WolfmanOz at the Movies #74


I think it would be fun to run a newspaper.

It is with some trepidation that I write about a film that is often considered one of the greatest film ever made – Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, released in 1941. This quasi-biographical drama examines the life and legacy of newspaper tycoon Charles Foster Kane, brilliantly played by Welles, a composite character and although various sources were used as a model for Kane, William Randolph Hearst was the primary inspiration.

https://youtu.be/0qN2fJ03Im4

Anyone who sees Citizen Kane for the first time today does so because he or she has heard that it is one of the greatest films ever made. One simply doesn’t come across the film by accident on TV, watching it “for what it is”, so to speak. The common approach of seeing it to believe it can be at best exhilarating and at worst hostile. Unfortunately, the latter is usually, although quite understandably, the case. For how can one do anything but look down at a film that elitist snobs have praised for years and years? One simply must prove oneself right by falsifying the critics’ claims, leaving the theatre or the living room with a shrug and a condescending comment: “it was okay”.

One might begin with the basic fact that Citizen Kane was a relative flop when it was released. It was a financial risk for the RKO studios to give free hands to the novice prodigy Orson Welles, who had gained quite a reputation with the radio show of H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, and not surprisingly it didn’t pay off. Despite the almost unanimous praises of critics at the time, Citizen Kane was soon forgotten. However, in France, the film was discovered after WWII, and it was hailed as a masterpiece. Thus the film’s new found reputation blossomed rapidly.

It has to be highlighted that the story of Citizen Kane is remarkable. It tells the story about a lonely giant of a man who conquered the American media. It’s a story about a man who dedicated his life to possession, but tragically became to be possessed by it himself. The film begins with the protagonist’s death, and then portrays the attempts of a journalist trying to figure out the meaning of his last word “Rosebud” by interviewing people who knew the man. “It will probably turn out to be a very simple thing”, he supposes. The uniqueness of Citizen Kane lies in the use of different perspectives, creating a non-linear narrative that is superbly expressed in the famous breakfast montage which in only 2 minutes shows the disintegration of Kane’s first marriage.

https://youtu.be/MrJB15a3H0o

The innovative use of various cinematic means, the film made the style public, thus standardising it for Hollywood, including deep-focus cinematography, sequence shots, and deep-space composition. These had been used before, but hardly with similar unity. This stylistic tendency is enhanced by Welles’ relentless use of heavy low-angle shots and dynamic montage sequences. There are innovative cuts that spark imagination and soundtrack solutions that open the story and its characters to new dimensions. Citizen Kane is often celebrated as a bravura of the art of mise-en-scène since it puts a lot of emphasis on pre-filmic elements such as setting and lighting, but the real gist of the film’s brilliance lies in the unity of these together with cinematographic and post-filmic elements. We see this demonstrated in the final scene of the film where Rosebud is revealed to the audience.

https://youtu.be/RzEyVYVIClA

It’s still amazing to think that Welles was only just 26 when he made his film debut, but it would be too easy to just focus on Welles incredible talent as Citizen Kane wouldn’t be the film it is without the outstanding contributions from fellow cast members Joseph Cotten, Agnes Morehead, Everett Sloane and Dorothy Comingore; co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz; cinematographer Gregg Toland and composer Bernard Herrmann.

Citizen Kane remains a gem to any lover of cinema. It’s up there with immortal works of art from poetry, music, and painting. It is, like all great art, a tightly and beautifully sealed original whole which is why the film has been considered to be of such magnificent proportions. It’s my third favourite film of all-time.

A postscript in regards to Orson Welles . . .

The conventional view is that Welles was destroyed by Hollywood, which with its usual crassness drove him into exile and refused to give him the chance to make great movies that would have been a credit to America. His downfall as the most important American film director has seldom been placed at his own door where he gallantly tried to do the impossible: he tried to create films as novelists create novels, as poets create poems, as composers create music, as painters create paintings. Snatching finances from any possible source, drawing from his own pocket when need be, taking all the time that seemed necessary, he went beyond any other figure of the screen in seeking to convey a personal vision through celluloid, at his own pace and without restraints.

It is an axiom in the commercial cinema that the central figure of any work must be a human being with whom the mass audience can identify. In Citizen Kane Welles created a selfish, heartless tycoon who is destroyed spiritually by his own greed and ambition. In The Magnificent Ambersons Welles delivered a story of an impudent, bad-tempered puppy of a man. The Stranger featured a protagonist who was a Nazi war criminal and in The Lady From Shanghai he took his wife, Rita Hayworth, the reigning sex goddess of the screen and made her into a murderess.

Shakespeare has never been strong box office, so Welles’s Shakespearean trilogy (Macbeth, Othello and Chimes At Midnight) sank without a trace. Ironically, while the films he directed were failing, Welles himself was highly bankable as an actor. In Europe though his discipline disintegrated and he lost control of his career. As his waistline grew, his career shrivelled, it was almost as though eating and drinking were substitutes for creativity.

Today we mourn Welles’s genius but to pretend that he was maliciously rubbed out by Hollywood is of no help to history. Some perverse streak of anti-commercialism drove him; he was the brilliant architect of his own downfall, and it is impossible to avoid that truth.

Enjoy.

And the tease for next week post . . . Tourists on the menu.


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Bruce of Newcastle
Bruce of Newcastle
June 8, 2023 7:22 am

Been a long while since I watched Citizen Kane, and only the once since that isn’t really my taste in movies. It was mesmerising though, and I remember sitting through it glued to the screen. Although like you say Wolfman it was soon forgotten (by me). I thought the Rosebud thing was overdone, but it was a good hook. I wonder if Rupert dreams of something like that?

Anchor What
Anchor What
June 8, 2023 9:40 am

Speaking of private parts, the 2008 film Me and Orson Welles is a tour de force.
Even better, you can watch it vie SBS on demand, which I’ve linked to. Orson is depicted with what looks like brutal accuracy, but at the same time the film has some very endearing characters, and plot lines.
It’s a feelgood movie, really.

Christine
Christine
June 8, 2023 10:01 am

You are right. It’s one of the great films.
Each time I’ve watched it, I spot something worthwhile/fascinating that I’ve missed before.
Thank you

Tommbell
Tommbell
June 8, 2023 10:35 am

Sorry for trivialising but the mention of Agnes Morehead evoked memories of a twitching nosed Samantha….

calli
calli
June 8, 2023 2:51 pm

Thanks, Wolfman. Just a wonderful movie. I think I remember seeing it on Bill Collins’ Golden Years of Hollywood one evening and just loved it. The photography is superb. I loved the party scene too.

Those RKO girls!

calli
calli
June 8, 2023 2:51 pm

And next week…are we going to need a bigger blog? 😀

johanna
johanna
June 8, 2023 4:49 pm

I quite liked it, but have always been mystified by the ‘greatest film ever’ schtick. It’s a silly measure anyway – works of art cannot readily be ranked like that.

Must agree about Agnes Moorhead, though – a very fine actress, much under-rated.

calli
calli
June 8, 2023 7:31 pm

Joh, I think a lot of the accolades come from innovative cinematography – you can catch a glimpse of it in my little party clip.

I think they call it “deep focus”. We accept these things as a given, but in 1941 it was something special. It’s all about the evolution of how we tell stories on film. It’s just marvellous to me.

miksa
miksa
June 8, 2023 9:25 pm

Apropos the final comments about Welles’ Shakespearean films – I have always thought Chimes at Midnight maybe the best cinematic version ever made of Shakespeare (albeit something of a mash-up by Welles of bits of several other plays) – yet it is hardly ever shown these days. And a little brain teaser: what is the link between that movie and Australian cinema? Answer: Walter Chiari, who plays a fairly significant character in this movie and had the lead in They’re a Weird Mob, playing a very different character!

vlad redux
vlad redux
June 8, 2023 11:26 pm

It took me a long time to realise that when Kubrick used a television interview (on BBC) in 2001, he was borrowing the idea of a film-within-a-film (as exposition) from Citizen Kane.

Anchor What
Anchor What
June 9, 2023 7:05 am

When will we get your take on Les Enfants Du Paradise? Marcel Carne’s epic starring Arletty.

Morsie
Morsie
June 9, 2023 10:35 am

Melvin Bragg’s “In Our Time ” podcast has an episode on the film.Well worth a a listen.

Anchor What
Anchor What
June 9, 2023 7:47 pm

The title Chimes At Midnight reminds one of the rather unexpectedly good Woody Allen film Midnight In Paris.

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