Citizen Kane: A masterpiece of storytelling
Ivan Radford | On 21, Jun 2014
Director: Orson Welles
Cast: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Comingore, Agnes Moorehead
Watch Citizen Kane online in the UK: BBC iPlayer / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Rakuten TV / Google Play / Sky Store
What is there to be said about Citizen Kane that hasn’t already been said? Orson Welles’ 1941 masterpiece has been scrutinised and taken apart from every angle, told and retold again and again. That’s the secret to the film’s brilliance: it’s about doing exactly that.
The introductory sequence alone is frequently analysed in staggering detail. The opening “NO TRESPASSING” sign; the slow crawl up to mansion of Xanadu; the faint light of Kane’s window overlaid on top of every shot; the sudden close-up to his lips for his final word, Rosebud.
This, we are told, is the key to newspaper tycoon Charles Foster Kane. Not by Orson Welles, or even Kane himself, but by another news editor: Rawlston. He appears just after that iconic introduction in the movie’s most important sequence: a News on the March newsreel.
The video report recounts the life of Kane, who has just passed away. “A collection of everything! So big it can never be catalogued or appraised!” declares the obituary, which begins with the estate of Xanadu, an ostentatious development which sits unfinished in the Florida hills. From there, we witness his funeral, swiftly followed by a montage of newspaper headlines responding to his demise. “Kane, sponsor of democracy, dies,” reads one. The “greatest newspaper tycoon of this or any other generation”, says the newsreel itself. It subtly introduces the movie’s central theme: storytelling. Particularly, storytelling in the media.
The newsreel then jumps back to his youth; his mum, her decision to appoint Wall Street banker Thatcher as his trustee. It was her wish he should take charge of the boy, Thatcher tells a courtroom, before reading out a written statement that denounces Kane as “nothing more or less than a communist”. (This summary, prepared by Thatcher beforehand, is preceded by an admission that Charles attacked him personally using his media empire; his depiction of Kane, it is implied, is biased.)
“Fascist!” is immediately cried by someone else on screen, before a quote from Kane himself: “I am, have been, and will be only one thing – an American.” It is telling that not even this description gives us a real insight into Charles’ character. It’s another sound bite, another angle.
“Few private lives were more public,” News on the March ironically informs us, yet the only thing we can deduce from a newspaper headline revealing his affair with a singer, Susan (which ruined his political career as well as his first marriage), is that the media’s portrayal of him was the instrument of his success – and, ultimately, his downfall.
In our media-driven world, it should come as no surprise that everything is defined by narratives. We encode and experience the world through stories, be it a newspaper column or a personal anecdote. Buzzfeed lists tell us what children of the 90s feel and relate to. The Daily Mail claims that immigrants are flooding the country, while the BBC presents parties such as UKIP as valid political alternatives. Even Xanadu has happened, in the form of David and Jackie Siegel, who tried to build their own Florida mansion – a replica of Versailles. It, like Kane’s ambitious architectural achievement, is unfinished, but was caught on camera in a documentary by Lauren Greenfield. The couple later sued her for misrepresentation.
“Don’t believe everything you hear on the radio,” Orson Welles’ Kane says in an interview mid-newsreel. He chuckles at the journalists and newspaper’s camera – and, knowingly, at us, the audience.
The fact that all this is presented as a narrative within a narrative is where Herman J Mankiewicz’s self-aware screenplay (co-written with Welles) really excels. There are two components to narrative: the actual story and the plot (the way the story is presented). News on the March tells us the story of the media mogul through a string of flashbacks and interviews within 10 minutes; then, it goes back to the start and does the same thing all over again.
The first run of the story is crucially cut short, interrupted by Rawlston. “70 years in a man’s life, it’s a lot to get into a newsreel,” he says. “All we saw on that screen is that Kane is dead. It isn’t enough to tell us who a man is. We’ve got to know who he was.”
Then he comes up with the movie’s central thesis: what were his last words? Rawlston orders Jerry Thompson to go and find out. Thompson, played by William Alland, spends most of the 119 minutes with his back to the camera; he is the audience, finding out the answer to the question that will give this story its meaning.
The film proceeds to mimic the newsreel’s structure. We go from present day in Xanadu to his childhood, followed by a chronological progression through his life. Each chapter is a flashback, told by another figure, each one with a different perspective. We, meanwhile, follow Thompson’s linear narrative. It’s a deft balance between the actual story and its published format, a Rashomon rushing to meet a print deadline.
Thompson starts with Susan, who drunkenly refuses to talk to him at all. The whistle-stop tour of eye-witnesses later takes in Thatcher’s memoirs, which include their first meeting when Kane was playing with his boyhood sled, Charles’ faithful business manager, Mr. Bernstein, and his former friend, Jebediah Leland. Finally, Susan returns to dish the dirt on their break-up.
Throughout, Welles reinforces the notion of storytelling. The famous breakfast sequence sees almost two decades of heartache covered in five short vignettes; a feat not just of technical and narrative prowess but, given its context, enormous thematic significance. That meta-structure goes right down to the minutest detail, such as the camera seemingly threading through the middle of a neon sign, which remind us we are watching an artificial construct – and an unreliable one, at that. Conversations and events take place where our witnesses/narrators could not possibly have been. Even if they heard it from either of the two main characters first-hand, how accurate would that account be?
And, of course, there is Rosebud. From that elusive light at the beginning, drawing us towards Kane’s final moment in his bedroom, we are told repeatedly that the word has some significance. And so, at the end, Thompson finds that while Kane’s story is complete, his own narrative is not: he has nothing with which to conclude his version of events. He turns desperately to the butler, Raymond, who teases him with information. Raymond asks for money, which undermines his own authority. The important thing, perhaps, is that Thompson is willing to pay for it; audiences need a narrative with a satisfying pay-off.
“He said all kinds of things that didn’t mean anything,” smirks the butler, laconically. Thompson is left strolling through the cavernous chambers of Xanadu – we’re back there again – past the endless belongings of Charles Foster Kane. They lament among themselves that Rosebud “would’ve explained everything”, if they had found out. “No, I don’t think so,” says Jerry. “I don’t think words can explain a man’s life.”
The fictionalised biopic’s sentiment still rings true today. Since Citizen Kane’s release, some have complained that Welles’ magnate is an unfair or cartoonish depiction of real life tycoon William Randolph Hearst. Hearst’s inspiration for the story, though, goes beyond the film’s eponymous subject: Hearst’s legacy was a media empire that traded in the very business of how to present the world. “People will think what I tell them to think,” Kane declares at one point, all thundering power and angry eyeballs. As Thompson walks away from Rosebud, Citizen Kane’s timely truth resonates – not some kind of revelation about who the man was, but the fact that his story would still be told anyway. 73 years on, people are still coming up with new ways to tell it.
Citizen Kane is available on BBC iPlayer until November 2021