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Citizen Kane, USA 1941

Posted by keith1942 on April 27, 2015

Nurse

In September 2012, in a Film Extra programme at the National Media Museum, we followed up the Sight & Sound once-in-a-decade Poll of the ‘Greatest Film of All Times’. Given that it seems irrefutable that no single person has seen every film ever made the Poll needs to be taken with a large pinch of salt. However, the Museum programmed the top three films in the recent Poll – Vertigo (1958), Citizen Kane (1941) and Tokyo Story (1953). There was a chance to discuss the films and the Poll following the screenings with myself pitching for Citizen Kane, Jen [the then Education Officer) pitching for Vertigo and Roy (of ITP World) pitching for Tokyo Story.

It is worth noting that Citizen Kane was the only one of the three screened in 35mm: the other two were screened from DCPs. I have seen all three films a number of times. I found that the critics first choice, Vertigo, did not really stand up to another viewing. Citizen Kane delighted me as much as in earlier viewings: it is the film that has the most panache. Tokyo Story also stood the test of an umpteenth viewing: and since this film and that by Orson Welles represent entirely different types of cinema, how do you compare or contrast them?

I was reminded of that earlier occasion when I noted an article in the Review section of The Guardian (Saturday April 25th) in which Peter Bradshaw discussed the memorable Welles film. In particular he claimed to offer a new reading of that most famous word from the film, ‘Rosebud’. He joins a long line of interpreters of this particular metaphor, as it is nearly always seen to be. I have a feeling that I have made this point on earlier occasions and surely someone else has, though I do not remember reading it. How does anyone know what is the final breathy word of Charles Foster Kane. In the film a series of cuts carry us through the grounds of Xanadu: a further cut transports the camera and the audience into the chamber where Kane lies dying. Only after he breaths his final word and drops the snow toy does a nurse enter the room. There appears to be no one else in the room at this point?

The explanation usually relies on a line of dialogue by Raymond, the major domo at Xanadu. He, with other servants, heard Kane say ‘Rosebud’ after Susan leaves, and Kane was also holding the snow toy then. Raymond adds a repetition for Thompson, ‘that other time’, the death sequence. But why would Raymond be alone in the chamber with the dying Kane. There is no acknowledgement by the nurse to any one when she enters the room. It is entirely plausible that since no one heard Kane’s final word or words that Raymond invented it for the newspapers. He is certainly trying to milk the journalists for money.

At a more general level the film critiques the reliability and reliance of memories. Those of different characters contradict each other. And they clearly suffer from the personal stance of the character. But more than  this memories can represent very different experiences. Thompson, the investigative reporter, interviews Berstein, Kane’s old manager. He asks him about Rosebud and Berstein suggests ‘some gal’.  He expands.

  “One day back in 1896 I was crossing over the Jersey on the ferry. And as we pulled     out there was another ferry pulled in. And on it there was girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on. And she was carrying a white parasol. And I only saw her for one second. She didn’t see me at all. But I’ll bet a month hasn’t got by since that I haven’t thought of that girl.”

Visually a series of symbols seemingly refer to Rosebud – a number of these are consigned to the flames of the final furnace. Among them is at least one of the jigsaw puzzles that occupied Susan in Xanadu. Certainly Rosebud can be seen as piece of a jigsaw puzzle, the final piece in the film. Individually not that significant, but in terms of the whole puzzle it takes on added connotations. And the structure of the film resembles the playing of a jigsaw puzzle: a point suggested by Thompson’s final lines of dialogue.

Covering slight holes in the plot is a common device in Hollywood films: so Raymond’s line ‘explains’ the characters’ knowledge of Rosebud. Given how smart Welles and Mankiewicz were I am sure they noted this cheat. I rather imagine they had moments filled with quiet chuckles as they read the interpretations offered for this single word.

As the journalist Thompson remarks,  “I don’t think one word can explain a man’s life”. Nor indeed does the sledge, which the privileged audience seen consigned to the flames. What Rosebud really does is subvert the apparent closure of the film. Thompson goes back to his news agency; the audience go home, but Kane remains, the enigma. Surely one of the reasons that the film has endured so long.

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2 Responses to “Citizen Kane, USA 1941”

  1. Orson Welles would have been one hundred years of age last Wednesday. The BBC, with good taste, had Sarah Churchwell and Simon Callow talking about the great man – interesting and intelligent.
    I should note that Max Ophuls shares the same day.

  2. […] Hearst got his revenge with a virulent press campaign, aided on the quiet by Hoover’s FBI. So the only Academy Award for the film was Best Screenplay. It did though win the New York Film Critics’ Award for Best Picture. And since then the film has enjoyed success after success. Moreover viewers and critics alike still discuss and argue over the film’s portrait and the famous single word in the opening scene. […]

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