WHENEVER the great and the good of cinema compile their lists of the best-ever films, one title is invariably at or near the top: Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. This claim for a movie released in 1941 may seem baffling to some. Yet if ever the wit, imagination, technical invention, narrative possibility, bravura, mystery and romance of the medium were to be found within one film, it’s this.
It opens within the faded palace of Xanadu, where an old man dies, a snow globe falling from his hand and the word “Rosebud” from his lips. Then a cut to a darkened room and a booming voice exclaiming “Neeews on the March”, and the newsreel relating the rise and fall of the press magnate Charles Foster Kane. The newsmen watching are not satisfied: they still know nothing about the reclusive Kane. “Rosebud”, they decide, holds the key.
Much was made of the fact that Welles and co-writer Herman J Mankiewicz based their man on the yellow press baron William Randolph Hearst – not least by Hearst himself, who was instrumental in sabotaging the film’s release and damaging the prodigy’s subsequent career. But in Welles’ hands Kane was so much more than thinly-veiled biography; his investigation of Kane’s life is a detective story and an existential puzzle, a mosaic of memories and differing perspectives, all leading to Xanadu’s mirrored prison and creating what Borges, quoting G.K. Chesterton, described as “a labyrinthine without a center”.
Welles and his collaborators used a plethora of cinematic tricks, many for the first time. Cameraman Gregg Toland’s use of deep focus meant that, for once, audiences had the same choices of what to view within a scene as they had in life. Yet this realism was a strange one, skewed by expressionistic lighting, low-angle shots and complex interiors, the narrative propelled by dazzling montages and dissolves. Accompanied by Bernard Herrmann’s superb soundtrack, this rich mix results in one memorable scene after another: the lightning flash that takes a swooping camera from outside a window to within; the breakfast scene that condenses years of marital decline into three minutes; the rambunctious newspaper party, as Kane the showman celebrates the theft of his rivals’ best journalists; the opera scene in which we soar impossibly to the rafters.
As Kane, Welles the actor was as he always would be: larger than life. At the same time, the 25-year-old brilliantly essays the slow death of Kane’s idealism, eroded by power, wealth, egotism, love. And the star had the good sense to surround himself with his Mercury Players from the theatre – the bustling Joseph Cotten and Everett Sloane, George Coulouris, Ray Collins, Agnes Moorhead, unfamiliar, potent screen presences.
Welles rewrote the book on filmmaking so impressively that Citizen Kane has rarely been surpassed. When you watch it, everyone from Kurosawa to Tarantino falls into line.