Citizen Kane begins with an audacious touch that suits the outsized egos of both its creator and its subject. The opening title bills the film as a “Mercury Production by Orson Welles.” 1941 was more than a decade before François Truffaut began to advocate the “auteur theory,” the notion of the director as the primary “author” of a film, but it clearly conformed to (and, in part, inspired) Truffaut’s ideas. Orson Welles’ hand is on every frame of this film, along with the revolutionary touch of his cinematographer, Gregg Toland.
Kane is a clean break with the Hollywood conventions of the time in terms of both structure and style. This is truly modern film in the way we currently understand the term. The non-linear time-shifting of the story, starting with the main character’s death and then flashing backwards and forwards, must have confounded audiences (and studio executives) accustomed to the linear, beginning-to-end, story structure that typified even the greatest movies before that time. Another great structural conceit is that virtually the entire arc of Charles Foster Kane’s life is spelled out in a fake newsreel during the fist seven or so minutes of the film. However, as the reporters watching the newsreel observe, it tells us virtually nothing about who he really was. A young journalist named Thompson (William Alland) is assigned to dig deeper into the life of Charles Foster Kane and to find what the hell he meant by his dying word: “Rosebud.”
Thompson is one of the film’s first unique stylistic touches. Operating as an audience surrogate in the quest to find out about the late Mr. Kane, Thompson spends most of his onscreen time with his back to the camera. When we do catch a glimpse of his face, it’s always in shadow. By keeping Thompson “faceless”, Welles makes it easy for us to project ourselves into his place and make the search for Kane our own.
Welles’ other striking stylistic technique in Citizen Kane is the use of depth in his scenes. In 1941, film was still, in some ways, shackled to the traditions of the stage. Directors and cinematographers tended to treat the space in front of their cameras as sort of a modified proscenium arch. Movement across the screen was left to right or vice-versa and the action always occupied the foreground. Even in grand epics with a thousand extras in the background, the stars of scene were firmly in the foreground. Welles allows his characters to move front to back across sets of startling depth, giving the film an almost three-dimensional effect long before 3D movies were popular. I don’t know if Welles’ use of vast, deep spaces in Citizen Kane had any influence on the style of Stanley Kubrick, who often used cavernous sets in similar ways, but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that it did.
That the subject of Citizen Kane is media baron William Randolph Hearst should be no surprise to anyone reading this. Hearst was not amused by the thinly disguised roman à clef and probably with good reason. While it’s easy to admire Welles for his cinematic innovations and his general pluck in standing up to both the studios and the man who was the Rupert Murdoch of his day, it’s equally important to recognize the ethical lines that Welles might have crossed, especially in the character of Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore), the movie’s stand-in for Hearst’s mistress Marion Davies. With Kane’s story hewing so close to the real life of Hearst, the talentless drunk that was the character of Kane’s second wife descends to the level of a cheap shot against Davies. That was more likely what made Hearst the most angry at Welles, rather than the film’s portrayal of Hearst himself.
One of the ironies of Citizen Kane’s influence on cinema is that it was one of the great American films that inspired Truffaut’s auteur theory, despite being so completely atypical of mainstream filmmaking at the time. Truffaut’s influence on the next generation of filmmakers, like Coppola or Scorcese, makes his theory more relevant as prophecy than analysis.
Note: Citizen Kane fits tangentally into my mini-Robert Wise Film Festival, since a young Wise was Welles’ editor on this picture.