Citizen Kane (1941): one could easily conclude this movie would be relevant to today’s media titans.
Citizen Kane is a 1941 American drama film produced by, co-written by, directed by and starring Orson Welles. The picture was Welles’s first feature film. The film was nominated for Academy Awards in nine categories; it won an Academy Award for Best Writing (Original Screenplay) by Herman J. Mankiewicz and Welles. Considered by many critics, filmmakers, and fans to be the greatest film ever made, Citizen Kane was voted the greatest film of all time in five consecutive Sight & Sound ’s polls of critics, until it was displaced by Vertigo in the 2012 poll. It topped the American Film Institute‘s 100 Years … 100 Movies list in 1998, as well as AFI’s 2007 update. Citizen Kane is particularly praised for its cinematography, music, and narrative structure, which were innovative for its time.
The story is a film à clef that examines the life and legacy of Charles Foster Kane, played by Welles, a character based in part upon the American newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, Chicago tycoons Samuel Insull and Harold McCormick, and aspects of Welles’s own life. Upon its release, Hearst prohibited mention of the film in any of his newspapers. Kane’s career in the publishing world is born of idealistic social service, but gradually evolves into a ruthless pursuit of power. Narrated principally through flashbacks, the story is told through the research of a newsreel reporter seeking to solve the mystery of the newspaper magnate’s dying word: “Rosebud”.
After the Broadway successes of Welles’s Mercury Theatre and the controversial 1938 radio broadcast “The War of the Worlds” on The Mercury Theatre on the Air, Welles was courted by Hollywood. He signed a contract with RKO Pictures in 1939. Unusual for an untried director, he was given the freedom to develop his own story, to use his own cast and crew, and to have final cut privilege. Following two abortive attempts to get a project off the ground, he wrote the screenplay for Citizen Kane, collaborating on the effort with Herman Mankiewicz. Principal photography took place in 1940 and the film received its American release in 1941.
While a critical success, Citizen Kane failed to recoup its costs at the box office. The film faded from view after its release but was subsequently returned to the public’s attention when it was praised by such French critics as André Bazin and given an American revival in 1956.
The film was released on Blu-ray Disc on September 13, 2011, for a special 70th anniversary edition.
The film opens with shots of Xanadu, a vast palatial estate in Florida with a “No Trespassing” sign on the gate. Inside the estate’s mansion an elderly Charles Foster Kane on his deathbed holds a snow globe and utters a single word, “Rosebud”, before dying; the globe slips from his hand and smashes on the floor. A newsreel obituary tells the life story of Kane, an enormously wealthy newspaper publisher. The newsreel recounts Kane’s entire life, including his mysterious last words. Kane’s death becomes sensational news around the world. The newsreel’s producer tasks reporter Jerry Thompson with discovering the meaning of “Rosebud”.
Thompson sets out to interview Kane’s friends and associates; he approaches Kane’s second wife, Susan Alexander Kane, now an alcoholic who runs her own nightclub, but she refuses to talk to him. Thompson then goes to the private archive of the late banker Walter Parks Thatcher. Through Thatcher’s written memoirs, Thompson learns that Kane’s childhood began in poverty in Colorado. After a gold mine was discovered on her property, Mary Kane sends Charles away to live with Thatcher so that he may be properly educated. The young Kane is seen happily playing with a sled in the snow at his parents’ boarding-house and protests being sent to live with Thatcher. After gaining full control over his trust fund at the age of 25, Kane enters the newspaper business and embarks on a career of yellow journalism. He takes control of the New York Inquirer and begins publishing scandalous articles that attack Thatcher’s business interests. After the stock market crash in 1929 Kane is forced to sell controlling interest of his newspaper empire to Thatcher.
Thompson then interviews Kane’s personal business manager, Mr. Bernstein. Bernstein recalls how Kane hired the best journalists available to build The Inquirer’s circulation. Kane then rises to power by successfully manipulating public opinion regarding the Spanish American War and marrying Emily Norton, the niece of a President of the United States.
Thompson also interviews Kane’s estranged best friend, Jedediah Leland, in a retirement home. Leland recalls Kane’s marriage to Emily disintegrates over the years, and he begins an affair with amateur singer Susan Alexander while he is running for Governor of New York. Both his wife and his political opponent discover the affair and the public scandal ends his political career. Kane marries Susan and forces her into a humiliating operatic career for which she has neither the talent nor the ambition. Susan consents to an interview with Thompson, and recalls her failed opera career. Kane finally allows her to abandon her singing career after she attempts suicide. After years spent dominated by Kane and living in isolation at Xanadu, Susan leaves Kane. Kane’s butler Raymond recounts that after Susan left him Kane began violently destroying the contents of her bedroom. He suddenly calms down when he sees a snow globe and says “Rosebud”.
Back at Xanadu, Kane’s belongings are being cataloged or discarded. Thompson concludes that he is unable to solve the mystery and that the meaning of “Rosebud” will forever remain an enigma. As the film ends, the camera reveals that Rosebud was the name of the sled from Kane’s childhood in Colorado. Thought to be junk by Xanadu’s staff, the sled is burned in a furnace.
At the 14th Academy Awards Citizen Kane was nominated for:
- Outstanding Motion Picture– RKO Radio Pictures (Orson Welles, Producer)
- Best Director– Orson Welles
- Best Actor– Orson Welles
- Best Writing (Original Screenplay)– Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles
- Best Art Direction-Interior Decoration (Black-and-White)– Perry Ferguson, Van Nest Polglase, Roland Fields, Darrell Silvera
- Best Film Editing– Robert Wise
- Best Cinematography (Black-and-White)– Gregg Toland
- Best Music (Score of a Dramatic Picture)– Bernard Herrmann
- Best Sound Recording– John O. Aalberg
It was widely believed the film would win most of its nominations, but it was only awarded the Best Writing (Original Screenplay) Oscar. Wise recalled each timeCitizen Kane ’s name was called out as a nominee, the crowd booed. According to Variety, bloc voting against Welles by screen extras denied him Best Picture and Actor awards. British film critic Barry Norman attributed this to Hearst’s wrath. During the ceremony Welles was in Brazil shooting It’s All True and did not attend.
The film was more successful at film critics’ awards. The National Board of Review named it Best Picture of the Year and gave Best Acting awards to Welles and George Coulouris. The Film Daily and The New York Times named it one of the Ten Best Films of the year, and it won the New York Film Critics Circle Awardfor Best Picture.
Citizen Kane marked a decline in Welles’s success. Author Joseph McBride said the problems in making the film caused damage to his career. This started in 1942 when RKO violated its contract with Welles by re-editing The Magnificent Ambersons against his will. That June Schaefer resigned from RKO and Welles’s contract was promptly terminated.
Welles himself has been retroactively compared to Charles Foster Kane. Wise believed that Kane resembled Welles’s life story more than Hearst’s and said “Orson was doing an autobiographical film and didn’t realize it, because it’s rather much the same, you know. You start here, and you have a big rise and tremendous prominence and fame and success and whatnot, and then tail off and tail off and tail off. And at least the arc of the two lives were very much the same.” Bogdanovich disagreed with this and said that Kane “had none of the qualities of an artist, Orson had all the qualities of an artist.” Bogdanovich also noted that Welles was never bitter “about all the bad things that happened to him” and enjoyed life in his final years.
The 1999 HBO film RKO 281 depicted the making of the film and Hearst’s attempts to prevent its release. It was based on the documentary The Battle over Citizen Kane, but differed from its source by “downplaying [Mankiewicz’s] role in bringing the idea of a Hearst-based movie” and inventing such historically inaccurate incidents as Welles visiting Hearst Castle and meeting Hearst before writing the film’s script.
Citizen Kane has been called the most influential film of all time. Richard Corliss has asserted that Jules Dassin‘s 1941 film The Tell-Tale Heart was the first example of its influence and the first pop culture reference to the film occurred later in 1941 when the spoof comedy Hellzapoppin’ featured a “Rosebud” sled. The film’s cinematography was almost immediately influential and in 1942 American Cinematographer wrote “without a doubt the most immediately noticeable trend in cinematography methods during the year was the trend toward crisper definition and increased depth of field.”
The cinematography influenced John Huston‘s The Maltese Falcon. Cinematographer Arthur Edeson used a wider-angle lens than Toland and the film includes many long takes, low angles and shots of the ceiling, but it did not use deep focus shots on large sets to the extent that Citizen Kane did. Edeson and Toland are often credited together for revolutionizing cinematography in 1941. Toland’s cinematography influenced his own work on The Best Years of Our Lives. Other films influenced include Gaslight, Mildred Pierce and Jane Eyre. Cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa said that his use of deep focus was influenced by “the camera work of Gregg Toland in Citizen Kane” and not by traditional Japanese art.
Its cinematography, lighting and flashback structure influenced such film noirs of the 1940s and 1950s as The Killers, Keeper of the Flame, Caught, The Great Man and This Gun for Hire. David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson have written that “For over a decade thereafter American films displayed exaggerated foregrounds and somber lighting, enhanced by long takes and exaggerated camera movements.” However by the 1960s filmmakers such as those from the French New Wave and Cinéma vérité movements favored “flatter, more shallow images with softer focus” and Citizen Kane’s style became less fashionable. American filmmakers in the 1970s combined these two approaches by using long takes, rapid cutting, deep focus and telephoto shots all at once. Its use of long takes influences film’s such as The Asphalt Jungle, and its use of deep focus cinematography influenced Gun Crazy, The Whip Hand, The Devil’s General and Justice Is Done. The flashback structure in which different characters have conflicting versions of past events influencedLa commare secca and Man of Marble.
The film’s structure influenced the biographical films Lawrence of Arabia and Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters – which begin with the subject’s death and show their life in flashbacks – as well as Welles’s thriller Mr. Arkadin. Rosenbaum sees similarities in the film’s plot to Mr. Arkadin, as well as the theme of nostalgia for loss of innocence throughout Welles’s career, beginning with Citizen Kane and including The Magnificent Ambersons, Mr. Arkadin and Chimes at Midnight. Rosenbaum also points out how the film influenced Warren Beatty‘s Reds. The film depicts the life of Jack Reed through the eyes of Louise Bryant, much as Kane’s life is seen through the eyes of Thompson and the people who he interviews. Rosenbaum also compared the romantic montage between Reed and Bryant with the breakfast table montage in Citizen Kane.
Akira Kurosawa‘s Rashomon is often compared to the film due to both having complicated plot structures told by multiple characters in the film. Welles said his initial idea for the film was “Basically, the idea Rashomon used later on,” however Kurosawa had not yet seen the film before making Rashomon in 1950. Nigel Andrews has compared the film’s complex plot structure to Rashomon, Last Year at Marienbad, Memento and Magnolia. Andrews also compares Charles Foster Kane to Michael Corleone in The Godfather, Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull and Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood for their portrayals of “haunted megalomaniac[s], presiding over the shards of [their] own [lives].”
The films of Paul Thomas Anderson have been compared to it. Variety compared There Will Be Blood to the film and called it “one that rivals Giant and Citizen Kane in our popular lore as origin stories about how we came to be the people we are.” The Master has been called “movieland’s only spiritual sequel to Citizen Kane that doesn’t shrivel under the hefty comparison” and the film’s loose depiction of L. Ron Hubbard has been compared to Citizen Kane’s depiction of Hearst. The Social Network has been compared to the film for its depiction of a media mogul and by the character Erica Albright being similar to Rosebud. The controversy of the Sony hacking before the release of The Interview brought comparisons of Hearst’s attempt to suppress the film. The film’s plot structure and some specific shots influenced Todd Haynes‘s Velvet Goldmine. Abbas Kiarostami‘s The Traveler has been called “the Citizen Kane of the Iranian children’s cinema.” The film’s use of overlapping dialogue has influenced the films of Robert Altman and Carol Reed. Reed’s films Odd Man Out, The Third Man (in which Welles and Cotten appeared) and Outcast of the Islands were also influenced by the film’s cinematography.
Many directors have listed it as one of the greatest films ever made, including Woody Allen, Michael Apted, Les Blank, Kenneth Branagh, Paul Greengrass, Michel Hazanavicius, Michael Mann, Sam Mendes, Jiri Menzel, Paul Schrader, Martin Scorsese, Denys Arcand, Gillian Armstrong, John Boorman, Roger Corman, Alex Cox, Milos Forman, Norman Jewison, Richard Lester, Richard Linklater, Paul Mazursky, Ronald Neame, Sydney Pollack and Stanley Kubrick. Yasujirō Ozusaid it was his favorite non-Japanese film and was impressed by its techniques. François Truffaut said that the film “has inspired more vocations to cinema throughout the world than any other” and recognized its influence in The Barefoot Contessa, Les Mauvaises Rencontres, Lola Montès, and 8 1/2. Truffaut’s Day for Night pays tribute to the film in a dream sequence depicting a childhood memory of the character played by Truffaut stealing publicity photos from the film. Numerous film directors have cited the film as influential on their own films, including Theo Angelopoulos Luc Besson, the Coen brothers, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, John Frankenheimer, Stephen Frears, Sergio Leone, Michael Mann, Ridley Scott, Martin Scorsese, Bryan Singer and Steven Spielberg. Ingmar Bergman disliked the film and called it “a total bore. Above all, the performances are worthless. The amount of respect that movie has is absolutely unbelievable!”
William Friedkin said that the film influenced him and called it “a veritable quarry for filmmakers, just as Joyce’s Ulysses is a quarry for writers.” The film has also influenced other art forms. Carlos Fuentes‘s novel The Death of Artemio Cruz was partially inspired by the film and the rock band The White Stripes paid unauthorized tribute to the film in the song “The Union Forever“.
thanks for following – the eventsfy team