Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Citizen Kane (1941) - Keeps me Riveted

Citizen Kane Orson film poster
"Citizen Kane" (1941).

Everyone knows about "Citizen Kane" (1941), so it's not as if I'm bringing a forgotten film to your attention. This goes in my top three film experiences, along with "The Third Man" and "Gone with the Wind." The surprises are many in this film, with shifts of emotion and tone throughout. It follows the life of one Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles), a boy of humble means who is propelled into a life of wealth and notoriety. Ultimately, he becomes a newspaper magnate who dabbles in other pursuits. The scenes of Kane as politician are absolutely the best depiction of politics you will ever see, as true today as they were the day this was filmed.

Citizen Kane Orson
Charles Foster Kane lives up there.

This film excites me. It keeps me riveted for its entire length. Virtually every scene teaches me something about the human condition. The sheer brilliance and raw originality of this film astonish me every time I see it.

Certain scenes stand out. The speech that Kane gives while running for Governor captures the essence of a politician to perfection, with the dramatic gestures and pompous promises. That it has perhaps the most famous backdrop in film history - the huge picture of Kane - hanging behind him, as if to say the man can never live up to the image, is icing on the cake.

Orson Welles Citizen Kane 1941
Orson Welles at the premiere of "Citizen Kane."

The ravaging of Susan's room followed by the walk past the mirrors, is perfection.

The early scenes of "Citizen Kane," when Kane's parents are bought off, and the significance of the financial settlement on their austere life is made plain, are terrific. They may have weak principles, but money talks.

Citizen Kane Orson
Everything is wacky and cockeyed

The scenes of the young Kane when taking over his newspaper, the Inquirer, are full of fight and conviction, larger than life, committed to principles, capture the essence of youthful idealism. An essence that the remainder of the film commits to smashing, with certainty.

The scenes of his contemporaries, recalling Kane's life with a strange mixture of reverence and contempt, is as close to real life as anything I can recall in film. All that anyone is certain of is that they don't have the whole story - and who does, about anyone?

Citizen Kane Orson
"Citizen Kane": A man of many facets.

The overloaded house which frames the picture, full of a jumble of things that together form their own vast, undecipherable jigsaw puzzle, is the perfect metaphor for Kane himself (jigsaw puzzles actually appear now and then in the film to reinforce this theme). Huge and unmanageable, but full of the details that could reveal the truth if only one knew where to look.

The making of the film was a drama in itself. Orson Welles was an east coast theater producer with a popular radio show who got a one-of-a-kind contract at RKO which gave him complete control over the picture. Despite intense pressure from various sources, RKO upheld its end of the contract. Welles triumphed with "Citizen Kane" - but then it all came apart for him due to World War II. The making of "Citizen Kane" is the story of a man who momentarily slashes through the forces hindering success and achieves something special that truly never has been repeated.

I realize there are a lot of people who think that "Citizen Kane" is over-hyped and can't possibly be as good as touted. I am not in that group. It's easy to find fault with any film, and it's certainly not impossible to do with this one, either. But the caliber of the performances by complete newcomers, and the natural intelligence that is thrown on the screen can't be denied. No film is right for everybody. But I believe that, if given a chance, "Citizen Kane" will strike a chord with any viewer.

One of the very few "must sees" in film history.


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