In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Citizen Kane

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Interviews, Essays, and Commentaries by Cast and Crew
  • Bibliographies
  • Film Restoration and Re-release
  • Archival Sources

Cinema and Media Studies Citizen Kane
Catherine L. Benamou
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0017


Citizen Kane (directed, produced, and co-written by Orson Welles, Mercury Productions/RKO Radio Pictures, 1941) is undoubtedly the best-known and most critically celebrated narrative fiction film of the twentieth century. It was a landmark achievement in the artistic career of Orson Welles, as he made the leap from broadcast radio and off-Broadway theatrical production into industrial cinema; it also transformed the careers of film collaborators, from seasoned studio professionals such as Gregg Toland, Bailey Fester, and Perry Ferguson to transplanted Mercury Theatre talent, as expressed in their own essays and interviews. Unfortunately, during Welles’s lifetime the film became better known for the controversies it generated than for its intrinsic thematic or aesthetic qualities. A tempest brewed over its theatrical release, which was delayed and nearly canceled due to a press (and effectively theatrical) boycott by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Recent histories and biographies have argued that Hearst’s ire could just as easily have been ignited by Welles’s off-screen activities in theater (Native Son, 1941) and in support of civil and labor rights, as by the perceived cinematic satire of Hearst and his paramour Marion Davies (allegedly portrayed in the characters Charles Foster Kane and Susan Alexander, respectively). Regardless, lackluster theatrical bookings, compounded by syncopated publicity efforts, yielded a modest box-office loss for RKO Radio Pictures. This, in turn, fueled mounting tensions between Welles and his Mercury Productions and the studio over production budgets and creative control, providing the grist for later reflection on industrial self-regulation and artistic freedom. Meanwhile, Welles’s and studio chief Schaefer’s steadfastness in the face of the Hearst barricade, coupled with Kane’s technical virtuosity and baroque structure, brought hearty accolades from critics around the world, paving the way in 1946 for the first Welles biography and decades of top rankings by Sight and Sound and the American Film Institute. As Kane reached formerly Nazi-occupied western European territories, a thoroughgoing reassessment spearheaded by André Bazin and Cahiers du Cinéma helped inscribe Welles within the “politics of the author” and fed postwar fascination with screen realism. Another round of US-based controversy was sparked, this time between auteur-advocate Andrew Sarris and New Yorker critic Pauline Kael, who, championing Herman J. Mankiewicz’s contributions to the screenplay, called into question Welles’s entitlement to authorship. A healthy spate of posthumous Wellesian scholarship, informed by narratological, psychoanalytic, and formalist perspectives, has effectively bracketed this dispute, exploring Kane’s lasting contributions to film noir, modernist narrative strategies, documentary discourse, broadcast television, sound design, and philosophical inquiry, as well as to our grasp of wartime politics and media reflexivity. The film was reissued in 2011 in a seventieth anniversary edition on Blu-Ray and several recent documentaries attest to the film’s enduring importance within global film history.

General Overviews

Underscoring the film’s centrality to understanding Orson Welles’s film oeuvre, and, in the opinion of many film scholars, to the mid-century rejuvenation of narrative sound cinema, several book-length publications have been devoted exclusively to Citizen Kane, a distinction accorded few individual films. Alternating between monographs and anthologies (which themselves often contain introductory “overview” essays), these works complement rather than echo one another, reflecting clear differences in analytical approach and focus, as well as gaps in date of publication. Hence, one finds variation in the “temperature readings” they yield regarding the film’s critical reception at particular historical junctures. One can also discern critical currents that, spanning the distance between these junctures, take the form of dialogues or debates. For example, Rosenbaum (in Naremore 2004) makes a forceful argument against Kael’s doubts concerning Welles’s contribution to the creative conception of the film (favoring Mankiewicz’s role in writing the screenplay; see Kael 1984), while Berthomé and Thomas 1992 and Carringer 1996 tackle those same unrecanted statements by going back to the archival sources and arguing for the film as a product of creative collaboration in which Welles unequivocally held the upper hand. Carringer’s viewpoint, which borders on a revision of the auteur theory without unseating Welles as the primary creative force, has prevailed in the eyes of many scholars and critics, who have shown a serious, sustained interest in Welles from the film’s release to the present. Mulvey 1992 updates the critique of the film by emphasizing Welles’s iconoclasm in relation to the media industries, and in a close formal analysis of the films, foregrounds his unusual treatment of gender relations and the place accorded the spectator. Walsh 2004 revisits the writing of the screenplay and the referencing of (if not isometrical modeling upon) Hearst and his management of his media empire. Lebo 1990, Mulvey 1992, Piade 1991, and Carringer 1996 are the best illustrated works; Gottesman 1996 and Naremore 2004 provide the broadest methodological and topical range of criticism; and Gottesman 1971 and Walsh 2004 transport us back to the first decades of the film’s reception. Since most of the analyses in these volumes venture beyond the confines of textual interpretation (usually reserved for reviews) into the production history and critical reception of the film, their usefulness in the classroom extends beyond courses on Welles’s career to the study of the Hollywood industry and the history of film style and film criticism more generally.

  • Berthomé, Jean-Pierre, and François Thomas. Citizen Kane. Paris: Flammarion, 1992.

    Meticulously researched and richly contextualized, this book offers a short chronicle of the film’s origins and production trajectory complemented by a critical analysis of its structure, cinematography, editing, set design, and sound elements. The careers of each of the creative contributors are summarized in the first chapter, the chapter on music shines for its musicological rigor and analytical depth, and the chapter on sound illuminates specific ways in which dialogue, music, and effects become intertwined, influenced by Welles’s radio technique.

  • Carringer, Robert. The Making of Citizen Kane. 2d ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

    Drawing from original production documents and drawings, Carringer examines each facet of the film’s construction, from art design to cinematography, in turn, yielding a well-rounded historical account of its creation and a balanced assessment of Welles’s collaboration with Mankiewicz. The film’s distribution history is reviewed. Photos and drawings of outtakes, as well as sketches of deleted scenes, are included in appendixes.

  • Gottesman, Ronald, ed. Focus on Citizen Kane. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1971.

    Despite its publication date, this remains a key resource on the film’s international critical reception; Gottesman evaluates interpretations from both sides of the Atlantic in his introductory essay, followed by the interview by Cobos, et al. in 1966 with Welles (Cobos, et al. 1995, cited under Interviews with, and Essays by, Orson Welles); a wide-ranging compilation of film reviews, many contemporary to the film’s release; essays by a few of the film’s creators, including Welles; and critical appraisals by Bazin, Truffaut, Borges, and others.

  • Gottesman, Ronald, ed. Perspectives on Citizen Kane. London: Prentice Hall, 1996.

    More than a simple “remake” of Gottesman 1971; additions of note include Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1945 review, Rick Altman’s inquiry into radiophonic sound and realism, Richard Jewell on RKO Pictures’ comportment, François Thomas’s exposition of musical motifs, Paul Arthur’s exploration of avant-garde inclinations; reprints of Carringer, Rosenbaum, Bates, Gambill, Naremore, Pipolo, Tomasulo, and Ropars-Wuilleumier; and poems by Adrienne Rich and Sherman Alexie.

  • Kael, Pauline, ed. The Citizen Kane Book. New York: Limelight Editions, 1984.

    This compact anthology contains reproductions of primary documents: the shooting script, a portion of the RKO cutting continuity, preceded by Kael’s landmark yet controversial 1971 essay “Raising Kane.” Like Gottesman’s anthology published the same year, Kael includes a letter from the Production Code Administration requesting cuts to the shooting script.

  • Lebo, Harlan. Citizen Kane: The Fiftieth-Anniversary Album. New York: Doubleday, 1990.

    Reviews the events leading up to the film’s production inside RKO Radio Pictures, the essential plot details, and the working relationships between Welles and each of his main collaborators—Herman Mankiewicz, Gregg Toland, Perry Ferguson, and Maurice Seiderman—seasoned with remembrances shared by Alland, Wilson, and Wise. Copious illustrations include reproductions of some production documents, publicity material, and behind-the-scenes stills.

  • Mulvey, Laura. Citizen Kane. London: BFI, 1992.

    A probing analysis of the film’s aesthetic and psychosocial dimensions, carefully placed in historical context. Mulvey lends a theoretically informed perspective to the film’s reworking of the 1930s biopic genre, emphasizing its ideological potential and the effects on the spectator of Welles’s unhinging of the camera from characters’ viewpoints; a transcription of Welles’s public response to accusations of Hearst’s caricature in the character of Kane is appended.

  • Naremore, James, ed. Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane: A Casebook. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    A judiciously selected cluster of essays, introduced by a leading Welles scholar; highlights include a critical mapping of the film’s soundtrack by François Thomas, Robert Carringer’s analysis of the evolving screenplay in a groundbreaking essay, “The Scripts of Citizen Kane,” Paul Arthur’s detection of avant-garde currents, British theorists Laura Mulvey’s and Peter Wollen’s respective takes on the film’s narrative discourse, and Naremore’s own exposition of style and theme.

  • Piade, Lynne. Citizen Kane. Hollywood Classics. New York: Smithmark, 1991.

    Lavishly illustrated with production stills and publicity photos, this picture book interfolds the production history, scene descriptions, and actors’ bios with highlights of Welles’s early biography. Despite a few historical gaps and inaccuracies (mainly related to Kane’s release and the termination of Welles’s RKO contract), the stunning large-size images, some rare, and pithy captions make the book worth a read.

  • Walsh, John Evangelist. Walking Shadows: Orson Welles, William Randolph Hearst, and Citizen Kane. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004.

    A meticulous comparison of news reports, secondary sources, and documents in the Lilly Archive (Bloomington, Indiana), supports a narrative reconstruction of the events leading up to the writing of the Kane screenplay and the controversy and scare tactics attached to the film’s delayed release, constrained press publicity in 1941, and stymied achievement at the Academy Awards in 1942. Asserts the influence of Aldous Huxley’s allusive novel After Many a Summer Dies the Swan (1939) and contemporaneous Hearst biographies on Welles’s plans for the screenplay, and points to Hearst’s role in the momentary suppression of the film, and professional obstacles faced by leading actresses in the film as a result.

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