Citizen Kane is a film held in higher regard than almost any other film made during any time period. It’s such a well-respected picture, you wouldn’t believe how much hatred and controversy was issued toward it when it saw its initial release in 1941. Let’s leave it simple and say that filmmakers, filmgoers, and even film critics did not want it to be a film America remembers over seventy years later. It took quite a while for the film to undergo a preservation by the Library of Congress into the National Film Registry; to earn the top spot on the American Film Institute’s 100 Years…100 Movies list; to be named the greatest movie ever made by legendary film critic Roger Ebert. There has been much more praise for the film, but those are the three items that seem to stand out the most. I must have been ten or eleven years old when I first saw Citizen Kane, and I had not very much memory of it, other than the fact that I really enjoyed it. After being reminded of the film by one of my blogging friends, I decided to hunt it down on a trip to the mall. I bought the 60th anniversary edition, newly mastered and restored, containing the film itself on one disc and a documentary entitled The Battle over Citizen Kane (which I have not yet seen, but I will try to soon) on the other. Even though I enjoyed the film the first time around, it seems I understood and appreciated the mature, deep story more upon a more recent viewing.
Bottom Line: Thoughtful character study is, in fact, one of the greatest American pictures.
“Rosebud.” –Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane
Directed by: Orson Welles
Starring: Agnes Moorehead, Dorothy Comingore, Erskine Sanford, Everett Sloane, Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles, Paul Stewart, Ray Collins, Ruth Warrick, William Alland
I wouldn’t be spoiling anything to say that the title character dies in CITIZEN KANE. In fact, his last words act as the pivotal point in the story. The film opens with the death of Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles), a successful publishing tycoon. You could say it’s a bit of irony that the film’s first utterance is his last: “Rosebud”. Reveal that this is part of a ten-minute newsreel, then cut to a group of men sitting in the theater stunned that the entire newsreel focused on Kane’s death. Yet no one in the theater has a clue as to what the significance of his final words is.
The men inquire important people in Kane’s life about the significance, in hopes of discovering the meaning of that one word. As they do so, we see extended flashbacks of Kane’s life. It’s extremely difficult to believe that Orson Welles’s masterful drama–and beyond impressive directorial debut–is a work of fiction***. The film, running not even two hours in length, is about as informative as modern biopics of much longer lengths. An entire Wikipedia page devoted to just his character exists, based on just the information presented in the film and the inspiration for the character. The page is nearly as long as the page devoted to the film itself. What is even more shocking is how much of an absolute a—hole Kane is. We’ve all seen films that offer supporting characters who we simply loathe; rarely is such a distasteful character this prominent. His behavior is equally boastful and childlike; we begin to find more disgust in his personality by every passing minute. Yet Orson Welles portrays him also as the interesting character that keeps our attention throughout the film, no matter how obnoxious his behavior is. Also, his character also provides one of the greatest twist endings I have ever seen. I won’t give it away for those who have yet to see the film, so let’s just say we feel cheated by the conclusion initially, but as the closing scene is more prolonged, we begin to realize a deep meaning associated with it. It also seems to suddenly allow us to think twice about Kane.
CITIZEN KANE deserves every bit of recognition it gets. Personally, I would not rank it quite as tremendously high as it has been by countless film historians and organizations, but I can most certainly see reason for these placements. It truly is one of the absolute greatest films the United States of America has ever produced. As in disregarding it should be a federal crime against America’s cinematic virtue. It’s a work of fiction, but it’s one of the most meaningful stories our nation has ever released.
***Although not entirely so. Director-writer-producer-actor Welles faced several criminal charges due to his basing Kane on newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst.