Who's Afraid of Citizen Kane

David Thomson is. And you should be too.


A momentous yet troubling anniversary falls this year. Fifty years ago, on May 1, 1941, at the R.K.O. Palace Theater, on Broadway, in New York City, Citizen Kane opened to the public. War was close, and the age of unthinking happy endings was nearly over. The role of movies in America was shifting. Not that Kane's debut rivaled those of, say, Pretty Woman, Ghost, or Home Alone. Many reviews at the time acknowledged the arrival of a movie that had enlarged the ambitions of the whole medium, but Kane did not open "huge."

On its first run, it lost $150,000, about a quarter of its cost. The public found it perplexing, cold and daunting. And they were right enough, I think. They felt a kind of contempt in the film. They sensed, perhaps, that though Citizen Kane spoke of citizenship, it did not really like the public.

There was a stir at Kane's opening. Indeed, there had been an expectation of outrage ever since its maker, Orson Welles, arrived in Hollywood. For he was, in a way, the first movie brat, a brilliant kid who had taken radio and the theater by storm, and who had resisted several overtures from the picture business until it made him an offer he couldn't refuse. R.K.O. had told him do whatever you want. This "carte blanche" was exaggerated, of course, not least by Welles himself. In reality, the studio set budgetary limits and it had to approve the story. But Welles and his ego required and got exceptional invitation and liberty, if only to affront every long-haul, dues-paying professional in the picture city. From the outset, Welles disdained the ways of American movie-making just as avidly as he sought to be king of the heap. He was in so many ways the master of mixed motives.

Welles had taken a long time to make Kane out of his liberty, long enough for many to say he was a sham regardless of the outcome. In person, Welles was charming, insolent, vain, domineeringly articulate and so self-educated he seemed to carry all at once the traditions of a great library, a fine restaurant and an exotic brothel. He was untoppable--and so he had to fall. The business saw that. But I think he knew it himself, and he watched for what would happen with a mixture of mischief and curiosity. For while he was very vain, there was another, conflicting trait in the man: he had no belief in himself. By which I do not mean to say he was insecure; rather, he believed his great talent was somehow hollow.

If this seems contradictory, then we have come to a vital part of Orson Welles. Welles had assisted all the envious urges against him by creating a film that made fun of William Randolph Hearst, a power in the land and in Hollywood. He had courted disaster and defied reason. Look at the film and you will see the very same self-destructive hubris in Charles Foster Kane when he opts for ruin rather than compromise. And yet Welles smiled: for if the public gossiped that Kane was about Hearst, its maker knew that, most profoundly, it was a portrait of George Orson Welles. That's why he'd had such a grand time playing the lead. Kane was an insult to the business and to ordinary, career filmmakers. But it was the kiss of death for Welles. It was also the best film ever made in this country, the guarantee that we will remember him.

Citizen Kane came and went, in 1941. There were those who knew, unerringly, that a genius had made a daylight raid on a very old-fashioned store. Gradually, an influence was felt. For example, the dark, lustrous look of the film helped identify the shadowy dread in film noir. But in 1941 Citizen Kane slipped away, and for over a decade, it was rarely shown.

In London, England in 1955 (when the film and I were both 14), I had only read about it in one of the few film books then available, Roger Manvell's The Film and the Public. That evidently earnest and educational book said Kane was extraordinary and, at the same time, both un-American and yet impossible from any other country. Then a nearby repertory theater announced its coming, for just three days. I went there for the first showing, walked out of the afternoon sunlight into the dark, where I was literally alone with the film. Had no one else heard of it? What followed changed my life--but I'm still not sure whether to be grateful or to curse that smiling Orson Welles who did it.

You see, I had never watched a film before. I had watched the stories they told, just as I had believed in their world. I had absorbed pictures of, say, James Stewart or Grace Kelly, and reckoned they were lovely and natural--they were life, rendered directly, with all of photography's helpless truth. But in Kane the beauty was not direct or natural: it was on the screen, like paint on a canvas. The very mannered photography was less life-like than resonant with purpose. I felt as if I were inside Kane's head--and the feeling was not quite comfortable. But I began to see that films were made--put together, directed. And as I watched the director I heard the magician breathing.

No wonder the next generation of would-be filmmakers found this movie. Citizen Kane advertised both its own clever-ness and the medium's magic. Welles, who was himself a dedicated magician, had called movies the biggest toy train set a boy ever had. William Friedkin owned a print of Kane, ran it regularly and was inspired. Steven Spielberg purchased what is supposedly one of three sleds used in the production. Peter Bogdanovich and Henry Jaglom became friends to Welles: they wanted to help him, and have his talent and daring rub off on their films. In Day for Night, Francois Truffaut played a director with a recurring dream: he is a child in the city at night who comes to a locked and barred movie theater that is playing Citizen Kane. The boy cannot get in, but he steals a still. Kane was the talisman and the treasure for young directors.

By the late 1950s, the reputation of Kane was climbing. In critical polls run by the British magazine Sight and Sound in 1962, 1972, and 1982, Kane was voted the best film ever made. (Interestingly, it had not even made the top ten in 1952.) The 1992 poll is unlikely to dislodge it. What has arrived to threaten its reign? And yet, something has changed, I think. Something now allows us to see Citizen Kane's premonitory intelligence as well as its curious hollowness.

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