Wednesday, June 24, 2009

1941: Citizen Kane (Orson Welles)

Released: May 1, 1941

Director: Orson Welles; Screenplay: Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles; Cinematography: Gregg Toland; Studio: RKO Pictures; Producer: Orson Welles

Cast: Orson Welles (Charles Foster Kane), Joseph Cotton (Jedediah Leland), Everett Sloane (Mr. Bernstein), William Alland (Jerry Thompson), Georgia Backus (Bertha Anderson), Fortunio Bonanova (Signor Matiste), Sonny Bupp (Charles Foster Kane III), Ray Collins (Jim W. Gettys), Dorothy Comingore (Susan Alexander Kane), George Coulouris (Walter Parks Thatcher), Agnes Moorehead (Mary Kane), Erskine Sanford (Herbert Carter)

What can I possibly write about Citizen Kane that has not already been repeated ad nauseum for the last sixty plus years? It surely must be the most analyzed and interpreted film in the history of cinema – from the script, to the acting, to the photography, to the editing. Everything, scrutinized to the smallest detail. In fact, the monumental reputation that the film has acquired sometimes even turns off many film fans, creating something of a backlash against a film that is _continually_ chosen as the greatest film ever made. I can still remember watching it for the first time, wondering if this movie could possibly be as good as my other favorite “classic” films – movies like Casablanca and On the Waterfront, which were among the first that I dared to watch. Everyone told me that it was a highly influential film, but that it was not nearly as enjoyable a viewing experience as other classics. Some even referred it as boring.

Yet as I watched it for the first time, I was completely enthralled. And it had nothing to do with the technical innovations or the revolutionary photography. It was just the story. It was witnessing the rise and fall of Charles Foster Kane, a publishing tycoon who soon lusts for something greater than increasing circulation. It may not have instantly become my all-time favorite movie, but I could understand why it was lauded by so many others.

This is the thing that has always amazed me about the status of Citizen Kane. Whenever the film is discussed, the many innovation that were pioneered or came into prominence with this film are immediately cited as the reason the film is so cherished. To be sure, technical wizardry abounds. Exactly who is to be credited for the amazing photography is debated to this day, but suffice it to say that cinematographer Gregg Toland deserves at least as much praise as Orson Welles. Toland is generally credited with the extensive use of deep focus that is used throughout the film. The storytelling is novel, as Welles is able to create unique ways to compress large chunks of time into a matter of moments. In one section of the film, the span of a single sentence fast forwards the story decades without making the audience feel they have missed a beat. Using flashbacks to recount the life of Kane, Welles is able to do so as effectively as I have ever seen the storytelling device utilized.

But as cutting edge as the filmmaking is, and as much as it would influence later generations of directors, I have always thought that concentrating solely upon the technical chops of the film overlooks what a great story it is. It is thoroughly entertaining. Watching the rise of Charles Kane, making his mark on the world during a fascinating time in American history is captivating. For me, I think that this immediate connection is a direct result of the greatness of Welles the actor, not necessarily the director. His portrayal of Kane always contains a hint of uncertainty. Here is a man that is obviously ambitious, with a drive to achieve great things, and yet as he continually does so he becomes uninterested and must move on to something else. What is his endgame? What is it that he is so ruthlessly motivated to accomplish? I don’t know the answer to these questions, and Welles is able to convey the fact that Kane himself doesn’t seem to know either.

It’s the fascination with Welles’ performance and the Kane character that made it impossible for me to pick against Citizen Kane. There were other great films that made the decision tough – getting reacquainted with the spectacular pair of films that Preston Sturges released this year made it hard to fathom not picking at least one of them for this countdown. The cast of Bogart, Astor, Lorre, and Greenstreet makes The Maltese Falcon an amusing adventure every time that I watch it. But re-watching Citizen Kane reminded me what an all-around virtuoso performance this film was for boy wonder Orson Welles. To think that at age 25 he wrote, directed, produced and starred in this movie – which just so happened to be his debut film – is still mind-boggling.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention some of the superb supporting performances. Joseph Cotton is another actor that no matter what the strength of the material always turns in a convincing and engaging performance. He is great as Kane’s longtime friend and sidekick Jedediah, be it in the flashbacks as a young man or under heavy makeup playing the aging Mr. Leland. Everett Sloane is endearing as Mr. Bernstein, the always-loyal assistant to Mr. Kane. He sticks with Kane through it all, as difficult as that often is with the turbulent disposition of the publisher.

As hard as it is to do, approaching Citizen Kane as just another movie, to be appreciated solely on its own merit, only reinforces what a terrific film it is. There is a reason that this is now a cliché selection among greatest films lists and all-time favorites – it’s simply that good.

Rating: 9/10 (again, just based on personal enjoyment… it’s fairly obvious what a “greatness” rating would be)

Other Contenders for 1941: The incredible year that Preston Sturges had in 1941 is truly astounding. I can think of few instances of a director releasing two films on the level of The Lady Eve and Sullivan’s Travels in the same calendar year. Sturges is another director that just puts a smile on my face from the beginning to the end of his films. If forced to choose between the two films, I would say that I slightly favor The Lady Eve – I just love Barbara Stanwyck’s performance. The scene where she and her father are doing card mechanic moves back and forth in the game with Henry Fonda is brilliant. But ask me the same question again in a few hours and I might then prefer Sullivan’s Travels!

Being a film noir fanatic, I always enjoy watching John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon. That trio of Bogart, Lorre and Greenstreet never disappoints. High Sierra, directed by Raoul Walsh, reinforces the fact that Walsh was among the masters directing gangster and action films. John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley took home Best Picture honors this year and I think that it is a fine film, if not as enjoyable as others I have mentioned.


  1. Dave,

    I concur with every single thing you said. The first time I saw "Citizen Kane" I was deeply impressed with the story and also with Welles's portrayal. In later years I could appreciate the technical aspects, but it was the story that caught me right off the bat. Welles was gutsy to take on Hearst; the movie was def ahead of its time.

    I also second what you said about "The Lady Eve," "Sullivan's Travels," "High Sierra," "HGWMV, and "Maltese Falcon," great films all and ones worth watching again and again. I probably prefer "Eve" over "Sullivan's," simply because Stanwyck's performance is so good and Fonda plays such a great boob. He had a flare for comedy that would surface on occasion in films like "My Darling Clementine" and "Mister Roberts." I love it when Stany's character says, "I need him like the turkey needs the axe."

    1941 was a great year. "The Strawberry Blonde" is another excellent Walsh film from that year. It's a lyrical movie, and while the leads are all good, Miss deHavilland steals the show. If Cagney had had more leading ladies like her, well, . . .there's no use crying over spilled milk.

    Great post!

  2. My #1 Film of 1941:

    Citizen Kane (Welles)


    How Green Was My Valley (Ford)
    All That Money Can Buy (Dieterle)
    The 47 Ronin (Japan; Mizoguchi)
    Love on the Dole (UK; Baxter)
    Sullivan's Travels (Sturges)
    Hellzapopin (Potter)
    The Maltese Falcon (Huston)
    The Lady Eve (Sturges)
    The Little Foxes (Wyler)

    Of course ALL THAT MONEY CAN BUY is also known as THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER. There are other strong films in this stellar year, but I resisted putting them on the exclusive runner-up listing, which is limited to th etrue masterworks. HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY was reviled for years after winning the Oscar over CITIZEN KANE, but in its own right it remains an emotionally overwhelming film that I consider one of Ford's greatest films.

    CITIZEN KANE makes a strong case for being the greatest American film of all-time, with the previous year's "The Grapes of Wrath." You do the film justice with an enthralling historical and analytical assessment, as always.

  3. CagneyFan - Thanks for the compliments. It looks like we're very much in agreement in assessing this year!

    Sam - Great choices as usual. I have to admit to have "The Devil and Daniel Webster" waiting to be watched and just never got to it. As I said at the start of this, there are going to be occasional films that I simply haven't seen and this is one of those cases, unfortunately. I'm glad to see that you think highly of it though, it'll give me even greater emphasis to watch it.

  4. It is very hard to argue against Kane, and I suppose my temptation to do so is a matter of familiarity breeding not contempt but contrariness. But let me say immediately that it is a masterpiece, technically the best film of 1941 by a wide margin. Even Welles's acting, often the weak point of his films, is good here.

    But the film I just like better is Capra's Meet John Doe. It's the only film of the year that seems designed to beat Welles, with Capra having a deal with Warner Bros. comparable with Welles's at RKO. It also seems more than coincidental that Doe deals with an arrogant press baron with polticial ambitions. Part of what impresses me about it is the evolution and maturing of Capra's political storytelling, as shown by the way Doe ends in stalemate (at best) rather than the improbable victory of Mr. Smith. The auteurist in me also admires what Capra did with Edward Arnold through a trilogy of films in which he is a progressively more powerful and threatening figure. But Arnold's just part of an ensemble that matches the Mercury crew down the line. Gary Cooper is outstanding as a man who has his identity broken down and reconstructed into something better than intended -- a process shown in a remarkable scene where he haltingly relates a dream in which he is both himself and Barbara Stanwyck's father. Stanwyck herself and James Gleason are terrific as archetypal cynical journalists who eventually reveal their consciences. Gleason has a great underplayed drunk scene where he tips Cooper off to how Arnold is manipulating the John Doe movement. Walter Brennan is freakishly good as Cooper's paranoid sidekick and ought to have gotten a fourth(!) Oscar for this film.

    I've gone on at inordinate length here, but it seems necessary if I'm going to argue against Kane. Sometime soon I'm going to have to really open up on the subject at my own headquarters. For now I have to concede that there's probably still too much Capracorn in Doe for some people, but the film's implicitly self-critical attitude transcends Capra's characteristic quirks to become a genuine political epic.

    Both High Sierra and Maltese Falcon might be best films of a lesser year, but I don't need to elaborate on their virtues here. Were I making a list, I'd probably reserve a modest place toward the end for The Wolf Man.

  5. Awesome response, Samuel... if there was a Hall of Fame for comments, this would be enshrined! I'll need to revisit Meet John Doe after reading this eloquent case that you have made for it. Bravo!

  6. Dave, it's a long time since I saw 'Citizen Kane', but I remember being awed by it and enjoyed reading your review. As a fan of Cagney and Bogart I do really like 'The Maltese Falcon' and 'The Strawberry Blonde' from this year. Also, anyone for Hitchcock's 'Suspicion'? This is another one I haven't seen for ages, but I remember being impressed. And I must say I enjoyed Samuel's mini-review of 'Meet John Doe' - to be honest I hated the movie on first viewing, because so much of it felt false to me, but I've been meaning for ages to watch it again, and after seeing your insights, Samuel, it's just moved further up my list.

    I'm surprised there don't seem to be any great war movies from either 1940 or 1941 - since this was the height of the Blitz in Britain, I did think there might have been some made over here, but maybe it took a while to get things in motion. Or is there something I've missed? Judy

  7. Oh, I forgot to mention that 'Out of the Fog', directed by Anatole Litvak, is another fine movie from this year, with John Garfield as an incredibly evil character who forces fishermen to pay protection money - Thomas Mitchell is really the lead although Garfield gets top billing and Ida Lupino is great in it too. It's said Garfield's character represents fascism, so maybe this one is a war movie in a way... Judy again

  8. Judy - Great response, especially in bringing up 'Out of the Fog.' This is a noir that I've been wanting to see for some time but haven't found a copy. But now, after reading your support of it, I've checked the TCM site and its scheduled to be shown here in the States on August 27. I'll be sure to set the DVR and record that one to DVD!

  9. A fantastically in depth article Dave. “Citizen Kane” is one of the most brilliant works ever made and like your say sometimes, when a film receives too much praise a backlash occurs and people turn against it.
    #1 – “Citizen Kane”

    Runner-ups are “The Maltese Falcon”, “The Lady Eve”, “Sullivan’s Travels”, “
    The Wolf Man”, ‘Meet John Doe” and “Suspicion.”

    I have to admit “All That Money Can Buy{ (The Devil & Daniel Webster) I have not seen and recently recorded it on TCM after reading R.D. Finch’s wonderful review.

  10. Take if from me---never post comments when you're low on octane.

    It's the axe that needs the turkey, not the other way around, as I unfortunately posted this morning.

    "All That Money Can Buy" is another excellent film. Way ahead of its time. Walter Huston's performance is incredible.

    And how did I forget "Meet John Doe?" Samuel Wilson's post above says it all.

  11. I also must say that Samuel Wilson's presentation here is fantastic!

    While I'll admit that MEET JOHN DOE is not among my favorite Capras, I can't deny it nor the splendid defense that informs it here.

  12. "It was just the story."

    Bingo. I saw this movie as a kid and wasn't captivated by the technical breakthroughs, but rather the mythic overtones of Kane's rise and fall, and the way the story was told, through layers of official tributes, personal memories, shady recollections ...

    It's still one of my favorite movies, in addition to being one of the greatest movies of all time. This is one year where I'm with you 100%.

  13. I'm going to do a "On Second Thought" post after everything finishes and as much as I love Kane, I have to admit that this is one year where there's the possibility of changing my mind based on recent viewings and re-watches...

  14. Great post. People focus on the innovations because they're easy to mention and discuss, rather than their emotional responses to the great filmmaking. I also have a post on KANE at my blog, THE LAST REVEAL, a blog on screenwriting. Check it out!

  15. this is maybe one those classic that you have to watch in your life, I mean any person in this country with my same age had to watch this movie, by the way, I hear the rumor about a reedtion of this excellent movie.

  16. Did you know that After the success of Macbeth, Welles mounted the absurd farce Horse Eats Hat, an adaptation by Welles and Edwin Denby of Eugène Labiche's play, Un Chapeau de Paille d'Italie