Few, if any, films have left as long lasting and indelible mark on cinema as Orson Welle’s Citizen Kane. At 80 years old this year it is still considered one the most important films ever made. For those who study, love and make films it is more than a ‘must see’, it is essential viewing. But why is that?
Off the back of a hugely successful theatre and radio career Orson Welles arrived in Hollywood with no small amount of fanfare. But first time filmmakers are finding their feet in the medium, learning their trade before unleashing a masterpiece. Not so Welles. The ‘Hollywood boy genius’ (he was just 25 years old at the time of directing) didn’t just want to make a film, he wanted to etch himself into cinema itself.
And that’s exactly what he did. Following the death of media mogul Charles Foster Kane (played throughout his life by Kane, other than as a child) a journalist is determined to uncover the meaning behind Kane’s dying word; ‘Rosebud’. Meeting with former wives, colleagues and friends the mysterious man’s life comes together but still the truth of Rosebud evades all.
The history of the making of Citizen Kane is almost as fascinating as the film itself, both books and films, most recently David Fincher’s Mank have explored the topic, but it is the film that echoes loudest. The reason for that is the technique and style with which Welles and his director of photography Gregg Toland deployed to tell their story. When we speak about the ‘language’ of cinema you can usually find all the key aspects of the vocabulary in Kane. It is not so much that Kane invented cinematic language, but it took so many elements from other films and combined them to make an, at the time, unique and landmark film.
More than anything Kane is immersive, bathing you in style and substance in equal measure. From it’s chiaroscuro lighting to its unconventional narrative structure it is a film of hypnotic brilliance. But crucially it does all this while never losing heart. While it’s not always easy to like Kane you do always root for him. From his charming, cocksure days through to his hunched-over angry twilight years you know you are witnessing a man burdened with an unspoken grief, something the revelation of what Rosebud actually is articulates in a way modern Hollywood would do well to remember.
Welles’ performance is intentionally disjointed, we never see Kane through his own eyes but rather the eyes of those who thought they knew him. As such another stroke of Welles’ genius was to surround himself with a reliable cast of actors, many of whom he brought with him from his stage career. In particular Dorothy Comingore – as Kane’s mistress and then wife Susan Alexander – Joseph Cotton – as Kane’s friend Jedediah and Everett Sloane – as Kane’s long-suffering business manager Mr. Bernstein – are all superb, allowing their performances to bring Kane to life in more heartfelt ways than the character often deserves.
And throughout it all Kane, like Welles himself, looms large. It is here, looking at it through a historical eye that Kane seems to grow with every year and every viewing. If you want a contemporary comparison, HBO’s Succession looks at similar themes and ideas as Kane. That absolute power corrupts absolutely, that it’s lonely at the top and that more often than not that loneliness is born from ego marching over anyone who gets in its way.
This special 80th anniversary celebration edition from Warner Brothers brings the film to life in glorious 4K Ultra HD – allowing you to bask in Toland’s mastery of light – and a host of extras to further explore the importance of Kane and how it still resonates so loudly in modern cinema.
Citizen Kane remains a film of such bright burning gargantuan success that most films since merely fall in around its gravitational pull.