Every discussion of Citizen Kane, or of any other Welles movie, is sure to bring up his camera sense. In Kane there is the brilliant pseudo newsreel of the great man’s death, the senate investigation scene that is modeled on the inquisition of J.P. Morgan, the wide-angle lens that is supposed to approximate the eye’s normal scope, the bold cutting that snaps the picture from one perspective to the next, the persistent low-angle shots that make Kane seem to tower above lesser men- and the audience. All such matters are handled with a sureness that is astonishing in a man making his first picture. We are back again to the gift of prodigy, instant accomplishment, like knowing how to invest a bare stage with the highest dramatic tension, how to use the mechanics of radio with such deftness as to turn a stock thriller into an hour of public terror, as in his War of the World’s broadcast. It constitutes an instant feel for the nature of the vehicle; the effect is dazzling virtuosity.
But there is a price to be paid. Welles said that anyone can learn the whole of movie technique in four hours. That is not exactly true, even if it may have held for Welles. But if Welles learned the technique in something like four days, he had never quite assimilated it, in the sense that he is no longer self-conscious about the tool at his command. A child prodigy is applauded for his improbable skill with adult equipment; no one asks whether he is achieving adult results. But an adult should not go on indefinitely parading dexterity. It is characteristic of Welles that one is repeatedly aware of the effects he is creating.
Whetehr it is the deliberately unreal sleigh party in The Magnificent Ambersons, or the studied irony of the Lucullan picnic and the eerie horror of the house of mirrors in Lady from Shanghai- there was a fake snowfall, a grotesque picnic, and an infinity of mirrors in Kane too; Welles’s tricks repeating themselves- or the architectural kaleidoscope of Othello, or the extreme contrivance of angle shots used in Touch of Evil, or the nine hundred desks stretched to infinity in The Trial- however effective such devices may be technically, they divert the audience from what is being done to who is doing it. Welles wins attention for himself at the expense of his creations.
This probably not intentional, but then he did not really mean to be an adult prodigy either. Events like the necessity to defy the United States government over The Cradle Will Rock, like discovering in Julius Caesar a knife to use against Hitler, like being called a broadcasting menace to the sanity of the entire country, like incurring the senile rage of the world’s most phobic publisher in Citizen Kane; all this froze him in the role of prodigy. And it is the nature of a prodigy to be the master magician of whatever art he enters; only occasionally is he a master artist. Welles was that in Kane, though even that picture, for all its bravura screen effects, is not essentially a movie.
It could be a novel, or a play; it lacks the cumulative power of an on-gpong visual flow that occurs when someone really exploits the genius of the camera- when, for example, John Huston makes The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
In 1940, in the midst of tight studio control o
ery picture made, Orson Welles was given a practically blank check and no studio interference for his first picture. So of course, he created a masterpiece that was a financial flop.
So why is Citizen Kane a masterpiece? The story, the acting, the dialog, the directing, the cinematography, the editing, it all comes together in a way that few movies do.
The story by Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles is about a kid who inherits a gold mine. With all his money, when he grows up what he wants to do is to run a newspaper. He then uses this position to accumulate fame and power. His greatest wish is to be loved, but he doesn’t understand love. As he grows older, he grows more demanding, more arrogant, and ultimately withdraws from a painful world.
Citizen Kane introduced a handful of actors that you may be familiar with. This is the first full-length picture for Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten (Gaslight, Niagara), Agnes Morehead (Bewitched), Ruth Warrick (Payton Place), and Everett Sloane (character actor in a zillion things), all of whom are familiar faces to classic movie lovers. Joseph Cotten as Jedediah Leland is outstanding as the moral center of the story.
Robert Altman (M*A*S*H, Nashville) gets lots of acclaim for realistic overlapping dialog, but there is plenty on display in Kane which predates Altman’s movies by 25 years. Many memorable lines are sprinkled throughout the script:
Bernstein: Well, it’s no trick to make a lot of money… if what you want to do is make a lot of money.
Leland: Bernstein, am I a stuffed shirt? Am I a horse-faced hypocrite? Am I a New England school marm?
Bernstein: Yes. If you thought I’d answer you any differently than what Mr. Kane tells you…
Charles Foster Kane: You know, Mr. Bernstein, if I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a really great man.