Citizen Kane comes with a lot of baggage. For decades now, it has been voted the greatest movie of all time by a number of critics around the world. Mostly in the English-speaking world, I think, but that’s not the point here. The point is, it’s extremely unlikely that you’ll get to watch this movie before you hear about it. If you’re the type that likes to read movie reviews and essays, you’ll probably end up consuming megabytes of material about Kane before you see it. In this case, I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
The movie begins with a somewhat ominous sequence featuring some fairly imposing shots of Kane’s castle, Xanadu, ending with Kane’s death. His last word: Rosebud. You then see a newsreel that provides you with a brief history of his life. At the end of the newsreel, one of the people watching it poses the question: Who was Charles Foster Kane, really? What made him tick? A reporter named Thompson is assigned to the case. He goes and talks to people who might give him an answer. People who knew him, worked with him, loved him, hated him.
Do you see the parallel? I’m sure you do.
The non-linear narrative structure of Citizen Kane has been discussed at length. (Incidentally, the only Oscar it won was for its screenplay.) The movie is about Kane, viewed from multiple vantage points. You hear the opinions of people who knew him, interspersed with flashbacks to the actual happenings. The movie doesn’t attempt to decide what you should feel about this man – it lets you make that decision for yourself. For that matter, the movie doesn’t even tell you everything about his life. But as the movie nears its completion, you begin to understand Kane, and to some extent, you know what kind of man he is. You may not be able to describe him in simple adjectives, but you get accustomed to his rhythm.
Aside: Shyam Benegal seems to have been quite taken by this narrative structure. He used it in at least two movies that I know of: Zubeida and Sardari Begum. However, his narrator is not an impartial observer such as Thompson, which adds an additional layer to the whole thing.
There are two scenes in Citizen Kane that, to me, encapsulate the movie. The first is a scene from Kane’s childhood, where arrangements are being made to take Kane away from his family in order to secure his future. Even after multiple viewings, I’ve always found this scene extremely moving. Agnes Moorehead, who plays his mother Mary, appears only in this scene. But it’s impossible to forget her. For the most part, she has a tight control over herself, but occasionally you see the veneer crack. In many ways, this scene provides clues to understanding Charles Foster Kane.
The other important moment is the one where Mr. Bernstein, Kane’s longtime secretary, is interviewed by Thompson.
Thompson: We thought maybe, if we can find out what he meant by that last word – as he was dying-
Bernstein: That Rosebud? Maybe some girl? There were a lot of them back in the early days, and -
Thompson: Not some girl he knew casually and then remembered after fifty years, on his death bed-
Bernstein: You’re pretty young, Mr. – (remembers the name) Mr. Thompson. A fellow will remember things you wouldn’t think he’d remember. You take me. One day, back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on a ferry and as we pulled out, there was another ferry pulling in, and on it, there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on and she was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn’t see me at all. But I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since that I haven’t thought of that girl.
For some reason, those lines have always stayed with me. There was something very compelling about the story of that girl in the white dress. For me, it took Bernstein from a supporting character to someone who deserved to have his own story told. Some years later, I paid my tribute to that line through a story I wrote, titled Muse.