Orson Welles' Citizen Kane: What makes it the best film ever made?

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May 8 2011 7:57 AM

The Mark of Kane

Orson Welles' masterpiece, 70 years on.

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No one has come near this filmmaker in understanding this tension. Citizen Kane is all "about" the quest to pierce through proscenium enactment to reportorial truth; and to wonder, in the process, if even reportorial truth is the last level of reality. The Kane sets and ambience are monstrously theatrical yet we keep going through them, behind them, above them. The sign over Susan Alexander's nightclub is – in an "impossible" shot achieved with flyaway scenery – travelled through by the camera. It's a world of greasepaint and artifice, challenging us to find concealed truths. Welles's own portrayal becomes more theatrical by the reel. To play the older Charles Foster Kane he spent six hours each morning in the make-up chair: a grown-up playing charades. Yet ultimately the force of the movie, aided by the power of our curiosity, blows the sense of cosmetic make-believe apart.

Rosebud is part of the same action. What seems a fairy-tale simplification, a motif from the props department, opens up to become part of the movie's resonance. Welles was an amateur magician later in life; his last feature, F For Fake, was all about conjuring and imposture. No wonder the facile-seeming key to Kane's story – the name of his childhood sled – may be the actual key.

More literally, it is the bud that opens for moviegoers by being the bud that doesn't open in the movie. On screen "Rosebud" tells us Kane's life was nipped in its growth by a too-early rendezvous with wealth and destiny. But in our experiencing of the film "Rosebud" communicates the opposite. The spell of the word grows and grows. Like so much in the movie it starts as a hint, and expands by a process of change, association, counterpoint and contradiction into the holistic and all-comprehending.

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The part stands for the whole. The part becomes the whole. The pattern is there throughout, from the famous breakfast scene – 16 years of a marriage elided into a two-minute mealtime montage – to the way the idea of the "jigsaw" becomes revelatory and all-pervading. We look back from Susan Alexander Kane's epic bemusement over a literal jigsaw in the final scenes to the whole jigsaw technique this montage-rich movie has deployed: from the early News on the March newsreel to the skittering ellipses of Kane's tycoon career.

Reality in tension with artifice. Crystallisation in tension with expansion. The distilled in tension with the discursive. And, of course, fact in tension with fiction. Was Citizen Kane a portrait of the multimillionaire newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst? Of course it was. Hearst recognised it, banning any mention of the film in his publications. Louis B Mayer, on behalf of a Hollywood threatened with dire reprisal by Hearst, offered RKO Studios $805,000 to burn all prints and the negative.

At the same time, Citizen Kane wasn't about Hearst at all and has outlived him as an iconic world memory. You could as justly argue, and probably should, that Kane is Joseph Conrad's Kurtz. Heart of Darkness (later to inspire Francis Coppola's Apocalypse Now) was the debut film on which Welles had started pre-production. Too expensive, it gave way to Kane. But the stories are virtually identical. An "explorer" (in Kane, an investigative reporter) voyages "up-river" (against tides of resistance) through a "jungle" (of conflicting and contradictory information) to find a man – or, in Kane, the secret of a man – who has lived as a wilful, ruthless, overlording tyrant.

Then again, Kane is Welles himself. Kane lovers and critics recognise the stormy, capricious boy wonder in front of the camera as the one behind it. The fully-grown genius who was simultaneously an overgrown baby. The cranky tyrant who was a lost, lovable, richly imaginative soul. The rosebud who was also rose ...

This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.

Nigel Andrews writes about film for the Financial Times.