Citizen Kane (1941): The Desolated Emperor

Citizen Kane (1941): The Desolated Emperor

Cinema has just turned 125 years old.

Over the next few months we will celebrate this anniversary by publishing a series of texts by Juan Bufill on some of the best films in the history of cinema.

Orson Welles, at the set of Citizen Kane.

I’m dark as hell

Orson Welles

I reject everything that is negative

Orson Welles


On December 28, 1895, in Paris, the Lumière brothers presented the first film projection in history in a publicly opened hall, without suspecting that their invention would give rise to the main and most particular art of the 20th century, which together with music, is now the most popular. Compared to painting and sculpture, cinema is a relatively young art, but it has undergone extraordinarily rapid development and evolution. Cinema is one of the best inventions of mankind and it maintains its freshness. On the other hand, stories of the cinema seem to have aged and perhaps they should be reviewed, with broader criteria and a more modern vision.

For several decades Citizen Kane (1941) has been considered the best film in history in successive polls promoted by the magazine Sight and Sound. Only recently has it been displaced in those votes by another masterpiece: Vertigo. However, since 1941 the cinema has produced many other splendid works. So the first key question must be this: To what does Citizen Kane owe its extraordinary and lasting prestige?

I believe that the keys to that success are various and complementary. One of them is in the historical moment. Another, in the full freedom of creation enjoyed by the director and his collaborators. The third key was a concentration of extraordinary and complementary talents in the same work. And the fourth key is in the subject of the film, which is fundamental. Citizen Kane nailed it. It was a necessary work in its time and continues to be so in the 21st century. And it must be acknowledged that the last key is still “Rosebud”.

The most surprising thing is that when Orson Welles began making his first narrative feature film, it could strictly be said that he “did not know how to make films.” This is what any experienced professional without confidence in the unknown would have said then. But by the age of 25, Welles had already shown that he had mastered the language of theater and radio fiction. His adaptation of The War of the Worlds simulated an informational program about an alien invasion and caused shock and admiration. And Welles knew cinema as an enthusiastic spectator and admirer of the works of Griffith, Eisenstein, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and John Ford. To be a good writer you need to have been a good reader. And the same applies for cinema.

The right moment

Citizen Kane has been considered “the foundational work of modern cinema.” The claim is not as exaggerated as it may seem. It is a question of dates, but also of creative freedom. The moment was foundational: sound film had matured in 1940 masterpieces such as The Shop Around the Corner, The Philadelphia Story and The Grapes of Wrath directed by Ernst Lubitsch, George Cukor and John Ford, respectively. But the differentiating factor of Citizen Kane was its extraordinary and evident creative freedom.

In 1941, Hollywood was a factory where producers, acting as masters of slaves, had the power to cut down in a humiliating way the dreams of screenwriters and directors: their employees. And they leaned towards vulgarizing and stereotyping their projects. Hence, the alcoholism of some brilliant and frustrated screenwriters, which is well portrayed in Fincher’s film, Mank (2020). But young Orson Welles was an exception: for mere lack of control, the film production company RKO gave him full freedom of creation and he took full advantage of it. Without abandoning a realistic, albeit fragmented narrative, Welles used cinema with the freedom typical of a baroque and expressionist artist or poet: attentive to deceptive appearances and endowing his work with an energy, a disorder, a tension, some contrasts of light and black, and unusual complexity, yet very much like our world. But the public of that time preferred serials like Gone with the Wind and Welles paid for his first commercial failure until the end of his days.

Collective authorship

I am perplexed to note that many historians, critics and essayists have been able to write long texts on Citizen Kane without highlighting the relevance of screenwriter Herman Jacob Mankiewicz and cinematographer Gregg Toland, without whose contributions it is evident that Orson Welles would not have known to give way to his talent. I believe that this repeated error is because a large part of film historians and critics uncritically accepted the notion of auteur cinema promoted many years ago by Cahiers du Cinéma: the director is the star. This notion tries to ignore that films -except for low-budget experimental and documentary cinema- are usually conceived and made working as a team.

When Godard said that a movie can be made with a script and a cinematographer (and actors and sets, of course), and that you don’t need a director, many believed it was just a joke. The truth is that there are directors who are the main authors and that the final result depends on the director, but the first author is always the screenwriter or the author of the adapted literary story. And the directors of photography and (often those) responsible for editing are also frequently decisive. What would have become of Hitchcock without Alma Reville and Scorsese without Thelma Schoonmaker?

And what would Citizen Kane be without Rosebud and all that it means?

It is a fact that the script for Citizen Kane was mainly written by Herman Jacob Mankiewicz and that Welles’ authorship was more in the direction than in the script, in which he intervened before and after his colleague wrote it. Welles himself recognized in his conversations with Peter Bogdanovich the “enormous” importance of Mankiewicz’s contribution, and specified in an interview with Juan Cobos, Miguel Rubio and José Antonio Pruneda (Cahiers du Cinéma n. 165) that everything related to Rosebud was Mank’s doing. And what would Citizen Kane be without Rosebud and all that it means? … It would certainly be a less profound and memorable work. In any case, Orson Welles wanted to make a film that was an inquiry into a mysterious character, a fragmentary and contradictory portrait. Shortly before, he had tried to translate Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness into film, and finally incorporated some ideas from this failed project into Citizen Kane.

However, Welles recognized above all the importance of Gregg Toland as a co-author. A significant detail: in the credits of Citizen Kane Toland’s name appears next to the director, in the same shot and in letters of the same size. And in the previous shot, the name of Mankiewicz appears first as the author of the script. A year earlier, Toland had collaborated with John Ford on The Grapes of Wrath and The Long Voyage Home. The excellent photography of the first was partially inspired by Dorothea Lange, but the expressionism of the second clearly anticipated that of Citizen Kane.

Working with John Ford, Toland was already extraordinary, but Welles forced him to be even better, asking him for “impossible” things and giving him the time and confidence to make them possible. This is how the depth of field characteristic of Citizen Kane became a reality, allowing Welles to escape from the routines of the shot / counter shot and give his film a rare fluidity. By the way, it is said that it was the screenwriter Mankiewicz who most insisted on the director to find cinematic solutions and not settle for merely theatrical ones. So the Welles-Mank-Toland trio was an ideal team, as each of them pushed and helped the other two to do their best, which they could not have achieved separately. This is how you work as a team. Like the John Coltrane Quartet.

Also important were the artistic direction of Perry Ferguson (who planned the sequences together with the director), the editing by Robert Wise (later co-director of West Side Story, 1961), as well as the music of Bernard Hermann and the main actors: Welles and Joseph Cotten. Welles’ Kane was a more attractive character than his historical model, the newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst. On the other hand, those who knew the real singer and protégée actress who in the movie goes out of tune, agree that she was charming. And so she appears in the movie, Mank.

Welles, as Benjamin Button

Welles was aware that his evolution from Citizen Kane was more of an involution: “I started at the top and went rolling downhill,” he admitted sarcastically. His paradoxical trajectory could be compared to that of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), and thus we could imagine his filmography in reverse: from a daring, immature and groundbreaking film such as F for Fake (1973) to the culminations and full cinematic dominance of the Ambersons and Kane.

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) is a splendid narration of a change of era and the decline of a lineage because of fatuous class vanity, and also a story of ill-fated love affairs, but today it seems an older work than Citizen Kane. Touch of Evil (1958) has a memorable start and brilliant moments, but the plot was series B. The Process (1962) is a fascinating, if somewhat unbalanced, adaptation of Kafka. Unlike Buñuel, who tried to film with the subsequent montage of the shots clear, Welles filmed gluttonously, but then he did not know what to do with the excess footage. Orson Welles’ non-existent, unfinished and ghostly filmography may seem as broad as the filmography he made as a director: from his first project of The Heart of Darkness in subjective vision -long before Apocalypse Now (1979)- to his unborn King Lear.

On the other hand, the influence of Citizen Kane in The Third Man (1949), by Carol Reed and Graham Greene, is evident and positive. However, many are unaware that Welles is the author of the perverse plot of Monsieur Verdoux (1947), a project that the good-natured and yet thief Charles Chaplin appropriated, marginalizing Welles. The rich widow murderer named Verdoux joined many other heartless characters in Welles’s filmography, full of despots, tricksters and characters rotten by desire for power. Nihilistic and empty men as in The Hollow Men, the poem by T.S. Eliot. Or also faceless bullies, like the Kafkaesque and blaming state of The Trial.


The whole story of Citizen Kane moves towards the resolution of a mystery that the characters do not get to discover, but in the end the viewers do. Rosebud is the “famous last word” of the dying Kane, the possible key that would explain the meaning -or the lack of meaning- of Kane’s existence, the absent element that sets off a biographical inquiry story. The film offers many levels of interpretation: historical, political, social, personal. It develops a reflection on identity, on the difficulty of writing a biography and of drawing any true portrait. The truth is only perceived by fragments, through partial, diverse and sometimes contradictory testimonies. Topics such as the end of childhood and entry into the system appear: simple pleasures replaced by compulsory greed. Later, the journalistic and business power, with consequences in culture and international politics. Kane’s businesses are described as “an empire within an empire”.

There are some memorable phrases in the film: “Well, it’s no trick to make a lot of money… if what you want to do is make a lot of money.” We discover that the same Kane who wants to be loved and admired is incapable of giving love. We are witnessing the triumph of greed and its reverse, waste. Always at the cost of love, friendship, justice. Kane indulges himself in the accumulation of power and material wealth, for lack of something better. It represents the apotheosis of “to get” and signifies the failure of true life and the defeat of being. The figure that the narrated events are drawing is that of a desolated emperor. And the social portrait is that of a society lacking vital wisdom, that of a system whose limitlessness is summed up in the image of the false kitsch paradise called Xanadu, with that palatial fireplace that is oversized, unnecessary. Citizen Kane is an antinihilist film, a critique of capitalist nihilism in its American version, in which Puritanism does not contradict itself with the deadly sin of greed.

Most of the story has a prose tone, but the beginning and end of the film fully open up the meaning of the work, as in good poetry. The start is dark and follows the logic of image association. The camera penetrates Kane’s decaying palace: a wire fence, some bars, the capital letter K, made of iron, and cages with monkeys, gondola ruins, fog, a night palace, a flaring neo-Gothic window goes out, a light, the snow is just a glass ball with simulated snow, the ball falls, the glass breaks, a nurse, a death.


And, in the end, the language of poetry returns again. The characters have not been able to discover the meaning of the last word Kane spoke. Then the camera moves away, rises and flies over a huge accumulation of boxes with objects of art, valuable, bought and not contemplated. The landscape looks like a great city of boxes, a landscape of unshared treasures, kept as private heritage and abandoned as garbage. We then see a children’s sled, the favorite toy of the eight-year-old boy who was forced to be the billionaire Citizen Kane. Now it is one more thing to be forgotten, junk thrown into the fire. And we finally discover what the characters of the film have not been able to discover: the name “Rosebud”, printed on the sled, falling apart in the fire. Black smoke, night outside, the wire, the “NO TRESPASSING” sign. Peeking inside is prohibited. The last image is that of a ruined palace, a dark Xanadu, a failed substitute for the earthly paradise: an anti-paradise. The opposite of Rosebud.

Translated by Enrique E. Zepeda.