150 Movies in 90 Days: Citizen Kane

June 16: #18, Citizen Kane

"I don't think any word can explain a man's life."

I admit, I was a little nervous to watch Citizen Kane. Why? Because I didn’t really expect to like it. All I’ve ever heard is that Citizen Kane is a classic, Citizen Kane is the best film of all time, and so forth. What if I watch it and I don’t like it? Can I give Citizen Kane a C+? What if I found it boring? Does that reflect poorly on the film or on my own lack of attention span?

Fortunately, I didn’t have to worry about any of that for very long, because Citizen Kane is awesome.
I knew that one of the reasons why Citizen Kane is so respected is that it was ahead of its time and very influential, but I didn’t want to look at other people’s thoughts so much before watching it, because I wanted to be unbiased and draw my own conclusions. One thing I do remember reading is that critics loved Citizen Kane’s use of light and dark. 

That is on display early on, as the film opens with Kane’s death, and the nurse who comes in to check on him has a face that is shrouded in darkness, even when she bends to check on him. Later on, when forcing his second wife to continue performing on stage when she doesn’t want to, the scene is framed in such a way that she is engulfed in darkness from his shadow. Furthermore, the reporter who is investigating Kane’s life and the meaning behind his last word (“Rosebud”) is never fully shown on screen. The viewer could easily be the one getting to the bottom of what Kane’s life meant, and really, the viewer is the one doing so.

Simply put: Orson Welles is a genius, both as an actor and director. In the first scene, a chain-link fence gives way to iron bars and finally, the fancy gate of Kane’s estate, symbolizing that the haven Kane has built himself is also a prison of sorts. When Kane is about to die, he’s looking at a snow globe and we get an extreme close-up on his mouth as he says “Rosebud”. When he dies, he drops the globe, which breaks. When the nurse rushes in to check on him, though, we don’t look away from the broken globe. Instead, we see her coming in from the globe’s reflection, which is not only a slick trick but shows the importance of the globe- important enough that we don’t look away from it, even to follow the action.

Welles the director is a master of deep focus, especially when a character is being discussed while not actively a part of the scene. When Kane’s second wife refuses to speak to the reporter, the reporter goes to a nearby pay phone to pass on the news, and the whole time, Kane’s ex-wife is in focus in the background, slamming down drinks and trying to keep her emotions in check. 

Another great scene features Kane doing a dance number with some female performers while his closest associates debate over whether Kane will be influenced by all of the new hires for his newspaper (who are all highly-respected reporters). It harkens back to a very pivotal scene where a young Kane plays alone in the snow, unaware that his future is being discussed inside. While the plan is set to have Kane move far away and go to a private school under the care of a legal guardian, we see Kane in the background through a window, playing happily (and obliviously) in the snow.

It makes sense, then, that one of the things that lead to Kane’s eventual downfall is a need to have control. My favorite part of the film is when Kane gets busted for spending time with an aspiring singer while still married to his first wife. When the newspapers come out with the story, they refer to her as a “singer”, scare quotes included. Kane resents it, and therefore, when he ultimately marries her, he goes so far as to build a theater for her to sing at. He is maniacal in his pursuit of respect and adoration, which makes him a brilliant focus for a character study.

A leaked photo from the Citizen Kane reboot
The acting is great all around, led by Welles. If I had to compare him to a modern day actor, it would be Leonardo DiCaprio, who also has terrific range and the gift of being able to show tremendous amounts of intensity in his face one scene while appearing charismatically friendly in another. The other actor I really enjoyed was Fortunio Bonanova, who plays Signor Matiste, the voice coach of Kane’s second wife. He steals the few scenes he’s in. On the other side of the spectrum, Erskine Sanford is awful as Herbert Carter. Sanford plays Carter like a caricature, huffing and puffing like a cartoon character to show his frustration in a film where everybody else is playing it straight.

Long story short- if you’re worried that you’ll find Citizen Kane boring because it’s 70 years old or filmed in black and white, don’t be. It’s a great film with an excellent story and a satisfying ending that manages to provide resolution to the story without spoon-feeding the viewer the way that movies do today. Is it the greatest film ever? Hell, I don’t know, mostly because thinking that you can crown a single film from a single genre as the greatest ever is silly. But it’s an excellent film, nonetheless. Grade: A

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