Citizen Kane

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.


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23 thoughts on “Citizen Kane

  1. Cool review man. Citizen Kane is also regularly voted the number 1 film of all time in the Sight and Sound magazine polls which they do once a decade. The next one is due this year, so definitely check that out.

        • Wow, then I truly must watch it! I’ve only watched a few commentaries in my life. I remember watching all the special features that went with Pixar’s Finding Nemo back when I was about 5 or 6 and obsessed with it, and I joined in while my mother was revisiting the commentaries on The Bionic Woman (or The Six Million Dollar Man; can’t remember which one), but I don’t think I’ve ever seen any other commentaries. Though I’d like to watch Ebert’s commentary on Citizen Kane, now that you have me interested, and if my DVD copy of Slumdog Millionaire contains any commentaries, I’d love to watch those as well, as that one’s what I’d say is my favorite film of all time. Thanks, Andy.

  2. I wish it had never gotten the #1 spot on the AFI list because it creates unrealistic expectations. And it’s not fair. A film should be judged simply for what it is, not for what people expect it to be. And in that regard, it’s a masterpiece in every way. It’s a wonder from a technical standpoint, featuring some of the finest and innovative cinematography you’ll find. And it’s socially pertinent in that it’s very uniquely American. I also love the economy with which the story is told. We, the audience, learn so much about C.F. Kane in just 2 hours, and it’s achieved so simply with little flourishes like the breakfast sequence that details his gradual descent into an egotistical rotten mess.

    I have to ask- do you know the lurid history behind Welles’ choice of the name “rosebud”? It’s hilarious, one of my favorite classic movie factoids.

  3. I liked your review, but, even though most of my favorite films were made between 1930 and 1950, I just can’t get behind this one because it contains such a gigantic plot hole…he died alone in his room with the door closed. The nurse is shown running in after the snow globe breaks when it falls from his dead hand. He whispered his last words. Who heard them?

    • Dear Lord, that’s a good question! Have you heard of “The Movie Answer Man”, Roger Ebert’s public question form? That’d be a wonderful question to ask there. You could benefit from getting your question in one of his columns. You may also run the risk of angering him, because Citizen Kane is his favorite film, and without that one scene–which you meticulously identified as a plothole–the film would have no meaning and no plot whatsoever. Your mind works in the most bizarre but utterly brilliant ways, my friend.

  4. Definitely one of my all time favorites. The only film I like more is Coppola’s The Godfather. Orson Welles’ direction is magnificent, his script is fantastic, and pretty much every other element of the movie is flawless. Good review.

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