Citizen Kane

Among cinema’s unreliable narratives mentioned in relation to Rashomon (1950), I omitted Citizen Kane (1941), which has many distorted but not necessarily conflicting tales. Against Rashomon’s four stories, we get five about Charles Foster Kane: Thatcher, his guardian; Bernstein, his assistant; Jed Leland, his best friend; Susan Kane, his second wife; and Raymond, the butler at Xanadu. Curiously, Kane becomes less mysterious and more impenetrable, while the rape and murder in Rashomon become more mysterious as we penetrate its depths.

Indeed, when I taught a film class, I showed Citizen Kane and Rashomon back-to-back. At that point in the course, we were studying multiple narratives in films, with Rashomon followed by Run Lola Run (1998). In the latter, the narrative progresses after we see versions of Lola trying to save her boyfriend until she finally does. It resembles Kane and Rashomon because we don’t, ultimately, have to determine the correct narrative but understand the meaning of the narratives in conjunction.

Kane’s narratives anticipate Rashomon’s because all accounts of past events and people reflect back to the egos of the narrators. What did Kane mean to them? Thatcher’s memoirs only see the brashly obstinate Charles. In the News on the March film, which amounts to an “objective” storyteller, Thatcher declaims to journalists that Kane is a Communist. Bernstein, on the other hand, loves his former boss, unwilling to acknowledge how Charles bullied and dominated him. Bernstein’s anecdote about seeing a woman once on a ferry dock and having thought about her every day since, reflects the life Bernstein wished he had outside of Kane’s shadow.

Leland and Susan reveal the most about Kane, and here Kane recedes further away. Leland talks about their clashes and final break with Kane, after Kane fires Leland from the Chicago paper – with an exclamation point: Kane writes Leland’s review which savages Susan’s opera performance:

Mr. Thompson: Everybody knows that story, Mr. Leland. But why did he do it? How could a man         write a notice like that?

Jedidiah Leland: You just don’t know Charlie. He thought that by finishing that notice he could show     me he was an honest man. He was always trying to prove something. The whole thing about Susie     being an opera singer, that was trying to prove something. You know what the headline was the         day before the election, “Candidate Kane found in love nest with quote, singer, unquote.” He was       gonna take the quotes off the singer.

From Susan, we learn how Kane tried to do it. Charles wanted her to be an opera star more than she ever did. What Leland may have overlooked, is that Kane tried to make Susan an opera star directly in response to his defeat in the governor’s race. He would prove that the world was wrong to judge Susan so harshly – in the process, driving Susan to suicide. Then, in response to this (and letting her opera career recede), he builds Xanadu for her. To prove that he could love her. Susan’s response: “Forty-nine thousand acres of nothing but scenery and statues. I’m lonesome.” Jed Leland best sums up Kane’s failures in marriage and politics: Charles wanted to persuade people that he loved them so much that they ought to love him back.

The journalist, Thompson, gets these stories with the hope that someone will reveal what “Rosebud”, Kane’s final word, means. While Raymond the butler tells him when Kane had said “Rosebud” after smashing up Susan’s room, the detritus from Kane’s life is heading into an incinerator. One item in the fire stands out. The SECRET of Kane’s life. A sled. Representative, at first blush, of his lost childhood. He had attacked Thatcher with the same sled after his mother had signed over the boy to his new guardian. 

We’ve seen a film in which a reporter searches for the meaning of Kane’s life. This makes us forget that Kane himself tried to build his empire in a vicarious search for his mother’s love. He had met Susan Kane during one of his trips to a warehouse which stored his childhood things. Eventually, he moved these things to Xanadu. A millionaire hoarder! Much is made in Bernstein’s story that Kane is obsessively acquisitive. He needed the forty-nine thousand acres!

Much is rightly made of the Kane-Hearst connection. There’s also a Kane-Howard Hughes connection. Hughes was one of the original models for the Kane character. Kane anticipates the recluse that Hughes would become. Hughes also had complex relationships with his friends, lovers, and business associates. Unfortunately, the fictional fulcrum for the Hughes legacy became Harold Robbins’ The Carpetbaggers (filmed in 1964, starring George Peppard, and Alan Ladd’s final film).

Ultimately, the closet resemblance to Kane is Orson Welles himself. At once, insufferable and the person you have to be around. Only, Welles couldn’t hold on to money, which always went to his film and drama projects, as well as to a prodigious appetite. Indeed, many of Welles characters, from Michael O’Hara in The Lady from Shanghai (1947) to Mr Arkadin (1955) to Hank Quinlin in Touch of Evil (1958) to Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight (1965), embody his contradictions, appetites, and humanity.


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