October 23, 2012

Citizen Kane (1941)
Grade: 97/100

Director: Orson Welles
Stars: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Everett Sloane

What it's about. One of the most famous films from the "classic" Hollywood era. Young director Orson Welles was already notorious for his "War of the Worlds" radio show that had listeners believing Martians had invaded New Jersey. Welles' feature debut was also controversial: a thinly veiled biopic on newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst.

Never mind that Hearst was still alive in 1941, and he was still married to his first wife. His mistress, Marion Davies, had been a successful, highly regarded actress instead of an incompetent opera singer. Hearst's father had been a U.S. Senator of California, a sizeable difference from the rural bumpkin depicted in the movie.

But Welles' intention was not to represent Hearst honestly. Instead, Hearst's story was the basis for a cinematic exploration of what vast wealth could, and could not, accomplish. While Kane, Hearst's fictional counterpart, amassed power, it had its limits (elective office narrowly eluded him) and it couldn't buy him love.

The movie opens with news of Kane's death. Kane is described via newsreel as a great man who had lived past his era. We learn he was twice married, twice divorced, and was denied at the ballot box. He built a newspaper empire that diminished during the Great Depression.

Thus, as in Sunset Blvd., the plot is established at the beginning. All that is left is to put flesh upon Kane and the key figures in his life: his humorless, determined mother (Agnes Moorehead); his skilled but easily exasperated banker (George Coulouris); his two favorite employees, gregarious Everett Sloane and ironic Joseph Cotten; his high class first wife, Ruth Warrick; his low class second wife, Dorothy Comingore; and finally, his cynical and condescending head servant, Paul Stewart.

All the players in Kane's life see different pieces of his personality, but taken together, they depict the tremendous rise and fall of a man's hopes, energy, and impact. Kane dies wealthy and at a ripe old age, but he is nonetheless depicted as a fallen man, an aloof and impotent figure surrounded by servants who see him solely as a paycheck. He has lost the love of everyone once important to him.

How others will see it. The greatness of Citizen Kane was recognized early. The movie was nominated for nine Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Editing, and Best Score, though it won only for Best Writing.

A list of the cast and crew is practically a who's-who of Production Code Hollywood. Among the most important names are Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Robert Wise, Herman J. Makiewicz, and Bernard Herrmann. Unluckily for Welles and RKO studios, the movie was not a commercial success during its initial run, and it wasn't until some years later that the movie became consensus pick as the Best Movie Ever, with stiff competition from Casablanca, and lately, Vertigo.

Today at imdb.com, the movie has a remarkable 186K user votes with an extremely high average user grade of 8.5. However, its current placement on the imdb Top 250 list at #44 places it much lower than such dubious entrants as #1 Shawshank Redemption and #8 The Dark Knight.

How I felt about it. Anyone who has seen many movies can recognize the greatness of Citizen Kane upon first glance. The script is spectacular, the characters are well honed, the editing is crisp, the direction is tight, the story is compelling. Everything is great.

We do wonder, though, about the key supporting character, Kane's second wife. The film turns about her. She ruins his political career and first marriage. She wants to escape from the opera star role he has forced her to play, so he builds a remote castle where she can have peace. She becomes bored and leaves, but Kane stays behind, a prisoner in his own gilded cage.

Comingore enters the movie as a charming and unaffected momma's girl. She ends up a shrill alcoholic, done in by the stresses of unwanted performances and loneliness. But in a mansion full of servants, wouldn't she befriend some of them, like a queen with her handmaidens, instead of sitting alone doing jigsaw puzzles? And why would she read reviews of her performance, especially if she didn't want to perform in the first place?

Kane works best as an allegory of an everyman thrust into greatness. Kane would have been happy to remain a kid on his sled Rosebud during a Colorado winter. Instead, he ended up as a feared publishing magnate whose character flaws were magnified by the power of his wealth.

Today's counterpart is Ted Turner, who once controlled a media empire, and a moviestar wife, but has since retreated to obscurity, though very much alive. Interestingly, Turner initially became famous as a yachtsman, which was the ideal blueblood career of George Amberson, the protagonist of Welles' second feature.