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Citizen Kane: Step inside the world of a classic

Image from Citizen Kane
Image: Citizen Kane, Orson Welles, 1941 (Image courtesy RKO RADIO PICTURES / Ronald Grant Archive / Mary Evans)

This month we explore Orson Welles’ 1941 multi-faceted cinematic puzzle, Citizen Kane. The movie presents the life story of Kane, a media baron and politician based on the press magnate William Randolph Hearst. Described by Barry Keith Grant as a ‘cubist portrait’, Welles’ film follows the journalist Jerry Thompson (William Alland), on a quest to discover the meaning of Kane’s dying word, “rosebud.” Thompson speaks to those who encountered Kane in his personal and professional life – his second wife, Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore); his late banker and financial advisor, Walter Thatcher (George Coulouris); his business manager, Bernstein (Everett Sloan); his boyhood friend Jed Leland (Joseph Cotten), and Raymond, his butler (Paul Stewart).

Citizen Kane has inspired criticism and analysis from a range of perspectives, including Laura Mulvey’s discussion of the film from a feminist psychoanalytic standpoint in her BFI book ‘Fetishism and Curiosity’. Mulvey situates the film in its historical context – it was released six months before Pearl Harbor, in an America split between isolationists such as Hearst, backed by his press empire, and ardent anti-fascists such as Welles, who was deeply engaged and influenced by European cultural forms such as German Expressionism. She goes on to consider how reading the film through a Freudian lens (despite Welles’ own claim that it represented mere ‘dollar-book Freud’) reveals a wealth of psychoanalytic reference and a narrative structure informed by psychoanalytic theory.

Read Fetishism and Curiosity: From Log Cabin to Xanadu: Psychoanalysis and History in Citizen Kane

The story of the Kane screenplay, co-credited to Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles, is told in the Academy Award™-nominated movie Mank (2020), directed by David Fincher. In his chapter on Citizen Kane in ‘Constructing Dialogue’ Mark Axelrod takes a deep dive into the film’s opening sequences and shows how the screenplay sets up the QBA, or Question to be Answered – ‘what is “rosebud”?’.

Read Constructing Dialogue: Citizen Kane

The artistic triumph that Kane represents arose from the coming together of a group of expert creatives – not only the director, actors and screenwriter but editor Robert Wise and composer Bernard Herrmann. Herrmann composed not only the film’s non-diegetic music but also created an aria from a fictional opera, Salammbo, to be performed (disastrously) by Kane’s wife Susan Alexander, whom Kane encourages to pursue an operatic career far beyond her capabilities. Commenting on the scene, Herrmann wrote “Our problem was to create something that would give the audience the feeling of the quicksand into which this simple little girl, having a charming but small voice, is suddenly thrown.” In this chapter from his book ‘Cinema’s Illusions, Opera’s Allure’, David Schroeder explores the role opera plays in Citizen Kane, both to signal the pretensions of the high society to which Kane aspires to gain entry, but also to signal the tragic mismatch between Susan’s talents and the great stage onto which Kane’s ambitions have thrust her.

Read Cinema's Illusions, Opera's Allure: Deflated and Flat: Opera in Citizen Kane

A film such as Citizen Kane does not exist in isolation, and in their discussion of the film in their book ‘The Language of Film’ Robert Edgar, John Marland and Steven Rawle show how its meanings are imparted through the audience’s prior knowledge of other cinematic, literary and media texts and genres to which the film refers. They explore how Kane continues to resonate in contemporary culture, most recently in controversies around ‘Fake News’ and the power of the media in the run up to and aftermath of the 2020 US Presidential Election.

Read The Language of Film: Intertextuality

Homepage banner image: Citizen Kane, (left) Dorothy Comingore, Everett Sloane, Erskine Sanford, (center) Orson Welles, (right) Ruth Warrick, Joseph Cotten, Ray Collins, 1941 (Photo courtesy Everett Collection/Mary Evans)

Visit our Previously Featured Content page to view other topics including World Cinema, Cinema of Japan, Peter Wollen, Thomas Elsaesser, Film Festivals and The Work of Stanley Kubrick.