Kane, a powerful newspaper magnate, dies. The news team fans out to get a story on his last word, “Rosebud.” This leads to a series of interviews with various associates, through which the entire story of his life is told from several perspectives. The upshot is that he was a man that came into great wealth, and tried to buy the love of the proletariat and women by starting progressive newspapers and opera houses; but he died miserable, for money cannot buy love or happiness.
Pretty banal stuff, that. Why, then, you may be asking, is this film consistently ranked the #1 of all time by various cognoscenti such as the American Film Institute? Good question.
Those “in the know” expect me to point out all the marvelous technical advances represented by this film: the crisp depth-of-field photography, the unusual, striking angles, the narrative technique of nested flashbacks, the time-lapse montage, the thematic coupling of theme and staging. No doubt film students could dutifully rattle off a half-dozen other reasons.
There are several reasons why none of these things nudges Citizen Kane into the category of a movie that needs to be seen even a single time.
1. Mere innovation in technique is worthless if it does not serve to make a movie more enjoyable, or at least worthwhile under some independent criterion. The Edsel car had some innovative features also, like steerable headlights. So what? The package turned out not to be what people wanted or needed.
2. Doing something for the first time is not necessarily difficult if you have a bottomless source of funds to work with. It’s not as if the Physics of depth-of-field were not already understood. There is an economic aspect even to works of art. No painting would be worth a painter spending his whole life on. No movie is worth sinking the GDP of California on.
3. Doing something for the first time is not necessarily important or noteworthy in any case. The first talkie movie might have historical interest just for that alone, but it is not necessarily a great movie for that reason alone.
4. The subject is everything. Sooner a Shakespeare play down at the local high school than a technically advanced, brilliantly directed play about a self-centered bore that is surrounded by women and colleagues equally self-centered and boring; a world peopled by look-alikes that only lacked the wealth to make such a loud and dull thump when they landed on the earth.
The real questions surrounding this film are more along these lines: (1) why was Orson Welles, aged 26, given such power to do whatever he wanted with this, his first film, and (b) why did Hollywood (along with the fellow-traveling gaggle of critics and film instructors) fall over gaga right from the get-go, even though the movie was barely a box-office success?
The answer undoubtedly is wrapped up somehow in a political, not literary angle. The movie was recognized by everyone to be about William Randolph Hearst. Hearst, in turn, though a populist demagogue himself in earlier years, had turned against Roosevelt and the New Deal. Moreover, according to the HBO docu-drama RKO 281, Hearst had all kinds of dirt on the Hollywood in-crowd, their homosexual and other perverse liaisons, including photographs, that he could use to blackmail them. It was high time to deal a knock-out blow to Hearst’s own credibility. Apparently in reality, Hearst almost succeeded in shutting Citizen Kane down, he himself chiefly motivated by chivalric indignation that his mistress Marion Davies (“Susan Alexander” in the movie) was so abused in Welles’ treatment. The syndicate of Jews plus Disney met to figure out what to do, and wanted to put the kibosh on the movie in fear of Hearst’s threats; but the stockholders of RKO were badgered into releasing it by the yet bigger trump-card of Welles’ judicious appeal to the N-word. (I mean of course, Nazi.) In short: Hollywood is Hollywood.
Forget all that. Who really cares about Hearst or Hollywood? or Orson Welles’ adolescent snuff job on Hearst and craven exploitation of Hollywood? If a movie is neither edifying nor fun to watch, it does not belong on anyone’s list of the top one hundred. Don’t bore yourself to sleep with this one even once.