If nothing else, Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane is a special film. It has the distinction of being called the “greatest film of all time” as well as being Welles’s first film. It also had a lot of controversy behind it, since the titular Kane was based off of William Randolph Hearst, a popular newspaper mogul as the time. But I’m not going to talk about historical information and references; I’m only looking at Citizen Kane as what it is: a movie. And as far as movies go, this one is unlike any other.
For a film from 1941, it sure as hell doesn’t seem like one. If I didn’t know better, this film was made in the later half of the 20th century — except it wasn’t. Orson Welles truly was ahead of his time with this motion picture, and he crafted some of the best scenes and dialogue I’ve ever seen in any film. For the time, this movie must have blown people away. While it may not blow people away today, it can still have a powerful effect. When the film started and the title came up, I told myself this movie would be really cool (and it would also be fitting) if there were no opening credits after the title — and there weren’t. For 1941, that would be almost unheard of. Hell, until the end of the 20th century that was uncommon. The long takes, the different angles, the long zooms: all the things that make Citizen Kane an innovative and unique picture on a technical level.
The story of Citizen Kane concerns the life of Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles), which is shown in a series of flashbacks. At the beginning of the film, we see a news serial that pretty much summarizes his life; it’s interesting to see the rest of the film show the details that the serial misses out on. When not showing flashbacks, a reporter (William Alland) tries to find the meaning behind Kane’s last word: Rosebud. Throughout the film, the reporter reads entries by Kane’s guardian (George Coulouris), speaks to his best friend (Joesph Cotten), his loyal associate (Everett Sloane), his second wife (Dorothy Comingore), and his butler (Paul Stewart). These characters are very interesting in their own ways and are quite like-able. It’s Orson Welles as Kane, however, who steals the show. Welles pulled off something so subtle yet so clever I’m fooled at how he did it: his character at the beginning has no mustache, but once he dons one, I’m almost certain that this isn’t Welles. In fact, when I’d seen pictures of the movie before watching it, and even during the news reel scene in the film, I didn’t believe that Welles played Kane. He’s nearly unrecognizable in the role; that’s an accomplishment almost no actor can do. Almost half the time, I expected him to shout “I’m Charles Foster Kane!” as an excuse for whatever actions he may do; that’s proof to how enjoyable it is to watch Welles be Kane.
Welles’s direction is simply phenomenal (like his starring role); he directs this movie like it’s nobody’s business. No matter what people say about this movie, there’s no denying that Welles knew how to keep people’s attention on the screen and to admire all that was going on. One thing that, oddly enough, enhances the film is its aspect ratio. Unlike most films these days, Citizen Kane was released in a time where widescreen didn’t really exist; all films were shot with the Academy Ratio (1.37:1), the equivalent of a 4X3 television screen size. I usually don’t like watching films in this ratio (it can make a movie feel less cinematic in my opinion), but I do respect films enough to see them in their intended and original ratio. Welles made this ratio work amazingly in Citizen Kane, to the point where I couldn’t imagine seeing this film in any other ratio. The “full screen” feel of the film makes it seem as though it demands your attention and that it really is something grand.
The themes of power and greed are ever present in Citizen Kane. Kane is born into a poor family that, without knowing, lives underneath a gold mine. He is (legally) taken by a guardian to be educated and inherits his fortune at age 25. Kane starts off wanting to run The Inquirer and give people the real news. He wanted to do it for the working men and women of the United States and didn’t want them reading things he thought were false. Over time, we see him turn more into a power hungry individual who believes that the people will believe anything he says. This egotism reaches its peak when he decides to run for governor of New York (one of the best moments in the film), but due to scandal, doesn’t become elected, despite having plenty of supporters (as well as detractors). Over time, we see Kane go from lonely but happy to lonely and distraught. By the film’s end, it seems as though Kane never really wanted all the fame and fortune that came to him. As he himself says at one point “…if I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a really great man.”
When it comes to movies and film making and acting and story telling and technical innovation, I’m not sure if one can do much better than Citizen Kane. Its influence is massive, and its social status has only kept growing in stature. It’s topped nearly all the major film polls and its impact can be felt to this day. It was ahead of its time and feels ever so modern in today’s film making world. It has rightfully gained praise and status as a masterpiece and classic film. It’s a film that will always be enjoyable to watch and will forever stand the test of time
But is it the greatest film of all time? You be the judge.