Citizen Kane is not my introduction to Orson Welles’ directorial career. Prior to seeing it last night at the Museum of the Moving Image, I was already well acquainted with four other titles: The Stranger, The Lady from Shanghai, Touch of Evil and The Trial. (This is not counting other films Welles acted in, like the wonderful Jane Eyre and The Third Man.) There are, however, so many reasons why Citizen Kane is a treasure beyond the obligatory “this film is important” claim usually made in college film classes.
The story itself is compelling, primarily because the larger-than-life character Charles Foster Kane is played by Welles. No one could inhabit a character – any character – quite like Orson Welles. The combination of his voice, his physical presence and his confidence makes Kane only one of his many indelible additions to cinema. Kane’s whole saga is heartbreaking. You would have to be made of stone not to be moved by the ending scene, even if you already knew what “Rosebud” signifies before seeing the film.
If you view Citizen Kane through the lens of a 1941 audience, Welles and the rest of the main cast, players from his Mercury Theatre troupe, are particularly believable in their roles because none of them had ever acted in a feature film before. Without this film, moviegoers might never have had the chance (or at least might have had to wait) to discover Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead, Ruth Warrick, Ray Collins, Everett Sloane and Paul Stewart.
Even more so than Welles, the real star of the film is the cinematography by Gregg Toland.
His mastery of “deep focus” photography gives Citizen Kane that extra special touch. Yes, the score by Bernard Herrmann and the editing by Robert Wise both add to the film’s depth and impact, but it is the cinematography, brilliantly displaying Toland’s expertise in crafting light and shadows, which is the greatest triumph of Citizen Kane. It makes perfect sense why Welles included Toland’s credit for the film in the last frame of the ending credits, right under Welles’ own listing.
Even by my own admission that I prefer some other Welles films, I cannot deny my fascination with the world created by Citizen Kane.