35mm Film · Classic Films · History

The Missing Pieces of Citizen Kane

Named #1 film of all time by just about every list of repute, Citizen Kane’s impact is almost impossible to overstate. And much like its protagonist, the film’s history is ripe with stories of intrigue and sabotage.

Ostensibly the life story of millionaire newspaper man Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles), Citizen Kane is a series of vignettes, cutting across time as various characters describe the Kane they knew in the wake of his death. The conceit illuminates a fascinating but inconsistent figure, who was either a magnanimous genius or tortured brat depending on who’s telling the story. The central McGuffin of the film is “rosebud”, Kane’s final word before dying, believed by some to be the key to uncovering the true Kane.

Coming off the BBC broadcast of War of the Worlds that had real Americans fleeing from imaginary aliens, Citizen Kane was the wunderkind Welles’ first feature. It was not only eagerly anticipated but controversial from its inception as it was loosely based on the life of William Randolph Hearst, a newspaper publisher and titan of industry who was reportedly furious at Welles for the depiction.

Along with his cinematographer Greg Toland, Welles pioneered “deep focus” for the film, a technique that kept the foreground and background in focus simultaneously. Which is to say when it comes to Citizen Kane, every detail is important. By drawing equal attention to foreground action and ambiguous background detail, the film encourages a conspiratorial frame of mind. That might go part of the way to explaining why Gore Vidal penned a bizarre article claiming that “rosebud” was the name of Hearst’s mistress’ clitoris. Similar paranoiac views sprouted even around scenes that were planned but never filmed, including one involving adultery and murder that Welles claimed was cribbed directly from Hearst’s life. Which would in turn help explain why Hearst planted a naked woman and a photographer  in Welles room to get a compromising snap. How much of any of this is true depends on who’s doing the telling.

Citizen Kane is designed as a fools errand. It takes the epic sprawl of a complicated life and tries to turn it into a cogent chronology. Kane is doubtful in life that “there’s one word that could describe a man’s life”. A reporter later in the film gives up on the search for rosebud, saying “I guess rosebud is just a… piece in a jigsaw puzzle… a missing piece”. Citizen Kane paints a fascinating picture of its protagonist that is never quite completed, an elusive masterwork that we’ll never be able to entirely put together. Which of course means that we’ll never be done with it.

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