The Riddle of Rosebud

Rosebud... - Charles Foster Kane

Orson Welles as Kane in Citizen Kane (1941)

"Citizen Kane" is one of those movies which because of its high profile anyone who is serious about movies should watch. But it is also a movie which is hard to review when it is over 70 years since it came out because it is not easy to grasp what is so special about it and why this old movie is still held in such high esteem. It is why there are many who watch Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane" for the first time struggle to see why it is held in such high esteem as the face has cinema has changed vastly since he made it and now it appears to some just an old overrated movie.

The thing about "Citizen Kane" is that from the storyline point of view it is good but not amazing; the story of a man who had it all and ended up alone is not that special. But that story seems so much more because of the way the movie opens as we enter a foggy Xanadu, Kane's sprawling mansion cloaked in haze as a single light goes out high up in his impressive, gothic abode and we hear Charles Foster Kane say his final words "Rosebud". It immediately leads us to want to know more, how Kane built such a place with a zoo and golf course, how he ended up dying a lonely life and more importantly the significance of "Rosebud". It makes this straight forwards story of Kane's life more intriguing as we try to unravel the riddle of "Rosebud" in time with a journalist who is also seeking the significance of this random name.

Joseph Cotten and Everett Sloane in Citizen Kane (1941)

So here we have the story of Kane who built himself a media empire splashing his wealth to turn a small newspaper into the biggest in the States. We also encounter his marriage, his affair, his dalliance with politics which all contributed to his downfall and reclusive lifestyle. Now part of what makes this so interesting is because it is loosely based on the life of media mogul William Randolph Hearst, although merged with a few other successful men. But the interest comes from the fact that Hearst went out of his way to try and stop "Citizen Kane" from being released and did his best to discredit Welles which may be why he never managed to achieve the acclaim again.

So this makes "Citizen Kane" an interesting moving but to be honest the basic storyline of a man who has it all and ends up lonely is still not that original. What is is the style, the cinematography and right from the word go as we enter Xanadu right through the movie there are scenes, camera angles, use of light and shade which were different to what had been done before. Not only that the use of camera angles and so on would go on to influence film makers for years to come and in fairness the look of "Citizen Kane" is still mesmerising. There are so many times that a low camera angle focusing up really delivers a sense of power that it is not just style for the sake of it, it helps establish the strengths of the characters and how they change. Throw in the make up department who aged and made actors look younger and visually it is still an astonishing movie even more so when you consider this was Orson Welles not only making his directional debut in a feature movie but also as debut as an actor.

That leads me on to the next piece of the jigsaw as to why "Citizen Kane" is so good and it is the actors. Orson Welles is simply magnificent as Charles Foster Kane, taking us from youthfully full of himself to an old man tired of the world outside of his kingdom, he breathes life into this man to make him real and likeable. But Welles is not alone and the likes of Joseph Cotten, Everett Sloane and Dorothy Comingore all deliver characters rather than performances which makes it so easily to get immersed into what is going on rather than watching as an outside observer.

What this all boils down to is that "Citizen Kane" is still a great movie for so many reasons from the fact this was Orson Welles debut to the brilliant use of camera angles and light to build the story. But I can understand why for some its significance is lost because to appreciate the cinematography and how it would influence cinema to come you need to know cinema from before 1941 to appreciate that originality.

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