May 06, 2016

Citizen Kane: Orson Welles’s Masterpiece, As A 1941 NYT Critic Saw It


"Citizen Kane" is almost always  number 1 on the lists of best films ever!                                                              
Within the withering spotlight as no other film has ever been before, Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane had is world premiere at the Palace last evening. And now that the wraps are off, the mystery has been exposed and Mr Welles and the RKO directors have taken the much-debated leap, it can be safely stated that suppression of this film would have been a crime. For, in spite of some disconcerting lapses and strange ambiguities in the creation of the principal character, Citizen Kane is far and away the most surprising and cinematically exciting motion picture to be seen here in many a moon. As a matter of fact, it comes close to being the most sensational film ever made in Hollywood.

Count on Mr Welles; he doesn’t do things by halves. Being a mercurial fellow, with a frightening theatrical flair, he moved right into the movies, grabbed the medium by the ears and began to toss it around with the dexterity of a seasoned veteran. Fact is, he handled it with more verve and inspired ingenuity than any of the elder craftsmen have exhibited in years.

With the able assistance of Gregg Toland, whose services should not be overlooked, he found in the camera the perfect instrument to encompass his dramatic energies and absorb his prolific ideas. Upon the screen he discovered an area large enough for his expansive whims to have free play. And the consequence is that he has made a picture of tremendous and overpowering scope, not in physical extent so much as in its rapid and graphic rotation of thoughts. Mr Welles has put upon the screen a motion picture that really moves.

As for the story which he tells — and which has provoked such an uncommon fuss — this corner frankly holds considerable reservation. Naturally we wouldn’t know how closely — if at all — it parallels the life of an eminent publisher, as has been somewhat cryptically alleged. But that is beside the point in a rigidly critical appraisal. The blamable circumstance is that it fails to provide a clear picture of the character and motives behind the man about whom the whole thing revolves.

As the picture opens, Charles Kane lies dying in the fabulous castle he has built — the castle called Xanadu, in which he has surrounded himself with vast treasures. And as death closes his eyes his heavy lips murmur one word, “Rosebud”. Suddenly the death scene is broken; the screen becomes alive with a staccato March-of-Time-like news feature recounting the career of the dead man — how, as a poor boy, he came into great wealth, how he became a newspaper publisher as a young man, how he aspired to political office, was defeated because of a personal scandal, devoted himself to material acquisition and finally died.

But the editor of the news feature is not satisfied; he wants to know the secret of Kane’s strange nature and especially what he meant by “Rosebud”. So a reporter is dispatched to find out, and the remainder of the picture is devoted to an absorbing visualisation of Kane’s phenomenal career as told by his boyhood guardian, two of his closest newspaper associates and his mistress. Each is agreed on one thing — that Kane was a titanic egomaniac. It is also clearly revealed that the man was in some way consumed by his own terrifying selfishness.

But just exactly what it is that eats upon him, why it is there and, for that matter, whether Kane is really a villain, a social parasite, is never clearly revealed. And the final, poignant identification of “Rosebud” sheds little more than a vague, sentimental light upon his character.

At the end Kubla Kane is still an enigma — a very confusing one.

But check that off to the absorption of Mr Welles in more visible details. Like the novelist, Thomas Wolfe, his abundance of imagery is so great that it sometimes gets in the way of his logic. And the less critical will probably be content with an undefined Kane, anyhow. After all, nobody understood him. Why should Mr Welles? Isn’t it enough that he presents a theatrical character with consummate theatricality?

We would, indeed, like to say as many nice things as possible about everything else in this film — about the excellent direction of Mr Welles, about the sure and penetrating performances of literally every member of the cast and about the stunning manner in which the music of Bernard Herrmann has been used. Space, unfortunately, is short. All we can say, in conclusion, is that you shouldn’t miss this film.

It is cynical, ironic, sometimes oppressive and as realistic as a slap. But it has more vitality than 15 other films we could name. And, although it may not give a thoroughly clear answer, at least it brings to mind one deeply moral thought: For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul? See Citizen Kane for further details.

A modern perspective:

Reading David Thomson’s stimulating new book How to Watch a Movie, I was struck by the thought that I needed to watch Citizen Kane again. And again. Having seen it three times, I was at least 97 viewings behind. Thomson’s analysis of Orson Welles’s mesmerising debut feature — he was only 25 when he made it — made me think of Alejandro G. Inarritu’s 2015 Oscar winner, Birdman, another film with a hard-to-like hero and an uncertain ending. 

Citizen Kane was broadly snubbed at the 1942 Academy Awards, where John Ford’s Welsh mining drama How Green Was My Valley was the star attraction.

So I watched Citizen Kane this week to mark its 75th anniversary and enjoyed it more than ever. If I were sent to a desert island I’d still take Karel Reisz’s 40-years-younger film The French Lieutenant’s Woman, but that probably says more about my weaknesses than Welles’s strengths. Part of the fourth viewing pleasure was I didn’t have to focus much on the story because I knew it, but on the groundbreaking camerawork, editing and directorial vision. 

Welles’s use of light and dark, especially in rooms where he makes a menace of enclosed space, is thrilling. So are the usual camera angles, the looking down at lesser people, up at more important ones, and also the distancing of characters, the hiding of their faces. I watched more than once the Xanadu scene where Charles Foster Kane, in a faraway chair, tells his jigsaw-occupied second wife they might go on a picnic. Her answer is surprising and unsettling: “Huh?”

This was the other force that came to me on this viewing: the darkness, the unhappiness, the messiness of Kane’s life. It’s also a prescient take on the media. For the first time, I noticed the moment in the early newsreel footage that mentions the death of his first wife and son in a car accident. We know about the sled and his childhood, but is this loss his real Rosebud, I wonder? It’s not mentioned again. The film begins and ends with a Xanadu sign that reads “No Trespassing”. Well, we’ve been doing that for 75 years and I, for one, am going to continue.
Stephen Romei 

CITIZEN KANE: the players
Original screen play by Orson Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz; produced and directed by Orson Welles; photography by Gregg Toland; music composed and conducted by Bernard Herrmann; released through RKO-Radio. At the Palace.

Charles Foster Kane . . . . . Orson Welles
Kane, aged eight . . . . . Buddy Swan
Kane, aged three days . . . . . Sonny Bupp
Kane’s Father . . . . . Harry Shannon
Jedediah Leland . . . . . Joseph Cotten
Susan Alexander . . . . . Dorothy Comingore
Mr Bernstein . . . . . Everett Sloane
James W. Gettys . . . . . Ray Collins
Walter Parks Thatcher . . . . . George Coulouris
Kane’s Mother . . . . . Agnes Moorehead
Raymond . . . . . Paul Stewart
Emily Norton . . . . . Ruth Warrick
Herbert Carter . . . . . Erskine Sanford
Thompson . . . . . William Alland
Miss Anderson . . . . . Georgia Backus
Mr Rawlston . . . . . Philip Van Zandt
Headwaiter . . . . . Gus Schilling
Signor Matiste . . . . . Fortunio Bonano

By Bosley Crowther
With many thanks to The Australian


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