Citizen Kane is majestic, elegant and noble. It begins at the end, we see a man of obvious wealth and power breathe his last, and then the mysteries of his life are unraveled via a series of anecdotes, barely remembered scenes and highly subjective memories. The boldness of this approach cannot be overemphasized. At the time that this film was made Hollywood was for the most part used to creating straight-forward stories with clearly identified heroes and villains. Kane dared to present Man as he is, rife with confusions, internal contradictions and uncertainty.
As the film progressed, we see Kane, loosely based on William Randolph Hearst, the famous newspaper tycoon slowly sacrifice his ideals in order to build his financial empire, losing his friendships with those who believed in him until ultimately he looses everything he has, his marriage, his friends, and his integrity. Though he is the richest man in the world he lives his remaining isolated in his privately built mountain estate where he has surrounded himself with material pleasures, alone and despairing, one senses that he welcomes death. The film takes the view that wealth and power are inherently destructive of human values. Kane himself states `If I hadn't been born rich I might have been a really great man.
What is so masterful about Kane is its ambiguity. We never are certain if Kane really did believe in the values that he professed. At the same time that he sets himself up as above the world, he longs for the affection of the common people. This is symbolized by his exploitative, and patronizing love for a chorus girl, Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore). Her character is given a paper-thin characterization, the only obvious flaw in a nearly perfect movie.
Orson Wells gives a bravura performance as Kane, both identifying with and condemning the man. This film was his first venture into movie making after the infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast that threw America into an uproar. Wells, a child prodigy, had a background in Shakespearian theater, offering modernized adaptations of the Classics, a bold and unusual gesture at the time. He brought that kind of sweeping tragic romantic sensibility to his first film.
Unconstrained by Hollywood's traditions, he broke all the rules. The deep focus photography that gives Kane its theatrical look was one of his innovations. A mastery of sound, gained from years of working in the radio was another. Kane is an avalanche of technical innovation, unmatched in any other Hollywood film.
Despite the film's pessimistic outlook, it is studded by moments of joy, beauty and emotional truth. The supporting cast of characters, most of them regulars from Wells' Mercury Theater are also superb. Joseph Cotton is memorable as Jed Leland Kane's close friend who believes in him more then he does. And Everet Slone is wonderful as Kane's would be mentor Mr. Bernstien.
So many scenes in this movie linger forever in the memory, one is left with a stirring vision of the frailty of the human condition, the film gives us no easy answers and while being fiercely critical of many of it's characters is universal in it's compassion and sympathy, this is perhaps the most vital ingredient for great art.
Kane was one of the most controversial films ever made. Hearst, offended by his portrayal, offered RKO a small fortune to destroy the film. When that didn't work his newspapers embarked on a campaign of defamation against Wells, thus proving that the film's criticism of the power and corruption of the press were precisely on target. Wells was never given a free hand to direct how he liked again and American Cinema was deprived of the one of the greatest geniuses to adopt it as a medium of self-expression.
It's influence, was immediate, incalculable and mostly unacknowledged, the film was a box office and critical failure due to Hearst's efforts and it was not until years later that this film got the respect it deserved. Nowadays there is not one living film director of serious artistic intent that has not been deeply influenced by Citizen Kane. It's not just a masterpiece it's a creative touchstone.
Of course there were other talents at work in making Kane, Hermann Mankiewicz's efforts on the script were indispensable and Bernard Hermann, the composer most famous for working with Hitchcock provided the films beautiful music. Still, the film remains most obviously the work of Orson Wells, a veritable hall of mirrors reflecting the great artist's dreams, obsessions and fears. Citizen Kane is not just one of the great works of cinema it is one of the greatest artistic creations of the century