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Julien Allen on Citizen Kane

"The Hearst press is under strict orders to ignore Welles (except for a series of articles pointing out that he is a menace to American motherhood, freedom of speech and assembly, and the pursuit of happiness)." —The New Yorker, May 10, 1941

“What do you do?” is one of my least favorite questions. “What does it matter?” should be the stock answer. This is going to sound obtuse, but I don’t recall at any time in my life wanting to be a writer. Not until I had been writing for Reverse Shot for about 10 years did the idea first occur to me. And at the risk of adding disingenuity to the charge sheet, that’s just as well because in truth I’m not one. I mean…it’s not “what I do.” As with pretty much everything I try, I value and commit to the task itself—in the case of writing, unusually fervently—but I do so unbuoyed by the slightest personal ambition or any sense of really belonging. I’m not describing impostor syndrome; it’s probably more defensive than that. If you don’t lay claim to a description, you can’t be judged against it. You might call it “guest syndrome.” Guests are not always unwanted or uninvited; they can be valued and appreciated and made to feel welcome. But they must ultimately leave and go back where they belong. I don’t find writing easy, any more than real writers do (and probably less so), and I cannot disrespect real writers so much—especially not some of the luminaries and prodigies housed by Reverse Shot over the last two decades—as to deny that I remain anything other than a dabbler.

A useful starting point for my contribution to this symposium is a piece of writing I produced 20 years ago (around the same time that Reverse Shot, worlds away from me at the time, was born) which barely qualifies as criticism, concerning a film which for a myriad of reasons I didn’t want to write about—Citizen Kane—in a context where I didn’t even realize I was properly writing anything, or even what “writing” really meant. The piece was conceived many years before, by a paradoxical event in the late 1990s, when I was profoundly scandalized by a cultural commentator named Tony Parsons, on a late-night BBC arts programme, reviewing the first volume of Simon Callow’s biography of Orson Welles. Parsons lamented that there should only ever be one volume, as the stories of Welles’s life and work were worthless after Citizen Kane. It wasn’t so much that this comment was dull, or demonstrably incorrect by most available criteria, but that it came from an idea which belittled and trivialized all arts criticism: that an artist doesn’t matter unless they produce something you’ve heard of, and they stop mattering after they have. One could have excused someone in Britain for believing such a statement back then, but not for making it, if that person was being paid to address the subject on network television for the good of the public at large. Parsons’s fee, even if on this occasion he resided in total ignorance, surely included compensation for time spent carrying out even the tiniest modicum of research.

As a dogged movie enthusiast, not long back from a two-year spell in Paris, where I indulged in a diet of cinema with a part-time law degree on the side, I soon became frustrated by what I saw as a severe lack of British enthusiasm or understanding for the work of Orson Welles. In reality, I was confusing two issues. British cinephiles were always extremely keen on Welles, it’s just that the “film circles” in Britain were much smaller and more marginalized than those in France, where to the general public cinema was the artistic equivalent of literature and Welles films were screened at peak time on network television. This petty grievance of mine percolated until 2003, when I set about creating a website dedicated to the man himself, partly to remedy what I perceived to be this central injustice, and partly to pass some more time with something I loved (the earliest indication, to which I was then oblivious, of the feelings of escapism which writing can provoke when you work an office job). For ten quid I purchased the name and was gifted by a computer-literate friend some software called “Dreamweaver” (this was before universal shareware and blogs), capable of delivering a simple, aesthetically suitable website via which I might seduce inquisitive souls into watching any of Orson Welles’s films other than Citizen Kane.

Having spent months of painstaking nighttime hours trying to make this blasted design tool work—a process which I would readily equate to trying to paint the Brooklyn Bridge with a nail polish brush—an adequate interface was ready for publication, save that I had by that stage lost track of the reason for its existence, and it contained precisely zero written content. So, I hastily cobbled together some entry-level notes on nine of Welles’s films to accompany the pretty pictures, leaving Kane blank. I did this partly because I wanted to defend the other films in priority to Kane, but mostly because the fear of blasphemy, glibness or repetition on this hallowed subject was as strong then as it is now.

I knew I would eventually need to complete the task by including notes on Kane. Using the resultant pedestrian and somewhat passive–aggressive piece today as a jump-off point for an essay about one’s development as a “writer” compels me to do what I’ve grown to feel that barely anyone can—and possibly no-one should—do: write about Citizen Kane. I care deeply about Kane—sequences from the film frequently materialize in my mind, I circle back to it and quote it regularly in my professional and personal life, I see parallels to it in so much around me. But I’ve long been thoroughly intimidated by the prospect of writing about any artistic aspect of the film itself.

Now, two things have come to my aid. Firstly, I realize I have been accommodated by Reverse Shot for 15 years, so the prospect of such a harebrained idea should not be so daunting. Secondly, the film itself is not what it was. After years of universal reverence and billions of words deployed in its favor (and a few millions raised against) by all the greatest and most definitive writers and critics, Kane seems to have lapsed back into something unwelcome. Its ubiquity has cursed it, twice over. It has been crowned, lauded, pushed, debated, and written about within an inch of its life. It has fulfilled the undesired roles of standard bearer of cinematic technique and the cynosure of critical analysis; and yet, since 2012 (decades too late, probably), its position at the top of the critical tree has been dislodged, first in 2012 by Vertigo (goodness, Welles would have hated that), and then pushed down one notch further—via a wider critical suffrage—by Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman in 2022. What remains with Kane seems to be a piece of work everyone has already talked and heard about, most have seen, and nobody really wants to talk about again. A film which used to be number 1, but which might as well now be number 1000. About as inspiring and fashionable a subject for criticism today as the collected works of Jon Avnet, or the golden age of Miramax.

I had chickened out in 2003, with 1100 words in total, skirting around the point. It reads like a marketing pitch or DVD blurb: some IMDb–level detail, a smart–arse gaming metaphor (“3 aces,” being Toland, Mankiewicz, and Herrmann, and “a trump card”—the Mercury Players), then a straight listicle of all the new cinematic techniques, which we all know about…and yes, they weren’t truly new techniques, were they? Just existing ones deployed with unprecedented brio and impunity, blah blah blah...


It seems bizarre now to contemplate that Orson Welles’s 1941 debut—a work which somehow managed to mobilize a significant critical consensus for 50 years as the single greatest film of all time—was, foremost, a divisive and controversial thing: and even, in its original treatment by the industry, something of a film maudit. Due to Welles’s own personal notoriety and the circumstances of its production, including early, vindicated rumors of its biting, even vitriolic subject matter, it certainly filled plenty of column inches before and after its premiere, held at the RKO Palace Theatre in New York when the traditional venue—Radio City Music Hall, piqued by the controversy—refused to host. But in the end, it was not shown in any commercial chain theater in the United States. In fact, only one cinema group, Fox-West Coast, purchased the rights, for its 515 theaters on the Pacific Coast, the mountain states, and the Midwest, only to pointedly refuse to screen the film at a single one of them. Citizen Kane was never actually censored, because there were no legal grounds to do so and because the commercial influences raised against it were so powerful that it had no need to be. But by any contemporaneous industry measure, the film was essentially shitcanned. The word “flop” when describing Citizen Kane, is both an understatement and—as when William Goldman used it about Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut—a total misdirection.

Violence was done to the film, not because it was felt that Citizen Kane might lead the masses astray or misinform them, nor even because it would teach them a cheeky thing or two about the protagonist à clef, the politician, Nazi collaborator, press magnate, and founder of “yellow journalism,” William Randolph Hearst, who despite his status did not unduly preoccupy the American public. No, it was done simply out of spite. Hearst himself—a friend of Orson Welles’s father—was clearly irritated by the attention the notorious production of Citizen Kane was attracting before it came out, but numerous accounts suggest he never lowered himself to do or say anything to indicate that he felt the film should be stopped. It was simplistic/inaccurate of me to write in 2003 that “enormous pressure [was] brought to bear on the studio by William Randolph Hearst.” Instead, as it always seems to work with singularly powerful forces, his “people” took it upon themselves to threaten, contaminate, obstruct, defame, and ultimately commercially flatten the film—while the industry itself, fearful of reprisals and hardly instinctively disposed to protect a cocksure 25-year-old irritant in Welles, put up little resistance. RKO production head George Schaefer heroically refused to yield to internal pressure to leave the film unreleased, but exercised no imagination to get it widely seen (Welles had vainly suggested erecting tents in fairgrounds throughout the country and screening it for a dime a chair). Kane lost money in nearly all the major cities but was a critical success, receiving nine Oscar nominations (and winning one, for best original screenplay).

One might say all this shoddy treatment was amply deserved. Welles himself was a demonstrative upstart and a provocateur, whose antics over his The War of the Worlds radio play in 1938 made many Americans think he felt he was better than them; he took potshots at people without a care for their feelings. (Hearst’s mistress, the actress Marion Davies, a talented, charming, and apparently guileless human being, is depicted horribly in Kane as an embittered, deluded mediocrity and a disposable vessel for the protagonist’s hurt pride.) So, the brash prodigy Welles gambled and lost? Well, tough luck. By the time he had completed the first cut of his next film, The Magnificent Ambersons—which would not have put anyone’s nose out of joint had it been his debut, least of all the source (novelist Booth Tarkington, another friend of Welles’s father)—his name in Hollywood was basically mud. Having lost all the power first afforded him by his Kane contract, this second, scintillating masterpiece didn’t even need to be squashed; it was mutilated instead by the studio after uneven test screenings, never to be restored, the original negatives having since purportedly been destroyed in a nitrate fire in a Culver City warehouse.

So, let’s get some of the baggage packed away and move on. Citizen Kane is in form and substance perhaps the most extraordinary film ever made, and it’s extraordinary for perhaps the greatest number of reasons (not least among them that it ever saw the light of day after two waves of fierce opposition, from within RKO and without). My 2003 self sits on the fence more than once: “Love or hate Orson Welles…”; “Perhaps Citizen Kane is the ‘Greatest Film of All Time,’ perhaps not.” But on this question at least, it’s time to climb off and say that Kane is not the finest film ever made, far from it. There is no point in attempting a scientific analysis of the impossible, so to pluck an example completely at random, I rewatched a film just two days ago—Max Ophüls’s The Earrings of Madame De…—which to my mind is a considerably greater work. Kane conjures breathtaking, insolent cinematic trickery to create the illusion of meaning and depth at times where in that moment there is none: something the older Welles admitted about Kane, and of which he was ashamed. Madame De…, on the other hand, creates genuinely profound, often heartbreaking imagery, using imperceptible camera techniques which modern filmmakers recognize as being almost impossible to replicate today with the same success. While Kane strives and occasionally succeeds in distilling audience sympathy for the victims of its odious antihero, Madame De… lifts the audience to a higher plane of identification and emotion, despite concerning itself with deeply flawed protagonists from the most egregious elements of 19th-century French aristocracy.

Besides, Kane is probably not even the finest film Orson Welles ever made, the pretenders to which are surprisingly numerous and resist consensus (in itself an intimation of Welles’s pythonic talent and the crux of why I once felt—or something like it—needed to exist). Even bowdlerized as they were, both The Magnificent Ambersons and Touch of Evil are more mature, fluently accomplished, arguably more enduring and superior works to Kane, and his Chimes at Midnight probably represents the aesthetic apotheosis of the marriage between Welles’s Shakespearian sensibilities (which imbued all his films) and his artistic command. The Lady from Shanghai and Mr. Arkadin are magnificent, murky and thrilling outliers filmed on shoestrings that consecrate Welles’s independence and alchemy: they can boast none of the sheer consequence of Kane but are still preferred by many who like to hunt in the dirt for cinematic truffles rather than have them served up to them. All of Welles’s subsequent films to Kane are flawed and vulnerable in ways which augment their humanity, appeal, and reach, like the grit in the oyster that becomes a pearl. Kane is perhaps his most scrutinized film, but ultimately—having regard to the sheer heft and elegance of its studio supported production—it is his least “flawed” film of the lot. This diminishes it, but only a little.

Above and beyond comparisons (and positions on all-time lists), more value might lie in an appreciation of Kane’s intractable value to the medium. Let’s keep the same random example going: think of Madame De…’s cinematographer Christian Matras, a titan whose work in monochrome stands comparison with any in the medium. Who, reading this, doubts his debt to Toland? Certainly, the beauty and glory of Madame De…, from macro (its insolence and thematic transcendence) to micro (the visceral impact it conjures from a juxtaposition of deep focus and tight, claustrophobic framing with busy production design), owes plenty to Citizen Kane, too. Try this trick at home with any great piece of narrative cinema post 1941.

My defense in 2003 to Kane’s “supposed lack of emotional resonance” (a criticism of the film which I was horrified by but which I cannot now find anywhere, about which more later) was that the film was “primarily a satire and took a necessarily detached approach to its characters,” and I stand by this. Even if the clapping Kane at the opera amounts to not much more than raw pathos, and the sled in the fire might seem schmaltzily tacked on (it actually was tacked on, late in the screenwriting process), the central betrayal by Leland (and of Leland by Kane) does I think provoke a legitimate emotional response which endures: a sincere counterpoint to the gleefully acerbic tone of the overall picture.

And boy oh boy, is it acerbic. Pauline Kael, in her oddly hopeless book Raising Kane was deluded in her attempt to divest Welles of authorial credit for the film, but she had a valid point in focusing on the script—by Herman Mankiewicz and heavily reworked by Welles in a dry, fractious collaboration—as the crucible of the film’s power. Mankiewicz and Welles disagreed on Hearst, as testified by one of Mankiewicz’s letters:

With the fair-mindedness that I have always recognized as my outstanding trait, I said to Orson that, despite this and that, Mr. Hearst was, in many ways, a great man. “He was, and is,” said Orson, “a horse’s ass, no more nor less, who has been wrong, without exception, on everything he’s ever touched.”

This was the perceptive insolence of youth trashing the imperfect magnanimity of experience, yet Welles learned much from Mankiewicz, and the tightness of the writing in the many wondrously technical set-pieces remains a linchpin of the film.

Choosing one sequence from Citizen Kane as an illustration of anything is an exercise in regret over not choosing another one, but this is a nice problem to have: the party sequence in the low-ceilinged gentlemen’s nightclub, wherein the journalists of the Enquirer are gathered to celebrate the poaching of an entire staff from Kane’s rival newspaper The Chronicle, covers a multiplicity of satirical bases. Kane the egotist and showman holds court, marshals the band and the dancing girls, and deploys all his wit and charm in the service of something entirely graceless. “Now, Mr. Bernstein, they have been making statues for 2000 years and I have only been buying for 5.” As the revelers lose themselves, we are reminded in passing that Kane’s newspaper (and by the way, Hearst) helped foment the Spanish-American War (!) and the cult of Kane himself is born right there and then, with a special song dedicated to him and performed with unsavory brio by a cane-twirling vaudeville performer. My most recent rewatch reminded me of a sequence in the masterful HBO series Succession—a piece of satire which covers similar ground to Kane—wherein the patriarchal newsman Logan Roy (Brian Cox) is being feted by his flunkies but rather than encouraging it, he turns on them, humiliates them in a sordid, barely watchable spectacle. What has changed?

Perhaps today, as we’ve grown to tolerate the Hearsts and the Kanes and the Murdochs for so many years, allowed them into our lives, granted them the right to run society ragged, satire doesn’t bite as hard on its own terms, and we need to see the cruelty with our own eyes. And maybe even that isn’t enough anymore: in the age of Trump, the cruelty is all right there on the surface. Trump is not Kane, he is not even his corrupt rival Boss Jim Gittes (whom Kane is all set to defeat in the gubernatorial race before Gittes traps him in an affair with the nightclub singer Susan Alexander) because Gittes works in the shadows. Trump is post-Kane and post-satire: he advertises his own cruelty and mediocrity because they garner him support. The main difference between Trump and Kane is that Kane is a human tragedy and Trump is an American one. Both were raised in privilege, but Charlie Kane had brains, talent, and charm: all qualities which eluded Trump. The tragedy of Kane is how he misused them. The tragedy of Trump is that he was trapped time and again by numerous Gittes of his own (Stormy Daniels, E. Jean Carroll, Billy Bush…), but he still won high office, because Americans were past caring about all that. Welles humanizes Kane by bringing in his own personal qualities—a gift for oratory which Hearst didn’t have, a sincerity about race relations, a desire to interact with the underprivileged and escape his own mad world—only to allow his vanity and greed to squash everything and immolate it. Trump had no such qualities to bring in the first place (unless you count the late Norm McDonald’s dubious contention that Trump was really an elaborate joke which nobody got). As Leland puts it, “Charlie had an opinion on everything, but he didn’t believe in anything—except himself.” What appears to have changed, for the most part, is that these are precisely the qualities which win elections now.

Kane’s downfall in the second half of the film is not satirical, but melodramatic. It is a logical progression, a moral retribution, and a form of wish fulfillment for Mankiewicz and Welles. In some sense—whilst more or less tracking Hearst’s own financial collapse—it is a Hollywood happy ending tinged with regret at the sheer waste of a life. One is permitted to watch the film now and hope that this quaint idea of poetic justice might still have a role to play.

While my appreciation for Kane may have grown since 2003, in one overarching sense, my attitude hasn’t changed that much in 20 years. was born of my feeling defensive (about Welles and his other films, not Kane), and I continue to view film writing as an opportunity to defend something, sometimes even against hidden or imaginary attacks. All of us at Reverse Shot want to advocate for something which doesn’t get the recognition we feel it deserves, but I imagine few of us are driven quite so often to write by the prospect of trying to correct a perceived injustice. I shudder when recalling that I framed an essay on Saving Private Ryan around the fact that people were complaining that the film was dull after the first scene; I couldn’t bear the fact that the Dardennes’ The Unknown Girl was ignored; writing about Jean-Pierre Melville, I kicked off by loudly denouncing all the criticisms levelled at him; and my take on Unforgiven is shot through with the paranoid sense that Eastwood is some unspeakable pariah, instead of an awkward, superannuated national treasure. The bulk of the second half of my 2003 piece on Kane is an argument (against lazy critical assumptions which I may even have dreamed up myself) that Welles was not Kane and that there were no meaningful parallels: “Charles Foster Kane—a ruthless, artless individual—became extremely rich and successful, whereas Welles might have been famous and, for a few moments at least, powerful, but he was never rich and never successful…his fall from grace started almost from the word go.”


What Citizen Kane talks about is pretty much common currency everywhere now. The supremacy of the self, the squandering of talent, the exploitation of ignorance and fear, the abandonment of virtue. Welles himself lived all of this at the sharp end, while working in the film industry, from the release of Kane in 1941 until his death in 1985. Yet there is a romantic way to look at it…if we want.

When Welles was first courted by Hollywood, he had played around with a camera a bit, but at that time had strictly no interest in working in movies for money. The reason it took a year for RKO to secure his services was that he kept—in good faith, not through sharp negotiation—refusing higher and higher sums to sign up. The one, barely conceivable condition under which Welles could imagine accepting a studio contract was that of complete control: over the casting, crew, script, subject matter, everything. If RKO said no (which he knew they would and which, at first, they did) that was fine, because he really wanted an excuse to end the discussion and get back to what he cared about, which was the theater. But if corporations could have egos, then 1930s RKO might be a nice illustration: they refused to take no for an answer and, unmoved by the precedent they might be creating, caved to Welles’s reluctance-fueled conditions. It was only when Welles got onto set, as the process took its course, he encountered Toland and began to discover how “the box of tricks” worked, that he fell deeply, irredeemably, and tragically in love with the medium. Welles never lost his regard for radio and theater as dramatic forms, but he knew that cinema had to be his palette. It was where he belonged, the best canvas for his fairground showmanship and his wild, blazing invention. Even when offered a way out through politics, Welles stayed true to his purpose.

Citizen Kane is for me a grand love story, specifically that most intoxicating, marvelously disorienting part of a love story, before any stress or heartache: it’s the very beginning, the courtship…between a great artist and his art form. What transpired was like many love stories, filled with joy and beauty but also pain, regret, and longing. Welles cheated on the cinema frequently (he needed to eat, after all), and the cinema betrayed and abused him relentlessly, but he could never walk away from it. You can’t use a soundbite or a narrative device to sum up someone’s life—that’s the grand illusion of “Rosebud,” after all, which conned the real-life audiences and critics as much as the fictional investigators. But some truths are inescapable: cinema was what he did.