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Making Sense of Citizen Kane

A New Republic film critic wades through the instant classic, in two parts.

RKO Radio Pictures/Mercury Productions

Part I: Citizen Welles

Citizen Kane can be approached in several ways: as a film, as an event, as a topic of the times, etc. The outline of the story is simplicity itself, almost like saying, “Once upon a time there was a man of whom certain things are remembered.” But its presentation is managed in complex ways and its conclusions are so vague with the shadows of meaning that it is easy to read almost anything into it, including what was actually put there. The things to be said are that it is the boldest free-hand stroke in major screen production since Griffith and Bitzer were running wild to unshackle the camera; that it has the excitement of all surprises without stirring emotions much more enduring; and that in the line of the narrative film, as developed in a countries but most highly on the West Coast of America, it holds no great place.

The picture starts right in with the death of Citizen Kane alone with his crates of priceless art treasures in his fabulous castle on a mountain, where he has ruled for a time at least a miniature of the world. He said a thing when he died and the March of Time wants to make a story out of it, so we start combing the file of old acquaintance, with episode by episode told in flashbacks, and eventually we get the answer through the efforts of the inquiring reporter, who tracks down documents, the man’s oldest friend, his newspaper manager, the girl, the butler of the castle. Some of the points are made by the people questioned; some are made in what there is of story as it moves over the years from back to front; but the main point is that Citizen Kane wanted love from the world and went to most of his fantastic extremes to get it, yet never had any love of his own to give. And the thing the searchers have been after, the dying apostrophe which assumes the importance of a mystery-story clue in the last sequence, develops as no more than a memory of the self of his childhood.

There has been so much snarling and blowing on the subject of what this picture is about that it won’t hurt to clear the issue: most of the surface facts parallel incidents in career of one W. R. Hearst; some traits are borrowed from other figures; some are pure ad-libbing. But any resemblance is distinctly coincidental; I could, and would if the editor were not afraid of libel, give you quite a list of Hearst’s undesirable characteristics not possessed by Kane. As for the importance of the figure as an element of society, I don’t think you can make that stick either. Kane started a war to get circulation for his paper; we hear in casual reference that he is a yellow journalist and we see in a three-for-a-nickel montage clip that he fought graft and some corrupt trusts; there is a prophecy, not followed up, that when workingman becomes organized labor he will not love the workingman; he is interviewed by the press and makes wild statements with gravity; when anyone gets in his he calls him an anarchist. Otherwise his troubles are personal, and his death is that of a domineering and lonely man, known to all for his money, loved by none. The only possible moral of the picture is, don’t be that way or you’ll be sorry.

Beyond the facts of the career there is the man himself and this man is Orson Welles, young, older, middle-aged and in the last decrepit years, dominant throughout. Here perhaps, not so much spoken as expressed in the figure and bearing, is the ruthless force, the self-will, the restless-acquisitive which we feel the story should express if it is to tell of these things at all. This man in these circumstances should be our twentieth-century brand of a figure out of Gustavus Myers: he did not roll up that fortune to start with, but he is no second generation gone to seed, for he turned the non-working capital into influence and public excitement and a sort of twisted splendor. It is as though Welles, as the man who conceived and produced this film story, had little enough grasp of the issues involved; but Welles as the actor somehow managed, by the genius that is in actors when they have it, to be more of the thing than he could realize. His presence in the picture is always a vital thing, an object of fascination to the beholder. In fact, without him the picture would have fallen all into its various component pieces of effect, allusion and display. He is the big part and no one will say he is not worth it.

Of his actors, you can say that there are good jobs done and also that there are better ones still to be done. Dorothy Comingore is forced to be too shrill as the shrill wife (the audience ear will absorb only so much) and too ham as the opera singer (subtlety never hurt anyone, and those of us who aren’t gaping yokels are not alone, Mr. Orson Citizen). Joseph Cotten had a part that was possibly short on savor because when he was with the great man he had to be something of a chump and when he was talking of him afterwards he had to be something of a Mr. Chips, with twinkle and lip-smacking. Ray Collins did a good piece of work with a stock part, and so did all the other stock parts; but to me the man to remember was Everett Sloane, who seemed to understand and seemed to represent it, the little man with the big mind, the projection without the face motion and flapping of arms. You may be surprised when you take the film apart, and find that his relations to any analysis of Kane were as much as anything else the things that made him real.

Now I believe we can look at the picture, and of course have been told to wait for that. The picture. The new art. The camera unbound. The picture is very exciting to anyone who gets excited about how things can be done in the movies; and the many places where it takes off like the Wright brothers should be credited to Welles first and his cameraman second (Herman J. Mankiewicz as writing collaborator should come in too). The Kubla Khan setting, the electioneering stage, the end of the rough-cut in the Marsh of Thyme projection room, the kid outside the window in the legacy scene, the opera stage, the dramatics of the review copy on opening night—the whole idea of a man in these attitudes must be credited to Welles himself.

And in these things there is no doubt the picture is dramatic. But what goes on between the dramatic high points, the story? No. What goes on is talk and more talk. And while the stage may stand for this, the movies don’t. And where a cameraman like Gregg Toland can be every sort of help to a director, in showing him what will pick up, in getting this effect or that, in achieving some lifting trick the guy has thought up, the cameraman still can’t teach him how shoot and cut a picture, even if he knows how himself. It is a thing that takes years and practice to learn. And its main problem always is story, story, story—or, How can we do it to them so they don’t know beforehand that it’s being done? Low-key photography won’t help, except in the case of critics. Crane shots and pan shots, funny angles like showing the guy as though you were lying down at his feet, or moving in over him on the wings of an angel, won’t help. Partial lighting won’t help, or even blacking out a face or figure won’t help, though it may keep people puzzled. Tricks and symbols never really come to much. The real art of movies concentrates on getting the right story and the right actors, the right kind of production and then smoothing everything out. And after that, in figuring how each idea can be made true, how each action can be made to happen, how you cut and reverse-camera and remake each minute of action, and run it into a line afterwards, like the motion in the ocean. Does this picture do this? See some future issue when I have the time to say it doesn’t, quite. Right now I have to hurry to catch a boat back to New York.

Part II: Welles and His Wonders

To make any sense about technical innovations in any one movie, one should, in an ideal state at least, have some idea of the general technique of making every movie. Before coming to the wonders of Citizen Kane, therefore, we will just run over a few fundamentals (we will, that is, if anyone is still around when these wandering messages of mine catch up with themselves).

The first thing necessary to a movie is a story, and the first thing necessary to stories for the screen is a writer who understands the screen and works along the line the director will take later, preferably with the director. But the most important thing in the technique of a motion picture—and here director and writer are in varying degrees interdependent—is its construction shot by shot, not for the effect or punch line of any one fragment, but for such devising and spacing as avoid monotony, hold the interest, and lead easily from one thing into another, the devices for illusion being always and necessarily hidden in the natural emergence of the illusion itself. One scene may be broken down into six or twenty camera positions, yet these shifts you are not conscious of: you follow the actor across the room and pick him up coming through the door; you may not see him when he is speaking; you may see only his face when someone else is speaking; he turns to look through a window and suddenly you are looking out the window. These are the smallest things, but they make for pace and variety—which will be the biggest things before you are through.

A scene is made, another to fit with it; there may be interscenes, or long shots covering action, establishing atmosphere; later there will be inserts, titles, the transitional devices of trick or straight cutting, dissolves, montages. At the end of maybe five, maybe ten days’ work you will have a sequence, that is, an essential incident in the story carried through from start to finish. And the next sequence should take up without jar, without confusion, and lead on again, shot by shot and scene by scene, in the right way of the story. Finally when all the sequences have been made and assembled in a rough-cut, you must study over and over this familiar work of weeks to inquire whether what you put in it is there, to study it for continuity of mood, for how well the sequences match and balance—and for where to cut, where to remake. Does it move, does it complete its circle, do characters and ideas and the express meaning come alive in action? Maybe you’ve got a picture, but it won’t be by chance.

It is true that of all the arts, movies are farthest from being one-man shows. Actors are the most important in the public eye, and indeed they are the dramatic exposition, the writing hand, of stories on the screen; without good ones you are lost. The music and scenic departments are important, and the cutting room is the watchtower of unsung heroes who have brought a thousand bungling messes out of the hopeless into something that at least moves and has coherence. Technically, the most indispensable is the cameraman, with his crew of assistants and batteries of lights; he is a high man indeed. But it is also true that without writing and direction of intelligence, taste and actual mastery of the craft, you just won’t get a picture that is a good picture. It comes down to this: writer and director (much more the director) tell a story in movie terms, and the way they do it is the prime technique of pictures.

Citizen Kane in its story uses the cut-back method—which is convenient but has its drawbacks in the constant interruption of a steady line; it is quite common and I wish it were less so. For dramatic action, it shows its one big character in four main situations, supplemented by newsreel interludes here and there. This makes a pretty weak structure dramatically, so it has to be surrounded with a great deal of stationary talk, as Kane is described, analyzed, asked about, remembered, talked into existence and practically out of it. This it different from many good movies but it it not new, technically or otherwise. The mood is established or heightened by an occasional symbol: the sled and the falling-snow toy, the curtain-warning light on the stage, the bird screaming in escape, etc. Symbols are a dime a dozen and justify their use in the result achieved. I thought the fading light filament and dying sound track at the end of the singer’s career very effective; also the opening and close on the iron fence around the castle. The smoke rising to heaven at the end was trite to start with and dragged out absurdly.

As you can see, there is nothing startling in these component parts. The outstanding technical effect in the picture is in the conception of settings and the use of the camera. Gregg Toland is a trained cameraman and ace-high in his profession, and it is apparent that Welles himself was fascinated most of all by this department in movies—that many of the things done were first sketched in with the bold free-hand of his dramatic imagination. (It shouldn’t be forgotten that a screen-mood is more than just “photography,” that it results from the collaboration, in this order, of director, cameraman, art director.)

The camera here loves deep perspectives, long rooms, rooms seen through doors and giving onto rooms through other doors, rooms lengthened out by low ceilings or made immense by high-angle shots where the ceiling seems to be the sky. Figures are widely spaced down this perspective, moving far off at will, yet kept in focus. The camera loves partial lighting or under lighting, with faces or figures blacked out, features emphasized or thrown into shadow, with one point of high light in an area of gloom or foreground figures black against brightness, with the key shifting according to mood, with every scene modeled for special effects with light batteries of varying function and power, gobos, barndoors, screens, what not. These things are all written into the accomplished cameraman’s book. There is nothing newer about shooting into lights than shooting into the sun, but there is, I suppose, something new in having the whole book thrown at you at once. Certainly there has not been such use of darkness in masses since the Russians, who simply didn’t have any lights.

Sometimes all this is fine and really does the job it is put to. Along with the wide action range, it is a relief from too much closeness and light, an effect of stretching. But at other times it appears just willful dabbling: figures are in the dark for no reason—reading without the light to see, for example; or they are kept in darkness right among other clearly lighted figures (the idea is supposed to be that this shows they aren’t important; the effect is to draw attention to them, as being maybe the Masked Marvel). Half real and half fish, as in the case of mermaids, is always a thing to cause vague frustration; and too often here it seems as though they were working up a feeling of omen just for the ride.

This camera also likes many of the angles so thoroughly kicked around by the experimental films—floor shots, especially, where the camera gives figures height and takes away width, makes them ominous, or at least portentous in their motions. Crane shots, too, some of them breathtaking as you move down and forward from heights or rise straight up—some of them overdone, as in the last Cook’s tour of Kane’s boxed accumulations. Add under-cranking, to make the people in the “newsreel” clips jerk and scuttle. Add mirrors. And add the usual working tools of long, medium and two-shots, close-ups, dolly shots, panoramas.

In the cutting there are several things noticeable. One is the long easy sweep you can get when a scene of action is covered in one long-range set-up. Another lies partly in the method of treatment and partly in lack of care, and that is the time-and-place confusion which arises when you go smack from the first two-thirds of a sentence to the last third of the same sentence, spoken elsewhere years later. This is done time and again and you might call it jump-cutting or you might call it the old shell game as far as the audience is concerned.

Another thing about the cutting that goes altogether to the fault of direction is the monotony and amateurism of handling simple dialogue. Over and over there are the two faces talking, talk, talk, talk, then close-up of the right speaker asking, then close-up of left speaker answering, then back to two. Outside of getting your name in large letters, being a director consists exactly in knowing how to break this up, to keep interest shifting, to stress the reaction to a line more sharply than the face saying it. This is what gives a picture life, and it isn’t done by camera ructions, however clever.

Orson Welles was naturally entranced with the marvelous things the moving camera could do for him; and while much has resulted from this preoccupation, I think his neglect of what the camera could do to him is the main reason why the picture somehow leaves you cold even while your mouth is still open at its excitements. There may have been the heart and belief to put into it, but there wasn’t the time to learn how this might be done, or much regard for any such humdrum skill. I’ll tell you about a picture which was the story of a man’s life told by the cut-back method after his death, and which had the real life in it, the skill and the heart too. It was “A Man to Remember,” made in a little over two weeks for a little over $100,000 by an ex-Broadway director who was learning about pictures the hard way, and his name was Garson Kanin. And if you want to read into a story some comment on the modern man of predacious industrial power, how he got that way and what it did to him, I’ll remind you of a film that told the story and made it stick, its people full-length and alive. It was made some five years ago for Sam Goldwyn and called “Come and Get It,” and the better part of its direction was done by William Wyler.

As for the contributing departments in Citizen Kane, Bernard Herrman’s music is an active aid; the sets are made right, both for the fantastic and for use or living; it is an all-round class-A production. But the most effective things in it are the creation of Orson Welles’s drawing board, not only in whole story ideas but in plausible and adult dialogue (witty, sardonic, knowledgeable), the impression of life as it actually goes on in the big world, the ready dramatic vigor. You remember things like the kid in the snow outside the window as the hard business is transacted within; the newspaper office at night; the understatement of successive breakfasts in Kane’s first marriage; the wonderful campaign-hall scene; the opera-opening (there was too much ham in some of this); the trick approach through the night-club skylight and ensuing scenes; the newsreel projection-room conference as a send-off for the story; and the newsreels themselves—excellent naturalism here.

This stuff is fine theatre, technically or any other way, and along with them the film is exciting for the recklessness of its independence, even if it seems to have little to be free for. There is surely nothing against it as a dramatic venture that it is no advance in screen technique at all, but a retrogression. The movies could use Orson Welles. But so could Orson Welles use the movies, that is, if he wants to make pictures. Hollywood is a great field for fanfare, but it is also a field in which even Genius has to do it the hard way; and Citizen Kane rather makes me doubt that Orson Welles really wants to make pictures.