This next post in my series of essays on Citizen Kane will focus not so much on the history of the film, nor will it view the film as an examination of its makers. This will act as a true movie review, focusing on what makes the movie so great as a stand-alone viewing performance.
This is one of the things that truly make Kane a masterpiece: it can stand alone. You don’t need to know auteur theory to appreciate it, though that helps. You don’t need to know about montage theory to intellectually process it, though that helps, too. You don’t need to hear about the comparisons the main character shares with William Randolph Hearst, Joseph Pulitzer, or Orson Welles, though that helps, as well. You don’t need to have even heard of Mercury on the Air’s adaptation of War of the Worlds, though even that can be of help. The movie, even to the casual movie-goer, can be enjoyed and appreciated. How is that?
The answer is simple: the movie is a profound dramatic comedy. A person—any person—can feel the pace of the movie, and get easily caught up in its rapid-fire dialogue and symbolism. They don’t need to be an experienced movie-goer to recognize the importance of this hurtling faux-biopic; they can tell that things are going on all around them by the movie’s ability to pulse them intellectually; it flies, then it stalls. Those stalls hit the viewer so hard that they can’t help but realize they should pay attention.
One such stall…—we have just been barraged by the typical montages that have come to define Citizen Kane, and then, in a moment of introspection, Mr. Bernstein stops to explain to the reporter, whose face we never see, the joys of great memories: “A fellow will remember a lot of things you wouldn’t think he’d remember. You take me. One day, back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry, and as we pulled out, there was another ferry pulling in, and on it there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on. She was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn’t see me at all, but I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since that I haven’t thought of that girl.”
Then, there comes a moment that is not so much a stall, but a manifestation of the quick-witted and fast-paced dialogue that typified not only Kane, but also the entirety of the American film generation that preceded it. Here, Jedediah Leland rants to the same reporter to whom Bernstein went off on his beautiful tangent: “I can remember everything; that’s my curse, young man. It’s the greatest curse that’s ever been inflicted on the human race: memory.”
Here we have two diametrically opposed ideas delivered in two completely different ways. Yet, both are focused on the same topic, dealing with the same quandary: how humans deal with their own memories. The irony of these statements lies in the fact that the entire movie is based off the memories and recollections of its characters, told in flashback in an attempt to document the life and times of its title character. The relationship that these characters have with Charles Foster Kane is now based only on the memories. He has died and is now gone. They can make him into whatever person they want because he can no longer defend himself. Yet, they cannot deny the reality of the memory in their own mind. That is the inescapable barrier all must come to grips with. Time goes on, but memories linger. As they fade, so do our identities. Life is lived in our memories.
This is the manifestation of great writing. It’s as simple as that. The movie is its script. For all the talk about its technological master-workmanship, Citizen Kane is a movie with a script almost angelic in its perfection. The script required the revolutionary cinematography of Gregg Toland and artistic innovations of Orson Welles in order for it to be properly represented in a visual format. All the greatness of Citizen Kane as a paramount zenith in the mastery of the seventh art owes itself fully and completely to its script. In this regard, the movie is not only a perfect contributor to those adherents of the seventh art like the silent masterpieces that preceded it, but is also a landmark in the pantheon of film Gesamtkunstwerks. This movie with all its dexterous filmmaking and divisive writing acted as a bridge between eras, acting as the irreplaceable piece to the current of cinematic history.
In an era of American film that was focused on banter, satire, and double entendres, Kane rose above them all. It was as funny as any of them. But it was also much sadder. The sadness is practically tangible upon the very first viewing. The comedy, though, is something that one only notices over time. Take this exchange in the famous breakfast montage between Kane and his wife, Emily:
Emily: Sometimes, I think I’d prefer a rival of flesh-and-blood.
Charles: Oh Emily, I don’t spend that much time on the newspaper.
Emily: It isn’t just the time. It’s what you print – attacking the President.
Charles: You mean Uncle John.
Emily: I mean the President of the United States.
Charles: He’s still Uncle John, and he’s still a well-meaning fathead who’s letting a pack of high-pressure crooks run his administration. This whole oil scandal…
Emily: He happens to be the President, Charles, not you.
Charles: That’s a mistake that will be corrected one of these days.
Initially, the sadness of the breakfast montage is what the viewer sees, and the quick wit and satire is lost. But ultimately, these sorts of exchanges enlighten the comedy more and more with every viewing. This is where and how the comedy in Kane differentiates itself from the brazen cop-out-for-laughs that dominate most of today’s comedies. While one may laugh out loud on the first viewing of, say, the most recent Will Ferrell or Adam Sandler movie, the movies eventually lose their comic flavor after viewing number 2. In this regard, these movies—good or bad—should only be seen once. But Kane, which doesn’t even seem funny the first time around, can actually be seen, justifiably, as one of the funniest movies ever made. Its laughs aren’t riotous. They are thoughtful. Their subtlety lends to complexity.
We can see now how what appears to be at best a shallow drama actually has quite a few layers. Where a lot of great comedies hide legitimate depth of thought beneath their jokes, asking us to dig them up through intellectual involvement in our watching, this movie is a drama that hides incredible comic wit beneath its inspections of human nature. In this regard, it works as a typical thought-provoking film in reverse order: the shallow pieces show up after later later viewings, adding a new fresh, take on a tale that at first seems to heavy to cope with.
Since this essay is to act more as a true movie review, I think now is the time to do what movie reviews do best: review the movie. See, in all these essays, I have yet to actually say what the movie is about. My bad, I guess. Ultimately, the movie is about Charles Foster Kane. It opens with shots of his great castle-mansion, Xanadu, in a brooding and dark montage paced effervescently by Bernard Herrmann’s score. We move toward a window, a square of light amid a backdrop of black and gray. The light is the window of Kane’s bedroom, and, in a clever shot that moves from outside the window to inside the bedroom like a mirror, we see an aged Kane on his deathbed, prepared with white sheets like a body on an altar. He holds in his hand a snowglobe, filmed in such a way as to seem almost like a flashback to a dying memory. Just before he drops the snowglobe to the ground, shattering that dying memory into pieces, his mustachioed lips slowly mutter a single word: “Rosebud.”
This is the MacGuffin that propels the action of the rest of the movie. A reporter named Thompson is put to the task of deciphering the meaning behind Kane’s final utterance, and he ends up piecing together the little bits and pieces of Kane’s character, motives, and life story from interviews with those people that are closest to him—including Susan Alexander, the protege mistress who put an end to Kane’s political career; Mr. Bernstein, the best friend whose loyalty Kane took for granted; Jedediah Leland, the best friend whose loyalty Kane eventually lost; and the butler who was closest to Kane in those final moments of his life. Each retells the same story with their own twist, one focusing on his power, the other on his goodness, the other on his pretentiousness, another on his humanity. While each one of them considers him or herself to be a valuable source, each has something to say—directly or indirectly—about the feebleness of their own memories. This notion of faulty memory is established at the outset, when Thompson taps into the memory of a dead man (Walter Parks Thatcher, the banker who took over guardianship of Kane when he was a young man). It seems that of all of them, only the butler’s testimony is the purest, though it is by far the shortest and provides the least information. Or, maybe it provides the most.
Ultimately, Thompson never finds out what “Rosebud” means. But we do, in one of the most well-constructed exploratory camera sequences ever recorded (which goes to show that a movie does not need words to be good). The unveiling of Rosebud’s meaning is considered one of the great twists in cinematic history. No need to give it away here, though I certainly hope that if you’re reading this far into my expose on Kane, you’ve at least seen it once by now.
Ultimately, what plays out is a complex character study made so much deeper and more complex by the fact that we are hearing about the character from characters that are equally divisive and unique. We come to see just how impossible it is to understand the life of a man through the words and experiences of even those closest to him. We also see just how much a person may not even be aware of their own actions, and how those closest to them are indispensable helps in keeping them down to earth. We can also see that sometimes the most intimate and simple things can do more to define a person that thousands and thousands of words. The final scene in Citizen Kane lends credence to the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words.”
When one considers the back-pedaling, contradicting, and unreliability of the film’s narrative structure, especially the multiplicity of its own characters, its approach to genre, and starkness in regards to light and composition, it becomes more and more obvious that movie is rank with deceiving dualism. It is two-faced in nature at all times. When it comes to Rosebud, this is particularly evident. Speaking about Rosebud, Thompson gives what is perhaps the most important speech of the film—which, at the same time, may be the most utterly useless:
Female reporter: If you could’ve found out what Rosebud meant, I bet that would’ve explained everything.
Thompson: No, I don’t think so; no. Mr. Kane was a man who got everything he wanted and then lost it. Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn’t get, or something he lost. Anyway, it wouldn’t have explained anything… I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life. No, I guess Rosebud is just a… piece in a jigsaw puzzle… a missing piece.
A lot of viewers will want to use the final unveiling of “Rosebud” to “explain everything” like the reporter suggested. But Mankiewicz and Welles clearly did not want us doing that. As a matter of fact, Welles himself said, “The Rosebud gimmick is what I like least about the movie. It’s a gimmick, really, and rather dollar-book Freud.” So here we are, with a speech that basically says everything and nothing, a MacGuffin that does everything but means nothing, and an all-important climax that the creative genius behind the climax admits is just a gimmick. But it can’t be just a gimmick. Or can it be?
This is the genius of Kane. It is a beautiful film à clef that turns out to be a tongue-in-cheek comedy. It is a tragedy that plays itself to be a political satire. It is an homage to all the great American comedies that preceded it, and yet it is a spit in the face of the entire literary culture of 1930s America, from the newspapers to Hollywood. While its profound mastery of the camera demands that movie be taken seriously, its self-aware contradictions demand that the viewer never take anything too deep to heart. After all, nothing (except for the scenes with Thompson) occurs in real-time. It’s all second hand. The entire nature of the film is one of gossip and sensationalism. Not much unlike the life and work of one William Randolph Hearst, and, as it turned out, one Orson Welles.
Since the whole movie plays out a slight-of-hand magic trick with literary conventions, it was imperative the manipulation of the camera and the film had to match. The viewer was to be taken on an intellectual ride, committing themselves one way or the other towards the movie’s dramatic qualities or its comedic timeliness. They would love or hate the Rosebud ending. They would love or hate Charles Foster Kane himself. They would likely change their minds with every single viewing. Mankiewicz had done his job. It would be Gregg Toland’s job to make the visuals match the dialogue, to make the optics match the message. It was a heavy task, but Welles—inexperienced as he was—had quite a few ideas on how to get the two masters of their respective crafts to reconcile their talents into a perfect collaborative effort.
Stay tuned…we’ll be talking about the technological prowess of the picture in the next essay.