How does one objectively assess a film that’s been declared the best movie of all time not once, but over and over again for half a century?
To list all of the honors and accolades “Citizen Kane,” the 1941 feature debut of Orson Welles, has received over the years would take up far more space than the list is worth. Suffice to say there’s a reasonable consensus among film critics that “Citizen Kane” is one the best films to ever grace a screen, and may in fact be No. 1.
Do I agree with this sentiment? Is “Citizen Kane” the best movie I’ve ever seen? In a word, no. But it’s up there in the elite tier, and it certainly merits a look 68 years after its initial release.
The story of the main character, newspaper mogul Charles Foster Kane, is well told, but what distinguishes “Citizen Kane” from the vast majority of other films is the technical precision of every element of its production. This movie is flawless from the standpoint of film as a technical achievement. Not only that, Welles pioneered many of the techniques modern directors use today, particularly in the realm of cinematography and editing.
The biggest of these innovations is the use of deep focus throughout most of the film. Working with his director of photography, Gregg Toland, Welles lit and filmed every scene so that the entire frame is in focus at all times. While this may not seem like a big deal, it revolutionized movies forever, and Welles uses the technique masterfully in “Citizen Kane.”
The best example of this occurs early on in the film, when young Kane’s parents are about to send him off to boarding school after the family has come into a large amount of money. Welles opens the scene with a shot of the young Kane sledding outside, then the camera backs into the house where we see his parents discussing his future with Kane’s future business partner, Mr. Thatcher. The adults discuss the boy’s fate as if he’s not even there and without any regard for his feelings, but the audience can still see Kane playing in the snow through the window.
Because every inch of the frame is visible, we see Kane and empathize with him as he’s treated like property, foreshadowing Kane’s own attitude later in life. Without the layering effect that deep focus allows, the scene would lose much of its power.
Welles and Toland also experimented with camera angles in the film and produced some truly remarkable results. Consider the contrast between two of the definitive moments in Kane’s life as depicted in the film: his speech as a candidate for governor of New York, and his last days in the daunting hallways of his oversized mansion, Xanadu.
When Kane is running for governor, he’s at the height of his power. His empire of newspapers and radio stations stretches across the U.S. and he is unquestionably one of the biggest shapers of opinion in the country. Accordingly, when Kane is on the stump in a large stadium he towers over the screen, a colossus of populist fury belting out his diatribes in front of a gargantuan banner emblazoned with his mug. The scene is shot from a low angle looking upward, making Kane even more imposing. As Kane speaks, the earth shakes with his baritone proclamations.
On the other hand, Kane’s retirement to the palatial Xanadu comes after he has fallen from grace. When his second wife leaves him because she can’t take his domineering attitude, Kane is once again shown from a low angle. But this time, he seems daunted by the vastness of Xanadu, a shrunken man. He’s the one being lorded over by the building, not the other way around. As Kane slumps away to his room, we see a shot of him passing in front of a mirror wall and an endless succession of increasingly smaller Kanes. It’s a humbling moment, and it’s a credit to Welles, who had the starring role in addition to co-writing and directing the film, that he pulled off a convincing performance to show Kane at both his highs and lows.
Though “Citizen Kane” is certainly a marvel of technical prowess, it stands on its own for its rich narrative as well. The plot, liberally borrowing from the life of mogul William Randolph Hearst, chronicles Kane’s rise and fall through the eyes of those closest to him through flashbacks. The threads are easy to connect and keep track of, and the entire cast sells their performances to create a very rich world for Kane to inhabit.
Orson Welles himself is the standout actor of the crew with the role Kane. Welles pulls off Kane’s transition through different stages of his life with ease, but the loud, brash and arrogant mogul is always a force to be reckoned with. Even when showing Kane humbled in his last days, Welles lends certain stubbornness to show how Kane’s pride got the better of him.
The supporting cast is very effective as well. The key secondary roles belong to Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Comingore and Everett Sloane as Kane’s friend Leland, his manager Bernstein, and his second wife Susan, respectively. They are the narrators of Kane’s life and offer crucial insights into his personality. Leland despairs as Kane sheds his ideals in favor of wealth and power, Bernstein helps gets Kane’s empire off the ground and Susan proves to be one of the few people to truly humble the mighty mogul.
This leads to “Rosebud,” the film’s famous mystery and best-known quote. I will not dare spoil who or what Rosebud is, but when the answer is revealed it’s followed by a long distance shot of Xanadu, the empty monument Kane built himself. While Kane may have only left behind empty buildings, Orson Welles left us with a film that will be remembered for all time.
Contact CU Independent Entertainment Editor Rob Ryan at Rryan@colorado.edu.