On the 6th May, it will be Orson Welles’ 103 birthday. There’s a very high chance that you have heard the name Orson Welles, and I am going to out on a limb here and say you must be aware of his most well-known film, Citizen Kane (1941). To celebrate his birthday, I have decided to go back and revisit Citizen Kane to see how this directional debut changed cinema forever.
With Citizen Kane, Orson Welles played around with the concept of storytelling, by essentially starting from the end with the death of Kane muttering the now infamous ”Rosebud”, there wasn’t any other option but to go backwards in order to investigate the enigma that was Mr Kane. In 1941, non-linear storytelling was extremely rare in mainstream Hollywood, in fact since the silent era the film system had battled to create the rules of filmmaking that many directors had to abide to. Citizen Kane is told in a series of flashbacks as an investigative reporter (William Alland) interviews former colleagues, loved ones and other unreliable narrators to piece together the puzzle of Kane’s life. In the end, the reporter never discovers the truth of Rosebud, however we do but it’s too late and the secret of the meaning of Rosebud is carelessly lost forever. However despite seeing the life of Kane unfold before our very eyes, we never really connect with the character, he remains distant, and we never truly understand what his intentions were throughout the course of the film’s runtime.
In addition to directing Citizen Kane when he was just 25, Welles does a terrific job of inhabiting the character from his early twenties to his death, showing us the rise and fall of the media icon. There’s no CGI here: the magic is created via great makeup work and the master thespian. Welles wore special milky bloodshot contact lenses to make his eyes look old, and 72 different facial appliances, including hair lines, cheeks, jowls, bags under his eyes, and 16 different chins.
Welles decision to play the role showed the capability of actors and help paved the way for other directing actors such as Ben Affleck, George Clooney, Clint Eastwood to name a few. Welles’ managed to obtain something that was quite unheard of at the time (especially for a first time director), he obtained the final cut from RKO. RKO executives would not be allowed to see any footage until Welles chose to show it to them, and no cuts could be made to either film without Welles’s approval. Granting final cut privilege was unprecedented for a studio since it placed artistic considerations over financial investment. The contract was deeply resented in the film industry, and the Hollywood press took every opportunity to mock RKO and Welles.
The film was also revolutionary in the way it approached it’s subject and showed a side to the media industry that painted it in a not so flattering light, in fact Citizen Kane takes a negative view of a high-profile newspaperman. As he builds his empire of Inquirer papers and radio networks, Kane engages in yellow journalism to sway public opinion on the Spanish-American War and take aim at his enemies. But a lack of journalistic integrity and an all-consuming job does considerable damage to his close relationships. Kane helped to path the way for other films that took a critical approach to dealing with industries in which the film’s stories were base in, such as The Bad and The Beautiful, All the Presidents Men, The Player and more recently The Wolf of Wall Street (the list goes on). Citizen Kane was not afraid of holding up a mirror and revealing the ugly side behind the headlines, the character of Kane is said to be based on American newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, who prohibited any mention of the film in any of his newspapers, which only added fuel to the fire, indicating that indeed there was some truth to Welles’ film.
Citizen Kane was also revolutionary in its use of cinematography, it use of deep focus , the act of using actors and objects at different distances from the camera and keeping them all in focus, was a technique that was both technically difficult and stylistically unpopular at the time the film was made. However Citizen Kane showed how this technique could be used to great effect and as a result it became popular. The shots are so well composed that each frame has a story to tell, the most famous shot used in examples is the shot of Kane’s mother signing her son away as he plays outside in the snow, everyone is in focus even though they are at different distances away from one and other. Welles decision to use long takes (a long shot without cuts with the camera moving slowly around a scene) was also revolutionary, it showed the capability of the camera and the medium of film, which had become quite stale under the control of the studio system.
Citizen Kane continues to be referenced in popular culture today, from the warehouse sot in Raiders of the Lost Ark, to Red Dwarf with the character of Rimmer’s death being an homage to the Rosebud/snow globe scene (Rimmer lies on the floor dying, the camera zooms in on his mouth as he says his last words “Gazpacho soup”). But of course best known is the Simpsons (see below). I think Orson Welles would have found it highly amusing and I expect he would have loved to make a guest appearance on the sitcom.
I can’t simply think of another way to pay homage to the great director, writer and actor, than going back to where it all began and to watch the masterpiece that is Citizen Kane.