#140. Citizen Kane (1941)

With Citizen Kane, like for Gone with the Wind, I held off on writing about the movie until I’d gotten to know it really well — and in this case I took the research thing pretty far.. I read Harlan Lebo’s book Citizen Kane, as well as the first two volumes of Simon Callow’s biography of writer/director/star Orson Welles, I watched a recently-produced documentary about Welles’s career, called Magician, and watched Citizen Kane itself four times (kinda: the last two runs were mostly just to overhear Roger Ebert’s commentary track and then Peter Bogdanovich’s. Played a bit of Candy Crush as the movie unfolded those last couple times.

simon callow.jpg
Sion Callow’s series of Orson Welles biographies are amazingly comprehensive and accessible. You’ve probably gotta have a pre-existing interest in Welles, and maybe also acting and the theater, but, holy shit, it’s incredible.

I don’t mean to say this was “too much” in that I learned more than I wanted to, or that it was a waste of time. Just that I did all of this reading and obsessive viewing because I thought that it would give me a more refined or incisive perspective on the film, so I could understand its Hows and Whys a bit better. But I’m not so sure it paid off in that respect. I mean I do feel educated, like I might actually have a better understanding of Hollywood, of the 1940s, and of filmmaking itself as a result. Certainly learned a fuck ton about Welles. But I was also hoping that all of this research would help em to find some greater truth about the film’s message. Like there was something about its greatness that just a casual viewer could never discover. Like I needed to make myself a student of the film.

Probably wasn’t necessary. Citizen Kane is a masterpiece, and I’ve enjoyed every viewing, but it evokes form me, today, more or less the same emotional response I felt toward it after the first viewing, a few years ago. My appreciation of its artistry is through the roof, now that I understand how Welles and his DP Gregg Toland subverted conventions and overcame limitations, but my reaction to the piece of art, the way it resonates with me, is the same.

This is a lesson in itself.


Citizen Kane was the first film that Welles made. He was 25. He’d made a name for himself with a stage production of Julius Caesar, which he himself edited down to a two-hour runtime (employing, I imagine, principles he prescribed in a book he’d written as a teenager about how Shakespeare ought to be interpreted and performed. After that he dazzled New York in a production of Macbeth with an all-African American cast. This latter effort was a huge success and, up there with his spectacular and disastrously expensive production of Around the World in 80 Days, about 10 years later, is probably Welles’s best-remembered turn on the stage.

gregg toland
Cinematographer Gregg Toland — who also adds a good bit of soul to The Grapes of Wrath

His invitation to finally make a film came with a strangely loose contract that allowed Welles to basically do whatever he wanted. He even got final cut. So he cast the members of his Mercury Theater, a troupe of actors who’d followed him from stage to stage and would eventually follow him from film to film, and with the collaboration of a brilliant co-writer, X, and an equally-brilliant DP in Gregg Toland he made a great movie. One of the greatest.

kane mirror
This kinda optical trick might seem hokey, melodramatic, but it works beautifully within the context of the movie. Along with tons of other shots that showcase the over-earnest symbolism of younger storytellers.

I won’t make this into one of the innumerable venues from which you can read about Kane‘s storied production, or the legal battles with newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst (who did his best to suppress the film). As great as the movie may be, I think its greatest value is tat it introduced Orson Welles to the world and, in so doing, launched one of the most fascinating careers in movie history.

Fortunately we’ll be seeing a lot of Welles in the course of the Project, so there’ll be world enough and time to address the ins and outs of that career and I don’t have to overwhelm you just yet with an explanation of why I’m obsesses with him, but here’s the gist of that obsession: Kane‘s storytelling — its nonlinearity, its innovative use of shadows and light, the use of newsreels and newspapers as narrative devices — is born out of a young, ambitious, and naively confident amateur who looked at the boundaries of his craft and just kept asking “why not?”

Why can’t we shoot it from this angle?

The floor won’t allow it.

Why can’t we rip out the floor?

Well…I guess we can

Shit like that. I’m noticing that almost every time I feel stifled by some aspect of the Project, if I just ask myself, “Why does it need to be done in that frustrating or tiresome way?” I usually end up finding that it doesn’t need to be as taxing or annoying as I’m making it.

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Welles behind the scenes on the set of Kane’s enormous estate, Xanadu.

But that takes a confidence that, for me, is hard to come by. The confidence to look at some sort of convention and, rather than just defer to the authority of your forebears who implemented and then sustained it, ask yourself why it applies to you.

Why do I need to summarize the plot of every movie I write about? Why do I need to talk about the director’s or star’s earlier work?

Reading Welles’s biographies, studying his life, shows the portrait of a guy who’s constantly trying new things (sometimes a bit too impetuously or indulgently) and just kinda following his own north star. He’s got flaws, of course, a couple of the most pernicious ones being his inability to manage money, his total helplessness to a colossal appetite, and the fact that he seldom finished things that he started. He was almost too creative and ambitious for his own good. Would’ve worked well as the creative half of a duo where the partner is just dutiful and keeping shit on track.

He’s a guy I’ll be thinking about for a long time.


Not sure I can say anything interesting about the story of Citizen Kane that hasn’t been written in a dozen other places, and probably more eloquently, but for the sake of convention I’ll go ahead and mention that the movie’s about an elderly newspaper mogul who, on his death bed, mutters the word “rosebud” before dying. A journalist becomes interested in finding out what “rosebud” means and the story of Kane’s life henceforth unfolds for the audience as the reporter goes around interviewing people from Kane’s life. As a young millionaire he bought a newspaper, blew it up into a major cultural pillar, tried his hand at politics, made money and lost it, built a massive estate and hid himself away on it.

It’s a character study. One of those major American movie whose clout is such that it’ll scare people away from even trying to watch it but, trust me, it’s a breeze: propulsive, smart, beautiful, funny. Just cuz there’s lotsa scholarship about it doesn’t mean you have to be a scholar in order to enjoy it.

It’s the kinda movie I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts about. Feel free to shoot me a message through the website, or on Thousand Movie Project’s Facebook page, or go ahead and send me a message on Instagram telling me if you like it, how and when you first saw it, if you were intimidated by it at first. The works.

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