The ghosts that haunt barons of industry and commerce—breeding obsession, greed, arrogance, vanity, and cruelty of the most malicious sort—are the same as those that envelope, corrupt, and exhaust the titans of the screen and those most talented of artists, a fact that has never more evident than in Citizen Kane. Wunderkind Orson Welles’s deeply haunting depiction of the life of William Randolph Hearst, from working-class hero to failed political powerhouse to newspaper baron, has long been synonymous with the director’s spectacularly odd and genuinely tragic career—and for good reason. Hunger for power and control were at once central to both Hearst and Welles’s legacies and the fatal wound that led to their most devastating pitfalls.
To now return to that famous image of Welles’s Kane in his paper-strewn office after losing a bid at political office, towering above Gregg Toland’s camera as he gets a proper moral thrashing from his only true friend in the world, it becomes impossible to not consider all those similar thrashings that friends, colleagues, and complete strangers gave Welles at the impetus of the project, during its production, and most of all, upon its release. Hollywood threw an epic hissy fit, but what appeared on the screen was immediately recognizable of a singular artistic vision that made many, if not all, of Welles’s peers and colleagues look behind the times.
Structured largely through the recollections of supporting characters, including Kane’s best friend (the great Joseph Cotton) and the showgirl who inadvertently bungled his political aspirations (Dorothy Comingore), Kane’s story is as much about locating the psychological bruises that shape public figures as it is about the essential enigmas of said figures. The pioneering of gossip journalism and the social ills proliferated by that advent are here just as interesting and important as the building of Xanadu and the collecting of all those exotic treasures. Following the investigative pursuits of reporter Jerry Thompson (William Alland), we see Kane as the adopted son of a steel-hearted tycoon (George Coulouris), but miss that crucial hint to the elusive “Rosebud,” which Welles, in a beautiful stroke, reveals only long enough for it to be destroyed and lost forever.
Considering that “Rosebud” was rumored to be a nickname for Hearst’s mistress’s, er, loins, it’s not completely surprising that most of Welles’s projects met a similar fate as that most memorable of all sleighs. But like most great cinematic artists, it’s less the drama of Citizen Kane that’s remembered than it is the rich, vivid look of the picture. One remembers the vast, echoing main hall of Xanadu, where Kane’s showgirl wastes away while piecing together puzzles, or the newspaper office transformed into a den of indulgence and shadowy sin following Kane’s ascension to the upper echelons of the newspaper industry. Rather than overwrite the dramatic turns, however, these glorious set pieces, each one more jaw-dropping than the last, accentuate those forgotten moments of tension, grief, disappointment, good humor, and potent heartbreak. Less famous scenes, such as when we finally see Kane’s political opponent (Ray Collins) quietly eviscerate Kane with his own sense of pride, is all the more powerful in the cramped environs of the showgirl’s dinky apartment than it is, nowadays, over the phone or in massive meeting rooms.
Coming back to the film a solid five years since I last watched it, Citizen Kane remains as hard to talk about as ever, due largely to its symbiotic relationship with its own making and its reception forever complicating and deepening the psychological and philosophical valleys that exist within the proper narrative. I still stare at it, amazed and entertained, but dwarfed by the very idea of attempting to untangle the crow’s nest that has formed through the film’s ever-expanding histories. And what continuously stupefies me is that time works no miracles on this particular film: Scenes remain familiar, but the narrative seems to shift every time I return to it. No wonder it’s such a pain to pin down! It sounds hyperbolic, but I might as well be trying to say something new about the life of Jesus.