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Viewer Guide: “Citizen Kane” and “The Immigrant”

October 19, 2022 | Richard Peña

REEL 13 DOUBLE FEATURE | CITIZEN KANE

Citizen Kane (1941).

This week’s double feature begins with Citizen Kane, the groundbreaking 1941 classic directed by Orson Welles in his theatrical film debut. 

Little introduction is needed for perhaps the most legendary and acclaimed work of American cinema. In essence, Citizen Kane appears to be a simple detective story, but rather than a “Whodunit,” Kane is more of a “Whowasit.” Following the death of a fabled and controversial media tycoon, Charles Foster Kane, a reporter is assigned to find out what really made him tick—and what was the meaning of his last, enigmatic utterance, “rosebud.” The reporter seeks out reminiscences from key figures in Kane’s life, including the legal guardian of his boyhood years; his longtime business manager; his former friend and confidante, played by Joseph Cotten; and his second wife, a failed opera singer played by Dorothy Comingore. Gradually, overlapping puzzle pieces from Kane’s biography begin to emerge, from his life-changing fortune inherited during his Colorado childhood, to his brash early years of building a newspaper empire founded on progressivism and ending in yellow journalism, to his thwarted political ambition and failed marriage to a president’s niece. But any simple plot summary only scratches the surface of Citizen Kane, a work the great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges described as a “labyrinth,” in which each move leads to a new opening—or a dead end.  

Loosely modeled on the life of William Randolph Hearst, the film stirred up its share of controversy when the media mogul learned about the production and did all he could to stop it. But Citizen Kane is far less a portrait of Hearst than it is a meditation on the price of power. Only 25 when he made the film, Orson Welles not only directed, but also co-wrote, produced, and of course starred in the title role, a bravura performance that traces Charles Foster Kane’s character from an idealistic 25-year-old to a lonely, isolated man in his 70s. 

The film also showcases the talents of co-screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, cinematographer Gregg Toland, editor Robert Wise, and composer Bernard Herrmann, along with a cast of actors largely assembled from Welles’ New York City-based Mercury Theatre troupe, including Agnes Moorehead as Kane’s inscrutable mother and Ruth Warrick as his disillusioned first wife. 

Although not the first director to utilize a flashback structure, Orson Welles’ use of the technique prompted some critics to label it the “Citizen Kane effect,” as it became frequently used in Forties Hollywood. Perhaps even more remarkable, and certainly more influential, was Welles’ use of deep focus cinematography; again, it was not the first Hollywood film to use it, but Welles and cinematographer Gregg Toland used it so effectively that many other filmmakers soon adapted that visual style, staging scenes in depth to avoid cutting. William Randolph Hearst’s anger about the film was in large part due to the “Susan Alexander” character played by Dorothy Comingore, as he feared the public would see it as thinly veiled portrait of faded Hollywood star and his long-time mistress Marion Davies. Despite receiving nine Academy Award nominations and winning Best Original Screenplay for Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles, Citizen Kane was a box office disappointment and soon vanished from theaters because of Hearst’s campaign to suppress it. Although many international critics were quick to celebrate the film’s achievements, it would not be until the mid-1950s that it would receive that kind of adulation in America. The behind-the-scenes story of the film’s embattled creation has now become as famous as the film itself, most recently dramatized in director David Fincher’s 2020 film Mank, which focused on Kane’s co-screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz. As Citizen Kane accumulated the glory it had been denied at its premiere, Orson Welles would eventually express regret for the damage that the film did to Marion Davies’ legacy; in an act of atonement, in 1975 Welles agreed to write the forward for Davies’ posthumously published autobiography, “The Times We Had: Life with William Randolph Hearst,” and acclaimed Davies as “one of the most delightfully accomplished comediennes in the entire history of the screen.”  

REEL 13 DOUBLE FEATURE | THE IMMIGRANT

This week’s double feature continues with The Immigrant, a 2013 historical drama directed by James Gray.  

Set in 1921, The Immigrant stars Marion Cotillard as Ewa Cybulska, a young Polish woman arriving at Ellis Island with her sister Magda. With their parents killed in the violent aftermath of World War I, Ewa and Magda are seeking a new beginning, and expecting to be met by an aunt and uncle who have established themselves in Brooklyn; the sisters’ high hopes, however, are dashed when Magda is quarantined for poor health, and Ewa is stunned to find herself faced with deportation due to shipboard accusations of “low morals.” Noticing Ewa’s plight is Bruno Weiss, played by Joaquin Phoenix, who claims to be a representative from the Traveler’s Aid Society. Telling Ewa that her aunt and uncle never showed up, Bruno offers her work as a seamstress at his Lower East Side theater. Ewa warily accepts, but soon discovers Bruno’s theater is in fact a burlesque house, with the show’s dancers also providing additional services for the all-male clientele. Realizing that making money is the only way to liberate herself and reunite with her sister, Ewa becomes resigned to her fate, until she encounters a charming magician named Orlando, played by Jeremy Renner. Intrigued by Orlando’s attentions, Ewa finds herself dawn into a volatile triangle that creates a new threat to her dream of freedom.  

Director James Gray found his initial inspiration for The Immigrant in the real-life stories of his Jewish grandfather, who remembered a man at Ellis Island seeking to entrap unaccompanied women. The Immigrant marks the fourth collaboration for Gray and Joaquin Phoenix, who had previously teamed for We Own the Night, The Yards and Two Lovers. But surprisingly, Gray wasn’t familiar with Marion Cotillard prior to working with her, despite her Oscar-winning breakthrough performance in 2007 as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose. For the character of Ewa, Gray was further inspired by photographer Lewis Hines’ evocative images of women at Ellis Island, as well as the screen personas of Giulietta Masina and such silent screen stars as Maria Falconetti and Lillian Gish. Moved by director William Friedkin’s 2008 LA Opera staging of Puccini’s “Suor Angelica,” Gray also sought to imbue The Immigrant with a similar emotional tone, steeped in the Catholic mystique of the power of redemption.  

Richard Peña is a Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University, where he specializes in film theory and international cinema. 

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