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I Bet You Didn't See... Citizen Kane

Updated: Jan 13

Contains Spoilers!!!

I wished to make a motion picture which was not a narrative of action so much as an examination of character. For this, I desired a man of many sides and many aspects. It was my idea to show that six or more people could have as many widely divergent opinions concerning the nature of a single personality. Clearly such a notion could not be worked out if it would apply to an ordinary American citizen. – Orson Welles, January 15th, 1941. *

I can see why Citizen Kane is such a successful film, and why so many people within the industry idolise it so much. There is so much more to this film than I first thought.

The basic story goes like this –

Charles Foster Kane dies, and a news team want to discover the meaning behind his last word, “Rosebud”. Kane was a huge figure in his public life, there isn’t much that people don’t know about him. The film initially flits between the journalist meeting different people who knew Kane (business associates, colleagues, and lovers), and the story of his childhood and early-life business ventures.

Soon, we settle into a few stronger storylines from Kane’s life: the growth of his empire; his political campaigns; his marriages and affairs.

By the end, we see his last marriage break down because of his inability to understand why, with all his wealth, his wife is unhappy. It is just after this, as the film ends, that we learn the true meaning behind “Rosebud”.

There are a small number of key points about this film that I now find far more intriguing having watched it, than I did before.

Welles, 26, as Kane in middle-age

1 – Welles had not had all that much success in Theatre when he was being courted for the silver screen. He had turned down scripts on multiple occasions, wanting to focus on his plays instead. However, he was enticed after the impact that his infamous radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds had on America in 1938. The story that he walked into Hollywood without any experience and completely unheard of and laid Citizen Kane out for them seems to be a little over-exaggerated. However, it isn’t that far off. It was his first major film.

2 – The cast was almost entirely unknown. At the end of the film, the cast list is preceded by a message that says “Most of the principal actors in Citizen Kane are new to motion pictures. The Mercury Theatre (Welles’ theatre company) is proud to introduce them.” These included Agnes Moorehead, who would go on to receive four Academy Award nominations and star as Endora in the TV series Bewitched, and Ruth Warrick, who went on the star in All My Children. Many of the cast who were new to cinema or making their feature film debuts would go on to have long careers in some form, many behind the camera.

3 – The most famous shot in the film is early on when Kane is seen playing in the snow as a child and the camera slowly zooms out, coming into the house to his mother calling him. It is often used in cinema and cinematography lessons as an iconic moment in cinema development (I should know. I studied film at university. It was referenced a lot!). But there is so much more Welles did with the spaces in the film in relation with the camera. Some are too technical to discuss without using jargon but watch the use of space in the film. Also, there is one conversation between Kane and one of his editors at his newspapers that breaks a long-standing cinema rule, ‘The 180-degree rule’. Welles gets the cinematographer to change the angle of the camera facing the editor so that it feels like Kane has far more power in the conversation. However, typically the camera would stay on the same side of both actors, looking over their shoulders. This conversation is brilliantly different.

4 – The make-up is very good for the time. Welles was 26 when Citizen Kane was made. Kane is an old man in the film. The make-up department did an excellent job to make him look so much older. I did like seeing him turn his head and have his neck crumple up because of how much fake skin there was on him! They efforts made on everyone else were just as good, although most of them were just doing interviews with the journalist so they didn’t have all that much to do!

5 – It is not just a story of a man’s life. It is a commentary on society’s obsession with the rich and famous. These days, we’d probably know everything about Kane before he did, but back then, the lack of technology was the only restriction. The news team are obsessed with “Rosebud”, so they look into all the key, significant moments, and people in Kane’s life. Everyone has differing opinions of him and they lived with the same man. It still has relevance now, I believe.

It is truly a brilliant film, especially for its time. I can see why so many people recommend it. If you are studying film, are looking for a new film to try out, or enjoy old movies on a Sunday afternoon, try Citizen Kane.

Directed by: Orson Welles

Screenplay by: Orson Welles, Herman J. Mankiewicz

Starring: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton, Ruth Warrick, Agnes Moorehead

Released: May 1, 1941

My Rating: 8/10

* - - This will spoil the ending for you if you haven’t seen the film!

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