If you were to talk about the best video game ever made, you might describe it as ‘The Citizen Kane of video games’. You might describe New York City as ‘The Citizen Kane of cities’. Personally I mentioned in my review of The Room that it’s known as ‘The Citizen Kane of bad movies’ Citizen Kane has come to be used as a bench mark for all that is great. The best of the best. The top ‘thing’ in any particular field. This of course arose due to the 1941 films’ long held standing of being the greatest motion picture ever made. For fifty years it topped Sight and Sound’s poll of the ten best movies of all time, it is listed as the AFI’s top movie and is currently battling for top spot with one other on my Ultimate Greatest Films of All Time list which is under construction at time of writing.
To my great shame I’d never seen the movie until today. I’m twenty-seven, have been interested in film for nearly a decade and have been writing about the medium for over a year yet I’d never seen the ‘greatest of them all’. If I’m honest I can’t put my finger on why. The movie wasn’t difficult to track down; I have no issue with the black and white, the time period or the subject matter. I think I’ve narrowed down my reasons to two things. The first is the title. Citizen Kane doesn’t do anything for me and as titles go I don’t think it’s particularly strong but I think the main reason was that I was afraid of disappointment. So many times since I began to write my thoughts on film I have been let down and then let down my readers when I didn’t get or didn’t like classic, highly rated films. I think The Lion King is poor, I gave North by Northwest 6/10 and much of 8 ½ was lost on me. It was with great trepidation then that I recently took the plunge and bought Citizen Kane on Blu-ray. And was I disappointed? The short answer to that question is, no. A slightly longer answer is No, I wasn’t and for a longer answer still, you can read the next 1,110 words.
I’m not sure that Citizen Kane is the best movie ever made. I’ve enjoyed a lot of films more and thought that a couple were of a higher technical quality but I would ever argue with someone who gave their opinion that it was the greatest motion picture of all time. To get it out of the way, I’ll start with what I didn’t like about the movie. OK, now we can move on to what I did like. Citizen Kane was directed by Orson Welles who was twenty-five at the time of production. While short on years he was even shorter in directorial experience. Although successful on the stage and on the radio, the movie was his first. This boggles my mind. I have two years on the Kane era Welles and haven’t even crafted a movie as good as Mirror Mirror yet and while most his age were starting out in their chosen professions, fetching coffee and trying to get noticed, Welles was busy on what would turn into a cinematic masterpiece that has arguably never been bettered. Not only did Welles direct but he also co-wrote, produced and starred in the title role. Unusually he was afforded complete control over the movie with a minimum of outside interference. Rarely has a director been given such control over a movie by a studio and only Chaplin at his height springs to mind as another example. Because of the complete artistic and creative freedom he enjoyed, Welles was able to mould the movie by his rules and create the image that was inside his head. Surprisingly given the critical success the movie was met with, neither Welles nor any other director since was given such licence by a major studio.
The movie’s plot borrows heavily from the life of William Randolph Hearst, a wealthy newspaper magnate. This got the film into trouble on its original release. Hearst’s influence threatened to derail its circulation to the masses and almost certainly impacted on its initial financial failures. The central character is also partly based on other tycoons and the director himself but it’s the similarities to Hearst which are not only most notable but also the most problematic. The movie opens on a spellbinding sequence which shows the final moments of Charles Foster Kane (Welles). As life slips from him, a close up of his lips shows the pronouncement of his final word, ‘Rosebud’. What follows next is a brief newsreel summary of the man’s life, from his humble Colorado beginnings to sudden wealth, separation from his family, wild youth, marriages, successes, failures, political aspirations and later hermit mannered old age. The newsreel itself is fantastically exciting and intriguing but the reporters watching it are curious as to the meaning of the man’s final word. What is Rosebud? What does it mean, represent or stand for? Was it a person, a long lost love, or a coded message? One reporter sets out to discover the meaning behind the word and in a series of flashbacks, attempts to unravel its meaning.
The plot spans several decades and while touching on Kane’s formative years, focuses mainly on his adult life, from twenty-five to his mid seventies. The character through all this time is played by Orson Welles who is sublime in the role and makes use of near perfect makeup to add age and girth to his figure. The entire principle cast is made up to be either younger or older at various times and for a film which is now itself in its seventies, the effect is remarkable. The makeup is just one of the superb effects which the film uses to fool the viewer’s eyes. In several scenes Citizen Kane uses an optical printer which creates composites of often two and sometimes three images to form a single shot. This helps to form otherwise costly scenes and also helps to maintain the film’s distinctive ‘universal focus’. We are used to movies pulling focus on an item or character that is often in the foreground of the shot. This means that the rest of the frame is out of focus. While this is usually pretty and often effective for its purpose, for Citizen Kane, Orson Welles wanted to create a film which looked as the eye saw the world. If you look up from your computer, phone, or tablet and look ahead of you, most of what you see is in focus. Welles wanted his film to look the same and employed cinematographer Gregg Toland who perfected the director’s vision. As well as the distinctive focus, Citizen Kane also features beautiful lighting and innovative camera placement which often shoots from ground level, meaning sets had to be built with ceilings, something which was and still is, rare.
In addition to looking great, Citizen Kane also sounds great too. Bernard Herrmann could legitimately be referred to as ‘The Citizen Kane of movie composers’. He is perhaps most famous for his Hitchcock collaborations which included Psycho, Vertigo and North by Northwest and his final score was for Taxi Driver but his first was for Citizen Kane. The music of the film is as revolutionary as any other aspect and is notable for being intermittent rather than continual as was the norm in 1941 and earlier. Herrmann used different musicians and orchestras for different scenes and as such was able to include a variety of music to match each scene. The music works perfectly in obedience with the visuals, matching them for style and beauty every step of the way. Even the standard positioning of microphones were re-written for the movie in order to capture the various sounds from scenes on one track, rather than using a more conventional multi track method.
What must be several hundred words ago I joked that there was nothing that I disliked about this movie. That wasn’t entirely true. Very occasionally I found my eyes wandering from the screen and towards the window or my DVD collection. I have to be honest and say that the film didn’t always hold my attention but this ocular wandering was a rare occurrence. Generally my pupils were glued to the screen, flickering from image to image, marvelling at the complexity and beauty of the visuals they were converting for my brain. At the same time my ears were listening intently to the well formed dialogue and delightfully executed sounds and music and my mouth was curled into a smile. Many better film critics than myself will have undoubtedly written many better reviews of Citizen Kane than me, but I’m glad I can finally add my two thumbs up, my five stars, my ten on ten to Citizen Kane, possibly the best movie ever made.
- Looking closely you'll notice that the camera looks up on stronger characters like Kane and Leland and down on weaker characters like Susan Alexander. This was a technique Welles borrowed from John Ford.
- The film was a box office failure and booed every time one of its nine Academy Award nominations was announced.
- Xanadu was based on William Randolph Hearst's own home and on Mont St. Michel in Normandy.
- During production Orson Welles chipped an ankle bone and directed for two weeks from a wheelchair. When needed in front of the camera he wore a metal leg brace.