Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Citizen Kane

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

CITIZEN KANE

8/10

USA 1941 : Orson Welles : 119 mins

1. SYNOPSIS
  
Spoof biopic tracing the life of billionaire newspaper publisher Charles Foster Kane (Welles), from poverty-stricken rural childhood through to lonely old age in a vast, opulent Florida castle. Determined to solve the mystery of Kane’s dying word ‘Rosebud’, a newspaper editor sends reporter Thompson (William Alland) to track down key figures in the tempestuous life of the fiercely-ambitious but fatally-flawed magnate.
  
A fractured portrait of Kane’s private and public faces takes shape, with key testimony provided by Jed Leland (Joseph Cotton), his long-time friend and business associate, and by Kane’s second wife Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore). But while the reporter ends his quest no closer to unlocking the Rosebud mystery, the films final shot seems to provide the audience with the last piece in the Kane puzzle…

2. THE GREATEST FILM EVER MADE
  
It’s ironically appropriate that the exalted reputation of Citizen Kane (which so relentlessly lays bare the reality behind its central figures looming public image) should itself be based partly on a lie. Or, more accurately, on misconceptions and shoddy reporting. Every ten years Sight and Sound magazine polls the world’s leading film critics for their all-time top ten movies, and from 1962 to 2002 Kane has been the most frequently named title.
  
This is the main prop behind Kane’s habitual “greatest film” tag but in the 1992 poll, only 43 out of 132 critics included Kane anywhere in their lists. Which means that more than two thirds of critics wouldn’t even put Kane in their top ten. Admittedly, if any film does deserve the burden of wearing the “greatest film” crown on the basis of such polling, Kane is the one: the next most cited film in 1992 was La Regle du Jeu with 32 votes. But the Sight and Sound poll is, if anything, surely an argument against naming any one title as the greatest – until, that is, a film makes it into a majority of the ballots cast.
  
The mystique surrounding Kane is, in itself, a strong piece of evidence against the practice of compiling any such “best ever” lists in the Sight and Sound mode. It’s all but impossible to settle down and watch Citizen Kane with anything approaching fresh eyes, so heavily does its oppressive reputation weigh on every frame. This is unfortunate, because Kane is essentially an unexpectedly light-hearted, even jaunty enterprise. It’s very much a very young man’s film, the result of a 25-year-old director being let loose on the film-making medium and, like Kane on his newspaper, gleefully trying everything he can think of just to see what happens.
  
When Welles hits his directorial stride, the effect is exhilarating (the larky March of Time montage that opens the film is at least as stunning as more recent, knock-em-sideways expositional prologues like Magnolia and The Royal Tenenbaums, and Amelie.) But there’s an inevitably price to pay in terms of consistency: when the energy sags, as it intermittently must, Kane can suddenly seem like very hard work, and it’s fundamental deficiencies become more noticeable.
  
After a while the viewer may start to wonder exactly what lies behind Welles’ virtuoso skill: there’s a show-off quality to Kane, as if the brash director is determined to push established film-syntax as far as it can go. But to what purpose? What is Welles’ motivation, his aim with Kane? There is, perhaps, some degree of contempt in the way he so facilely throws off his tricks: contempt for the medium and, by extension, for audiences who insist on treating cinema as a serious dramatic form, in which ideas and emotions can be explored. What is this film actually about? Is this even an especially interesting or worthwhile story?

3. AT SLOPPY JOES
  
Welles superb, charismatic performance and anything-goes direction (along with Gregg Toland’s equally innovative cinematography and Robert Wise’s razor-sharp editing) means that Kane is, superficially at least, a delight to watch. So much so that one can almost – but not quite – overlook the rickety script, on which Welles collaborated with Herman J Mankiewicz (exactly who did what has been a source of endless tedious debate).
  
At one point Jed Leland, gently mocking his former friend’s “pleasure dome” Xanadu, feigns forgetfulness about the mansion’s grand name: “Whats it called, now? Shangri-La… Eldorado… Sloppy Joe’s?” It’s perhaps the neatest bit of pomposity-piercing in the whole enterprise – which is, itself, more than a little sloppy from time to time, despite its portentous title. It’s hard to think of another film, for instance, in which the deaths of the main character’s wife and only child are mentioned only in passing, and so briefly that this crucial detail may not even register at all with many viewers.
  
The script is much more concerned with compiling witty lines than with tackling serious issues – be they political or psychological. It’s clever, but seldom intelligent, packed with cheap jibes at the expense of the real Kane (William Randolph Hearst) – even “Rosebud” is a crudely opportunistic gag, this being Hearsts pet name for part of his wife’s genitalia. Citizen Kane, then, revolves around nothing more or less than a dirty joke.
  
But the joke is very much on us. The film has built up a quite unwarranted head of critical steam, one that bends over backwards in its attempt to converts its flaws into touches of Wellesian genius. Just as Susan spends her hours compiling a jigsaw puzzle, Thompson and Welles construct their vision of Charles Foster Kane. But its an incomplete picture, with several gaping holes at the centre. Kane devotees, of course, buy the film’s own apologias wholesale: the notion that we can never know anyone, especially any public figure, meaning the reporter’s quest was always an exercise in futility.
  
Welles makes it clear that Kane was seldom anything other than a hollow vessel, an impressive self-made construct with nothing inside. Just like Kane: a dazzling, precocious achievement, but one which pales when placed alongside a genuinely great film of genuine, adult substance – Welles’ own Touch of Evil, perhaps

1st October, 2002
(seen 21st April, Ritz Cinema, Thirsk)

by Neil Young

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Buy Citizen Kane on DVD