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

Stories from the Financial Times. 
May 8 2011 7:57 AM

The Mark of Kane

Orson Welles' masterpiece, 70 years on.

1_123125_2274791_from_ft_logox562px
(Continued from Page 1)

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.

Advertisement

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

History

The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Television

See Me

Transparent is the fall’s only great new show.

Doublex

Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

  News & Politics
Damned Spot
Sept. 30 2014 9:00 AM Now Stare. Don’t Stop. The perfect political wife’s loving gaze in campaign ads.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 30 2014 11:25 AM Naomi Klein Is Wrong Multinational corporations are doing more than governments to halt climate change.
  Life
Atlas Obscura
Sept. 30 2014 10:10 AM A Lovable Murderer and Heroic Villain: The Story of Australia's Most Iconic Outlaw
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 29 2014 1:52 PM Do Not Fear California’s New Affirmative Consent Law
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 10:59 AM “For People, Food Is Heaven” Boer Deng on the story behind her piece “How to Order Chinese Food.”
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 10:48 AM One of Last Year’s Best Animated Shorts Is Finally Online for Free
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:36 AM Almost Humane What sci-fi can teach us about our treatment of prisoners of war.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 30 2014 7:30 AM What Lurks Beneath the Methane Lakes of Titan?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.