Fifty years after its release, Citizen Kane still seems richer, bolder, more spectacularly alive than any other film of the studio-system era. Regardless of how many times you’ve seen Orson Welles’ 1941 masterpiece, it always feels like the first time. That’s because what’s magical about Kane — the sheer transformative thrill of invention — is there in every shot, every performance, every narrative surge. Welles, at 25, had never worked in Hollywood before, and his inexperience showed — gloriously. With nothing to go on but instinct, daring, and the stylized techniques he’d helped pioneer in theater and radio, the preposterously ambitious young writer-director-star kicked off a one-man pop-culture revolution. For the first time in the American cinema, the very process of telling a story on film became every bit as tricky and exhilarating as the story itself. In effect, Welles was re-creating movies, turning them into an ingeniously modern form. To watch Citizen Kane is to experience what an audacious — and joyous — leap that was.
In commemoration of Kane’s 50th anniversary, the film will be exhibited in first-run theaters. A new print has been struck, and it’s a beauty, allowing us to luxuriate in the film’s still-startling chiaroscuro imagery — the celestial beams of light pouring through rooms as black and forbidding as royal mausoleums; the pearly play of luminescence and shadow on the actors’ faces; the low-angle shots that frame the characters against ceilings, so that we’re always aware of a reality that exceeds their grasp.
The Expressionist visuals are an intrinsic element in the story of Charles Foster Kane, the brashly egomaniacal newspaper publisher who becomes one of the most powerful men in America, but who remains — for all his surface bravado — hollow and alone, a secret martyr to his shattered childhood. Kane, of course, has long been available on video, but no film works less well on the small screen. For the movie to cast its spell, we need to be enveloped by the looming, echoey grandeur of those rooms, which reveal Kane’s life as a magnificent tomb of his own devising.
The movie has an aura of playful self-consciousness that probably seemed quite arty back in 1941, when it flopped commercially. Yet that self-consciousness is what’s exciting about it. From the ”News on the March” newsreel, which packs Kane’s entire life into a blithely overblown tabloid obituary, to the acerbic black comedy of Kane and his wife sitting around the abandoned halls of Xanadu, the movie has the feel of an elaborately conceived castle in the air. Kane himself, of course, is a thinly veiled take-off on William Randolph Hearst, who was alive and thriving at the time. The film’s energy, its life force, springs from both the gossipy juiciness of its subject matter and the intricate flashback structure, in which a newsreel reporter, his face hidden in shadow, interviews the people who were closest to Kane in order to discover what the great man meant by his dying word (”Rosebud”).
The overlapping flashbacks, devised by coscreenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, are more than a gimmick. They become a vehicle for Welles and his Mercury Theatre actors to carry on an epic game of make-believe, playing their characters as young, middle-aged, and old. The performances are so superb, the sense of each character developing through life so beautifully sustained, that the film has an uncanny emotional sweep. No matter how many times I see Citizen Kane, there are moments of acting that always floor me: Everett Sloane as the goofy mensch Bernstein, talking wistfully about the girl with a white parasol he still remembers after 50 years; Dorothy Comingore as Susan, the amateur singer Kane marries and then tries to turn into an opera star, screeching at Kane with her kitten-claws-on-the-blackboard voice and then, years later, remembering him with an acrid soulfulness that can break your heart; and Joseph Cotten as the mild-mannered Jed Leland, finally letting out his anger when he’s too old to hurt anybody. (His slow shuffle down a rest-home hallway may be the greatest exit in movie history.)
Playing voyeur to Kane’s most heroic ambitions and his most intimate moments, we get a sense of the American overachiever as public hero and private cad. Welles, in an incomparable performance, makes Kane charming and swellheaded, then monstrous, then pathetic. If we don’t, in the end, feel like we quite know him, that’s part of the movie’s genius. Rosebud aside, the true mystery of Kane is that it’s about someone who spends his life putting up walls — a man who transforms himself into a national monument so that no one can touch him. Was Welles anticipating his own descent from greatness? For as a creative artist, he too became an impotent monument. In a sense, Citizen Kane is a primal study of self-sabotage. Maybe Orson Welles’ career turned into one long, extravagant flameout because, in his first and greatest film, he’d already told the story of his life. A+