Reviews

Citizen Kane

4

Orson Welles' directorial debut's topicality and energy remain undiminished

If a 24-year-old Orson Welles somehow time-jumped from 1940 to now, he’d find plenty of material to take back for his first film.

He might see in the economic crisis a mirror of the Great Depression that caused media mogul William Randolph Hearst such grief in the late ’20s.

Rupert Murdoch and Silvio Berlusconi’s political, personal and press scandals might stoke his imagination.

He might even catch The White Stripes’ ‘The Union Forever’ rumbling out of a radio and relate enough to its cocksuredness to filch lines from the lyrics: “There is a man...”

All of which proves Citizen Kane still booms to us down the years, its topicality and energy undiminished despite its recent downgrading (by Hitchcock’s Vertigo) from top-dog position in Sight & Sound’s 10-yearly best-films-ever poll.

That toppling might be welcomed by those who like seeing sacred cows stiffed, but Kane resists any such relish thanks to its abundance and vim.

Rapturous in style, resonant in subject, rich in soul: it’s the classic that keeps on giving, its parts and pizzazz inexhaustible.

Style isn’t all Kane has, but it might be the technical whizz that grabs us first.

For anyone who has been living in a snowglobe for 71 years, Kane is about Charles Foster Kane (Welles), a media giant part-based on Hearst, whose last word before he dies (whisper it: “Rosebud”) sparks a press hunt to probe its meaning.

The answer might be film’s most famous non-spoilery spoiler, as Welles hinted when he said, “The point of the picture is not so much the solution of the problem as its presentation.”

And what presentation: working with ace cinematographer Gregg Toland, Welles scrambled Jean Renoir, John Ford, Fritz Lang and more into outrageous experiments with deep focus, extreme lighting, tracking shots, spatial mischief, lap dissolves, craning plunges through rooftops, and oppressive low-angle views achieved by holes dug in floors and ceilings mocked-up on sets.

Transcending mere dazzle, Welles electrified that stylistic showmanship with high-voltage storytelling.

Kane might be the mash-up to end all mash-ups: probing power, politics, love, loss, the media, money and more in the context of one man’s life story as viewed from multiple perspectives, Welles and co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz conjure non-linear surges of newsreel, noir, detective story, melodrama, biopic and  beyond.

The pacing is bracingly reckless. One montage plots an entire marriage over breakfasts; the opening newsreel footage winds down early on as if punning cheekily on the plotting’s very breathlessness.

Welles hinted at a blurring of the Welles/Kane divide when he ascribed such risktaking to “the confidence of ignorance”, his words echoing Kane’s comments about running a newspaper. “I don’t know how to run a newspaper... I just try everything I can think of,” says can-do Charlie.

If Kane tells the story of a man who had everything and lost it, it’s also ‘about’ its own backstory: the story of how a young tyro grabbed the unprecedented opportunity of final cut at RKO and hurled “everything” at it, as if something in Welles knew he wouldn’t make another Hollywood film without compromise.

It’s that rarity, a studio film  corralled by an A-team (to Toland and Mankiewicz, add composer Bernard Herrmann, editor Robert Wise – and more) that substantiates our romantic urge to see filmmaking as irreducibly personal.

If that prescience and personality astonish, so does Welles’ sweep from the speed of youth to mature reflection. “A long-playing full shot is what always separates the men from the boys,” Welles said. Kane majors in such grace-note shots, moments where the actors Welles transferred from his Mercury Theatre play a scene for its humanity.

Think of aging Jed Leland (Joseph Cotten) trying to bum cigars off the reporter, craving one more puff on youth, or Everett Sloane’s Bernstein recalling the woman he saw once who haunted him for life.

Kane is monumental but it also moves, from the scene where young Charles is torn from his mother to the one where he trashes his second wife’s bedroom after she leaves him, as outwardly cold as one of the statues she berates him for collecting, but burning inside.

Welles equals his mercurial direction as Kane, cocksure in youth, charismatic in politics, stiffened in age. The dance sequence is suggestive: look how light-footed Welles is for his bulk.

Freighted with decades of attention, Citizen Kane wears its greatness lightly, twirls out of easy grasp.

That combination of heft and slipperiness is  magnetic: not just a film but an ever-shifting mosaic, it keeps pulling us back by seeming to offer new perspectives for each viewing. Shame you can’t say the same for the disc.

Blu-ray restoration featurette aside, the extras are goodies but oldies: Ken Barnes’ info-packed commentary, a Barry Norman-presented doc and radio nuggets date from 2003’s release.

Gallingly, Region 1 delights left out include big-name fans’ commentaries (Peter Bogdanovich, Roger Ebert) and a two-hour documentary, The Battle Over Citizen Kane, charting Hearst’s attempts to quell the film.

Don’t be shocked to see another reissue before its 80th anniversary – or another Kane/Vertigo switcheroo in the poll stakes.

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