citizen Kane traces the fortunes of a young man who becomes America’s richest and most influential individual but fails to find happiness. It evokes a lively portrait of America during the first half of what has been called the ‘American Century’. Yet it also makes us reflect on what is truly important in life, focusing on the quest for personal fulfillment in relation to critical issues of success, fame, power, money, love. As a result, watching Citizen Kane is a moving experience. In this article you are invited to discover, or re-discover, the virtuosity of Citizen Kane and its director Orson Welles, and to reflect upon its marriage of theme and technique.

Rethinking the genre film

When Orson Welles went to Hollywood, American film production was heavily informed by genre. A film’s genre can be identified by its subject matter, plot conventions, characters, imagery, stars, even its tone and atmosphere. To assist the flow of production and help audiences to make sense of a new film, studio output conformed to particular categories, such as westerns, musicals, gangster movies, melodramas, biographies (or ‘biopics’). Citizen Kane challenged this assembly-line style. Rather than falling into a recognized genre that its studio RKO could advertise easily, Citizen Kane mixed up genres. The result is an amalgam of horror, comedy, newsreel, biopic, even ‘mockumentary’.

‘The American Century’

‘All of these years rib covered, most of these he was’

News an the March

Coined by Henry Luce, founder of the news magazine Time, the expression ‘The American Century’ came to stand for a peculiarly American view of the twentieth century. Between the end of the American Civil War in 1865, and 1965, the United States had become the richest and most powerful nation on earth. American products are now sold everywhere. American films and TV are seen everywhere and American money and American attitudes touch everyone. In 1941 (the year of Citizen Kane’s release) America became involved in the Second World War; its manpower, materials and credit secured victory in 1945.

On ‘securing the peace’, American corporations and culture invaded homes and lives like never before. By 1969, America was ready to put a man on the moon. Modern America was shaped by men like William Randolph Hearst. Indeed, the original title of Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles’ screenplay was to have been American.

William Randolph Hearst

Charles Foster Kane, the newspaper proprietor whose life Citizen Kane follows, was modeled after the newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951), whose influence on American public opinion and political life lasted from late in the nineteenth century to well into the twentieth century.

The 1890s were an era of both economic recession and huge population growth in America. Each week, boatloads of Italian, Russian and German immigrants steamed into New York to escape from European poverty and political persecution. Seeing the potential for an easy-to-read mass circulation newspaper, Hearst moved from San Francisco to take control of the New York Journal. At the beginning of Citizen Kane, the young Kane moves from Colorado in the American west, to live with a rich guardian before coming into his fortune and gaining control of the Daily Inquirer.

The Hearst papers went for a sensational tabloid style–what we now describe as ‘yellow journalism’ or the ‘gutter press’–deflecting readers’ attention from real problems such as unemployment, poor housing, and lack of proper health and education facilities in the growing American cities. At one point Kane quotes Hearst almost word-for-word when he tries to stir up hatred between America and Spain. (Hearst precipitated the Spanish-American War in 1898.) The Hearst newspapers also ran virulent campaigns against New York politicians, just as Kane does. But like Kane, Hearst’s attack on public figures rebounded on him. He never lived down the widespread opinion that his campaign against President McKinley led to McKinley’s assassination in 1901, and rumours about Hearst’s private life spread following his affair with film star Marion Davies. Kane’s affair with Susan Alexander is obviously based on Hearst’s with Davies, and costs Kane his political career. Similarly, San Simeon–Hearst’s partial California estate–was clearly recognizable in Kane’s Xanadu.

The Story of Citizen Kane

When newspaper tycoon, Charles Foster Kane dies in his mansion, Xanadu, a movie newsreel director embarks on an investigation to discover the meaning of Kane’s final word–‘Rosebud’.

Reporter Jerry Thompson is assigned to contact Kane’s old associates and he interviews Jedediah Leland, Kane’s closest friend; his business manager, Mr Bernstein; and his second wife, Susan Alexander. He also researches the diaries of Kane’s legal guardian, Walter Parks Thatcher, for clues about Kane’s childhood. Each of these sources offers a different version of Kane. We learn of Kane’s life story through a series of flashbacks.

Beneficiary of a fabulous fortune, Charles is taken away from his parents and raised in Chicago under Thatcher’s stern guidance. On coming of age and against Thatcher’s wishes, Kane takes control of a small newspaper. With Leland and Bernstein, he evicts the staff and moves into the Inquirer offices. By assembling the best newspapermen in the business and proclaiming a new deal for the ordinary working reader, Kane becomes a respected editor and the Inquirer’s circulation grows. Kane-controlled radio stations and newspapers spring up across America.

But with success comes corruption. His marriage to a senator’s niece, Emily Norton, founders as Kane’s political ambitions grow. While seeking the governorship of New York, Kane’s plans are ruined when rival ‘Boss’ Jim W. Gettys exposes Kane’s affair with Susan Alexander.

Emily leaves, taking their son with her. Susan becomes Kane’s second wife. Kane’s attempt to launch Susan’s career as an opera singer fails as she has no talent. When Jedediah condemns her performance in his review, Kane fires his oldest friend. Retreating to Xanadu, Kane grows increasingly isolated as his publishing empire goes into decline. Frustrated and bored, Susan attempts suicide before leaving her husband. Kane dies alone amidst a vast collection of statues, some still in packing crates. Thompson is unable to discover the significance of ‘Rosebud’, but Kane’s accumulated belongings are cleared away, and we find out what it means.

The World of Citizen Kane

‘The Great American Biography A Journey into the Heart of the Beast.’

Orson Welles in the HBO drama RKO 281

A Hollywood convention of the 1930s was the screenwriter’s ‘Rule of 3’. Important plot information would be reiterated three times: once for the smart members of the audience, twice for the slower, three times for the slowest. By looking at Kane’s life through several perspectives, Citizen Kane seems to ‘cover’ its subject in a fashion that reminds us of that Hollywood convention. By constructing his film around the differing points-of-view of key characters, it is as though Welles sought to draw attention to Hollywood film-making style as a style, rather than as an unmediated window on the world.

Mr Kane and Mr Welles

Citizen Kane is a watershed in the development of American film. An amalgamation of previously discrete genres, such as the ‘old dark house’ horror films of Universal studios and the fast-talking newspaper comedies of Warner Brothers and Columbia, it is also an audacious and dazzling experiment in cinema.

By seeming to review and revise the aesthetics of classical studio picture-making, Citizen Kane looked back at thirty years of American cinema. By pushing these aesthetics as far as they could go, and complicating its archetypal ‘American’ success story, Welles’ film looked forward to the style revolutions and moral equivalence of subsequent eras. After a dynamic first half, in which Kane rises to prominence in nicely balanced and well-lit newsreel footage, the film darkens and takes on a fraught appearance, with strange angles and baroque images. This dark manner has come to be seen as typical of Orson Welles’ directorial style, and it looks forward to the film noir thrillers that began to appear in Hollywood in the late 1940s, not least Welles’ own The Lady from Shanghai (1948) and Touch of Evil (1957).

As in the American newspaper and automobile industries, Hollywood production in the studio era was organized around teamwork. Each member of the crew contributed his or her bit to the finished film. The screenwriter, or more often screenwriters, prepared the script. A director would direct the actors. A cinematographer would shoot the picture. An editor edited it. The producer oversaw everyone’s contribution.

Citizen Kane was produced, directed, co-written by, and stars, Orson Welles. Very few Hollywood directors have ever had this kind of creative freedom/control. Fewer still combined it with happy experiences working for the studios. The production rapidly became a talking point all over Hollywood.

That script …

Citizen Kane asks you to ponder the meaning of someone’s life. What makes living worthwhile? What makes a person happy: money, love, power? How do we make sense of that life–by what was said, what was done, or by what is left?

The script of Citizen Kane is the impeccable backbone of the film. The sound recording brings out the best in the dialogue. Recalling the best comedies of the era, the chatter in the early scenes is a hubbub of words, yet the sound is mixed so that Kane’s voice rises above the others. Elsewhere, Welles is unafraid to fill the soundtrack with noise as Kane trashes the room after Susan leaves him. Traditionally, Hollywood films feature a central romantic relationship. Not only does Citizen Kane revolve around a character whose relationships fail, but Welles and Mankiewicz’s script puts the definition of love at the heart of the film.

‘A toast to love on my terms! They’re the only terms anybody ever knows.’

Kane proposes this toast to his friend Jedediah. During the course of Citizen Kane, the hero marries two women and his ambition drives them away. He shapes public opinion with a nationwide network of newspapers and radio stations. He courts the people by seeking public office. None of these things bring him the adulation he craves. As a boy Charles was removed from his parents. The rest of the film is about the consequences of that moment. Citizen Kane remains such an important and powerful film because it dares to examine what we mean when we talk about love. Is there an ideal relationship to which each person is entitled, as Hollywood has traditionally promised, or must we take love where we find it? If the former remains true, what is the significance of the sexual emancipation of the 1960s and the shifting boundaries between gender roles that followed? Why are divorce rates now higher in developed societies than they have ever been? If an individual does not find emotional satisfaction as the movies have taught us to think we must, what effect does this have on our lives and the lives of those around us?

At the end of the film Kane dies alone entombed with crates and crates of statues. What better metaphor is there for a life half lived, an imitation of life? What is brilliant about Kane’s remark to Jedediah is that it is simultaneously true and not true. We all like to think that love for an individual is a relationship particular to that individual. Yet love, by its very nature, is a dynamic shared experience, defined by two people in a moment they both experience. There is no such thing as love on one’s own terms. How ironic it is that one so convinced that he can have love on his own terms drinks a toast to love with his best friend. Drinking a toast is by definition a shared moment. Notice how Kane and Jedediah are shot from low angles in this scene, making the men themselves seem like statues. In order to get that low angle, Welles insisted that the floorboards be taken up.

Musing to Jerry Thompson, the now elderly Mr Bernstein tells of a moment on a ferry between New Jersey and New York when, as a youth, he saw a young woman and fell in love. ‘I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since I haven’t thought of that girl’, he reflects.

If we compare Bernstein’s view of love with Kane’s, its humanity and poignancy seem to make Kane seem all the more lost to us and to himself. But as Bernstein tells Jerry Thompson, ‘Mr Kane was a man who lost almost everything he had’.

That look …

A key characteristic of Citizen Kane’s look is its use of deep focus cinematography. Using lenses developed during the 1930s, directors and cinematographers, like Citizen Kane’s Gregg Toland, experimented with composition in depth. Indeed, the film’s historically pivotal status hinges upon its cinematography insofar as it simultaneously tells the story and invites us to interpret the film. Composition in depth was a step forward because it enabled a greater amount of detail to be included in the shot. This enriches the shot by lending it ambiguity and ambivalence. For example, in a shot of Kane and his first wife Emily at breakfast, the camera observes from a low angle what appears to be a well-balanced connubial scene. Above them the vaulted ceiling is signally ‘split’ by a beam that segments the shot, seeming to split husband and wife apart. Indeed, the vaulting looks not unlike a pair of coffin lids, suggesting this marriage is a death in life. ‘Your only correspondent is the Inquirer’, Kane tells his wife. Elsewhere, as Kane’s political opponent ‘Boss’ Jim Gettys leaves Kane’s love nest, having threatened to expose Kane’s affair with Susan Alexander to the voters, Kane is seen lunging after Gettys over the stair rail from a canted angle that tracks the ascending planes of the stairs. Meant as a threatening gesture and a sign of Kane’s power, it could also be read as Kane falling to a very public death.

Deep focus cinematography makes a film more like real experience by making it open to interpretation. For this reason, directors like Welles, William Wyler, Jean Renoir, and Italian neo-realists like Roberto Rossellini who were associated with this technique, were championed by the French critic Andre Bazin, who felt that the sheer plenitude of experience was the cinema’s true vocation. Film history has been read as the clash of two tendencies: realism and expressionism, as either the interpretation of experience using dialogue and a camera that puts you in the picture; or the interpretation of experience using camera and editing trickery. Citizen Kane is visually rich because it deploys strategies and tropes that extend cinema’s realist and expressionist possibilities. Being fake, The News on the March newsreel near the beginning draws precise attention to cinema’s ability to concoct the truth. Indeed, it is an early example of the ‘mockumentary’ genre in which fictional events and lives are passed off as true. (Welles even provided characteristic ‘tramlines’, continuous scratches on the film, by dragging the footage along the studio flood!) Notice how Kane’s rise is shot and edited like a newspaper movie of the era, featuring camerawork and editing telling of (or following) Kane’s rise, complete with naturalistic dialogue like a window on the world. But as Kane’s fortunes wane, the cinematography becomes darker, the angles more askew. Later scenes of Kane and Susan alone in Xanadu resemble a Gothic horror movie. A famous shot of the elderly Kane stepping before a series of mirrors finds his image receding into the gloom.

American Promise

‘I’ve got to make the New York Inquirer as important to New York as the gas in that lamp,’

Charles Foster Kane

If love is a key theme in Citizen Kane, loudly announcing Welles’ own prodigious promise, Citizen Kane is also a film about making promises. Kane drafts a promise of integrity to the Inquirer readership. He delivers a promise of honesty to the voters. He promises Susan Alexander her own opera house. At one point, Jedediah tells reporters in mid shot that Kane ‘entered on this campaign … [cut to a wide shot of Kane against backdrop of vast campaign poster as his voice booms] … WITH ONE PURPOSE ONLY. I MAKE NO CAMPAIGN PROMISES …’ Critics and scholars have often compared Citizen Kane with the novel The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, for its tale of the souring of American promise. Published in 1925 at the beginning of Fitzgerald’s own meteoric career, The Great Gatsby is the story of a fabulously rich, influential but mysterious American who has everything except the woman he loves. In spite of all his wealth, power and influence, he cannot avert his own downfall.

Was Charles Foster Kane a ‘great American’? Or was Citizen Kane a film about the compromise implicit in this cultural construction?

Richard Armstrong is a writer and an Associate Tutor affiliated to the British Film Institute.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Australian Teachers of Media

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