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Citizen Kane (August 22, 2013)

The critical literature about Citizen Kane is more extensive than that about any other American film, so an introduction like this can’t do more than scratch the surface. Orson Welles was born in Kenosha in 1915. Both of his parents died during his childhood. He was a precocious youth. At sixteen he was playing major roles at the Gate Theater, Dublin and at eighteen he was touring the United States with Katherine Cornell’s stage company. By 1936 he was producing plays in New York with John Houseman, in a partnership later known as the Mercury Theatre. He was a sought-after radio actor. The 1938 Mercury Theatre radio show War of the Worlds caused panic across the country, because many listeners thought it was a news broadcast about a Martian invasion, not a dramatic presentation. The name “Orson Welles” became a household word. In 1939 he signed a contract to direct and produce films at RKO, with the unusual stipulation that he would have the right of final cut on his films. This was a deal experienced filmmakers couldn’t get offered to them.

Publicly, Welles put out that he was reviewing several novels on which to base his first film. Privately, John Houseman was in charge of extracting a film script from Herman J. Mankiewicz, who was holed up in a California desert town. That script was based at least partly on the life and career of the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Welles filmed some of the scenes while telling studio management they were tests, to minimize publicity and management interference.

The film was made from June to October, 1940, with sporadic additional filming up to January, 1941. It starred Welles with many of his colleagues from the Mercury Theatre, new to movie acting. The music was by Bernard Herrmann, who had worked with Welles on radio and who would have a long and distinguished career as a composer of music for films, including the music for Vertigo and North by Northwest by Alfred Hitchcock, and music for television, including the themes for Have Gun Will Travel and The Twilight Zone. The cinematographer was Gregg Toland, who had photographed Wuthering Heights for William Wyler, and Grapes of Wrath for John Ford.

What is most often remarked upon about this film is its astonishing visual impact. It seizes the viewer at the beginning and doesn’t let go. For me its high points also include its script (credited to Mankiewicz and Welles) whose simple but relentlessly developed story provides a worthy framework, Toland’s rich-toned black-and-white photography, Herrmann’s exuberant score, and several of the performances. The hallmark of Toland’s cinematography in this movie, cited often by critics, is the deep-focus shot, where the foreground, middleground and background are all in perfect focus. Standard filmmaking practice of the time would have cut between shots of each of the elements depicted in the single deep-focus shot. Welles’ performance as Kane, something of a self-portrait, displays the ambiguousness that a complex figure like Kane evokes. Note that Joseph Cotten, playing Jed Leland as a young man, speaks with a standard American accent, and, as an old man, speaks with a Southern drawl, which suggests the multiple styles of social presentation his character has had to adopt. I love Dorothy Comingore, who plays Susan Alexander. Her speaking voice moves from shrill shouting to quiet whispering without any difficulty, mirroring the emotional shifts the person she plays undergoes. Everett Sloane’s Bernstein presents what might be my favorite moment of dialogue in film, the anecdote about the girl with a white parasol. Ray Collins as Gettys and Agnes Moorehead as Kane’s mother, among others, have brief roles that display great depth of skill.

The hostility of the Hearst press and the studio moguls, who feared Hearst’s anger, meant that the film did poorly at the box office when it was released in May, 1941. It won only the scriptwriting Oscar – a nod by Hollywood to Herman J. Mankiewicz, whose credit Welles had sought to eliminate from the film. It received eight other Academy Award nominations – for best picture, Welles for best actor and director, Toland for best cinematography, Herrmann for best score, Robert Wise for best editing, John Aalberg for best sound recording, and Perry Ferguson and others for best black and white art direction and interior decoration. Postwar revisions of opinion resulted in Citizen Kane becoming the most admired American film on many people’s lists, and it was extremely influential to later generations of filmmakers. I hope you enjoy watching Citizen Kane with me tonight.