In 1973, I saw Orson Welles’ film Citizen Kane for the first time. Its reputation as the greatest film ever made, having been voted as such in the Sight and Sound polls in both 1962 and 1972, was already widely held and shared.
I do remember clearly that a first viewing did not convince me: I was much more impressed by Welles’ sinister but alluring performance in Carol Reed’s The Third Man which I saw around the same time.
Subsequent viewings of Citizen Kane spread infrequently over the years, so it took time for my opinions to clarify . There were occasions when the old-fashioned bits glared out, such as the make-up used to age Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten into the older Kane and Leland, or perhaps Dorothy Comingore’s rather shrill, forced performance as Kane’s young second wife. Mostly, however, and most recently when BBC4 screened it at the start of this year, it seemed brilliantly entertaining as well as brilliant.
The aspect which has thrilled me most in my later viewings is the way Welles used so confidently and skilfully the modernist technique of a multi-perspective narrative. He gives the audience layers of information and understanding about the recently deceased newspaper magnate Charles Forster Kane from different sources in different ways. First, some basic biography from the “News on the March” cinema newsreel, and from the spontaneous conflicting responses of reporters. One reporter Jerry Thompson gleans further information from reading the memoirs of Kane’s guardian Walter Thatcher in the cathedral-like surroundings of the Thatcher Memorial Library. Then, always discreetly on the edge of the camera, he interviews some real-life witnesses: loyal business manager Bernstein, disaffected friend Leland, failed singer and ex-wife Susan, butler Paul.
One of my favourite sections has always been the New York Inquirer staff party where Kane introduces (with the puff of a photographer’s bulb like a conjurer) his new journalism staff, all recruited from the previously more successful Chronicle, and announces that the Inquirer now has the highest circulation in the city. The triumphal frivolity continues with the performance of the laudatory vaudeville song about Kane which he joins in with – while Leland wryly wonders to Bernstein whether this money-led business model can be maintained. The answer, of course, is that Kane’s extravagance and flamboyance will fatally undermine his progress.
Another memorable scene, which I would certainly have over-looked in younger listens to the Oscar-winning dialogue written by Welles and Herman J.Manciewicz, is Leland’s later criticism of Kane’s patronising of his working-class readership and voters. The “working man” whom Kane boasted he represented and protected has now assembled itself into “organised labour”, mocks Leland, and will see a privileged capitalist like Kane as an enemy rather than a friend – and Kane is a man who wants to be loved and admired by everyone.
Although it scored highly in the latest (2012) Sight and Sound poll, Citizen Kane is much lower down the IMDB list of the best 250 films. This league table, which appears to show the tastes of younger viewers, currently places Welles’ film lower than other 1940s films which have perhaps more straightforward narratives, It’s a Wonderful Life and Casablanca, as well as three Charlie Chaplin films, City Lights, Modern Times and The Great Dictator which had mostly stayed out of fashion since Chaplin died in 1977.
Citizen Kane’s time will surely come round again. Although Welles’ sets and some effects are plain by today’s standards, most of what we see on screen looks modern and convincing. The flashbacks, the voice-overs, the time compressions, the sharp camera angles, the crane shots, close-up faces combined with middle-distance action, the use of sound and music. Wedded to a narrative both male and female – power, money, family, romance, friendship, politics, culture – which you need only two hours to watch again.
The anonymous article “The Secret Life of Citizen Kane” from the Movie Movie website provides some rewarding insights.