It’ll probably turn out to be a very simple thing.
Of all the classics of black and white cinema during the sound age, Orson Welles‘ Citizen Kane has always been the one to me that was easiest to shortchange. That’s what being saddled with the label “Best Movie of All-time” does. It provides a target. If you agree with those sentiments, you’re going along with the crowd. If you disagree, you’re merely trying too hard to be contrarian. And there are plenty of reasons to do both. I personally refused to give it a perfect score for decades in large part because I was probably unwilling to accept that the things that made it feel familiar were things that didn’t feel that way upon its release. Its familiarity actually proves just how singular and inspirational it remains today.
That’s not to say it doesn’t also crib from work before it. Welles was the first to admit he had no clue what he was doing when he showed up to direct Kane after signing the infamous RKO contract that finally coaxed him away from the Mercury Theatre and into Hollywood. He fought for money, story freedom, casting, and full creative control with final cut all before anyone was sure he could handle the transition from stage to screen. So he watched John Ford‘s Stagecoach over and over again, asking his crew how and why decisions were made so he could figure out his cinematic language. He mined 1920s German Expressonist films to create his aesthetic and leaned on cinematographer Gregg Toland to do the impossible when asked.
It’s why Toland asked to be a part of the project in the first place. Welles was a bold artistic wunderkind who was green enough to think the impossible was possible. So Toland knew this would be an opportunity to think outside the box and experiment. He could problem solve techniques that had been used previously in ways that would allow them to be utilized in tandem on one single film. Rather than a transition, you could say Welles was marrying stage and screen together with the help of professionals (Toland and editor Robert Wise) and newcomers (his theatre troupe making their cinematic debuts alongside him and composer Bernard Herrmann). The project would be a nexus point of old school and new to ultimately co-create an undeniable masterpiece.
And that’s without even mentioning the script upon which it all hinged. Credit controversy aside, Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz crafted a yarn that spoke as much about their own hubris as unproven kids in a candy store as that of American giants with household names. Jumping off the lives of William Randolph Hearst, Samuel Insull, Harold McCormick, and Tammany Hall, they concocted a modern–day Icarus born with infinite potential, grand ideals, and unyielding ambition only to find himself burning in close proximity to a sun fueled by the reality that he never truly had to comprehend the meaning of loss outside of the innocence forfeited the moment his mother (Agnes Moorehead) sold him into the guardianship of a banker better-suited to raising a child of wealth.
It’s under Walter Parks Thatcher’s (George Coulouris) tutelage that Charles Foster Kane (Welles) becomes the man he does. He put the boy through private school after private school (expulsions abounded) and introduced him to a world that could be controlled by the money a lucky land deal provided once he came of age. Kane fought a lot of it—holding onto those aforementioned ideals to remember the meager means of his childhood in Colorado with a loving mother and abusive father. He therefore sought to prove himself a champion of the working class and liberal worthy of the people’s trust both as a newspaper magnate and political hopeful. As best friend Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotten) later explains, however, altruism is about more than being a savior.
Whether Kane learns that lesson too late or not at all is up to viewer after following journalist Jerry Thompson’s (William Alland) pursuit of an answer nobody who knew the larger-than-life man he ultimately became despite his good intentions could ever guess. The question: What was the meaning of “Rosebud,” Kane’s dying word? It’s the first thing we hear and the last thing we see—the journey between them one that’s mired by the many mistakes and stubborn power-hungry antics that made it so he’d never again feel the unconditional joy of a youth devoid of expectations. Money corrupts. There’s no getting around it. And when you’re groomed to wield it rather than earn it, you quickly become that which it controls instead of the other way around.
The money leads him onto a path towards material possessions. He collects newspapers, reporters, statues, art, and eventually women with two ex-wives (Ruth Warrick‘s Emily Monroe Norton Kane and Dorothy Comingore‘s Susan Alexander Kane). We watch him retreat from the family life he sought but failed to foster, alienating those he loved until family itself became another contracted relationship to be entered onto the calendar alongside business meetings. The only time we truly see Kane vulnerable is the evening he befriends Susan while still married to Emily. He was to sift through the possessions of his recently deceased mother that night and in turn face what was stolen from him years ago. She was the one thing he wanted but couldn’t have and nothing ever filled that void.
What we witness via the flashbacks that unfold due to Thompson’s interviews with a handful of former Kane associates who remain alive (Susan, Leland, and Everett Sloane‘s Mr. Bernstein) is thus exactly what the reporter seeks … but inverted in a way that ensures he won’t be able to realize it. Their words, filled with plenty of disappointment and regret, express how that void kept expanding the farther Kane got from Colorado. He kept trying to throw objects and success into its abyss in the hopes of stemming the tide, but it continued to pull him in deeper regardless. Because Kane’s own future was bought, he believed he might be able to buy that of others. Love became a transaction. Control became his right. And his loneliness grew.
Because they all describe the same sorrow-tinged tempestuous rage, we can believe them. One could argue they’d know better than Kane anyway because he’s been an unreliable narrator of his own story to himself for the entirety of his life. They saw who he truly was. They were the ones who were able to call him on his bullshit and fearlessly ensure he confronted it whether or not he had the capacity to understand the maneuvers as anything more than their own power plays—tiny stumbles for which he could smile, dust himself off, and inevitably keep going. That’s what I mean by his inability to comprehend loss. To those with money, loss is merely part of a cycle climbing towards new gains. Narcissism is a potent drug.
And it’s fully on display with Welles’ entitled grin starting out and darkened scowl later on when trapped in corners and all-too willing to implode his life than admit defeat. It’s even more evident on the faces of those surrounding him as they watch him be changed and warped by the allure of wanting more. It’s there with ample panache via memory and again with subdued frustration and melancholy at present as hindsight provides each the freedom to finally lament what happened now that Kane’s death renders all anger moot. Would “Rosebud” have allowed him to be better? Maybe. Could it have coexisted with the money? Probably not. That’s the trouble with the American Dream. Who we were during its pursuit rarely survives upon its receipt.