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'The only terms anybody ever knows: his own.'

Posted Thursday, August 2, 2012, at 2:18 PM

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The news this week was that "Citizen Kane," which had long stood atop poll after poll as the greatest movie of all time, has been displaced by the Alfred Hitchcock thriller "Vertigo."

I'm not sure I can comment on this, having never seen "Vertigo." But in any case, it gives me a chance to talk about "Citizen Kane."

I avoided watching "Kane" for many years, simply because it was supposedly The Most Critically-Acclaimed Film of All Time, which made it sound kind of dull. But when I finally got around to seeing it, it immediately became one of my favorites.

Yes, I am a newspaper person, and a big chunk of the movie has to do with the newspaper business. But I don't think that's its only appeal.

In the awful event that you've never seen it, I'll try to give you a simple description without spoiling too much.

"Citizen Kane" begins with the death of a wealthy and powerful, although somewhat past his prime, newspaper mogul, Charles Foster Kane (played by Orson Welles). Kane's last word is "rosebud." We see a (fake) newsreel summing up the high points of Kane's life.

This sounds like a spoiler, but it's all revealed in the newsreel in the first five minutes of the movie: Kane inherited a fortune from a mine owned by his mother. He bought a New York newspaper and built it into a media empire, portraying himself as a crusader for the people and often injecting himself into the news he covered.

At the peak of his popularity, he ran for governor, as a first step to the White House, but an adultery scandal put an end to his political hopes. He focused his attention on his mistress, a singer, marrying her and spending a fortune trying to make her into an opera star. Eventually, she left him, and he died a recluse in his spectacular but unfinished mansion.

After watching the newsreel, we see a group of reporters who have also just watched it. They are challenged by their editor to go beyond the high points of Kane's life -- which are public knowledge -- and find out something deeper in hopes of producing a more compelling feature story. Perhaps Kane's last word, "rosebud," is some sort of clue.

The bulk of the movie shows one of the reporters interviewing people who knew Kane, as we see flashbacks depicting his rise and fall.

Kane, as any film student knows, was a fictional character but inspired in large part by William Randolph Hearst, who was very much alive at the time of the movie's release and who fought tooth and nail to stop it -- not just for his own sake, but for the sake of Marion Davies, an actress and the real-life counterpart to the singer depicted in the movie. The real Davies, as Welles later admitted, was a much more talented, intelligent and admirable character than Susan Alexander Kane, remaining loyal to Hearst even though Hearst's wife would never grant him a divorce. (Kane's first wife is conveniently killed in a car wreck, so he's free to marry Susan Alexander.)

Orson Welles, who had previously worked in radio and on the stage, made his movie directoral debut with "Kane," and many of its techniques were years ahead of its time. Welles drew great support from cinematographer Gregg Toland and screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, as well as from his Mercury Players, whom he brought along from radio.

The movie was a flop when first released, but came to be more and more acclaimed as years went by. I find it a lot of fun. My favorite scene is when a brash young Kane tells off his former guardian, the conservative banker Mr. Thatcher. Thatcher is offended by the Kane newspaper's populist crusades, and Kane responds this way:

As Charles Foster Kane, who owns eighty-two thousand, six hundred and thirty-four shares of public transit - you see, I do have a general idea of my holdings - I sympathize with you. Charles Foster Kane is a scoundrel. His paper should be run out of town. A committee should be formed to boycott him. You may, if you can form such a committee, put me down for a contribution of one thousand dollars.

The twinkle in Welles' eyes as he promises to have himself run out of town is just amazing.

Anyway, wherever the critics rank this movie, it's worth seeing. Try to get the DVD edition with Roger Ebert's commentary track, which is excellent.

You might also enjoy "RKO 281," which you can get on DVD by itself or as an extra in some of the deluxe editions of "Citizen Kane." It's a made-for-cable movie about the battle between Hearst, Welles and the studio over the fate of "Citizen Kane." Liev Schreiber stars as Welles, with James Cromwell as Hearst.



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John I. Carney
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John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette.
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