An attempt to stand on the shoulders of giants – a look at Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941), which is enjoying a return to UK cinemas.
Here there be tygers – how to proceed with a ‘review’ of a film that has topped critics’ Top Ten lists virtually since its release, thus making a serious play for the honour of ‘Best Film Ever’?
Well, I suppose I should tell you, from the off, that it’s a film that can be appreciated immediately, on first viewing, even 68 years on – unlike, say Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) (cited here because it, too, makes a fair play for being cinema’s finest hour), it does not take multiple screenings for the essential heart of Kane to be revealed – quite simply, it’s about all of us, and whether we can truly know the depths of another’s life or even, for that matter, our own.
Based (though not officially) on the life of publishing magnate Randolph Hearst (who, funnily enough, was not really keen on the film, among other reasons because a certain pivotal name in the story was allegedly also his pet name for his mistress’s genitalia), Citizen Kane begins at the end – that is to say, at the solitary, secluded, sad end of the life of publishing tycoon Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles), who dies alone in his own monument to wealth and himself, the Xanadu mansion. As a snow-storm toy he has been holding smashes on the floor, he is heard by his nurse, with his dying breath to utter his Famous Last Words – which are, in themselves, perhaps the most famous: ‘Rosebud…Rosebud…’
And thus begins the quest, by various representatives of the Fourth Estate, to find out what Kane could have meant by his final utterance and, via their search, the story of how a man ‘falls off the top of the world’ is revealed to the audience.
In fact, only we as viewers, rather than any of the film’s characters, are destined to discover what ‘Rosebud’ signifies – and it is an ending, like many of the superb set-pieces that simply litter the film, which will remain with you forever.
Interestingly enough, Welles’s own life followed that of Kane’s with frightening acuity – his ‘Mercury Theatre’ presentation exploded onto the Hollywood scene (‘It’s the best train set a boy ever had’), and provided him and other subsequent screen legends (Joseph cotton and Agnes Moorhead among them) with a first chance to dazzle, but, while his obvious talent also shone through in later films such as The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and Touch of Evil (1958), his own inner capacity for self-destruction saw Welles’s later life almost become a mockery of what he first achieved.
But never mind all that – if you haven’t seen it, do so. Just think, won’t it feel great to finally join the ‘Rosebud’ Club? Seriously, it’s a membership you will not regret taking.