Citizen Kane

(Orson Welles, USA, 1941)


A Universitarian Lecture (1989)


Peter Wollen was right: to talk about Citizen Kane is to talk about cinema history. It is also to talk about how Citizen Kane has been talked about in the history of cinema criticism, theory and analysis. The film has been claimed in all sorts of ways, for all sorts of positions. It may be “the great film” for a popular pundit such as Australia’s movies-on-TV presenter Bill Collins but, in fact, its greatness rests on a great many, very different things to a great many, very different people. Not only that: within this space of competing versions, I believe it is still possible for any of us to formulate our own individual response to the film and its worth. You don’t believe me? Take another look, with eyes as fresh as you can get them.


With Citizen Kane, we come up against the inadequacy of a purely theme-and-character content approach. (I know this well: I was once drafted to write a standard account for teenage-classroom teaching and discussion, under the debilitating constraint of being able to concretely refer only to the published script, not to anything on-screen!) Orson Welles was more interested in process than product, or rather process as product (David Ehrenstein’s formulation in Film: The Front Line 1984). He was always drawn to playing with styles and stylisation, with surfaces and effects.


Hence the profoundly double identity of Welles: both a Shakespearean and a magician; an artist, and an entertainer; a storyteller, and a ceaselessly radical experimenter. It was due to this multiplicity of roles that he was able to in mix all kinds of effects, from old-fashioned dramatic pathos (even bathos) to the most modern and formal disorientation or fragmentation. And this is also why his work (across many media) tends to fit both sides of all the famous categories and binary oppositions that have structured film theory and criticism.


As a Hollywood Film. Citizen Kane, although made with relative freedom within the studio system, is a very bad candidate for what has been theorised and defined as Classical Hollywood Narrative. David Bordwell & Kristin Thompson, for instance, have discussed this model (in a general sense) in terms of order, linearity, symmetry, stylistic modesty … Now, Citizen Kane does possess some of these features. It also uses a rich stock of Hollywood stereotypes: the dashing reporter, the wizened old boss, the hopeful ingénue, and so on. However, to look at the film from a different angle, it is clearly flamboyant, excessive, breaking all the rules.


This is especially so in relation to its incredibly intricate flashback structure, which has been charted in exhaustive detail by several commentators (see Bordwell & Thompson’s Film Art, Ropars, Leff, and especially Sam Rohdie’s “An Analysis of the Breakfast Sequence from Citizen Kane” from 1980). Such games with flashback were not entirely unprecedented, even in Hollywood – try to catch the Preston Sturges-scripted The Power and the Glory (1933) if you can – but, all the same, what Welles did with the possibilities was (and remains) dazzling. For example, how the latter-day Susan’s reminiscence begins at one point, but only taken up at another where it will properly “fit” the film’s narrational schema …


An important aspect of the film at this not-exactly-classical level is its incredible mix of genres, a patchwork of styles, references and effects: horror movie, detective/investigative frame, film noir leanings, comedy, tragedy, pastiche (the News on the March segment). Raymond Durgnat, in his overlooked 1975 essay “Genre: Populism and Social Realism”, flings us further afield (that’s his specialty!) with his invocation of Citizen Kane as a Brechtian epic founded precisely on an anti-hero, in the manner of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (from the same year: 1941).


So it’s an atypical Hollywood film in many respects. But is it altogether foreign to Hollywood forms and traditions? Too often, discussion proceeds as if one needs to choose, for each film, between Entertainment and Art as the prime – and mutually exclusive – slots. This cultural reflex has made Citizen Kane’s road through cinema history a rocky one. Many tried to claim it for Art by stressing what Claude Chabrol once described as Big Themes: corruption of innocence, the meaning or meaninglessness of life, Freudian subtext (Rosebud), the nature of political power, private vs. public life, the nature of media influence … However, Welles himself mocked, in retrospect, the “dollar book Freud” device of the Rosebud childhood sled; and Pauline Kael, in her infamous attack launched in “Raising Kane”, tried to downgrade the film’s achievement and significance by saying, essentially, that it was just a slick, fast-talking newspaper comedy (in the vein of the several screen versions of Hecht & MacArthur’s 1928 The Front Page), mechanical, “a shallow work, a shallow masterpiece” (note the oddity in Kael’s rhetorical prose style here: two shallows, but the second, rather than the first, is italicised for murderous emphasis!).


Another angle is sorely needed. While drawing on established conventions, tropes and genres, Welles introduced genuine stylistic innovation into Hollywood cinema. Two areas of this are worth specific mention – growing from his prior work with the Mercury Theater troupe, and in radio.


First: a new kind of screen acting, busier, with more surface detail (of gesture, posture, etc.), moodier, somewhat neurotic. It’s a psychological dramaturgy, but fixed on exteriorities, on visible and audible symptoms, as it were. An expressionistic path, as with Hank Quinlan’s appearance in Touch of Evil (1958)! Welles’ way with actors was not associated with what would later become the standard American Method reference (from Konstantin Stanislavski via Lee Strasberg), but rather worked on the surface – yet always with some subterranean drives and complexes rumbling underneath the façade of each character, as is particularly evident in The Magnificent Ambersons (1944). (See Stuart Cunningham’s splendid 1992 account of that film.)


Second: an extraordinary emphasis on the sonic dimension: noise, auditory space (catch the echo in the Thatcher memorial) and atmosphere, especially speech patterns – overlapping, often histrionic rhythms that cue editing and create surface resonance. Welles was particular in the way he developed these sound clusters in both production (staging) and post-production. In this context, even the script he had himself arrived at (in a somewhat fraught collaboration with Herman Mankiewicz) for Citizen Kane was open to brazen disrespect: lines initially allotted to one character might be broken up and distributed to the members of a group. Nothing was sacred; all could be reinvented through the elaboration of mise en scène and audiovisual montage. All of this became only more pronounced when Welles moved out of the strict Hollywood studio system of filmmaking.


Welles was an innovator, and can be regarded as a modernist – a designation to which I shall return. At the same time, and to an equal extent, he was deep into the art and craft of supposedly low entertainment forms – everything that comes under the capacious umbrella of showbiz. In Welles’ career, that covers everything from magic acts to TV chat shows, exaggerated make-up to sensational erotica. (All these modes are evident in Oja Kodar’s 1995 compilation Orson Welles: The One-Man Band, co-assembled with Vassili Silovic.) Welles was drawn to manufacturing flamboyance, flourish, corny gags, stunts, dazzle. Like every performer, he loved and craved applause.


The comic bits in Citizen Kane are veritably modeled on cartoons: the hilarious telescoping of time and personal evolution around a set of variations (the breakfast scene, the opera opening, the opera career montage with light failing) are highly reminiscent of such geniuses of animation as Tex Avery (rather than, in my opinion, the simple but effective “temporal condensation” function that Bazin welded to “the French imperfect or the English frequentative verb tense” in language and writing). In this vein, watch and listen also for the ‘mickey mouse’ musical effects of mimicry, and the myriad effects of shock punctuation (like the screeching cockatoo – which prompted Durgnat’s wonderful retort to Christian Metz in 1982 that, rather than a phallic symbol, it should be considered a “flying pussy”).


In my argument, showbiz is to popular culture discourse what the Baroque or Mannerism are to art history discourse: the spot where style goes decorative, laid-on, exhibitionistic, crazy. Just look at that camera sailing through the El Rancho sign!


Here’s an alternative way of dealing with the Classical Hollywood conundrum. Citizen Kane reveals precisely that the so-called classical style – and this is true of much Hollywood cinema, far beyond the case of Welles – has a heavy dose of Romanticism inherent in it, as Carlos Losilla in Spain and Andrew Britton (adapting Charles Rosen & Henri Zerner) have persuasively asserted. Romanticism here signifies a type of florid lyricism, an outgrowth of Expressionism: in this instance, the intense coding of emotions in light/dark contrasts, the architecture and shading of the library, that cockatoo …


In an overall way, the film pushes and exaggerates the given unreality of certain Hollywood conventions, particularly relating to the flashback structure itself where, normally, the flashback contains more than a character has actually seen, heard, or could possibly know. Welles pushes the fuzziness of this convention to a point where everything merges into an oneiric, almost collective weaving of reminiscences.


As a realist film (mise en scène vs. montage). No discussion of Citizen Kane can avoid André Bazin’s historic role in (as it were) salvaging the film from the general run of classical Hollywood production (a tradition to which he was by no means unsympathetic) and yoking it to an unlikely association with Italian neo-realism in the 1940s. With this came a highly influential way of seeing and experiencing the movie that leaned more to the side of mise en scène (staging) than montage (editing) – and freighted that distinction with a notion of mise en scène as offering an open, democratic vista for the spectating eye (and mind), as distinct from montage, the manipulation of fragmented bits.


The decisive element in Bazin’s critical move was the valorisation of deep focus cinematography (courtesy of the gifted and daring professional Gregg Toland). And those infinite vistas in Citizen Kane really are something to behold. However … Bazin was, to a large extent, wrong about this, first of all on a technical basis. Among commentators, Robert L. Carringer was the first to decisively assert (and prove with archival, documented evidence) that quite a lot of the film is process or special effects work – elements of diverse shots combined. This includes certain moments forever burnt into our filmic brains, such as little Charles seen through a distant window, and the glass in extreme close-up by the bed … In fact, it doesn’t take much refocusing of the eyes to simply and clearly see this visual trickery. It seems to be the case that a powerful critical description (such as Bazin’s) can derail our direct sense perception – literally for decades!


Bazin’s point was more aesthetic – and pointing to the realm of an ideal aesthetic – than strictly technical. In fact, as he admitted in 1948, among Hollywood directors it was William Wyler (The Best Years of Our Lives, 1946) rather than Welles who best approached this (his) ideal of “a perfect neutrality and transparency of style which places no colouration or refractivity between the reader’s mind and the story” (“William Wyler, the Jansenist of Mise en scène”, p. 57) – whereas Citizen Kane was prone to the “sadism” of “a systematic stretching of reality in depth, as if it were drawn on a rubber band which he takes pleasure first in stretching, to frighten us, and then letting fly right in our face” (ibid., p. 56), a wonderfully dynamic and apt description also commented on by Wollen.


Nonetheless, in his programmatic text of 1946, “The Evolution of Film Language”, Bazin had laid out the basic tenets of what has been, subsequently, excessively frozen in discourse as his supposed theory of deep focus and realism. Aas a working critic, it needs to be noted, Bazin was anything but static in his arguments and positions across his lifetime.)


1.    Depth of field creates a relationship between the viewer and the image which is closer to the viewer’s relationship to reality. It is thus accurate to say that its structure is more realistic, whatever the content of the image itself.

2.    As a result, the viewer has a more active intellectual approach, and even makes a real contribution, to the mise en scène. With analytical editing viewers need only follow their guide and focus their attention on that of the filmmaker, who chooses for them what they should see. […]

3.    From the two proceeding propositions of a psychological nature proceeds a third, which we might describe as metaphysical. The very nature of editing’s analysis confers a sole meaning upon the dramatic event. […] Editing, by its very nature, is fundamentally opposed to ambiguity. […] Depth of field, on the contrary, re-introduces ambiguity into the structure of the image, if not as a necessity (Wyler’s films are not particularly ambiguous) at least as a possibility. (p. 101)


This suggested dichotomy in film style between the broad options of mise en scène and montage did not stay in its initial mid-1940s French context; it was still a powerful motor almost two decades later in Anglo-American debates on the role of CinemaScope and the vaunted “freedom” of the spectator (as in a famous 1963 article by Charles Barr and its various uptakes) – and it continues to circulate today. At its extreme height, the invocation of deep focus (allied, initially by Bazin himself, with both the long take and later the wide screen) can serve as a tale of cinema’s “redemption” (in Bazin’s name), the discovery of its true (“metaphysical”) vocation and essence. Such is the grandiloquent destiny of certain theories of film!


One of the prime virtues of Citizen Kane for us today is to shatter the comfort of this theory (this approach or attitude) as it has conveniently congealed over time. [2021 postscript: I have just spotted the program of a 80th anniversary conference on the film where one presenter, Emily Su Bin Ko, promises, with the aid of a cleverly elaborated audiovisual essay, to “transcend Bazin’s dichotomy”! This war never ends … ] Welles’ style, across his entire career, is truly synthetic. It’s a hybrid patching of tones, tendencies and techniques. (I especially recommend that you study Brian Henderson’s remarks in A Critique of Film Theory on Welles’ stylistic choices and combinations.) Everything can be used, in any combination, to generate any desired effect. You can think of that as modernism, or as showmanship. Either label will do the necessary trick!


Welles’ mise en scène – choreography across and through the depth of the frame (as in the childhood flashback sequence), positioning and movement, the actors’ relation to set and props – is hardly neutral or observational, as in Bazin’s “ideal” musing. On the contrary, it is exceptionally baroque and expressionistic, full of incredible low angles, diagrammatic patternings, dramatic vectors of clashing actions and “drives”.


Even more important is the fact that Welles uses every kind of cutting (découpage or more radical montage tropes) extensively. Almost every cut is an event in this film! And, very often, also a shock. Welles composes and stages precisely so as able to cut on powerful articulations: within a movement, or to contrast diagonals: it’s the Sergei Eisenstein legacy brought to a point (not the only possible one) of fulfillment. And montage, in all its forms and formats, is where Welles would increasingly go in his variegated career, leading to the genuine Moviola masterpiece of F for Fake (1973).


Montage wholly integrated with mise en scène is among the key aspects that keeps Citizen Kane alive for us today – “stuffy classic” label (as it sometimes suffers) and all.


Modernist or post modernist? Earlier, I waved away a slew of Big Themes in relation to Citizen Kane – or, at least the type of broad-stroke, abstract theme discussion that tends to cling (for instance) to pre-university classroom discussions of literature and theatre. Having taken in Welles’ complete style and method and his total creative sensibility, however, could we meaningfully venture a cluster of themes, even maybe adding up to a “world view”? Something more along the lines of a poétique d’auteur (an author’s unique poetics), to borrow Jean-Claude Biette’s useful term? “Poetics signifies, simultaneously, the personal vision of a filmmaker, but also an aesthetic, artisanal practice – a perpetual ambiguity that, moreover, does not need to be reconciled or dissolved” (Poétique des auteurs, p. 20). Tellingly, he added: “It’s very difficult to clarify the relation in cinema between the conception and the materialisation of films. Criticism should try to elucidate this relation. It’s not easy, but it’s what we find in the work of our model: André Bazin” (ibid.).


Classically, the investigative structure of Citizen Kane inaugurates an enigma which, eventually, receives a solution; here, that solution is Rosebud, but it doesn’t seem to count for terribly much – the film itself discounts it (“It’ll be nothing”), let alone its maker! Is it, in this sense, then a failed classical film? The opposing view has stressed that, in many ways, it is a modernist film, one that reflects precisely on a quality of confusion and meaninglessness in modern (20th century industrial and mass media) existence. This line of inquiry began when Jorge Luis Borges admiringly described the film, in his contemporaneous 1941 review, as a “labyrinth without a centre”. Wollen extended this in a striking formulation that sums up the modernist sensibility in cinema: “It is possible to place Citizen Kane as a forerunner of Last Year at Marienbad [Resnais, 1961], a film that pointed the way towards the breakdown of unilinear narration and a Nietzschean denial of truth” (p. 50).


To give just one typical post-Borges example of such discussion. When Jean Narboni, a star critic and editor of Cahiers du cinéma, raised the case of Citizen Kane in a printed discussion with Biette, he cited it as the beginning of “modern cinema as an institution … artistic cinema”, and went on to place modernism in the 1960s intellectual context that they had both lived through: “The great modern films were The Exterminating Angel (Buñuel, 1962) and The Birds (Hitchcock, 1963), in the name of a theoretical notion that came at once from Roland Barthes and the Nouveau Roman: suspended meaning. That is, films that held an unresolved enigma, films upon which all interpretations tripped up, that call them forth but lay waste to them” (Biette, p. 12).


You can easily see how well this model of suspended meaning can be made to fit Citizen Kane. We have, firstly, the total contradiction or incommensurability at play between all the diverse, narrated accounts of Kane’s personality and motivations. Kane is a somewhat different person to everyone he meets, a quasi-Zelig (in reference to Woody Allen’s 1983 mockumentary comedy of that name – which itself owes a huge debt to Citizen Kane). He constitutes an unknowable self – another tenet of modernism – and the core truth of his private life is ultimately barred to us (note the prominent “No Trespassing” sign, or the way a movie projection is abruptly interrupted mid-beam).


If we attempt to generalise or abstract all that into a world-view, it would be something like an idea of social existence as nothing other than a whirlpool of fictions, stories, signs, versions: this is the tragic aspect of modernism, based on a formless anguish over never being able to touch (act in or upon) anything real and true. Think of Antonioni’s Blowup (1966), for example, or Bergman’s Persona (1966) – or the hyper-modern, multiple-identity comedies made in that high watermark ‘60s period by Jerry Lewis, such as The Big Mouth (1967).


There is a pronounced feeling in Citizen Kane, particularly at its Xanadu conclusion, of waste, loss, the empty consumerist materialism of the soulless rich. One critic observed in the course of a late 1980s dossier on the film: “Ours is still a civilisation of conspicuous waste and media buffoonery, of compulsive acquisition and a frustrated longing for vanished roots”.


But now, at the end of the ‘80s, we also have post-modernism to contend with, or play with! So the question becomes: is Welles really sad or anguished about the existential situation I have just evoked? I take post-modernism here, philosophically, to be the claim – or even joyous acceptance – that that there is no truth, no certainty. Look at it this way: Welles was always the artist of disguise, of the con job. He was obsessed with spectacle and performance as major determinants on reality. It seems to me he was a major pre-post-modern figure in this regard! He celebrated a certain selfless anonymity – paradoxically, because he was, at the same time, a star, a celebrity. Touch of Evil ends with the classic line: “He was some kind of man. What does it matter what you say about people?” And the highpoint of F for Fake is a celebration of Chartres cathedral – which he presents as the great artistic monument without an author.


Post-modern in an aesthetic sense, too, is the intuition that Citizen Kane is less a film with “something to say” or express, than a game with structures, forms and devices: a dizzy vertigo of resemblances, endless symmetries, a hall of mirrors (Welles literally placed one of those in The Lady from Shanghai [1948]) – not at all a solid structure meant to be coherent in any conventional sense. This would accord with a certain drift in formalist, post-structuralist and now post-modernist thought – especially that strain of the post-modern (as per Marc Chevrie’s crucial 1985 Cahiers du cinéma text “Innocence in Quotes” or Edward Colless’ 1989 essay “The Imaginary Hypermannerist”) which draws a relation to the mannerist tradition in art. A pure text: “Citizen Kane does not have a meaning so much as it provides a textual place for a playing with meanings” (Rohdie). Or we can loop back to Wollen and his concluding argument:


The truth is that the ‘content’ of Citizen Kane cannot be taken too seriously. […] [Welles’] interest in formal devices and technical ingenuity places him closer to mannerism, to a conscious appreciation of virtuosity and the desire to astonish. It is this ‘mannerist’ aspect of Welles that is still significant – not the dramatic unity which deep focus and the long take make possible, but the long take and deep focus as formal features in themselves. […] Citizen Kane remains an important film historically, not within the terms it set itself, or those within which it has been mainly seen by critics, but because, by a kind of retroactive causality, it is now possible to read there an entirely different film, one that Welles probably never intended. (pp. 60-61)


A final word on Welles. You will read a lot about him as the Big Loser of the Hollywood game – something he himself often joked about, that he started at the top and worked his way down. It is said by unscrupulous biographers (including Charles Higham) that he dithered and stalled in his “completion phobia”, that he stuck together awkward multi-lingual co-productions, that he was led into self-delusion by his European fans and exegetes, that be continually sabotaged himself, that he could never get it all together again after the blow the studio delivered to The Magnificent Ambersons.


But the myth of Welles as the Great Man who “blew it” is not only unfair, it is also plain inaccurate. Just look at the surviving filmography, it’s all the evidence you need, beyond any rum biographical psychoanalysis: the work is indeed astonishing, from start to end. Try to vacuum from your mind the Variety magazine ideology of judging everybody and everything in terms of boffo box-office (i.e., mainly American) success.


What remains absolutely clear is that Welles kept the lines open between popular and experimental forms for his entire, creative life. Of how many film auteurs can that be truly said?


Written-up from lecture notes for a University of Melbourne Fine Arts seminar.



Here is the annotated sheet I handed out to seminar participants on the day of this talk.


click to enlarge


Updates: the Bazin quotations are now drawn from the superior translation in the Caboose edition of his What is Cinema? (Montreal, 2009). Other references not included above:


Charles Barr, “CinemaScope: Before and and After”, Film Quarterly, Vol. 16 No. 4 (Summer 1963), pp. 4-24.


Jean-Claude Biette, Poétique des auteurs (Paris: Cahiers du cinéma, 1988).


Marc Chevrie, “L’innocence entre guillemets”, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 376 (October 1985), pp. 28-34.


Edward Colless, The Error of My Ways (Brisbane: Institute of Modern Art, 1995).


Stuart Cunningham, “The Magnificent Ambersons: Deep Focus, The Long Take and Psychological Representation”, Continuum, Vol. 5 No. 2 (1992), pp. 15-28. Online: https://wwwmcc.murdoch.edu.au/ReadingRoom/5.2/Cunningham.html


Raymond Durgnat, “Psychoanalysis and Cinema”, Film Quarterly, Vol. 36 No. 2 (1982), pp. 58-64.


Carlos Losilla, La invención de Hollywood, O como olvidarse de una vez per todas del cine clásico (Barcelona: Paidós, 2003).


Adrian Martin, “The Citizen Kane Book”, in Barbara (B.A.) Creed & Iris (I.L.) O’Loughlin (eds), Insight ’89: A Guide to the Year 12 Complete Course for English (Flemington: Aird Books, 1988), pp. 290-295.

© Adrian Martin April 1989 (+ plus updates on references December 2021)

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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