Since 1962, Sight & Sound magazine’s oft-cited critics’ poll of the greatest films ever made has placed Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’s remarkable debut film, at the top of the list. By 1998, the American Film Institute called it the greatest movie of all time. It also garnered Best Picture awards from the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Board of Review, and won an Oscar for its screenplay. The legend of Citizen Kane has partly been fueled by the fact that Welles was only 24 when he made the film, but also from the obvious comparisons between the titular character and newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, who moved heaven and earth to stop the picture from being made and then, when not stopped from being distributed, he tried to discredit it. But beyond the ridiculous hype of any single film being “the greatest movie of all time,” Citizen Kane is of tremendous interest and importance, for a number of reasons.
The film tells a great story: Charles Foster Kane (played brilliantly by Welles himself) is born poor, but strikes it rich through a gold mine bequeathed to his mother. As a young man he begins to assemble a populist newspaper and radio empire, eventually marrying the niece of an American president and running for governor. But any ambition he has for real power is stymied. As Kane becomes alienated from his power, he becomes increasingly abusive to the women in his life, first his wife, then his mistress. He dies, almost alone, in his reconstructed but unfinished castle, longing for the simplicity of his childhood. Firmly within the traditions of New Deal populism, Citizen Kane extols the very American perspective that money cannot buy happiness, but in a highly prosaic, almost Dickensian way.
More significantly, Citizen Kane begins with Kane’s death, and the enigmatic final word he utters: “Rosebud”. A group of intrepid newsreel reporters try to discover the meaning of this last word and interview several of Kane’s acquaintances. Not only is the film told in flashback, but each character only knows the man from a certain perspective, which is presented in due course. The film’s narrative complexity, without ever violating Classical Hollywood narrative continuity and causality, is a remarkable tour de force, responsible in large part for critic Pauline Kael’s accusation that the film’s true genius lay not in the hands of wunderkind Welles, but in those of screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz.
The film’s real power, though, lies in its cinematography: Gregg Toland developed a technique for deep-focus photography, wherein the extreme foreground, central middle- ground, and background were all in focus at the same time, allowing the eye to focus on any part of the image. This technique was criticized at the time for calling attention to itself, in direct violation of the codes of Classical Hollywood cinematography, wherein good photography was assumed to be invisible. Even by today’s different standards, Citizen Kane’s cinematography is striking and unforgettable.
Cast and Production Credits
Year – 1941, Genre – Drama, Country – U.S.A, Language – English, Producer – Orson Welles, Richard Baer, George Schaefer, Director – Orson Welles, Music Director – Bernard Herrmann, Charlie Barnet, Pepe Guitar, Cast – Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Comingore, Agnes Moorehead, Ruth Warrick, Ray Collins, Erskine Sanford, Everett Sloane, William Alland, Paul Stewart, George Coulouris, Fortunio Bonanova, Gus Schilling, Philip Van Zandt, Georgia Backus, Harry Shannon