50 years, 50 films Vol II: Citizen Kane (1941)
As we slip backwards into a busy year we fail to avoid the elephant in the cinema
I can’t remember exactly who said this. But, on one of the many occasions that Citizen Kane was named the best film of all time, yet another debate kicked off as to whether something else should be allowed to have a go. Whoever this person was shrugged and said: “Well, can you name a better one?” In other words, Citizen Kane may not be the undisputed best film of all time — there is no such thing — but it will do as well as any other. You could say the same about Tokyo Story, The Rules of the Game or Sunrise.
So much has been written about Orson Welles’s feature debut that it hardly seems worth trawling through the historical archives. You will know that Gregg Toland’s camera made extraordinary use of deep focus and found itself in the unusual position of including ceilings in the shot. You will know that the picture — following an ambitious newspaper man from idealism to megalomania — works as a commentary on the life of William Randolph Hearst and that the newspaper magnate never forgave Welles. You shouldn’t need to be told that, in the early 1970s. Pauline Kael published a long essay suggesting that Herman J. Mankiewicz, credited as co-writer, deserved close to 100 percent of the credit. If you’ve heard the name Orson Welles you will know that the director never again had the confidence of a movie studio. (Indeed, he never once made a film for one of the Big Six.)
All of this is to demonstrate what a magnet for legend Citizen Kane has become. Welles’s own peculiar renown (you might say “notoriety”) had much to do with this. By the time he came to make Kane, then still in his twenties, he had already made enormous noises on both theatre and wireless. His African-American Macbeth remains the stuff of legend. His War of the Worlds radio broadcast — which may or may not have triggered panic — is an early model for the now ubiquitous found-footage genre. All of that would have been enough to trigger chatter, but the sheer charisma of the man helped turn reputation into legend.
The technical innovations that Kane introduced have inspired whole books. But what remains notable about the film today is its seamless blend of high artifice and propulsive storytelling. Later in life, when he drifted into documentaries such as F for Fake, Welles became a skirter of the avant grade. In his early years he was, essentially, a high-end populist. For all the experiments at play in Citizen Kane, the film never meanders or strays from its narrative purpose. Welles and Mankiewicz have taken Hearst’s tale and turned it into a great American tragedy in the style of, well, An American Tragedy. “There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it,” Oscar Wilde famously said. Most tales about glum achievement in US public life often work as variations on those twin themes.
Welles initially got exactly what he wanted. Then he spent another four decades failing to achieve what talent and charm should have put comfortably within his grasp. There is a talent to being a maverick within the system. The master of the art is, surely, Martin Scorsese. A few years ago, I talked to Thelma Schoonmaker, Marty’s editor, about the contrast between that director’s career and that of her late husband Michael Powell. She felt that Powell’s ultimate expulsion and Scorsese’s comfortable accommodation were down to their respective attitudes to the studio bosses. “Marty genuinely likes those guys,” she said. “He’ll fight with them, but he does respect them. Michael wasn’t like that.”
Welles lost the desire to charm his supposed superiors. He also made strategic errors such as leaving the country when The Magnificent Ambersons was being edited. The result of all this was a career that, though not as busy as it might have been, stands out for its sheer oddness. Would an Othello made by, say, Warners have been more interesting than the one Welles knocked together with a motley gang of international producers? I suspect not.
Then again, Citizen Kane, for which he was given creative carte blanche, does remain one of Hollywood’s great entertainments. It is a film that, though cynical about the engines of US society, still manages to end with a sentimental gesture to the sweet consolations of childhood memory. There’s something for everyone here.
In 2012, the most influential list of “best ever” films, Sight and Sound’s poll for the BFI, finally lifted some pressure off Citizen Kane and named Vertigo as the top dog. In previous decades, pictures such as L’Avventura and City Lights have plummeted in this poll. It seems unlikely Kane will ever be anywhere other than the top five. It’s too much fun.
For 1941 we also considered High Sierra, The Lady Eve, The Little Foxes, The Maltese Falcon, Man Hunt and Meet John Doe. No, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, despite that best picture award, How Green Was My Valley was never in the running.