You may have heard by now that Sight & Sound Magazine recently announced the results of their The Greatest Films of All Time poll. If you’re unfamiliar with the poll, it’s a worldwide survey of critics that has been conducted every 10 years dating back to 1952. Since 1962 “Citizen Kane” has been at the top of this pretty prestigious list, at least until this year. Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” has dethroned “Citizen Kane” which has launched a ton of great discussions on both of these films. Personally, “Vertigo” isn’t the greatest film of all time. In fact, for me it isn’t even the best Hitchcock film. And for my money, even though I like “Vertigo” a great deal, it can’t beat “Citizen Kane”, a movie that is a lesson in quality filmmaking starring, directed, and co-written by Orson Welles.
Last night I had the opportunity to revisit this cinema classic and it’s amazing how it truly seems to get better with each viewing. “Citizen Kane” is a film that has aged like the finest wines and there are so many reasons for it. The more I watch the movie the more I can appreciate the skilled filmmaking and risks taken to bring the movie to life. The film certainly had its share of struggles particularly when trying to find an initial audience. William Randolph Hearst, the American newspaper giant who is the clear inspiration for the movie’s main character, was infuriated by the movie and took huge measures to keep “Citizen Kane” from reaching an audience. Fear of his power kept the film out of many newspapers and out of many theaters. But after all these years, it’s the movie that has come out with the better reputation.
While there has been some controversy over who was the driving force behind the movie’s screenplay, Orson Welles and Herman Mankiewicz are credited with its authorship. It tells the story Charles Foster Kane, an immensely wealthy newspaper mogul, who lies on his deathbed, alone within the closed isolation of his mammoth Florida estate known as Xanadu. We watch as Kane utters his final word “Rosebud” and then dies. This opening event catapults the entire story forward. In fact, the entire narrative is driven by one incredibly clever device – “Rosebud”. Kane’s final word becomes a huge topic of interest especially for investigative reporter Jerry Thompson (William Alland). Thompson is convinced that there is a deeper secret meaning to Kane’s final word and he sets out to uncover it by looking into Kane’s past and interviewing those closest to him.
This points to one of the things that makes this movie so special. There’s no straight-line, uninterrupted narrative. Instead the story is told through well placed flashbacks from the points of view of several different people. Through their eyes we learn about Kane’s impoverished childhood. We learn about his leap of faith into the newspaper business at a young age. We see his political ambitions. But we also see the story of a man whose motivations fester into those of power and self-promotion. We watch as his ego and self-indulgence destroys every nonmaterial thing in his life. He’s the epitome of gaining the whole world but losing all that’s important. It’s a fascinating study of a man who, regardless of his wealth, power, and influence, is unable to overcome the greatest obstacle to true happiness – himself. This all unfolds through the words of Kane’s guardian, ex-wife, business partner, butler, and best friend. Now as someone who isn’t always attracted to the use of flashbacks, I’m really impressed at just how well they work here. Welles is truly laying out a man’s life before us and I was enthralled not only in his story but also with the small question behind it all – just who or what is “Rosebud”?
While many love the story and the storytelling behind “Citizen Kane”, it is equally or maybe even better known for its ambitious visual presentation and stylistic techniques. Welles was given tons of liberties from RKO Pictures when it came to making the film and that’s all the more surprising considering that this was his first feature film. He took his creative control and mixed it with a young man’s enthusiasm that resulted in a visual style significantly different from anything else in Hollywood. I can still name numerous carefully framed shots and brilliantly conceived camera tricks. There’s also Welles’ penchant for placing his camera at ground level and shooting up at his characters. This is ever so effective particularly in one extended take featuring a crucial conversation between Kane and his long-time friend Jedediah Leland (played wonderfully by Joseph Cotton). There are several other cool camera techniques and special effects along with some impressive makeup work that still influences a host of modern filmmakers.
I worry that newcomers or even those who haven’t seen “Citizen Kane” in years will approach the film from the “So this is the greatest film of all time?” perspective. That’s a bad way to approach any film especially considering how subjective these lists are anyway. Instead, this movie should be approached as its own creation – enjoyed and measured within those bounds. Welles’ accomplishment with the film cannot be overstated. The direction is brilliant, the screenplay is fantastic, and he gives a thundering performance and all within what was his first feature film. “Citizen Kane” was a critical success at its time but struggled to gain a huge following. But as years have passed, the movie has risen to be appreciated as a monumental film in cinema history. I tend to agree. And while “Citizen Kane” wouldn’t be my personal “greatest movie of all time”, there’s no denying it’s inventiveness, it’s influence, and its overall excellence.
VERDICT – 5 STARS