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Citizen Kane

Review Written by: Bill Slocum
Film: A+
What the MPAA Rating should be: PG (for adult themes)

Directed by: Orson Welles
Written by: Orson Welles and Herman J. Mackiewicz
Produced by: Orson Welles
Starring: Orson Welles, Dorothy Comingore, Joseph Cotten, Everett Sloane, Ruth Warrick
Studio: RKO Radio Pictures

They say that the Bush-Kerry race was full of negative campaigning, but neither candidate went so far as to pledge that, when elected, his first act will be to see to the "indictment, prosecution and conviction" of his opponent. Charley Kane does, though, so much for political civility, not to mention guaranteeing a fair trial. Re-watching Citizen Kane at any one time is to discover it anew. There are a lot of great films, great because of the way they advanced the art of film, which don't burn their way into your brain and heart the way Kane does, finding new ways to amaze every time you watch it. The wonder of Kane 63 years later is not only its greatness, but how much doggone fun it is.

Orson Welles made a film so electric, so outrageous, so simultaneously joyous and sad, it's a wonder it did as well as it did, getting nominated for a Best Picture Oscar and winning the prize for best screenplay. So ahead of its time in so many ways, it's a wonder too that RKO ever released the thing, even without significant pressure from William Randolph Hearst to destroy the movie because he believed, not completely correctly, that it was all a big dig at him.

Kane manages to be entertaining from first to last. Its quick cuts and clever transitions have only benefited from the MTV generation like few films of its time, yet it also retains a certain classic Hollywood grandeur, in its gaslit sets, black-and-white compositions, Joseph Cotten's marcelled hair and the endlessly quotable dialogue. And it's often hilarious, too. Sometimes in very overt, slapstick ways, like Signore Matiste's music lessons to the impossibly amateurish Susan Alexander Kane. Sometimes in cleverly sardonic ways, like when we see Bernstein examining the alternative headlines the morning after Kane's unsuccessful gubernatorial bid. There's more subtle jests, some which require multiple viewings. I just caught one, where Kane first makes the acquaintance of Susan Alexander by taking her up on her offer of "hot water." She provides the hot water alright, as Boss Gettys makes sure. Welles performs the rare trick of making intelligence fun, his own as well as the viewer's. It's a magic show that has lost none of its power all these decades later.

Welles was only 25 when he directed and starred in this, his first real film role, but he already made his mark on popular culture as something of a trickster in 1938, when he convinced millions of radio listeners the Earth was under Martian attack in his adaptation of "The War Of The Worlds." Kane starts out with similar trickery, putting up a fake newsreel of the kind moviegoers were accustomed to seeing back then. Welles himself was quoted as saying the whole identity of "Rosebud" was a bit of a blind alley, "dime-store Freud" he called it, but the notion works, not only in setting up an air of mystery to the proceedings (shades of film noir, the genre that immediately succeeded Hollywood's Golden Age that concluded with Kane) but asking a question that Welles' own life seems to beg in retrospect. When is greatness enough for its own sake and when is it just a way people isolate themselves from the rest of humanity?

It's a shame that Kane didn't launch a series of Mercury Theatre productions, not just the truncated Magnificent Ambersons and the weird Journey Into Fear but a slew of other films, as Welles and his team once envisioned. It fed a bit of a myth, of Welles as an artistic martyr. Welles did suffer from his vision, but he also suffered from being Welles: impossible, petulant and mercurial. Kane suffers a bit, too, seen too often as a start not followed through on by its prime creator than as a brilliant individual achievement that has fed so many other great minds since its release.

People can think what they want about Kane, and they will anyway, but as Matiste would say, "some people have it, and some don't." Give it a chance; you won't be sorry.

The famous snowglobe from Orson Welles' masterpiece Citizen Kane.
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