Unconventional in its conception, execution, and certainly in its technique, Orson Welles’ classic CITIZEN KANE (1941) is a cinematic masterpiece that has been hailed by many critics and cinephiles alike as one of the greatest films ever made. Since its debut, this story of a mass newspaper tycoon’s life has inspired countless films and, at one point, almost every contemporary filmmaker. CITIZEN KANE set a new standard for cinema and established Orson Welles as one of the great filmmakers of his time.
The film follows eager reporter, Thompson (William Alland) as he searches for the meaning of the mysterious last words of dead newspaper mogul, Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles). Through flashbacks and interviews, we see that Kane starts with good intentions but slowly forgets them as his avarice and insatiable appetite for power cause him to embellish or restrict stories in his newspapers. We see the influence that money and power have on his life, and how in the end, this may have destroyed him. As Kane himself states early in the film, “you know, Mr. Bernstein, if I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a really great man.”
Director, producer, and star of CITIZEN KANE Orson Welles, began his career at the age of sixteen as a theatre actor on and off Broadway. He later gained fame as a writer, director, and actor for radio plays produced by Mercury Theatre on the Air. This included many literary adaptations such as the infamous Halloween War of the Worlds broadcast in 1938 that convinced many Americans they were being attacked by aliens. At the age of 25, Orson Welles was offered a contract by RKO pictures to create a feature film. The studio, desperate for new talent to rebuild their company after the great depression and the invention of talking pictures, gave Welles unprecedented control over his project. He could create whatever he wanted with limited interference by the studio as long as he stayed within budget.
Welles happily took this deal and started to exercise his new freedom by adapting Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. However, in pre-production the film went over budget and was never brought to fruition. Instead, with the help of screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, Welles began to write the story of CITIZEN KANE. While shooting the film, Welles was overly prepared for every scene. He created elaborate storyboards, much like Alfred Hitchcock, so that he knew exactly what he wanted. Welles also rehearsed scenes with actors more than was common before shooting, and he explored blocking as well as script changes with the cast before finalizing the scenes on screen.
As this was his first feature film, Welles looked to other films for inspiration. For the cinematography he credits John Ford, particularly the film STAGECOACH (1939), as his biggest influence. STAGECOACH exhibited many interesting and dramatic lighting choices that would later be reflected in the prodigious cinematography of CITIZEN KANE by Gregg Toland. Toland and Welles experimented endlessly with light and deep-focus cinematography throughout the film; the strikingly low camera angles and the use of shadow was extraordinarily unique. In many scenes for example, characters would appear shadowed while others would be brightly lit. This resulted in many interesting compositions and symbolically informed the viewer about the characters. Paired with a dramatic score composed by Bernard Herrman, the film has a very distinctive look and tone. While these techniques were not new, the way the film used them was. For many filmmakers, this experimental form of cinematography was revolutionary.
The non-linear structure of the film also stands out, as classical Hollywood cinema is known for its conventional storytelling methods of linear narrative. Employing this structure added exceptional nuance to the plot and characters. Although this technique was extremely uncommon at the time, it influenced important directors such as François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard.
Many of those in the cast and crew had never worked on a feature film before but knew Welles from his time working at Mercury Theatre on the Air. This was the case for Bernard Herrman, the brilliant musician hired to compose the score to CITIZEN KANE. This launched Herrman’s wildly successful career in motion pictures and set a new precedent for the creation of cinematic score. Normally, composers would create one score for the film as a whole, using one ensemble of musicians to carry music throughout the film. However, Herrman composed one scene at a time, tailoring the music and the types of instruments used to fit the specific scenes. As a result, he created a very dramatic, exciting, and varied score that appeared fresh and extravagant to the audience. After this film, Bernard Herrman continued to create some of the best scores of 20th century Hollywood including, Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (1960), Martin Scorsese’s TAXI DRIVER (1976), and Scorsese’s CAPE FEAR (1991).
While the film was well received by critics, winning an Oscar for best screenplay and a New York Film Critics Circle Award for best film, it drew limited attention from the public. This was mainly due to its controversial political implications, as many believed that the character of Charles Foster Kane was a direct reference to the real-life newspaper magnate, William Randolph Hearst. Both Kane and Hearst were owners of extremely powerful newspaper empires that often sensationalized their stories for profit and lived in huge, extravagant estates filled with several museums worth of art. Hearst was so outraged by the film and what it insinuated about his life that he refused to print anything about it in his papers and even tried to get RKO to shut the picture down. As a result, not many viewers went to see the film. However, like many great pictures, CITIZEN KANE has gained enormous respect and acclaim over the years. Rob Reiner told TCM that the film is “the one movie that exploded everything that came before it and influenced almost everything that came after it… [Welles] told a story in a whole new way. Flashbacks inside of flashbacks, changing points of view, breaking all the rules… And movies have never been the same” .
CITIZEN KANE stands out as a revolutionary piece of cinema that initiated many filmic techniques, vestiges of which can be found in almost every modern film today. Although it was originally released nearly 80 years ago, it still manages to feel astoundingly relevant in our era. Welles took cues from the films he loved when envisioning his masterpiece, and it’s due to his meticulous attention to detail and his courage to experiment (especially in the face of adversity), that so many contemporary filmmakers take cues from his work. From its complex narrative structure to its long and tiring production to the obstacles it faced during its release, Welles proved that film, as a medium, has relevance and the ability to convey meaning, and, in turn, CITIZEN KANE became a model future filmmakers used to convey their own relevance and meaning.