7 p.m. Tuesday, January 14, 2020
53 Wall Street Auditorium
Introduction by John MacKay and Brian Meacham
Film Notes by Michael Kerbel

Directed by Orson Welles (1941) 119 mins
Screenplay by Orson Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz
Cinematography by Gregg Toland
Produced by Mercury Productions and RKO Radio Pictures
Starring Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Comingore, Ruth Warrick, Everett Sloane, Ray Collins, George Coulouris, Agnes Moorhead, and William Alland

When 24-year-old Orson Welles arrived at RKO in 1940, he called the studio apparatus “The biggest electric train set any boy ever had.” RKO had given him an unprecedented contract to produce and direct two films with complete freedom over subject, script, production, and final cut. Welles had already triumphed in theater, radio, and magic. Now, for his first feature film, he would run his train headlong into not only one of the most powerful men in the country—newspaper and media magnate William Randolph Hearst—but also into Hollywood’s conventional wisdom of how a movie should be made.

Many aspects of CITIZEN KANE’s style—including flashbacks, chiaroscuro lighting, deep-focus cinematography, extreme camera angles, elaborate camera movements, montage, overlapping dialogue, sound bridges, and special effects—already existed. But aside from orchestrating them brilliantly, Welles boldly foregrounded his techniques in opposition to classical Hollywood’s “invisible” style, thus heralding modernist cinema. KANE is at once a summation of film to that point and a guidepost for the following eight decades. The numerous directors who have cited it as an essential influence include François Truffaut, Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg, and Martin Scorsese.

Welles immediately demonstrates his mastery of visuals and sounds. Bernard Herrmann’s ominous music accompanies an imposing “No Trespassing” sign that does not deter Welles, who trespasses, dissolving through fences and presenting shots of gloomy exteriors that are united by the placement of a castle’s lighted window. A magical transition to the surrealistically-rendered interior, where boundaries of time and space disappear, and snow falls, not just in the globe, but in the room itself. An unnervingly huge closeup of a man’s lips as he says, “Rosebud” (the most famous opening word in all of film), followed by a slow-motion representation of his death. Suddenly, interrupting this somber mood, a booming announcer for “News on the March,” detailing the life and death of Hearst-surrogate Charles Foster Kane.

Welles loved to be disorienting: many 1941 spectators probably believed the fake newsreel to be real. He had fooled radio audiences in 1938 with a similar trick, interrupting big band music with bulletins about a Martian invasion. The newsreel bombards us with facts, much too rapidly to digest. Welles expects us to assemble them with the rest of his ensuing jigsaw puzzle. It takes 12 minutes into KANE before he finally orients us: we’re with the staff that has just viewed the newsreel. But Welles refuses to make it easy for us, as the scene is in almost complete darkness, except for lights emanating (self-reflexively) from the projection booth. The editor confidently says that Rosebud “will probably turn out to be a very simple thing.” It isn’t (as the thunder-and-lightning response implies). The reporter, and we, are about to enter a labyrinth.

CITIZEN KANE opened to almost universal critical acclaim. The New York Times said that it “comes close to being the most sensational film ever made in Hollywood” (praise guaranteed to evoke the industry’s envy). But it flopped at the box office, largely because Hearst, having failed to suppress its release, warned theaters that if they showed it, nothing they’d play in the future would be advertised in his papers. He also enlisted Hollywood studio executives’ support by threatening scandalous exposés. The Academy did manage nine nominations, including Best Picture, Director, and Actor. But KANE’s only Oscar was for Original Screenplay, thought to be a tribute to co-writer Mankiewicz; and reportedly every time the film or Welles was mentioned at the ceremony there were numerous boos. RKO changed its management a year later, violated its contract with Welles by mangling THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, and proclaimed, “Showmanship in Place of Genius: a New Deal at RKO.” Their slogan was clearly aimed at Welles, the genius who had trespassed.

Then, as if in a magician’s act, KANE vanished for about fifteen years. In 1952, when the British publication Sight and Sound conducted its initial once-every-decade poll of international film critics naming the greatest films of all time, KANE was #11. But in the 1962 poll—after TV broadcasts, re-releases, and some serious critical writing about Welles—KANE catapulted to #1, a position it held for the following four decades. In 2012 it placed #2, below VERTIGO, but it remains the most influential work in film history.

DID YOU KNOW: Linwood Dunn, the special effects pioneer who worked on the film (uncredited), estimated that approximately half of KANE's shots involved visual effects, incuding miniatures, matte paintings, combinations of live action and models, stop-motion animation, and, especially, optical printing, which helped create many of the deep-focus compositions. Ironically, although the Academy nominated eight films for special effects, KANE was not among them.

Presented in the Treasures from the Yale Film Archive series with support from Paul L. Joskow '70 M.Phil., '72 Ph.D. Printed Film Notes are distributed to the audience before each Treasures screening.

Last modified: 
Monday, April 10, 2023 - 1:50pm