‘Citizen Kane’ – The mystery of ‘Rosebud’ on Max

Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) has been so longed hailed as “the greatest American film ever made” that it’s in serious danger of becoming the least seen masterpiece around. It probably inspired, excited, and influenced more filmmakers than any other single film in Hollywood. But the sense of importance given the film gives it an aura of mustiness. What’s forgotten in all the acclaim is that Citizen Kane is a tremendously entertaining movie: inventive, exciting, surprising. Welles lived to impress people, and Citizen Kane is one of the most impressive films ever made and perhaps the greatest directorial debut the world has ever seen.

It’s a drama wrapped in a mystery. Charles Foster Kane (played by director/co-writer Welles), American tycoon and newspaper magnate, dies alone and isolated in Xanadu, his lavish Florida estate. Surrounded by “the loot of the world” yet abandoned by everyone who once cared about him, this very public figure remains an enigma. Who was the real Charles Foster Kane and what does his dying word, “Rosebud,” mean? One intrepid reporter goes in search, interviewing those who knew him best. Thus begins the saga, a story colored by the people he left behind on his evolution from idealistic young journalistic upstart to bitter, lonely old man, told by Welles with a mix of theatrical flourish and cinematic invention.

Coming to Hollywood from New York, where he was a young phenom of American theater and made a national splash with his dynamic radio shows, he brought his radio and theater company with him and introduced a whole new acting class to the big screen. Joseph Cotten costars as Kane’s childhood buddy Jed Leland, who joins him in his first newspaper endeavor; Agnes Moorehead as his protective mother; Ruth Warrick as Kane’s first wife, a high society beauty with political connections; Dorothy Comingore as the second wife, a working class girl and aspiring singer that Kane tries to mold into a “legitimate” artist. This freshman class also includes Everett Sloane as Kane’s business partner, Ray Collins, Erskine Sanford, and Paul Stewart, all of whom became respected and reliable Hollywood character actors.

Above all, Welles was a showman and Citizen Kane is a three ring circus of cinematic ingenuity, a startlingly entertaining blend of pulp melodrama, historical biography, detective story, political drama, storytelling confabulation, and plain old theatrical flourish. Years ahead of its time in its layered use of sound and musical score (a pioneering piece of dramatic composition by Bernard Herrmann), stunningly designed and brilliantly shot by Gregg Toland with a creative innovation that pushed the envelope of motion picture photography, Citizen Kane is a vital, exciting moment of American cinema brought back to life with every viewing.

The film’s legacy is often tangled up with the battle that William Randolph Hearst waged to keep the film from being shown. The screenplay, which Welles wrote with Herman Mankiewicz, borrows events and biographical details from his life both public and private, thanks largely to Mankiewicz, who spent years in the Hearst circle. Welles, however, combined those details with those from other figures (newspaper tycoon Joseph Pulitzer, Chicago industrialists Samuel Insull and Harold McCormick) as well as his own autobiography. Just as important, though, is how he riffs on the elements to transform his drama into a larger than life portrait of tragic dimensions: Shakespeare out of an American life.

It won the Academy Award of best original screenplay (out of nine nominations, including best picture, director actor, and cinematography) and was added to the National Film Registry in 1989.

It was voted the greatest American film in the 1989 poll by the American Film Institute and it placed in the number 3 spot in the 2022 Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time poll, after holding the number 1 spot for four decades.

Black and white

Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
Citizen Kane: 75th Anniversary [Blu-ray]
Citizen Kane: 70th Anniversary – Ultimate Collector’s Edition [Blu-ray]
Citizen Kane (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
Citizen Kane (The Criterion Collection) [4K UHD + Blu-ray]
Citizen Kane: 75th Anniversary [DVD]
Citizen Kane: Two-Disc Special Edition [DVD]

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It’s been released in numerous editions. Most of them feature separate commentary tracks by Roger Ebert and Peter Bogdanovich and bonus interviews with costar Ruth Warrick and film editor Robert Wise.

The 70th Anniversary Ultimate Edition also includes the Oscar-nominated documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane (1996), which focuses on the fight waged by Hearst to stop the film, and the 1999 drama RKO 281, a dramatization of the making of the film originally made for HBO.

The Criterion Collection editions feature the BBC documentary The Complete Citizen Kane (1991), original featurettes and video essays, new and interviews with scholars, critics, film technicians, and Citizen Kane actors and members of the production team, archival TV programs, radio plays by Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater on the Air, and the first short film directed by Orson Welles, Hearts of Age (1934), plus a booklet with an essay.


Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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