Here are some of my contemporaneous thoughts while watching “Citizen Kane” a few weeks ago: a must watch for anyone who claims to like movies; ahead of its time; great techniques like showing the action from the perspective of a reflection off a glass ball; non-linear storytelling; assumes the audience is smart; and terrible acting. Yes, I thought that the acting was, for the most part, terrible. Is it wrong to speak ill of the dead actors? Perhaps the point is moot. The film is a treasure and every film society highly recommends it. Orson Welles himself was incredible as the protagonist in flash back and this is the performance you will remember most, not just because his is one of the few good performances in the film, but because his is one of the greatest performances of all time. But How much better would the movie be had Orson Welles cast better actors to perform with him? And not to dance on the director’s grave, but a shot for shot remake in widescreen, in color, and with some awesome talent would be fantastic. It would be like “The Social Network” only about newspapers. Certainly I cannot be the first person to think of this?
I had thought my enjoyment of the film would be hobbled by my knowledge of Rosebud. The film opens with a dying Charles Kane uttering the one word, “Rosebud”. What or who is Rosebud? The film tells the life of Charles Kane through the stories of the people he knew, never forgetting that Rosebud is, at least on the surface, the films prominent mystery. Due to Orson Welles clever and progressive filmmaking, sometimes we know how the stories end before they begin and other times one story picks up where another leaves off. The puzzle, or tapestry depending on how you like your metaphors, is put together, or weaved, brilliantly. At the end of the film the camera pulls back on Charles Kane’s enormous collection of art and statues. Yet we know that none of his bought treasures filled a longing he held deep in his heart heart, a longing that is summed up in one word, “Rosebud”. That final shot of the film gave me chills. Yes I already knew the secret of Rosebud but I did not know the secret of Charles Kane’s heart.
Orson Welles was so adept and prescient a movie maker that the truth of many scenes are not uttered. Any idiot with a camera can have the actors, a narrator, or a bit of text tell us what is going on in a scene. Orson Welles had the bravery and vision to show us. Looking back, we can see that Orson Welles was a pioneer who unlocked the potential of film as a art form. He shows a sleeping woman breathing heavily in bed. An empty pill bottle sits on here nightstand and we hear men calling for her. Her bedroom door shakes violently. Where a lesser filmmaker would have some stooge tell us the woman was trying to commit suicide (and the traditions of lesser filmmakers continue to this day), Orson Welles had enough respect for the audience to leave those conclusions to us. He was telling the story with sound and pictures, using camera angles and music to affect our emotions. This is not a book or a play on film, this is bona-fide motion picture and Orson Welles showed everyone how a movie works all the way back in 1941. The shame of the motion picture industry is that too many filmmakers seemed to have learned nothing from it.
At the very least, if you see “Citizen Kane”, you will finally have something to talk about with film historians more impressive than “Weekend at Bernie’s”.