February 1st, 2000

Citizen Kane

Citizen Kane, the story of a brash magnate whose monstrous egotism precipitates his decline into loneliness and unconvincing baldness, is often dubbed the greatest ever movie. It has much going for it. The parallels between Kane and real-life multi-millionaire William Hearst and the latter’s semi-successful attempts to ruin Welles in cahoots with his ghastly gossip columnist Louella Parsons would make for a movie in themselves. There are also parallels between Kane and Welles, both cosseted through childhood, both dazzling successes at 25, both disillusioned and derided figures when they died.

Yet remove this brouhaha and biography and all that’s left is the movie itself, a precocious piece of pseudo-modernism, lurching from clumsy burlesque to Gothic broodiness. (Welles was always a Goth – on radio he’d already provided the deep-throated tones of a character called The Shadow and ended his career bedecked in a black cloak advertising sherry). Citizen Kane is not moving but jarring. The actors are all steeped in theatre, unused to the nuances of the screen. Which is why everyone seems to be shouting as if to reach the back row, like Everett Sloane’s creepy Mr Bernstein, who comes on like he’s doing the voiceover for an episode of “Hooray For Harold Lloyd!”. He jars, as does Kane’s mistress Susan Alexander, who screeches her lines as amateurishly as she does her opera.

Everyone mugs too hard, especially the young Kane’s harrumphing guardian Thatcher, whom the film can’t decide whether to cast as dark, Capitalist villain or mere clown – he’s part Peter Lorre, part Peter Glaze. All this over-registering to camera is especially unfortunate given photographer Gregg Toland’s tendency to get right in the faces of characters at every opportunity for no reason.

Citizen Kane is much praised for its camera work, its deep perspectives, dissolves, etc, yet these are virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake. This is Welles the show-off, the magician, relishing the new toybox of cinema but still over-theatrical at heart. Much of Citizen’s Kane’s cinematography broadens rather than heightens the drama – much of the action takes place in darkness because, hey, we’re in the dark about Kane, geddit? Or it confuses. Why are so many scenes shot from ground level, such as the one of Kane after his election defeat, taken as if from the perspective of a ferret about to shoot up Welles’ trouser leg? Two reasons. Firstly, having to look up at the action is supposed to make us more awestruck by it, as if contemplating the Eiffel Tower. The other is to show off the fact that they built the studio sets with real ceilings. Clever, huh? Virtuoso, huh? Pointless, huh?

Welles’ performance is marred by his patently inadequate old man make-up. By the final reel, supposedly the most poignant, you can almost see the bathing cap slipping off his pate and his tears melting his painted-on creases. And what, finally, is Citizen Kane’s message? That money cannot buy you people, nor possessions bring true happiness. You’re better off with just a sledge. Yet even this trite homily, which underscores the film’s final twist, is scuppered by the penultimate line; “I don’t think one word can explain a man’s life”. So, er – why all this “Rosebud” business, then? Co-scriptwriters Welles and Herman Mankiewicz didn’t get along. Here, it shows. Either too dark or too light, too naturalistic or too contrived, Citizen Kane lacks the shades of grey necessary in a great movie, the humour and humanity. It’s guilty of all the crimes of its subject, too grandiose, too empty. Don’t worry, though – after this, Welles got much better . . .

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