Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Memory Is The Greatest Curse That's Ever Been Inflicted On The Human Race.

It's a slight misquote, but close enough.

Citizen Kane has long been regarded as one of the greatest films ever made, especially within America. Made in the middle of the second World War, newcomer Orson Welles directs himself in a story apparently fairly closely based on the life of William Randolph Hearst, a newspaper magnate with huge influence and wealth due to his ability to control opinion through fear of bad press. Hearst is proxied in the movie by Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles), who builds his empire after inheriting an apparently worthless piece of land that in fact contains the world's third largest gold mine.

An initially tumultuous childhood sees Kane being sent from his abusive father and depressed mother (Agnes Moorehead) to live with a wealthy city banker Walter Parks Thatcher (George Coulouris), who takes care of Kane the best he can. When Kane turns 25 he comes into the fortune bequeathed to him and embarks upon building his empire, buying up flailing newspaper The Inquirer and turning it around with yellow journalism. Kane quickly expands his empire, becoming an enormously powerful media player, able to bring people up, start wars, whatever he wants with a flick of his wrist and a stab at a typewriter, despite his earlier pledge to be true to what he believes in. The problem with Kane is his Freudian psychosis - reacting and manifesting from his sad and unfortunate upbringing.

Kane meets and marries Emily Monroe Norton (Ruth Warrick), the niece of the President, and begins a campaign to become governor of New York. Late in his campaigning days he stumbles across Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingmore), an aspiring singer, and begins an affair with her. Discovered, the affair proves a scandal, published widely in competing newspapers, and causes the decimation of Kane's political ambitions and the collapse of his first marriage. Kane quickly marries Susan, pushing her to become an opera singer of grand scale, building an Opera house for her to sing in. Upon her debut she is scathingly attacked from all sides, though Kane tries to stop his newspapers from saying bad things about her until a confrontation with his dramatic reporter and best friend Jebediah Leland (Joseph Cotten) reminds him of his previous attempts to maintain some dignity and sees him write a damning review under Leland's name.

Gradually, everything for Kane begins to fall apart. He is living in a magical, fantastical, enormous estate called Xanadu that seems to never be finished, collecting statues, with another marriage failing and friendships all left at the wayside in pursuit not of profit, but of notoriety. In dropping scruples along the way in order to help him here, he ends up having to further compromise himself in order that he get through over there. Friends, workers, loved ones, they all are forced away from him by his increasingly domineering personality, resulting in him dying alone at Xanadu, where he now only interacts with his staff, muttering the word 'Rosebud' and setting off newsreel reporter Jerry Thompson (William Alland) on a quest to discover the meaning.

The narrative structure of the film may appear somewhat normal today, but at the time was quite strikingly revolutionary, even if Welles can't take credit for the invention of it. The film introduces Kane initially through a newsreel about his death, which then turns into the investigation for the discovery of the meaning of his dying word. In interviewing a number of friends and associates of Kane, the film is then told in flashback as they describe him and his life, giving us an insight into his story in the past through the viewpoint of the present. What was probably most influential, however, was the inventive cinematography and set ups Welles and cinematographer Gregg Toland used, including deep focus allowing for the entire scene to be in focus (some actually shot with clever lenses, others using in camera techniques and some post visual effects.) The music, also, by Hitchock fave Bernard Herrmann, was noted quite widely. In and of themselves, these elements weren't used for the first time in Citizen Kane, but they were combined in Welles' debut feature to extraordinary effect.

There is little that I can say about Citizen Kane that has not been said ad nauseam many times since. As mentioned, the film has regularly been touted as the greatest film of all time, something which to an extent needs to be viewed with the cinematic landscape of the time and how the film has influenced so many films and filmmakers hence (it was a particular favourite of the Cahiers du Cinema crew in France, including Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut) that have gone on to create the cinematic canon held up today. However, the film does also stand on its own two feet as a riveting dramatic work, something enjoyable without an understanding of the background and future of cinema.

A truly influential film, a great piece of cinema mastery, and an enduring feat that will continue to please years hence. 5 stars.

No comments:

Post a Comment