Rewind 75 years and Citizen Kane is taking the world by storm. Bosley Crowther, film reviewer for The New York Times, appraises Orson Welles’s contemporary blockbuster
Within the withering spotlight as no other film has ever been before, Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane had its world premiere at the Palace last evening. And now that the wraps are off, the mystery has been exposed and Mr Welles and the RKO directors have taken the much-debated leap, it can be safely stated that suppression of this film would have been a crime. For, in spite of some disconcerting lapses and strange ambiguities in the creation of the principal character, Citizen Kane is far and away the most surprising and cinematically exciting motion picture to be seen here in many a moon. As a matter of fact, it comes close to being the most sensational film ever made in Hollywood.
Count on Mr Welles; he doesn’t do things by halves. Being a mercurial fellow, with a frightening theatrical flair, he moved right into the movies, grabbed the medium by the ears and began to toss it around with the dexterity of a seasoned veteran. Fact is, he handled it with more verve and inspired ingenuity than any of the elder craftsmen have exhibited in years.
With the able assistance of Gregg Toland, whose services should not be overlooked, he found in the camera the perfect instrument to encompass his dramatic energies and absorb his prolific ideas. Upon the screen he discovered an area large enough for his expansive whims to have free play. And the consequence is that he has made a picture of tremendous and overpowering scope, not in physical extent so much as in its rapid and graphic rotation of thoughts. Mr Welles has put upon the screen a motion picture that really moves.
As for the story which he tells — and which has provoked such an uncommon fuss — this corner frankly holds considerable reservation. Naturally we wouldn’t know how closely — if at all — it parallels the life of an eminent publisher, as has been somewhat cryptically alleged. But that is beside the point in a rigidly critical appraisal. The blamable circumstance is that it fails to provide a clear picture of the character and motives behind the man about whom the whole thing revolves.
As the picture opens, Charles Kane lies dying in the fabulous castle he has built — the castle called Xanadu, in which he has surrounded himself with vast treasures. And as death closes his eyes his heavy lips murmur one word, “Rosebud”. Suddenly the death scene is broken; the screen becomes alive with a staccato March-of-Time-like news feature recounting the career of the dead man — how, as a poor boy, he came into great wealth, how he became a newspaper publisher as a young man, how he aspired to political office, was defeated because of a personal scandal, devoted himself to material acquisition and finally died.
But the editor of the news feature is not satisfied; he wants to know the secret of Kane’s strange nature and especially what he meant by “Rosebud”. So a reporter is dispatched to find out, and the remainder of the picture is devoted to an absorbing visualisation of Kane’s phenomenal career as told by his boyhood guardian, two of his closest newspaper associates and his mistress. Each is agreed on one thing — that Kane was a titanic egomaniac. It is also clearly revealed that the man was in some way consumed by his own terrifying selfishness.
But just exactly what it is that eats upon him, why it is there and, for that matter, whether Kane is really a villain, a social parasite, is never CITIZEN KANE: the players Original screen play by Orson Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz; produced and directed by Orson Welles; photography by Gregg Toland; music composed and conducted by Bernard Herrmann; released through RKORadio. At the Palace. Charles Foster Kane . . . . . Orson Welles Kane, aged eight . . . . . Buddy Swan Kane, aged three days . . . . . Sonny Bupp Kane’s Father . . . . . Harry Shannon Jedediah Leland . . . . . Joseph Cotten Susan Alexander . . . . . Dorothy Comingore Mr Bernstein . . . . . Everett Sloane James W. Gettys . . . . . Ray Collins Walter Parks Thatcher . . . . . George Coulouris Kane’s Mother . . . . . Agnes Moorehead Raymond . . . . . Paul Stewart Emily Norton . . . . . Ruth Warrick Herbert Carter . . . . . Erskine Sanford Thompson . . . . . William Alland Miss Anderson . . . . . Georgia Backus Mr Rawlston . . . . . Philip Van Zandt Headwaiter . . . . . Gus Schilling Signor Matiste . . . . . Fortunio Bonano clearly revealed. And the final, poignant identification of “Rosebud” sheds little more than a vague, sentimental light upon his character.
At the end Kubla Kane is still an enigma — a very confusing one.
But check that off to the absorption of Mr Welles in more visible details. Like the novelist, Thomas Wolfe, his abundance of imagery is so great that it sometimes gets in the way of his logic. And the less critical will probably be content with an undefined Kane, anyhow. After all, nobody understood him. Why should Mr Welles? Isn’t it enough that he presents a theatrical character with consummate theatricality?
We would, indeed, like to say as many nice things as possible about everything else in this film — about the excellent direction of Mr Welles, about the sure and penetrating performances of literally every member of the cast and about the stunning manner in which the music of Bernard Herrmann has been used. Space, unfortunately, is short. All we can say, in conclusion, is that you shouldn’t miss this film.
It is cynical, ironic, sometimes oppressive and as realistic as a slap. But it has more vitality than 15 other films we could name. And, although it may not give a thoroughly clear answer, at least it brings to mind one deeply moral thought: For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul? See Citizen Kane for further details.
An original poster, left for Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane