With some classic films, all it takes is a few viewings. The first time might not impress you and you’ll go away thinking it’s awful or less than what you expected. Or, it could be that you simply don’t know what you think. You had no trouble watching the film, but there’s something that’s not sitting well with you. Now you have more questions and feelings than you did before you started watching.
The RKO Pictures film “Citizen Kane”, has always been this type of film for me, until now. Now I see it more like everyone else. Now I can actually enjoy it and fully take it in. However, being able to see it like never before hasn’t brought with it problems. New issues stemming from this viewing are now going to be what brings me back once more, because the previous four or five times wasn’t enough. Thankfully, like now, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) will no doubt air it again and I can see if issues can be resolved.
Story Told In Flashes
Something I love, which has always been obvious, but I guess I managed to miss, is the way this film is told. It’s not told in any traditional fashion. It relies on flashbacks. But it’s not just that, because even these flashbacks are treated a bit differently than most of what we see today. It goes all the way back to the simple premise of this film. What were Welles’s Charles Foster Kane (which really seems to be the only way to write his name or speak it) referring to with his dying word? With this single and simple question, everything else is put in motion. I feel that because of this alone, this film deserves a lot of credit for creativity, which yes it got, but now it deserves something more. Perhaps I’m just too late to the party, even for someone who’s been watching classic films obsessively for a couple of years now.
The flashbacks, while appearing typical, are anything but. They’re not totally random, to the point where they just occur because the script dictated as such. They primarily come from conversations. Now, with flashbacks in heavy use in television, it’s not so novel. It is because of the time this film was made, and then if you’re new to this film. Beyond that, it’s just another day. The upside to having these flashbacks occur through conversations with older versions of characters you’ll meet later is that you’ll see where these characters ended up, and how their encounters with Welles ultimately shaped them. It doesn’t give you a full in to these characters, but it’s enough to get a good idea of who Welles ultimately became, mainly, as I’ll get to later, this isn’t about them. It’s a huge step for the narrative, particularly when you think about the fact that because of these flashbacks and all that happens in them, the story itself gets a bit complicated. You actually have to do some work to follow the film.
My favorite use of a flashback, which is by far the best, is when William Alland’s Jerry Thompson is looking for answers in a book, in a private archive. A book. Since when were flashbacks that creative? I can’t think of a single instance that’s not just sudden or possibly from a character actually remembering something from before, which is infinitely better than just occurring. It’s also not simply refreshing, but narratively, it again shows how much this man meant to the people, even if the feelings are more negative. This desperate search, even when discovering nothing and being disappointed by that, is all the incentive you need to try and power through a rather slow moving film.
Kane You Believe It?
Charles Foster Kane. An iconic character I’ve never fully understood. In all my viewings the sole thing I’ve managed to notice of Welles’s performance is that it’s good. It’s more than just captivating. It encompasses a full range of emotions and the character trajectory is noticeable and complete. That alone is something I love about this character. He’s this idealistic and hopeful person, but slowly but surely, he becomes ambitious and eventually becomes this power hungry asshole. He cares only for himself. This then explains all of his failures in his personal life, and somewhat in his professional life. While it makes for intriguing and fascinating drama, it’s also a bit difficult to figure out what to feel towards him. One moment he’s running a newspaper and being something of an inspiration, the next he’s course correcting down a path that’s less than reputable. It’s almost a rollercoaster of like and love and hate, all because one man discovered he can truly have influence in the world. Why give that up? Welles’s character believes he’s invincible, and thus ensures his own downfall.
With all of this in the positive area, and is what makes this film worth watching, for some reason I feel I’m missing something. At long last I’ve been able to see Charles Foster Kane for who he is. The good and bad, and I’m able to enjoy it overall and love what was created. However, I can’t help but notice some kind of nagging feeling. It’s in the back of my mind and won’t go away or truly reveal itself. I feel that even though I see this character more, because of the strong performance, it wasn’t enough and he’s somehow become even more of an enigma. But maybe I’m just thinking too much about this character. Perhaps I’ve gotten everything that I need to enjoy this character and the film itself. In trying to figure this out, it’s now dawned on me that perhaps I’ve become a bit conditioned. No, it’s not this watching and writing thing that I’m doing, but what everyone’s done before me. All of the analyzing of films and what they each contain has now just gotten me to always be on the lookout. I try hard not to overanalyze a film, mainly as I don’t believe films need that, unless there are themes that just standout and deserve a back and forth conversation, but sometimes it just happens. This could be one of those instances. If it is, it’s now another reason I’m going to feel compelled to watch this film once more. This may not be a film I have a love/hate relationship with, but it’s apparently a film I’m not done trying to understand.
Forget All The Rest
If anything can be considered bad about this film, other than its rather slow unraveling, which even this time around still affected me a bit, it’s that there’s little reason to care about the rest. The rest of the characters, that is. Even when they seem to have exciting moments and are fun to watch, there doesn’t seem to be much of a reason to care. These character’s ups and downs aren’t all that memorable or impactful. They’re just consequences of the actions of Welles, the writer, and his character Charles Foster Kane, who eventually puts himself before all else. Not bad from a narrative standpoint, but when you’re trying to enjoy the film fully, it does seem to make it harder.
The main problem, which also stems from the glacial pace this film has, is that there’s no reason to pay attention. When these characters are on screen, you don’t get an opportunity to care. You can’t find one character truly sympathetic, even when there’s plenty of reason to do so. I’m thinking of Dorothy Comingore’s Susan Alexander Kane, who only managed to annoy me with every word she said in her flashback sequences. She was just whiney and irritating, and I desperately wanted her to go away. But, sadly, she didn’t. Not any too quickly. She, like all of the other characters, served one purpose and one purpose only. To push the narrative that is Charles Foster Kane’s life story forward. To that end, of course, the objective was achieved. While you may not be paying attention to learn something about the other characters, you were paying attention solely to learn about Welles’s character. He contained all the intrigue you needed, which was part of the point of the story, but since there are so many other characters that come in and out during his life, you’d think there’d be an opportunity to know and care about who they were. There isn’t. I don’t know why I didn’t notice this before, but now that I have I feel I’m missing something from this film. It’s not an important something, but it still feels crucial. Perhaps on my next few viewings, whenever they happen, I’ll be able to figure out exactly what that is and love this film for all that it offers.
Originally released: Sept. 5, 1941
Director: Orson Welles
Writers: Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles
Starring: Joseph Cotton, Dorothy Comingore, Agnes Moorhead, Ruth Warrick, Ray Colins, Erskine Sanford, Everett Sloane, William Alland, Paul Stewart, George Coulouris, Fortunio Bonanova, Gus Schilling, Philip Van Zandt, Georgia Backus, Harry Shannon, sonny Bupp, Buddy Swan and Orson Welles