Americana Movie Month: "Citizen Kane" Review


Americana Movie Month: "Citizen Kane" Review

-- Rating: PG
Length: 119 minutes
Release Date: Sept. 5, 1941
Directed by: Orson Welles
Genre: Drama/Mystery

"Citizen Kane" is the Grand Old Lady of American cinema. Nobody can really put his or her finger on a single factor that elevates this film over its competition to regularly top the "Best Films of the Century" lists, but it's very nearly heresy to suggest that it shouldn't. Orson Welles was only in his twenties when he got the green light to make "Citizen Kane," and in it, the dash and cunning of a confident young man come through like a searchlight.

"Citizen Kane" opens on the mansion of a publishing tycoon named Charles Foster Kane (Orson Wells), who is generally regarded as a caricature of the major publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst. Kane's dying word is the enigmatic "rosebud," the mystery of which drives a team of reporters-they like to be called gumshoes-in a search for the meaning of the man's apparently lifelong obsession.

Nearly every element of this film is technically perfect-from the script, which unfolds like a classic noir detective story, to the props, the blocking, the performances, the cinematography and even the sound, which represents a major step forward in voice capture, meaning that actors no longer had to lean over a microphone to deliver their lines into a vase of flowers. The importance of "Citizen Kane" has long transcended mere movies and grown to infect the entire culture. Behold the trope of the aloof, self-made millionaire with an empty soul. Behold, also, the surprise twist ending as a plot device that has been woven into the film industry for seven decades now-"rosebud" is the name of Kane's sled from when he was a kid, by the way. If that's a spoiler at this point, what a shame.

"Citizen Kane" can't be said to have cleaned up at the Oscars, winning only Best Writing (Original Screenplay). The reception it got from the Academy wasn't a total snub, however, as the picture did run away with multiple nominations, including Best Director and Best Actor in a Leading Role for Wells, Best Art Direction, and a well-earned Best Picture.

The Best Picture nomination is telling, since the winner in 1942 was the classic "How Green Was My Valley." It says a lot about Hollywood's inner workings that the much more commercial film-"How Green Was My Valley" was produced by the motion picture giant 20th Century Fox, while "Citizen Kane" was sponsored by the much smaller and more independent Mercury-won despite the warm critical reception and reportedly heavy lobbying in favor of "Citizen Kane."

The performances in "Citizen Kane" were certainly enough to attract the attendance of moviegoers and the praise of critics alike. Joseph Cotton is totally believable as the dogged journalist who finds himself driven against his will into a mystery he may never solve alone. Dorothy Comingore plays a masterful Susan Kane in the poised manner of the products of the studio system. Of note is the role of Mary, which was played by the then up-and-coming young starlet named Agnes Moorehead. Agnes had a big future ahead of her when she landed her role in Wells' masterpiece, and it was "Citizen Kane" that launched her into it.

"Citizen Kane" was always going to be much more than just a movie. All their lives, the cast and crew of the film told interviewers-interviewers who generally worked "Citizen Kane" into their interviews-that they knew from the first day that they were working on a classic. They were even surprised in later years by the way "Citizen Kane" seemed to take on a life outside of theaters and rise to occupy a place of honor in the larger culture of the nation. The film is quoted everywhere one looks, the lonely man of substance has entered the collective unconscious of the English-speaking world, and the central conceit of "Citizen Kane" even managed to barnstorm popular culture through the homages paid by such lights as "The Simpsons" and an entire episode of the animated "Ghostbusters" cartoon.

While time has eased away the culture of which "Citizen Kane" was a product and home video has bred contempt through familiarity, "Citizen Kane" reached for-and for the most part achieved-that which eluded its subject: immortality. While Kane's life resolved into a lost quest to recapture the lost innocent pleasure of boyhood and his legacy was reduced to a tawdry mystery that sold papers, the film's life has grown richer and more widespread with the passing years, and its legacy will forever be a single word: masterpiece.

Rating 4.5 out of 5