[This is a program note written for “The Cinema of Orson Welles,” the Autumn 1971 film series of the University of Washington Office of Lectures & Concerts, and distributed at the October 5, 1971, showing of Welles’s first feature film.]
Thirty years after its initial release, Citizen Kane may very well be the most talked-about movie in history. Its creator-star, Orson Welles, remains the sole American filmmaker of the early sound era whom virtually everybody is willing to consider an artist. In the early Sixties an international poll of 110 critics determined Kane as “the greatest film of all time” (there have been other polls and other results, to be sure). Last year the University of California Press produced the most ambitious survey yet of Welles’ directorial career, Charles Higham’s The Films of Orson Welles. This year Pauline Kael contributed a nearly booklength introduction (in two New Yorker installments) to the final version of the Kane screenplay, soon to be published; and Andrew Sarris answered her in four superb, longer-than-usual articles in The Village Voice. Peter Bogdanovich has another volume of conversations-in-excelsis ready to go, with Welles as subject (and financial partner in the enterprise); and Joseph McBride, whose various articles on Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, and Chimes at Midnight confirm his standing as the most sensitive of Welles scholars, will soon have a book out, too. There is even a textbook, Focus on Citizen Kane. Then there’s the latest issue of Film Comment magazine devoted to detailed studies of Welles and two other “masters of mise-en-scène.” And on and on it goes. Every week, in art theaters and campus auditoriums, new viewers make the acquaintance of Citizen Kane and feel, for a few moments or days, as if they’ve never seen a movie before. And old friends of Kane periodically revisit and feel as if they‘ve never seen it before!
I have seen Citizen Kane for the twentysometh time(s) this week and I’m still pretty excited about the film. So I’d rather not go into the pre-production data on Welles’ first feature, or compare the life of Charles Foster Kane to that of William Randolph Hearst, or worry what the picture has in common with Marx Brothers comedies or The Front Page, or make obligatory lists of the innovations supposed to be found in it, or talk about the tortuous processes by which the film was nearly suppressed and then niftily saved and then commercially sabotaged. Interesting and illuminating as such studies may be, they are other things and—in Higham and Kael specifically—they at worst distort and at best prove irrelevant to the experience that Citizen Kane the film is.
Many of Orson Welles’s movies begin at night. Those that do not literally begin at night begin in some kind of dark void, partake of a timelessness, a sense of primal chaos, blackness before creation, darkness before the vital and mortal stab of light. Citizen Kane begins in utter darkness and silence. Then a chord of music shudders down under things and we begin to perceive abstract images: a sign warning NO TRESPASSING, several kinds of wire mesh, dark grillework of increasing complexity of pattern. These barriers slip before our eyes in funereal, ascending shots that elide into one another like semiliquids. Beyond them lies some backdrop, indistinct, out-of-focus, darkly silver and terrible with potentiality. Dissolve to a shot that establishes a more rationally coherent but still surreal landscape: a wrought-iron K silhouetted atop a gate; this at our left, and at the right a fairy-tale castle. The preeminent sense of ascension established in the fence shots gives way momentarily to a penetrating motion: not of a camera in motion but rather, of shots themselves, editorial logic in motion, as a series of precisely matched images samples the bizarre ground of this estate presided over by the castle, which maintains a territorial imperative over the same section of the frame in each shot. There is a light in one castle window, and as the dreamlike (and largely painted or miniature) views succeed one another, we become aware that we are still focused in a kind of ascent, drawing closer in each shot to that square of illumination. We are outside the windows now—and the light goes out. A moment’s confusion and we see something again: the fold of curtain by the window, distinct against the lighter background. But now the curtain is on the other side of the screen: we are inside that now-darkened room, and the night exterior seems comparatively lighter. Closeup of a white object: a miniature house under a blanket of imitation snow. The camera snaps back: the house is enclosed in a glass ball in an aged hand, but its atmosphere of swirling snow now seems to drift over the whole room. Through this overlayer we see huge lips and hear them pronounced a word: “Rosebud…” The ball rolls out of the lifeless hand, bounces down some stairs, shatters. A very grainy image of a nurse appears on screen and is immediately refracted through a curve of the broken snow-globe. The corpse is covered. We look out at the lighter night again, and then darkness closes down once more.
The man, we quickly learn, is Charles Foster Kane and the estate is Xanadu. A newsreel reprise of the historical high points of his life follows the scene of his death. A reporter, Thompson, sets out to review Kane’s life through his key associates, hoping to learn why one of the (once) most powerful men in the world died saying, “Rosebud”—he needs “an angle” for his short. The search for “Rosebud” becomes the means of and excuse for going over Kane’s life again, including many events already summarized in the newsreel, impressionistic moments inflated to expressionistic degrees. But in the very first sequence Orson Welles has already established most of the key themes and motifs that will dominate the film.
In his book Movie Man David Thomson suggests that “The whole of Citizen Kane might be Kane’s own dreamed recollections in the last moment before his death. The fact that the film takes the form of investigations carried out by a representative of a newsreel company could be interpreted as showing the degree to which Kane’s own publicity has conditioned his attitude to himself.” The author of Movie Man isn’t insisting, just responding imaginatively to the quality of images and sounds the film has bounced off him. Neither do I think it is necessary to buy the dreamed-recollections theory, but I believe there is no way to discount that Kane or at least his alter ego is the narrative intelligence through whom we view the film, regardless of who the official “narrators” are. We are conspicuously taken into Xanadu at the beginning – the virtual identity of Kane and Xanadu is suggested by the shot of the K and the castle. When the light goes out in Kane’s room, is it just a light going out a few moments before he dies, or does the light signal his death, our subsequent closeup look at the snow-globe constituting the first of many flashbacks within the move? When the nurse enters in such a grainy shot, does the graininess not represent a rejection of those facts of life—and of his life—that Kane could not dominate? At any rate she is immediately put in place, caught in the accidental prism of the broken globe—an effect that has been criticized as puerile, yet why, when it so vividly foreshadows the fragmentary refractions of Kane’s life we are about to witness? An intense subjectivity is established in these opening shots that never lets go of the film, even at the end.
In addition to this interiority and subjectivity, an abstract theme of power, conquest, rise and fall is established. We advance over a vista of the baroque materialism through which Kane (we shall learn) has striven to establish his ascendancy, savoring this titan’s Romantic passion for florid detail, a multitude of objects to serve as the properties of his dream; we advance, and we rise, and we watch the glass ball drop and shatter: we are fascinated at the prospect of illusion even as the prime symbol of illusion explodes. The tension between objective facts and subjective revelation is extraordinary, so much so that character Kane’s manipulations of reality to establish and exercise power will have to be treated separately from narrator Kane/Welles’s (greater) awareness of and fascination with the mysteries of media.
One of several handy paraphrases for Citizen Kane is that it just goes to show you how wealth and power are bound to corrupt a fellow, especially when he’s taken away from his mother too early. A nice thing about seeing good films again and again is that one very soon, and all but unconsciously, deemphasizes the more unfortunate aspects of the experience. While the preceding paraphrase is very big with most writers on Kane (who are quick to get with it by pointing out that this is why Welles is so big with young people), I think it may distort the film’s basic impulses seriously. For all the close resemblances to and near-quotations from William Randolph Hearst’s career, the film and Charlie Kane are less historical than personal, and the bloated carcass of Kane’s universe is laid out in trappings too basic to Orson Welles’s own expressive vision for us to accept so patly moralistic a reading of the film. Kane’s excesses of material indulgence and dramatic gesture do reverberate within a social framework, but they are much more persuasive—we watch the film time and again—because they define a personality.
Rather than consider power in terms of a cautionary fable about citizen dictators, let’s see how it is exercised and sometimes transferred within the scenes we watch on screen. Few frames of Citizen Kane do not say something about this theme. We can immediately understand how a figure looming over another and literally overshadowing him dominates the person, as when Kane tells Susan, “My reasons satisfy me … You will continue with your singing.” Similarly, when Gettys walks out on Kane at 185 West 74th Street, the huge, satisfied smile of Gettys in foreground clearly signs victory over the small figure of Kane in the distance; Kane may be higher on the steps, but he is actually lower in the shot because of the camera angle, Gettys’ face seeming to disappear upwards out of the frame as well as out the side.
There are numerous variations on the visual expression of power:
After the montage of early Inquirer headlines, the indignant Thatcher, Kane’s former guardian, comes to see the young publisher. As the sequence begins, Thatcher stands over Kane, who sits at a desk. Height represents no real advantage, however, for Thatcher’s face is turned away from us and Kane’s towards us, making it all the easier for his personality to dominate the visual and dramatic interest. Thatcher sits down and Kane begins to parry with him. The camera keeps adjusting itself with each quip, collaborating with Kane, almost laughing with him. And when both men stand at the end of the scene, Kane is taller, having taken over the one advantage Thatcher enjoyed at the beginning of the shot (and of their relationship).
The preceding sequence ends with Kane’s joke about having to close in sixty years. We go immediately to the year 1929, ‘way short of the prediction, and see Thatcher taking over a good deal of Kane’s power in the name of the bank. Thatcher sits large in left foreground, with Kane’s manager Bernstein at right. Kane walks away into the distance, acknowledging that “we’re bust.” His comparative size would seem to indicate defeat, but in fact he possesses an advantage: he can walk while Thatcher seems so crippled he can scarcely sit up and complete sentences. (Of course the Thatchers make a lot of money because they desire only to make a lot of money, as Bernstein says, very aware that he himself has a ticker tape in his hand; they lurk spiderlike for buzzing flies like Kane, and indeed the shot of Thatcher’s absurd statue is made the more comically absurd by the weblike background of the leading in the skylight above.)
Kane is immobile in a later famous deep-focus scene which he dominates nonetheless. His face is set huge at screen left; he types the conclusion to Jed Leland’s review while Jed approaches from a distance. Kane rolls his eyes to the side a couple times, very aware of Jed’s approach. Jed has come to Charlie, who will determine the outcome of the scene.
Kane approaches from the background of a scene that follows soon after: Susan’s singing lesson. In foreground, Signor Matisti the opera coach is bullying Susan in his best theatrical manner. Unlike Kane in the previous example, he does not know of the approach behind him, so that when Kane speaks abruptly, power shifts.
When Kane and Leland arrive at the Inquirer offices early in the film, Kane very politely speaks to one of the desk men, a Dickensian type who promptly turns in a half-circle to his nearest neighbor. That man in turn describes a semicircle to call to their supervisor, Mr. Carter. Carter sits at left foreground on a raised platform. He rises from his chair in an elaborate semicircle, rings a bell, executing a self-importantly ornate curving maneuver as he turns and descends and starts toward the newcomers. At that moment Carter’s style ceases to be imposed on the office. He mistakes Leland for Kane, Kane for Leland, and as the attendant confusion escalates, Carter switching his glance over his shoulder while shaking the one man’s hand and calling the other’s name, we observe a new visual mode, rectilinear and democratically horizontal.
Shortly thereafter, Carter stands over the seated Kane as the new publisher and occupant of Carter’s office gleefully remakes the world. Carter’s upright spluttering is negated by the presence of Leland’s impudent face in the other downscreen corner: Jed and Charlie have him conspiratorially surrounded.
This by no means exhausts the possible examples or even the various strategies. Sometimes the comment carries from one shot or sequence to the next, as when the homecoming Kane smugly assures the reporter there will be no war and the next newsreel clip shows him dropping mortar on himself while trying to look imposing at a cornerstone ceremony; this shot proceeds to show the elder Kane at a loss very like Mr. Carter, with workmen swinging hooks and cables around him while the narrator speaks of his having lost the power to control history. But the newsreel also suggests Kane’s personal force, as when the horses and giraffes of Xanadu turn their heads in time with the musical accompaniment of an empire-building theme. Later we shall see Bernstein and Leland in a quick shot at the newspaper banquet, Bernstein jauntily joining the song about “good old Charlie Kane,” Leland looking dour and resistant but nodding his head and finally singing too.
The narrator is scrupulously fair, as in the long run Kane is fair. Jim W. Gettys is first introduced to us verbally in terms of abuse as Kane speaks on the political platform. Our first sight of him is unpleasant as well, aside from the pleasure in recognizing from his knowingly replaced derby high above Madison Square Garden that Kane isn’t going to get away with his bombastic foray into the world of politics; seen at that angle, Gettys seems rather misshapen, like Thatcher. He next appears as a menacing silhouette in the door of Susan’s apartment, blocking the light and controlling the scene. He stays in darkness until the moment he steps forward to offer the first Mrs. Kane his idea of what a gentleman would and wouldn’t do. Whatever cheap, crooked grafting he might have done (and the movie leaves this entirely unsubstantiated, though curiously not in doubt either), in this moment he makes an honorable claim on our regard: “Mrs. Kane, if I owned a newspaper and I didn’t like the way some politician was doing things, I’d fight him with everything I had. But I wouldn’t run a picture of him in a convict’s suit so his children could see it in the paper, and maybe his mother.” Kane too is in shadow throughout this sequence until the moment he steps forward—in effect, to renounce his family.
Sympathy is divided throughout Citizen Kane; save perhaps for Raymond the butler, there is not a character, however pompous or shrill or materialistic, for whom some angle, some shading, some small sign of personal vulnerability does not mitigate our dislike or contempt. (I except such cardboard creations as the staff of the Chicago Inquirer who gloat over the favorable reviews they have written to, they trust, Mr. Kane’s satisfaction.) The shared subjectivity of the film is the most thoroughgoing means of establishing this. The death-dream of the opening sequence gives way to a newsreel obit of which Kane the popular newsman would undoubtedly have approved on a formal basis. As the newsreel ends, the media-conscious narrator transfers us further out of Kane’s cavernous personality by cutting from a frontal view of the News on the March end title to a sideways angle of the screen, then the projector beam, then the projection machine itself. But a sense of projection obtains as we concentrate on the inhabitants of the screening room: an unrealistically vivid light source in the projection booth causes shafts of light to stab through the ports and separate the newsmen into sectors of jittery motion. Thompson the inquiring reporter becomes an extension of the newsreel itself, a newsreel dominated by Kane’s personality; he and his companions, ever in shadow or shot from behind, never have enough identity of their own to displace Kane’s or to disrupt our own sense of sharing Kane’s kinesthetic adventure.
Like Hitchcock, but very much in his own fashion, Welles has a genius for conveying the private experience in the midst of public event. Charlie the boy may spend most of the childhood sequence as a distant figure circumscribed by the frame of a window, helpless and unknowing as his youth is signed away in the foreground; but by the time he has pushed Thatcher with the sled and been struck at by his father, he is ready to be brought into terrible closeup in a shot that begins on his mother’s conjugal accusation and ends with his cosmic glare: he knows: Charles Foster Kane’s future begins and ends here. (Cut to the shot of the sled, a train whistle muffled almost mercifully by the snow that, as it falls, rises in preservative and also access-denying layers: the formation of a personality.)
In the case of Susan Alexander Kane’s opera debut, Welles has a field day mocking the extravagant absurdities of setting properties, placing spear-(fan-)carriers, hustling bovine handmaidens back and forth. In the midst of it all, Susie contorts in an agony of effort while Matisti bellows into her face. Both renditions of the event include a sudden tilt up from Susie to an overhead light; and in both cases the apparent camera movement is in fact two immaculately joined shots so that Welles can have the directly overhead light snap into view before it logically should: things are not where they ought to be for Susie, this particular detail of the world being literally out of joint. But while Welles so ingeniously conveys Susie’s sense of dislocation, it is only to approach Kane’s own existential agony from another perspective (“We’re going to be a great opera star”). There are several unforgettable shots of the side of Kane’s head using the full height of the screen at left while Susan sings, grotesquely tiny, a pawn in his game, the surrogate in his dream, in the limelight; Welles also cuts between Kane in the shadows and Susie with her gaunt face, too-sharp features, and paint-shadowed eyes. (It is especially interesting in terms of Kane’s dream projection that Susie, in a stepped-on line at their first meeting, reveals that she didn’t come up with the idea of a singing career in the first place: it was her mother’s idea. If we assume Kane has registered this subconsciously, the psychology of his own motivation is significantly reinforced.) After her suicide attempt, she tells him he doesn’t know what it’s like to be aware that a whole audience doesn’t want you, although of course a statewide “audience” has just rejected Kane as a political candidate. His words to console her console him: “It’s their loss”—they refused the gift, the opportunity to take their proffered role in his scenario. Few details in the film are more succinct than the dollhouse furnishings of the suite Kane gives Susan at Xanadu: the painted animals decorating the beams not only echo the private zoo on the grounds but clearly indicate Kane’s ultimate vision of the bedroom-as-nursery. When Susan leaves him, Kane promises, “From now on, everything will be the way you want it. Not the way I think you want it, but—your way.” His next words betray his inability to hold to that promise.
Susie is hardly the only person whose identity Kane attempts to usurp. He borrows Jed Leland’s column. One of the most striking instances of the private-within-the-public is the cut from Kane’s ordering a typewriter to an extreme closeup of the letters “w-e-a-k” slapping onto paper with crushing force. We cut immediately again to Jed waking up and raising his head from his typewriter in the inner office; out in the newsroom we hear the busy clickety-clack of the review being typed at normal speed and realize that the comparatively deliberate pace in the previous shot was intended to convey the ritual of punishment Kane was inflicting: on Susie for being too weak to sustain his emotional impresario’s vision of her, on Jed for being too weak to finish the review, on himself for precipitating the whole sad affair. It was Jedediah who most clearly perceived Charlie’s weakness, his need to extract from everyone else the performances necessary to support his own. Jedediah is especially qualified to appreciate Charlie’s incompleteness since he himself is the other most conspicuously incomplete person in the film: as a (perennial) youth he needed Charlie’s virtual support economically; he enters the film as he leaves life, attempting to borrow a cigar. He is the only person to stand equal with Kane, in the post-election scene of rebuke, neither character dominating the other or even trying to. It is he who extracts from Kane the definitive line in the movie: “A toast, Jedediah, to love on my terms. Those are the only terms anybody ever knows—his own.”
Citizen Kane would lose a great deal of resonance if it were the second instead of the first film of Orson Welles. Aside from “Rosebud,” the first line that Welles’ Kane utters is: “I don’t know how to run a newspaper—I just try everything I can think of.” It is hard to hold separate this man and the wunderkind who appraised RKO’s studios as “the biggest electric train any kid ever had to play with.” Citizen Kane is about a number of things, but my favorite “about” is Orson Welles and his intoxication with the film medium. Or, if we must keep Hearst, etc., in mind, the very idea of media. For a good movie is about what keeps happening in it, and nothing happens in Citizen Kane as constantly as media.
Kane stages a number of spectacles—the banquet celebrating the acquisition of the Chronicle staff, a political campaign, an opera, a picnic—but the example straightest to the point is the shadow play he carries on to entertain Susan the evening they meet. She ass if he is a magician, and we don’t need to know of Welles’s experience in that line to appreciate what’s going on here. A master of media projecting shadowy illusions on a wall—the scene echoes the first images we saw: dark-on-light patterns of increasing sophistication mounting toward coherent narration: the literal subject was fence, mesh, wire: a primal screen. The newsreel that follows Kane’s demise is an orgy of cinematic effects savored for their own sake as much as used for verisimilitude: the grossly dissimilar film stocks (a dim, blocked-up shot of a body-clogged swimming pool setting off a line about the “private pleasure-ground”), the purposefully scratched and underexposed or overdeveloped new footage interspersed with actual newsreel, the delicious recreation of media inadvertencies (the jump cut from Thatcher offering to read a statement, to a closeup as the first word is all but pinched off; the union man almost jumping a phrase and then doubly blowing his line: “He is today what he has always been, a—and always will be—a fatshist!”), the melodramatization of Thompson’s voiceover and the accompanying music (the empire-building theme is from Gunga Din, an RKO production of a year earlier – specifically, the scene where the Guru discloses his visions of his “wave engulfing all India!”). Here is a vital new director delighting in his marvelous new toys. And it is not irrelevant to note (though surely there was no intended meaning in it) that the filmmakers’ conference in the screening room after the newsreel virtually amounts to a Mercury Theatre green-room session, with Welles’s key assistants and co-players in gleefully anonymous attendance.
Kane is a film containing many specimens of plastic and literary representation: photographs of Kane and his mother, a woodcut of the Kane boardinghouse, architect’s sketches of the Chicago Opera House, statues of Walter P. Thatcher and a dame without a head, posters for Susan’s operas, memorial paintings of Thatcher and Kane, a declaration of principles, a rejected cartoon, alternative newspaper headlines…. The magic of cinema enables the regular handwriting of Thatcher to take on authority and persuasiveness by virtue of a captivating traveling shot that sweeps us along Thatcher’s line and then whites us into the very parchment and, beyond that, the snows of a Colorado childhood. We see a photograph of Charles Foster Kane, his wife, and his son, and an hour or so later we see the photograph being made. We watch Emily Kane and Jim Gettys make their separate ways out of the shot of 185 West 74th, and we anticipate that this housefront will resolve into the scandal-sheet halftone we have already seen in the newsreel: we watch history become history, time have a stop.
Sometimes objects serve as media unobtrusively. “Since the pyramids, Xanadu is the costliest monument a man has built to himself” – what is the difference between this and the psychologically precise abstraction of his own face that towers behind Kane in the political hall? One of hundreds of fleeting, suggestive impressions in the film is the instantaneous perception afforded us of the door to Susan’s room at Xanadu as the maid closes it behind her: it is not unlike one of her jigsaw puzzles we have observed in three-dimensional crosslighting. Compare the cold, smooth, characterless portal that slams behind Thompson at the Thatcher Memorial Library: each man has left appropriately reflective monuments in media of materiality. Kane’s theatrical sense converts objects into punctuation marks: during the virtuoso montage of breakfast scenes, Emily protests to Charles, “People will think—” and he cuts in: “—what I tell them to think” and his coffee cup adds a period: CLINK. When finishing Jed Leland’s notice, Kane listens to Jed say, “I didn’t know we were speaking,” and we see him slip the typewriter carriage from midline to the margin so he can follow his “Sure we’re speaking, Jedediah—you’re fired” with a slammed exclamation point. Conversely, Kane’s hollow threat to put Gettys in Sing Sing is cut off by a door and mockingly completed by an auto horn. And some objects become the vehicles of grotesque poetry within the film: Kane’s family is visually broken up when Junior is sent home in the car; we recall that Junior and Emily are killed several years later in a motor accident. There is no telling the medium of fatality.
But the medium through which reality is perceived can be controlled. Media can even alter reality. Kane points out to Carter that a big enough headline makes the news big. He proceeds from noticing that the Chronicle carries a story on the missing Mrs. Harry Silverstone of Brooklyn to averring that she’s probably murdered. Mrs. Silverstone comes home to roost when Gettys later threatens to print “the story” of Kane and Susan, someone protests that “There isn’t any story,” and Gettys frankly acknowledges: “We got evidence that’ll look bad in the headlines.” Two characters in the film are consistently concerned with the how as well as the what they say. Jed confesses to Thompson that he was “what you nowadays call a stooge.” You can almost hear the quotation marks as Kane, conscious of the ritual nature of his behavior, tells Susan, “I was on my way to the Western Manhattan warehouse—’in search of my youth’ … a ‘sentimental journey.'” And you can definitely hear them when Jed confronts Charlie after the election: “You talk about ‘the people’ as though you owned them…. Remember ‘the working man’? … He’s turned into something called ‘organized labor.’…” Kane, as he admits in the same scene with a mixture of ruefulness and defiance, can only deal with others on and in his “own terms.” But he gives those terms to history: he sarcastically pleads guilty to “setting back the sacred cause of reform,” and in some mystical transfer in the consciousness of the film’s narrator, the phrase turns up in the newsreel commentary. And doesn’t Charlie accept Jed’s casual imagery and “sail away to a desert island somewhere and lord it over the monkeys” (the first creatures we see at Xanadu)? Jed, in some compulsive wordsmithing with Thompson, speaks of the private sort of greatness Charlie kept to himself: “He never gave himself away, he never gave anything away—just left you with a tip.” The other side of the coin of Charlie’s “own terms” is that he could never use his own self as a medium of exchange.
As to Orson Welles’s self, it is prodigally lavished over the entire wonderful film. If we could not see his hand in every scene, we should still see him in almost every scene. Von Sternberg is to be found in The Blue Angel in the incandescent presence of Marlene Dietrich’s Lola, the obsessive devotion to her of Emil Jannings’ schoolmaster, and the bitter amusement of master of ceremonies Kurt Gerron—indeed, in any male who ever addresses Dietrich or stands in visual relation to her; equal parts of Howard Hawks are distributed between both men as John Wayne, in El Dorado, looks down at Chris George, who lies dying from Wayne’s bullets; and Fellini is proprietarily represented if not necessarily expressed through every grotesque who wanders through his films. But Welles is here himself, and there’s little sense trying to sort out now whether Kane was modeled after him or whether he has been playing Kane since 1941. When Kane sleepwalks down the corridor at Xanadu clutching one of his “Rosebuds” (the ultimate quotation), it becomes the occasion of one of the most extraordinary shots in cinema: Caught between mirrored walls, he projects an infinity of Welles/Kanes on either side. We admire the shot, and probably we give a start as the “real” Kane steps into view very near the camera; we had been watching the total illusion without realizing – and on film besides. Then the “real” Kane passes out of the shot, leaving an infinite regression of baroque frames. Just before the shot fades out, the camera nudges in ever so slightly, beyond the “real” frame into bottomless illusion. And there we remain.
Many of Orson Welles’s shadowplays begin at night. Citizen Kane begins at night and in death, and never really pulls out of either. Light doesn’t help, though there are evanescent, luminous moments like the shot of the Inquirer staff hanging out of the windows in the late afternoon. Light awakens the screen of consciousness from darkness, but only to cast the shadows. Light marks the advance of death, the movement of the sun shifting the shadows around Jed Leland during his narrative. The light changes outside Bernstein’s window as he sits looking ironically more boyish and springy between elemental fire and rain. It cones up over a burnt-out El Rancho sign as Susie finishes her story. She throws back her head to toss down another bolt of her particular kind of self-destruction, and notices the morning. As the camera pulls up and away from her, returning her to privacy and consigning her to oblivion as it has done for others in the film, Welles saw fit to dub in an extra line of dialogue (the actress’s lips do not move): “Come around and tell me the story of your life sometime.” The invitation is extended to Thompson, who has not only served as Charles Foster Kane’s ultimate agent but also stood in for us ourselves. Thompson learns from his experience here, if only how to bribe informants (cf. John the waiter and Raymond the butler). And Susie learns: the second time Kane towers over her, she is not intimidated. The power of Kane and Kane is that this learning proves futile (Thompson never finds “Rosebud”) or irrelevant (Susie comes from nothing and returns there). The light that flares from Citizen Kane‘s projection room freezes other, subsequent screen lives in the films of Orson Welles, up to and surely through the shaft that ever falls on the throne of the two Henrys in Chimes at Midnight. It is a terrible election, terrible and inspired.
Copyright © 1971 by Richard T. Jameson