Citizen Kane

Greenscreening Series #11

October 28, 2022

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This Time on Greenscreening

Citizen Kane (1941), directed by Orson Welles

Orson Welles in *Citizen Kane*


A reporter investigates the meaning behind prominent media tycoon Charles Foster Kane's final word, "Rosebud," by hearing Kane's life story from those who knew him best - his ex-wives, his business partners, and his closest friend.

This series has been building to this moment, where we encounter what many consider to be the single greatest film ever made: Citizen Kane. We’ve been trying to establish a way of seeing films more within their context, to consider how audiences experienced each film. Kane is probably the most difficult movie to re-contextualize, as the continual hype heaped upon this movie has made it impossible to simply see Citizen Kane; every viewer approaches the film asking "is this really the greatest film ever made?" But we'll do our best.

This is the only film on the list for this week - no recommended alternatives. If you've already seen Citizen Kane, I suggest rewatching it. This is a film that rewards multiple viewings.

Find Citizen Kane via Reelgood

Why Citizen Kane?

  • Citizen Kane's influence is unmatched, "probably the one that has started the largest number of filmmakers on their careers," according to French New Wave director Francois Truffaut.

  • Citizen Kane's development flies in the face of everything we've discussed about the Studio System. RKO Pictures gave Welles to a two-picture contract which guaranteed complete creative control, including over final cut - unprecedented at the time.

  • The film is essentially Welles’ master’s thesis in filmmaking, an astonishingly visionary debut. Welles studied the canon of the day and synthesized the best of contemporary cinematic storytelling into one of the most innovative and influential films ever made. For this reason, Kane is the perfect capstone film for the first sequence of films in this series. It is to Hollywood's Golden Age what Birth of a Nation was to the silent era.

  • The nonlinear story structure is incredibly innovative. Very few films prior to this dared to use flashbacks and frame stories. Kane uses them seamlessly, and very few films since have matched its jumps through time.

  • Note the overlapping, rapid-fire dialogue, like we saw in His Girl Friday. The conversations in Kane are much more realistic than the stylized dialogue of early talking films. Some of this is from the stage, but some of it is from screwball comedy, applied here to a drama.

  • Some of the best black and white cinematography in the history of film. Incredible use of light and shadows, miniatures, camera movement, and deep focus (where objects near and far from the camera stay in focus at the same time). Welles collaborated with Gregg Toland, one of the greatest cinematographers, and together the two essentially invented the modern director-cinematographer collaboration, and techniques we take for granted. You can also see ceilings within scenes, which was revolutionary for the time, as Welles and Toland sometimes placed the camera in the floor.

  • The newsreel sequence is stellar both from a filmmaking perspective, but also from a storytelling perspective. It's both of its time, it reflects Kane's identity as a newsmaker in front of and behind the camera, and it provides exposition about the character that is necessary for the story to carry its emotional impact.

  • Orson Welles gives a timeless performance, including one of the more effective depictions of an older character by a young man. He was just 25 at the time!!! And this performance alongside co-writing and directing the film. It's amazing top-tier work, on par with the artistry we saw Chaplin displaying on City Lights.

  • Welles took on as his subject William Randolph Hearst, one of the most powerful and controversial media tycoons. Hearst tried to bury the film, unsuccessfully, but he took revenge by making Welles and his co-writer Herman Mankiewicz pariahs in Hollywood. Welles never again had complete creative control of a film. So he essentially sacrificed any chance at what could have been a fruitful, lucrative career in order to make Citizen Kane.

  • Rosebud. Like the great mystery at the center of the film, Citizen Kane is itself a puzzle box. As Borges wrote, "Kane is a labyrinth without a center."

  • The question over authorship of Citizen Kane gets to the heart of "how are films actually made?" Critics who champion the auteur theory of filmmaking argue that Welles is the unifying creative force, the auteur, behind Citizen Kane. Opponents of the theory seek to give credit to the screenwriter, Herman Mankiewicz. Contemporary scholars tend to find the truth somewhere in between, with Welles providing a unifying vision, and assembling a dream team of collaborators who were given the freedom to execute at their highest level, to collectively create a masterpiece.

Orson Welles directing *Citizen Kane*

Orson Welles

Welles got his start in the theater and then expanded into radio, which makes sense because he had an incredible, one-of-a-kind voice.

In the 1930s, Welles founded the Mercury Theatre Company and rose to prominence on Broadway. He was the wunderkind of Broadway, at age 22 launching a revival of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar that broke box office records for the play.

However, he had his greatest success on radio with his 1938 broadcast of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds. He staged War of the Worlds as a news broadcast, covering a Martian invasion in New Jersey. According to legend, people panicked in the streets, thinking it was a real broadcast. Welles, obviously, hoped this sort of thing would happen. Newspapers did as well. It turns out the whole story was fabricated - newspapers pounced on an opportunity to denigrate a rival medium and its potential to do harm to the public. Nevertheless, Welles became both famous and infamous, and Hollywood came calling.

RKO signed Welles to a two-picture contract with absolute creative control.

Welles embarked on a months-long study of cinema, in partnership with cinematographer Gregg Toland. He internalized what worked and didn't, and learned the language of cinema. He wasn't content to make a competent film; his ambitions were to use cinema to its highest potential, as he had done with theater and radio.

Welles' first project was an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which was to use first-person camera to mirror the novel's first-person narration. Welles abandoned the project as too ambitious.

After a few more false starts, Welles settled on an ambitious story: a fictionalized biography of William Randolph Hearst, the controversial media mogul. Hearst was rich and powerful, a major figure in American media and in politics.

Rosebud in *Citizen Kane*

Welles and Mankiewicz and the Writing of Citizen Kane

Authorship of Citizen Kane is one of the more complicated topics associated with the film.

Welles collaborated with writer Herman Mankiewicz, who had been part of Hearst's social circle previously until they had a falling out.

Welles and Mankiewicz gave conflicting accounts of their collaboration. Upon release, Welles claimed sole authorship for the film, with help from Mankiewicz. In Welles' account, after the two co-developed the initial idea for the characters and storyline, Welles gave Mankiewicz a stack of notes and sent him off to write the script. Mankiewicz returned a draft, which Welles revised and merged with a draft he had written. In another version, Mankiewicz was the primary author, coming up with the story structure and characters, and writing the draft which in large part became the shooting script.

Ultimately, the two shared co-writing credit.

The legendary film critic, Pauline Kael, published a book-length essay which dives deep into this question. She was a proponent of the Mankiewicz-as-author theory, using it as an argument against the popular auteur theory, which hailed Orson Welles as the sole creative genius driving Citizen Kane.

David Fincher's 2020 film, Mank, tells the story of Mankiewicz writing Citizen Kane. The film is largely based on Kael's essay, putting Mank at the center of authorship. Mank is also a great film, as Fincher's obvious love for and close study of Citizen Kane shine through in Mank's story structure, shot compositions, and performances. If Kane was Welles's master's thesis on the art of cinema up to 1940, Fincher's film is a master's thesis on Citizen Kane.

As many critics have noted, Citizen Kane's story can feel a bit off, like all the pieces don’t quite add up to something as profound as we should expect from The Greatest Film Ever. Maybe it’s a bit pretentious? That's partly the point. Remember that the film is skewering a real-life media mogul who perhaps thought himself greater and more important than he actually was. The pretense of Kane's story and the seeming emptiness at its core could be Mankiewicz's last laugh at his former friend's expense.

Orson Welles walking far from the camera in *Citizen Kane*

Welles, Toland, and the New Direction

Welles and Gregg Toland created the modern director-cinematographer relationship. Welles gave Toland a vision for what he wanted, and gave Toland months to prepare, experiment, and in some cases invent new approaches. Nowadays, this level of preparation is common. On occasion, Welles gave Toland weeks to achieve a specific photographic effect - absolutely unheard of in the studio era, where films were made on an assembly line to get the product into theaters asap. Somehow, the film managed to come in on schedule and at budget.

Together, Welles and Toland achieved a new style of subjective realism, where the camera functioned much more like the human eye, placing the audience in a similar position to the main character driving the story forward - the reporter investigating the meaning of Rosebud, Kane’s last word.

Greg Toland wrote about these innovations in cinematography:

In some cases we were able to hold sharp focus over a depth of 200 feet.

Citizen Kane sets have ceilings because we wanted reality, and we felt that it would be easier to believe a room was a room if its ceiling could be seen in the picture. Furthermore, lighting effects in unceilinged rooms generally are not realistic because the ilumination comes from unnatural angles. We planned most of our camera setups to take advantage of the ceilings, in some cases even building the sets so as to permit shooting upward from floor level.

None of the sets was rigged for overhead lighting, although occasionally necessary backlighting was arranged by lifting a small section of the ceiling and using a light through the opening. 

The ceilings gave us another advantage in additon to realism - freedom from worry about microphone shadow, the bugaboo of all sounds. We placed mikes above the muslin ceiling, which allowed them to pick up sound but not to throw shadows.

Innovative cinematography in *Citizen Kane*

Innovative cinematography in *Citizen Kane*

Music, Makeup

There's way too much to say about Citizen Kane and its production. All of the cast and crew operated at such a high level.

But it's worth pointing out two key contributions: music and makeup.

Bernard Hermann composed the music for Citizen Kane. He had worked with Welles at the Mercury Theatre Company, and Kane was his first film score. It's a fantastic score, one that upends the conventions of Hollywood using lengthy, nearly constant background music, and instead uses short bursts of music (5-15 seconds) for dramatic effect. Hermann went on to become legendary, best known for his iconic score for Psycho.

Makeup was also crucial to the film, as actors in their 20s and 30s needed to age across four decades. Welles used an inexperienced but ambitious makeup artist, Maurice Seiderman, who was actually an apprentice at RKO, and therefore was uncredited. Seiderman's work is some of the best makeup work at the time, and potentially any time. He painstakingly researched and experimented with aging effects, taking plaster casts of the stars, and creating lenses to make characters' eyes dimmer as they aged. Perhaps the most amazing application of this is the breakfast montage, where Kane and his wife age 12 years over a few moments -- the sequence was shot in a single day.

Orson Welles and Ruth Warrick in *Citizen Kane*

The Battle Over Citizen Kane

Coming off the controversy of the War of the Worlds broadcast, it's quite possible Welles was aiming to stir some up with Citizen Kane, in choosing a powerful enemy in Hearst. He may have underestimated his opponent.

Hearst was vindictive and tried to bury the film. Louis B. Mayer offered to buy the film from RKO so Hearst could destroy it. When that didn't work, Hearst threatened to sue RKO, to publish unflattering tabloid stories about their stars and directors, and to pull the plug on marketing efforts on future RKO pictures. When RKO continued to stand by Welles, Hearst threatened other studio heads as well, to bully them into pressuring RKO.

It worked for a while. RKO didn't own nearly as many theaters as the other studios, and Hearst's threats at least made the studios think twice about showing Kane. Hearst even spread a rumor that RKO's President, George Schaefer, was an anti-Semite. So RKO struggled for months to get Citizen Kane out to the public. Several premieres were cancelled. Nevertheless, Schaefer stood by Welles and released the film. It wasn't a bomb at the box office, but it wasn't a hit. Critics for the most part lauded the film, especially for its technical achievements.

Hearst did appear to succeed in burying the film's chances at winning awards. Kane was nominated for 8 Oscars, but only managed to win for Best Original Screenplay, which was seen as a slap at Welles, who had to share the Oscar with Mankiewicz.

After the film's release, Hearst kept hammering RKO. For several years, Hearst publications panned all RKO movies. Ultimately, RKO's board fired Schaefer and ended Welles' contract in 1942, the year after Kane's release.

Why was Hearst so angry about the film? 80 years on from the film's release, it can be difficult to see how closely the film skewered details of his life. I don't know a ton about William Randolph Hearst, and most of what I know is in relation to Kane. Perhaps the knowledge that this film might overshadow his own legacy was part of what angered him. Hearst certainly wouldn't have liked how he was portrayed, especially the implication that his life was ultimately empty. And Mankiewicz didn't spare lurid details about his former friend's history and private life. "Rosebud" was the name of Hearst's beloved prize racehorse, and also allegedly his nickname for a certain part of his young mistress's body.

Shadows in *Citizen Kane*

Citizen Kane and Modern Cinema

How did Kane earn its reputation as The Greatest Film of All Time?

Like other masterworks we've discussed in the series, Citizen Kane was rediscovered during the early days of film studies, the 1950s. At the time, the film were largely a footnote - so much so that revival screenings were done with 16mm prints. Welles occasionally directed films in the 1950s, but was known more for acting. But his films began circulating in art house theaters and getting critical attention from film professors and of course, the French cinephiles.

Why did it strike such a chord with that generation of film enthusiasts? We have to consider the 1950s context a bit more. After the War, Hollywood enjoyed a few more years of dominance and then a combination of the Paramount antitrust decision (which broke up the Studio System) and the rise of television ended the golden age. Hollywood still produced classics in the 1950s (see Singin' in the Rain for example), but Hollywood wasn't really pushing the medium forward. They were a bit stuck in retreading the glories of 1939.

Europe and Japan were leading the new waves of filmmaking. Directors were becoming brand names like never before. Bravura direction and cinematography were en vogue. Complex nonlinear storytelling like Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon stunned audiences around the world. With its dazzling cinematography, complex story, and gloomy themes, Citizen Kane resonated with the postwar audience as a precursor to the new wave films coming out of Europe.

Citizen Kane made the top 10 at the 1958 World Expo (where Battleship Potemkin was named the greatest film of all time). Since then, it has appeared near the top of every Sight and Sound critics and directors poll. Somewhere along the way, it generally came to be recognized as The Greatest Film Ever Made, so when the American Film Institute ranked the greatest American films, Citizen Kane took the top spot.

Since film school and French film criticism were largely responsible for establishing the modern film canon, and for influencing the next several generations of filmmakers, Citizen Kane is among the most influential films ever made. The French New Wave directors saw Welles as a hero who had pushed cinema to new heights, and was even a tragic hero since he was underappreciated.

The Hollywood Renaissance directors also championed Welles and Kane. Peter Bogdanovich became a close friend and one of the leading Welles scholars. He published a critical study and series of interviews with Welles about Citizen Kane, which came on the heels of Kael's criticism of Welles' assertions of sole creative authorship. The arguments about Kane's authorship only increased its stature, and in some ways, fuels the fire of debates over the film's greatness.

Which brings us to the present. Every generation meets Citizen Kane and its reputation, and forms an opinion about it. We're burdened with the knowledge that those before us have lauded the film. We can't unhear the praise for this film. In some ways, we're like the American directors of the 1970s; we're raised in a moviegoing environment where Citizen Kane is a great film. As we saw with the release of 2020's Mank, Citizen Kane is still inspiring filmmakers and audiences.

Is Citizen Kane the greatest film ever made? What if you don't like it? It doesn't matter. Meet the film on its terms, try to understand what it's doing and trying to say, appreciate the artistry. I think it's an amazing film for understanding (and interrogating) our own assumptions about what a film should be like, or for better understanding our taste in movies. More than anything, just try to enjoy the journey walking through the "labyrinth without a center."

I've seen Citizen Kane somewhere between 10-15 times. Every time it reveals something new. I think it's because the film meets you on whatever level you're willing to engage. Visually, it's obviously stunning, and looks like nothing else of its time, or really any other time. But what are those visuals in service of? The story is rich and engaging, but also kind of shallow. So why do I look forward to going back another time, to look deeper? What is it about this film that argues to be called The Greatest Film Ever Made? Why did Roger Ebert hold seminars where he would take audiences through Citizen Kane one frame at a time?

I'll leave the last word to Ebert.

Citizen Kane likes playful paradoxes... Its surface is as much fun as any movie ever made. Its depths surpass understanding. I have analyzed it a shot at a time with more than 30 groups, and together we have seen, I believe, pretty much everything that is there on the screen. The more clearly I can see its physical manifestation, the more I am stirred by its mystery.

Questions to Consider

  • What techniques do you see Citizen Kane using from other films in the series?

  • From watching a series of films leading up to Citizen Kane, why do you think Citizen Kane was voted the greatest film ever made?

Further Reading / Viewing

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