First some background: The behind-the-scenes story of Citizen Kane (1941) is just as interesting as the film itself. Young filmmaker Orson Welles had been the wunderkind of stage and radio throughout the 1930s—best known at that point for his infamous radio performance of War of the Worlds, which panicked thousands of people who really believed we were being invaded by Martians—and was given a free hand by RKO Pictures to have total creative control over his first film. This was unheard of at the time. Along with co-writer Herman Mankiewicz, director Welles came up with a story based on the life of media tycoon William Randolph Hearst, who was one of the most flamboyant, self-promoting and opinionated figures of his era.
This is where the battle to make the film began. When word got out that Welles was making a film based on himself, Hearst began a full-court press to have the project squashed. Hearst was very influential and owned several newspapers, radio stations, news services and magazines. This was a big problem for RKO and Welles because newspapers and radio were the main ways of advertising film releases back then. No Hearst-owned media could mention the film. Hearst also labeled Welles as a Communist and initiated protests against the film by patriotic groups like the American Legion.
When Hearst newspapers starting running stories slandering RKO, they bowed to Heart’s power and delayed the release of the film. They also cancelled the preview showings. Welles had to threaten to sue RKO for the release of the film. When it did finally come out, it ran in limited release. It opened in a mere two theaters per city, with only two showings each day. As a result of all this, Citizen Kane was a disastrous box office flop.
Yet the critics loved it. Variety—who were in competition with Hearst—gave high praise to the film and ran an advance review, calling it a “triumph” and a “masterpiece.” Most critics agreed that the film was genius (it would get nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars) but that didn’t save it at the box office. It sank quickly. Opening in May, it faded away by October. (Films used to stay in theaters a lot longer in the pre-DVD days, so a 5-month run was very poor.)
While Hearst won in the short-term, time has been kind to Citizen Kane. In the decades since, it has gotten more accolades than any other film. What is it that the critics see in Citizen Kane that earns it the reputation as the greatest film ever made? Why does the life story of Charles Foster Kane shine brighter than other films? Let’s break the film down.
First and foremost, what makes Citizen Kane so impressive is that it initiated so many new elements and styles that would become the standard for the film industry from that point onward. Variety accurately predicted that it would inspire future filmmakers, and they were absolutely right. Citizen Kane was a landmark in numerous ways. Among the things Welles pioneered in this film were…
Non-linear plots: The film jumps around in time, beginning after Charles Foster Kane’s death, and circling around and around, covering his entire life from childhood to death in non-sequential fashion. This was the beginning of a technique that would be used in many films, such as Pulp Fiction. The film not only plays with time but also with POV. We get multiple narrators, each with their own view of Kane’s life.
Creative Sound: Welles, who had begun on radio, brought a more deft and suggestive style of sound to films than anyone had heard before. He also knew how to use silence as a story-telling device. Additionally, he was able to convincing stage a political rally with no one in the audience. The seats were full of mannequins but the sound makes it seem like there is an enthusiastic crowd present.
Deep Focus: Along with his gifted cinematographer Gregg Toland, Welles created a way to make everything in the shot—both in the forefront and in the background—be in focus at the same time. Welles was so impressed by the way Toland did this, he gave the cinematographer equal credit at the end of the film; running Toland’s name along with his own director’s credit.
Switching from Model to Reality: An aerial camera shot shows us the outside of the nightclub where Kane’s ex-wife Susan works. It is initially a model but as the camera zooms in through the skylight, the film switches seamlessly to live-action. Welles also made excellent use of Matte Paintings. (The famous Xanadu estate in the film was not a real set; it was a painting.)
Visible Ceilings: Before Kane, indoor sets were made without ceilings, so the lights and boom-mics could work unobstructed. In this film, Welles uses a lot of low angel shots that show us the room’s ceiling. Toland was behind this innovation, too. He came up with a soft cloth covering that would look like a real ceiling on film but still allow light and sound to pierce through.
Forced Perspective: Welles created many optical illusions where you couldn’t tell the size of an object, making them look either large or small; changing to reflect what Charles Kane was feeling at the time. This is most obvious in two scenes: Once when he is standing in front of what looks like a normal sized window and another that looks like a normal sized fireplace. As Charles Kane moves around and gets closer to these objects, he is dwarfed and we see that the objects are immense. (Forced perspective was most famously used in The Lord of the Rings movies to make the hobbits look smaller than the other characters.)
Invisible Wipes: This is a technique where a scene is ‘wiped’ off the screen from the side, like a windshield wiper. Welles disguises his ‘wipes’ as something moving on the screen.
Along with these innovations, the movie also captures a snapshot of a period in time: This was the era of the rise of the celebrity journalism, when the person reporting the news was more important than the news itself and public figures promoted themselves as demagogues’. (The real Hearst was the initiator of the celebrity press, and it was his influence that pressured the US into the Spanish/American War.)
The film’s main character himself, Charles Foster Kane, is a fascinating figure, excellently played by Wells. He is a man who had every material advantage and still felt a spiritual emptiness which he thought would be filled if he could make the whole world love him. The problem was that, despite his need for love, he has none to give. He lacks any empathy, tolerance or patience for other people, and only sees them as a means of increasing his self-worth and importance. He personifies power but he is not like a human being.
There are two central themes to Citizen Kane. One is the fact that, after we are gone, we exist in the memories of others and we will be changed from person to person, depending on what they know about us. The second theme is that even the man who has everything can be insecure and unhappy, longing for the days of youthful innocence and security he had as a child. (Hence the sled, Rosebud.)
Citizen Kane contained excellent dialogue, great performance by the cast (Most of whom had worked with Welles on stage), grand visuals, intriguing characters, clever social commentary and deep meaning. Roger Ebert described it as “a gathering of all the lessons that emerged from the era of sound” up till that time.
Citizen Kane clearly deserves its reputation as a groundbreaking masterpiece. It was far ahead of its time. Is it the greatest film of all time? That’s a bit more subjective but one thing is clear…Citizen Kane pointed the way toward the modern era of filmmaking and its influence cannot be overstated. 75 years later, everyone knows what “Rosebud” means and the movie is still shown in film courses as an example of what to do right.
Citizen Kane is brilliant but is it the best film ever? I personally would put it second (next week, I’m going to write an article revealing what I think is the greatest film ever made—stay tuned) but it’s hard to argue with the critics who list it as #1.
What do you think the greatest film ever made was?