Recently, Nikhil wrote a fine article on Citizen Kane. Gautam, our Editor-in-chief, invited me to weigh in as to why I believed that Citizen Kane (1941) is not the greatest film of all time. This despite selection by the American Film Institute in 2007 as the greatest film of all time. In my humble opinion, ‘Citizen Kane’ has been surpassed by greater films — though it is still among the greatest. Perhaps, its legacy is that so many films that followed used elements or were influenced by cinematic elements in the film, paying homage sometimes, adapting the elements to their own use in others.
Orson Welles was 24 when he made the film, and broke all the rules because to him there were no rules within art, to create was paramount, to find new ways to communicate was intoxicating to him, so he simply went out and did it without any consideration for anything other than finding new ways to tell a story.
And his story, what became Citizen Kane (1941), was of course about William Randolph Hearst, the publishing magnate Welles disliked intensely.
His lead character, Charles Foster Kane, portrayed by himself becomes an enigma to us, a puzzle which will never be solved, on one hand charismatic, on the other a complete fraud, he is all too human. Welles performance is often not given the credit it deserves, for he is brilliant.
Nominated for nine Academy Awards, the film won just one for its near perfect screenplay. Had justice been done, awards for Best Picture, Actor, Director, Cinematography and Editing would have come as well. The New York Film Critics were the only awards group to have the courage to name the film the best of the year, which clearly it was.
BROKEN NARRATIVE: Though not the first to use the device, Welles made it look effortless, breaking the film into a non-linear story, so there is no beginning, middle and end. He moves back and forth through time, the entire film essentially flashback to the life of Kane.
USE OF EDITING: There are so many great examples of superb editing the film, to many to list here. That the film makes sense while being told in non-linear is a tribute to the editor and director, but to list three examples, here we go. The famous breakfast table sequence which begins with Kane and his new wife sitting side by side at a table, barely able to take their hands off one another, their future still ahead of them, a few seconds later they are a little farther apart, not as loving, a few seconds later much farther apart, their voices strained, obvious displeasure with one another, she makes a nasty comment about one of Kanes trusted workers, and finally, they sit in stone silence, each at the other end of the table, she reading the oppositions newspaper, nothing to say to one another, the marriage over. An entire life of a marriage summed up in fifteen seconds, brilliant. Later in the film Kane hopes to hire the best of the best of reporters and the camera closes in on a photograph of a group of reporters, suddenly a flash goes off, and Kane is visible among the men, having hired them all away. The editing of the political rally is sublime, shot to make Kane look God-like, the influence of the Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will (1935) no doubt in their minds. Absolute genius in how twenty years slip past between a Merry Christmas….and a Happy New Year,
USE OF DEEP FOCUS CINEMATOGRAPHY: Look closely and you can see right to the back of the room, it is all Crystal clear. The most obvious is the party sequence for the newspaper crew with the dancing girls; the image is clean right to the back of the room.
USE OF CINEMATOGRAPHY: Kane is made to look God-like, enormous during the rally, in later shots in the film he looks puny and lone. They shot sequences to show ceilings to emphasize the size of the people and the importance of their size at that time in their lives. Watch the genius of close ups after the opening of his second wife’s opera, a nightmare, as he rises and applauds, the camera comes to his hands, then his eyes, obsessed with seeming to will her to sing better and be accepted.
USE OF SOUND: Coming from a background in radio and the theatre, Welles understood how important sound was to a story. His use of sound during his infamous radio broadcast The War of the Worlds was spectacular, and yet deceptively simplistic. He understood sound could be subtle, and all the more powerful for being so. Listen to the mournful music which announces his death, the trumpeting in celebrating his life, the loud crowd at the rally, and the echoes of loneliness in his home after all close to him are gone. The echoes of the footfalls in his mansion as he edges towards death, and his whisper of rosebud, spoke in remembrance and loss, of lost hopes, and dreams gone wrong.
USE OF LIGHTING: While the film owes a great deal to the German Expressionism period, for its brilliant use of lighting and shadow, it also goes further keeping the characters often dimly lit for effect. We NEVER see the face of the reporter trying to solve the mystery of Rosebud, and the lighting gets darker as Kane loses his empire and friends moving into Xanadu, his mansion. There is a lovely use of theatrical shaft lighting during the reporters visit to the museum of Kane’s guardian as he reads the papers.
OVER LAPPING DIALOGUE: In life people do not wait for the other to stop talking before they do and in early film, as Hollywood learned how to use sound this is what they did. Welles wanted the work to be realistic, so he allowed characters to talk over one another, finish one another’s sentences, bringing to the film a startling realism that we had never seen before.
METAPHORS: Rosebud of course is a metaphor for lost youth, for lost happiness, perhaps Kane remembering the last time he was purely happy, which we see at the beginning when he is playing in the snow. The ever present jigsaw puzzles his second wife is putting together are representative of Kane, solving a riddle, an enigma.
THEMES: The achievement for the American Dream, then gone wrong, because for all he had he had nothing, and did not have what he sought, love. He collected things, and understood they were just things, especially the statues, human shapes to which he could do as he wished. He used his enormous wealth to buy things, and when he could not buy people his world caved in on him.
MAKE-UP: Welles was just 24 years old when he made the film, yet was convincing as an old man, something not even the supposed great James Dean could master. So much he brought with him from the theatre world, including his own make up people.
FAKE DOCUMENTARY: Using the fake documentary about Kane at the beginning of the film gives us a glimpse into what we are about to see, the documentary resembling The March of Time films that played in theaters before the feature. Using remarkable effects for the time, we see Kane with various world leaders including Hitler. Both Zelig (1983) and Forrest Gump (1994) would use these methods years later.
CHARACTERS AS WITNESS TO HIS LIFE: As the reporter moves from person to person interviewing them about Kane, he slowly pieces together a life, and despite his wealth a very sad one. They each have very different memories of Kane, yet each saw his flaws as well as his potential for greatness. To a degree Warren Beatty used this device in his masterpiece Reds (1981).
Like Saving Private Ryan (1998) this film has a huge flaw in the narrative in that NO ONE actually hears him say Rosebud. He is alone in the room, the doors to the room are massive, the nurse enters and we see her come in on a shard of broken glass, but the butler only claims to be there, and we do not see him. Thus the entire narrative, the search for the meaning of his last words, is false because no one heard him say it ! Second, if you look close at the Florida beach party you will see a prehistoric bird fly into view behind the Black singer, a leftover piece of stock footage they made the mistake of cutting in before they realized what it is was, and when the parrot screams, look close and can see right through his eye….because it is not there.
More of a complaint than a flaw in the film is that women are rather poorly treated in the film. Kane’s first wife is quickly dispatched in a car accident, which also took the life of his son. There are times the indispensable Mr. Bernstein appears irritating, often annoying with his constant present and comments, though his speech about seeing a woman one morning is legendary.
The films that it influenced
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), the final scene of the government hiding the Ark of the Covenant in a massive warehouse resembles greatly, the final shot of Welles home where his massive collection is being dealt with; certainly the portrayal of the American Dream in Kane resembles that of Don Corleone in The Godfather (1972), that sense of having everything and it not being enough; the enigma of rosebud is what Tarantino did with whatever was in the briefcase belonging to Marcellus Wallace which glowed gold when opened. Every film shot in the broken narrative, The Godfather Part II (1974), again, The Sweet Hereafter (1997), and of course so many more.
SO while the film has many innovations for which it should be hailed, it has been surpassed as the greatest film of all time be at least ten films, perhaps more. The Godfather Part II (1974) is arguably the greatest of American films, with its astounding artistry and complex themes, followed by The Godfather (1972), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) , On the Waterfront (1954), Raging Bull (1980), Schindlers List (1993) and The Searchers (1956), each in one way or another drawing on the many innovations brought to the screen within Citizen Kane (1941).
Read More: 100 Best Movies of All Time