The rich, powerful media tycoon Charles Foster Kane meets a lonely demise in the vast empty rooms of his palatial home, Xanadu. A reporter sets out to uncover the meaning of his final words, interviewing people who knew him well, including his second wife and his closest business associates. Through their eyes we see episodes in Kane’s life as he is rescued from childhood poverty through a chance bequest and then rises to global notoriety as his business empire grows. We see him nurture the Enquirer, a failing newspaper, building it into a crusading voice for the people. His campaign for high political office founders when a private scandal is made public. Both of his marriages end tragically and he gradually alienates even his closest friends. The arc of Kane’s life provides a panorama of America, but there remains the mystery of his dying worlds. What was it that mattered most to the man who had everything and lost it all?
Few films have enjoyed, or been encumbered with, a reputation quite as high as that of Citizen Kane. In 1952 the British film periodical Sight and Sound asked leading film critics from around the world to choose their ten best films. Citizen Kane didn’t feature in that first ‘top ten’ list but when the survey was repeated ten years later in 1962 it appeared at number one. It continued to top the poll at each ten-year interval since then. In 1992 Sight and Sound introduced a second poll based on the views of an international panel of film directors and again Citizen Kane was placed first before dropping to second in 2012.1 Similarly, the American Film Institute’s ‘Top 100 Movies of All Time’ in 2007 confirmed the status of Citizen Kane by placing it at number one.2 Such consistent acclaim also creates its own hazards in that the film has almost become beyond criticism. Its elevated position can be daunting to any student approaching the film for the first time; can any film avoid arousing feelings of disappointment when it trails such unrivalled levels of expectation behind it.
A further obstacle to examining the film dispassionately has been the problem of disentangling Citizen Kane from the wider legend of its principle creator, Orson Welles. The opening of David Thomson’s biography of Welles conveys something of the mythology when he writes: ‘He had moved people, men and women, with anecdotes, laughter, heady company, genius, beauty, the brightest heaven of invention. He had been loved, admired, revered’ (Thomson 1997: 3). Another biographer, John Russell Taylor, alerts us to Welles’ own tendencies towards self-mythologising, noting that ‘his favourite image for the artist in general and himself in particular was that of a stage magician, an illusionist’ (Taylor 1999: vi). The legend tells us how the ‘boy genius’ bluffed his way into a job as an actor at Dublin’s prestigious Gate Theatre when he was just 16, and how the 23-year old Welles had convinced America that Martians were landing with his infamous radio production of War of the Worlds. Citizen Kane remains a lynchpin of the myth, the masterwork of a 26-year-old first-time director, destined to be the greatest film ever made. The myth also encompasses Welles’ later decline into obesity and chat-show celebrity, a development seemingly paralleled by the ‘rise and fall’ plot of Citizen Kane. This part of the legend also includes the erroneous assumption that he was never to achieve the heights of Citizen Kane again; an idea belied by the vitality and artistry of subsequent films such as The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and Touch of Evil (1958).
One straightforward way to approach Citizen Kane is by way of the auteur theory, seeing the film as the first cinematic expression of Welles’ characteristic themes and stylistic traits. Regarding the former, Welles has often been seen as a director fascinated by the figure of the Shakespearian hero. Obvious evidence is provided for this in the form of his three film adaptations of Shakespeare – Macbeth (1948), Othello (1952) and Chimes at Midnight (1966) – as well as by the characters he portrays in Mr Arkadin (1955) and Touch of Evil. The narrative arc of these films presents the rise and fall of charismatic, romantic but flawed figures, brought down through their own weaknesses and by fatal overreaching. This is certainly part of the fascination of Citizen Kane as we follow Charles Foster Kane from the dynamism and high-minded principles of his youth, when he turns the failing newspaper the Inquirer into a populist, campaigning ‘voice of the people’, to his final isolation and despair, imprisoned in the fantasy palace he has created at Xanadu, lonely and embittered. A much celebrated sequence which conveys this with characteristic cinematic bravura shows Kane and his first wife in a series of breakfast table encounters over the course of their marriage. A montage of shot-reverse shot combinations depicts the gradual change from intimacy to coldness as Kane’s priorities shift to his political career. The final sections of the film, with the elderly Kane lumbering round the vast, empty interiors of Xanadu, contrast strikingly with the exuberance of early scenes at the Inquirer where an ever-smiling Kane fires up his team of young reporters with energy and idealism.
Auteurist examinations of the film have thrown up a number of other interpretations of Welles’ intentions. For James Naremore, Citizen Kane is a fundamentally political film, offering a critique of the corruption endemic in American capitalism (Naremore 2005: 341–58). This is most apparent in the close correlation between Kane’s story and that of the American media magnate William Randolph Hearst who is generally assumed to have provided the real-life model for Kane. In contrast, Laura Mulvey has read the film as both a political allegory (in which Kane’s final desperate loneliness is a metaphor for America’s own isolationist stance to the war in Europe) and a text that invites psychoanalytical interpretation; the latter leading her to a meticulous reading of the film’s complex rendering of the inner life of its central character, as well as providing a meditation on the power of memory. Mulvey neatly summarises the rich possibilities which the film offers to those attempting auteurist textual evaluations when she argues that ‘its elusiveness is one of the qualities that makes it infinitely re-viewable, re-debatable’ (Mulvey 1992: 9).
Even attempting an auteur reading of the film is not without its complications. The original publication in 1971 of The Citizen Kane Book with its extended introductory essay, ‘Raising Kane’, by Pauline Kael is indicative of this (Kael et al., 1974: 1–71). One of Kael’s central intentions was to highlight the contribution made by the film’s co-writer, Herman J. Mankiewicz, even to the extent of implying that much of the credit for the film’s startling visual panache and thematic content was derived from ideas developed by Mankiewicz at the scripting stage. Welles’ later apparent decline might, therefore, be at least partially attributed to the fact that Welles never worked again with the unjustly overlooked Mankiewicz. As David Thomson points out, Kael’s argument was based on insecure, highly selective research (Thomson 1997: 396–8) and subsequent film historians have confirmed Welles’ significant role in developing the screenplay and extending its conception in the actual filming. Kael herself subsequently publicly conceded the weaknesses of her own argument.