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Citizen Kane Movie Review

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1941 – Orson Welles –

Orson Welles' first film explored the life of press baron Charles Foster Kane (Welles) in the effort to solve the riddle of his dying word “rosebud.” The movie has been so often called the greatest film ever made and the world's most honored film that we forget how much of its mythic power derives from Welles' deep tragic sensibility. “All of the characters I've played,” he has said, “are various forms of Faust: all have bartered their souls and lost.” Hard to find a better epitaph for Kane. In spite of the bravura cinematic style and the fascinatingly fair (buying up the world's artifacts and then leaving them unopened) and unfair (the harsh treatment of Kane's second wife) parallels to the life of William Randolph Hearst, this view of Kane as tragic hero may be the richest approach to the film and the one that also gives it an epic scale. Lending power to that essential grand drama of the American dream bought and lost is the dynamic editing by Robert Wise and an uncredited Mark Robson, and Greg Toland's astonishing and still influential cinematography. Toland uses a deep focus within the frame to give perspective on the character and his surroundings, and deploys light and shadow to exploit the dramatic urgency. Welles intersects strands of nonlinear narrative to create a rich dynamic whole. The overall level of sophistication and innovation is astonishing; even more so when you consider that Welles was 26 when the movie opened.

An old rule of thumb about tragedy maintains that “tragedy happens when you lose what means most to you.” Kane's tragedy, as Leland (Joseph Cotten) points out (“Charlie wanted everyone to love him, but he wanted love on his own terms”), is the lost sense of being loved and Kane's increasingly desperate attempt to reclaim it. The trip to view the objects from his mother's estate on the night he meets Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore) is one attempt. The career in politics and buying up the world's art are others. Kane's awareness of this loss of love gives his character much of his complexity. He has to live with himself knowing what he is turning into. When his best friend is about to walk out of his life, he tells Leland, “Here's to love on our own terms, Jedidiah; those are the only terms anyone knows anything about,” but of course he sounds like someone voicing a fact he wishes weren't so. The scene in the big hall when Kane campaigns for governor is probably the only one that can claim the vastness of size that we often associate with epics, but the real mythic scale lies in what this scene represents: a man who so badly wants the sense of security and love of his childhood that he seeks it in the votes of the faceless thousands before him. The use of space in the scenes at Xanadu—the cavernous fireplace, a living room the size of a gymnasium—all visually suggest what Welles has said about Kane: “a man who turned out to be an empty box.”

Cast: Orson Welles (Charles Foster Kane), Joseph Cotten (Jedediah Leland), Dorothy Comingore (Susan Alexander), Everett Sloan (Mr. Bernstein), Ray Collins (Boss Jim Gettys), Paul Stewart (Raymond), Ruth Warrick (Emily Norton), Erskine Sanford (Mr. Carter), Agnes Moorehead (Kane's mother), Harry Shannon (Kane's father), George Coulouris (Walter Parks Thatcher), William Alland (Thompson), Fortunio Bonanova (Matiste), Gus Schilling (waiter), Katherine Trosper (reporter), Philip Van Zandt (Rawlston), Buddy Swan (young Kane), Thomas A. Curran (Teddy Roosevelt), Alan Ladd (reporter with the pipe) Screenwriter: Orson Welles, Herman J. Mankiewicz Cinematographer: Gregg Toland Composer: Bernard Herrmann Producer: Orson Welles for RKO and the Mercury Theater Running Time: 119 minutes Format: VHS, LV Awards: Academy Awards 1941: Original Screenplay; Nominations: Actor (Orson Welles), Black and White Cinematography (Gregg Toland), Director (Orson Welles), Editing, Interior Decoration, Picture, Sound, Original Dramatic/Comedy Score (Bernard Herrmann).

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