This post is my contribution to the Great Movie Debate blogathon, hosted by The Cinematic Packrat and Citizen Screenings. Check out all the great entries here, especially Movie Movie Blog Blog who’s taken the FOR argument for Citizen Kane.
When it comes to Citizen Kane, the ‘against’ corner is a pretty lonely place to be. The movie, voted ‘the best of all time’ by Sight and Sound readers for more than 50 years, is an undisputed cinematic great, but its greatness is thrust upon it and comes most from it’s lasting influence rather than from the movie’s intrinsic value. It’s a movie you feel compelled to like – any other response signifies a lack of cultural understanding or an inability to ‘get’ greatness. But surely that’s not what movie watching is about – the thrill is in the immersion, in the experience, in the act of being swept up into another life or place – and on those counts, Orson Welles’ so-called masterpiece fails.
So with no further ado, I present the prosecution’s case…
The plot. Or lack therof.
Five writers (three uncredited) could surely have constructed a more compelling narrative. The autobiographical framework – told post-humously through a journalist who’s attempting to uncover the meaning of Kane’s last words – results in uneasy neutrality that makes it difficult to emphasise with any character. Much of the blame should be attributed to Welles and Mankiewicz, who were the lead writers. Although it was Welles’ first full screenplay, by the 1940s, Mankiewicz had been writing and adapting for more than 10 years (credits included Dinner at Eight, Ladies’ Man and Dancers in the Dark). Surely he could have constructed a more compelling narrative and richer dialogue – compare the just-about-average exchanges with The Maltese Falcon and The Lady Eve – both released in the same year as Citizen Kane. Quotable lines from both abound – the most memorable line of dialogue comes from Leland (Joseph Cotten) ‘ I can remember everything. That’s my curse, young man. It’s the greatest curse that’s ever been inflicted on the human race: memory.’ How the film won an Academy Award for Best Writing will forever remain one of life’s mysteries.
The blame does not rest entirely with Mankiewicz: Welles should have demanded repetitious scenes be cut and replaced with supplementary ones. The flashback technique is only unsuccessful because it’s too languid and indulgent. The lack of plot development is also problematic. The conclusion – which remains the audience’s secret – is presented as meaningful and profound but in reality falls flat. It’s not enough of a ‘reveal’ to build up to and, as Dan Geddes observes, although it makes the point that the meaning of a man’s life cannot be discerned from his dying words, the point could have been made earlier and the film could have been resolved more satisfactorily.
Kane is one-dimensional.
At his heart, Kane is overly ambitious man with political aspirations. Although apparently a pastiche of real-life characters, including publisher William Randolph Hearst, tycoon Howard Hughes and Depression-hit entrepreneur Samuel Insull who built an opera house for his wife, Kane doesn’t feel particularly individual. In fact he’s not actually likeable – that in itself isn’t a deal breaker, but it’s impossible to care for a character that doesn’t seem real, for whom nothing really feels at stake. The audience isn’t emotionally invested enough to care what happens – Kane is distanced by his money and by the other characters, who all help to create a myth that is never shattered. The ‘Rosebud’ realisation comes to late to humanise his actions, to redeem his selfish, ruthless and selfish actions, and his ability to destroy the lives of those he claims to love. Everyone has faults – Kane’s aren’t sufficiently unique enough to make him interesting – and his character is painted in broad, ‘big-picture’ brushstrokes that overlook the small details and, in doing so, render him almost inhuman. In fact, the more the audience learns about Kane, the more he recedes from view.
One of the most dramatic (and therefore engaging) scenes is when the Governor of New York Jim Gettys (Ray Collins) corners Kane, his wife Mary (Ruth Warrick) and his mistress Susan (Dorothy Comingore) in the same room. Gettys threatens to expose the ambitious Kane unless he halts his corrupt political campaign. Kane chooses his mistress over ‘family’, but that relatability is undercut by the fact that no mention is ever made of Mary again – despite the fact that the opening news sequence reveals that his wife and son were killed in a car crash soon after the confrontation. A reference to Kane’s grief (or lack of) would immediately explain or justify further actions – ignoring it only makes him more unrelatable – whilst also making the screenplay that little bit more annoying.
The techniques are distracting.
They’re not distracting when you’re watching it, but they’re distracting on reflection – the pleasure of a post-watch consideration is considerably lessened by the realisation that not a lot actually happens and much of the film is carried by Welles’ (undeniably brilliant) camerawork and ideas. Stylistically Citizen Kane is an early example of film noir, but these darkly atmospheric shots create an illusion of mystery that plot and characterisation fail to live up to. Of course, it’s not exactly a noir: Kane’s fate is bleak but is firmly in his hands – he is the master of his own destiny.
There are many stylistic elements that make Kane great – the unexpected camera angles and the use of deep focus (notably in the scene where a young Kane is playing in the snow-covered garden in the background whilst his mother signs over the legal rights to her son). Roger Ebert even claimed that there are more special effects in Citizen Kane than there are in the original Star Wars film, and he’s probably not wrong. But a film is the sum of its parts, and these areas of excellence are not enough to make up for the shortcomings that have already been mentioned.
Oversell – the false promises of universal acclaim.
For current audiences, Citizen Kane has been oversold. It’s a textbook example of a myth that’s grown too big to be sustained, and is a touted must-see for all the wrong reasons. There’s no question that, with Kane, the young Welles (just 25 years old!) made an undeniably influential film that changed cinema and ticks almost all the ‘film as art’ boxes (inventive, auteur vision, an enduring moral) – but textbook examples don’t make a classic. That status comes from the experience, the pleasure and the joy – all of which Citizen Kane lacks in spades.
Further reading: Citizen Kane by Erich von Stroheim / Citizen Kane: Not the greatest movie ever by Dan Geddes / Praising ‘Kane’ in The New Yorker / Raising Kane by Pauline Kael / Citizen Kane by A Movie A Week