After months of prolonging my viewing of this film, I finally treated myself to a first viewing of what many have hailed as the greatest film ever made: Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.
Citizen Kane tells the story of the fictional newspaper tycoon Charles Foster Kane. The format in which the story is presented was certainly one of my favorite aspects of the film, giving it a fresh, original presentation. The movie opens with Kane on his deathbed uttering his last word, “Rosebud.” The rest of the film follows a reporter trying to uncover the significance of the word, revealing the life of Charles Foster Kane through a series of flashbacks told by the reporter’s interviewees. This format of storytelling gives the film a steady pace, and adds a new layer of interest to the film as a whole.
One of the most revolutionary aspects of the movie is the camerawork. Cinematographer Gregg Toland pioneered the use of deep focus lenses which keep the entire frame in focus, allowing the audiences’ eye to follow the movement in the frame not by the focus, but by dialogue, the composition of the shot, and the movements of the actors. Toland also utilizes many new techniques in the office space of Kane’s newspaper: the Inquirer. When filming, the crew cut out chunks of the floor and placed the camera in the resulting space, shooting the actors at an upwards angle, giving the characters a larger than life presentation. Tricks like these, subtle though they may be, make Citizen Kane a very unique viewing experience.
What truly gives the film depth, however, is the character of Kane himself. Orsen Welles’ performance is magnificently captivating, especially considering the fact that at some points in this film, he is playing a character 50 years older than he is, having been 25 years old when filming. Interestingly, the character that Welles portrays isn’t a traditional protagonist. Kane isn’t a particularly good man. He’s a brilliant figure, but not an especially moral individual. I, as an audience member, spent most of his screen time trying to figure him out rather than rooting for him. Much of the character’s complexity is expressed not only through the script, but through Welles’ performance.
A chief element that makes this movie particularly special is the reveal of what “Rosebud” is.
In the earliest flashback, we see a young Charles Foster Kane being taken from his parents at a small rural cabin to be raised by a banker functioning as his new legal guardian. During the banker’s conversation with Kane’s parents and throughout the rest of the scene, the young Charles can be seen playing in the snow outside with a small sled before being taken against his will to be raised by the banker. Kane goes on to live a long prosperous life not only as the owner of a flourishing newspaper, but also as a public celebrity. Simply put, he was a man who could have anything he could ask for. However, the last thing on his mind before he died was “Rosebud.”
At the end of the film, it is revealed that “Rosebud” was the name of his childhood sled that he was playing with in the earlier flashback. This ending has been interpreted many different ways since the films’s release. Some say it represents his parents; some say it represents his childhood innocence. And while I believe these to be reasonable meanings, I found the reveal of “Rosebud” to present a message of anti-materialism. Charles Foster Kane was the epitome of the American dream who achieved almost every earthly goal there is to achieve: money, power, women, etc. But at the end of his life, all he truly desired was a return to the simple life of himself with his parents, poor though they may have been, in a small rural cabin. His material achievements did not satisfy him. He found no significance in his secular accomplishments, but instead saw meaning in his life before being raised by the banker.
If I have any criticisms of this film, it might be that some of the scenes dragged a bit, but those points pale in comparison to the monumental accomplishment that is Citizen Kane.