With the world falling apart, we answer burning questions.
“I think I did pretty well under the circumstances.”
Yes, it holds up. I used to teach Film and Literature, and I showed this so many times I have almost memorized it. I may err now and then–just as those interviewed may slip up. This verisimilitude dramatizes our own rush to stoop to folly and rush after fools’ gold. But take the reminiscence of Joseph Cotten’s Jed Leland, dolled up in Hal Holbrook-as-Mark Twain style, as he recalls this girl in the white dress he glimpsed long ago on that ferry: it’s convincingly written and movingly acted. Fittingly, that monologue now often lingers for me, as I think of my own “Proust-madeleine” evocations of decades fading and flaring.
Such moments speckle the script. They prove the accuracy of this film’s ambition to capture how celebrity plays off the testimonies of those around The Great Man. They remind us of this cautionary tale of “fake news” and media moguls manufacturing soundbites and scare tactics as we sequester and choose to mesmerize ourselves, remote in hand, right now. Ready to throw our hopes for change into the ring again, at two contestants who pretend to care for us, posing and preening.
Sure, savvy critics chronicle the tricks that Welles “borrowed” from German Expressionism, Soviet agitprop and Georges Méliès. Yet, as with Quentin Tarantino, he and his crew knew how to deftly use cinematic inventions to invest them with truth.
Like Tarantino, Welles could risk self-parody later in his career, but at its start, Welles, so young that he was born when D.W. Griffith pioneered some of the techniques that the boy-wonder must have learned early from, debuted with astonishing brio.
Luckily, the prodigy Orson Welles and his ensemble of talent engaged the audience with humor, wit, satire and sly-glance asides. The film doesn’t preach, it avoids sanctimony and it invites in to watch as our fellow Americans flock to that reliable draw, the “voice of the masses.” The jump cuts, the handles that connect across generations one shot to another, the squawks of exotic birds, the sepulchral vault penetrated by beams of light, the typing out of an 800-word review, the depth of the camera’s focus. This keeps the pace fresh so the inevitable rags-riches-ruin story feels “ripped from the newsreels” instead of rehashed from the tabloids. I can’t think of any place the film stumbles. All the same, that breakdown “let’s smash the mirrors and break all the china as we sweep clear the mantles of every fragile bric-a-brac” depiction of our protagonist barely manages to keep me convinced of this movie’s triumph. For, whenever I see a similar “hero takes a fall and brings down the joint as he or she’s grimacing and raging” now, I sigh to my wife: “It worked once in Citizen Kane, why do it again?” – John L. Murphy
“Twenty-five thousand bucks. That’s a lot of money to pay for a dame without a head.”
Roughly seven minutes before the end of the film, there’s a brief throwaway moment where Kane’s belongings are being disposed of while the Thompson, the reporter, resigns himself to the impossibility of discovering the meaning of Rosebud. As the congregated staff, reporters and other associated vultures prepare to leave while talking over the top of each other, a voice shouts, “Hey, can we come down” before another replies, “Hurry it up, we’re leaving.” At this point the camera cuts to reveal that the first voice belongs to a worker on a ladder at some considerable distance from us and, at the same time, the relative volume of the voices change while reverb is added to enforce the suggestion of distance. The magic of the sequence is that the initial exchange withholds how far away the speakers are from each other and more than this, plays with our sense of space by reversing the ways in which that sense of distance is coded through the use of relative volume and the addition of reverberation. It’s a small moment, less than six seconds long, but it shows just how carefully Welles considered all of the storytelling possibilities of cinema beyond the ordinarily visual and how, even as the film is moving to conclude a story that would remain controversial for decades, there’s still room to play with conventions and to show Hollywood that cinema could be more that what it was then and largely remains, a production-line industry that sidelines innovation in favor of large scale, easily repeated commercial outputs and a standardizing of stories, genres and artistic possibilities. Citizen Kane may never have objectively deserved being considered the greatest film of all time but any artwork that manages to sneak into a mainstream industry examples of that industry’s own impotence must be respected and, for that alone, Kane should certainly be considered one of the greats. – Scott Wilson
“Am I a stuffed shirt? Am I a horse-faced hypocrite? Am I a New England school marm?”
The best way to answer this, I suppose, would involve a discussion of how Citizen Kane changed cinema forever. For one thing, there’s that deep-space, long-take cinematography that ends up dollying its way down to directors as diverse and ultra-famous as Michelangelo Antonioni, Chantal Akerman, Stanley Kubrick, Raúl Ruiz and Hou Hsaio-hsien. There’s also this idea that Kane laid the groundwork for risk-taking American independent cinema, unequivocally rejected by the mainstream but lavishly acclaimed in intellectual and academic circles. It’s a significant Hollywood cycle (or, for naysayers, ridiculous Hollywood cliché): the young, studio-endorsed director whose work riles up money-minded producers, ultimately leading to some box-office disaster (eventually a cult favorite) and, ideally, a long chain of fascinating indie or B-films that follow (see Michael Cimino, David Lynch, Paul Verhoeven).
But, for me, Citizen Kane’s great achievement is its ability to represent two totally different visions, one in experience and one in memory. In experience, it seems as cohesive and focused as structuralist cinema, each piece of the flashback puzzle neatly in position to show Kane’s tragic fall from grace. Every character interviewed in the film brings us a little closer to Kane, even though his essential unknowability remains.
In memory…what the hell? Is that a parrot? What are all these mirrors? Is Susan’s singing voice really this bad? Are both Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton really this hot? (Has anyone written any steamy fan fiction about those two?) Is there really a scene involving some kind of orgiastic party in a swamp? Or am I thinking of a Kenneth Anger film?
Kane is secretly like a dream and grows increasingly and wonderfully hazy in recollection. It’s a film to watch once every five (cine-nerd!), 10 (cinephile!) or 15 (healthy person!) years, to renew your thinking about the dissonance—precise and delightfully vague—between real and remembered objects. Rosebud, baby! – Jeff Heinzl
“Kane helped to change the world, but Kane’s world now is history. The great yellow journalist himself lived to be history. Outlived his power to make it…”
I was prepared to offer a snarky take on Citizen Kane because there are so many other movies worthy of the All-Time Great title (The 400 Blows, Seven Samurai, freaking Star Wars), but watching Orson Welles’ 1941 masterpiece slapped me back in my place. Nearly 80 years after it came out, it’s a wildly engaging movie with some flourishes that still amaze. “How did they do that?” is one of my favorite reactions to movies of the pre-CGI age, and Citizen Kane still wows with its extravagant set design and crackerjack camera work. Did they actually build those monumental sets? How did they get the shot that rises from a close-up of an opera singer on stage all they way into the highest rafters to settle on a pair of workers in the wings? There’s movie magic happening here.
There’s also artful craft. Cross-fading edits dazzle visually but also advance the story, and the compositions pack the punch of comic-book panels from the heyday of Superman. The cinematography is breathtaking throughout. Back-lit figures move against blown-out light in silvery visions, and low-angle shots make people tower like statues. All of this is impressive, because it still works beautifully. It’s the grammar of cinema, and Welles demonstrated that he was a master of it. In the lead role, he oozes charisma and intelligence, even when he transforms into a stuffed turtle of an old man. In the end, the characters themselves never learn the resolution to the “Rosebud” mystery, but we do, as the camera lingers on a final image that reveals the secret before it goes up in flames.
Most unsettling of all, though, is the way Citizen Kane foretells the rise to power of a populist businessman who made his fortune on a mountain of chicanery and fake news. “The people will believe what I tell them to believe!” he bellows when someone tries to reign in his worse impulses. Orson Welles imbues Kane with wit and panache, nothing like the sloppy clown in power he might remind you of, but there’s no missing the point: Beware of empowering greedy liars, for their legacy can only end in dust and ashes. And that’s an all-time great message for the ages. – A.C. Koch
“There’s no proof that that woman is murdered, or even that she’s dead…It’s not our function to report the gossip of housewives. If we were interested in that kind of thing, Mr. Kane, we could fill the paper twice over daily.”
Citizen Kane, while certainly one of the great technical achievements in cinematic history, is not one of the best films of all-time. In fact, it is neither one of the best films of all time nor is it one of the best films of its own time.
Citizen Kane’s legacy is largely one of individual achievement. Orson Welles, who starred, directed, co-wrote and produced the film, showed the merits of following a visionary’s singular artistic vision. His film is taut, focused and fully realized, and he laid the groundwork for many filmmakers to come. In addition to his own work, Welles coaxed excellent work out of his cast and the rest of his collaborators, particularly cinematographer Gregg Toland.
However, the areas that hold Citizen Kane back are ones that cannot be measured on the technical side of things. And those are heart and universality. Citizen Kane is a cold, white and masculine film that is beholden to themes of nostalgia and regret. Wealthy white filmmakers like nothing more than nostalgia, and Citizen Kane’s Rosebud-remembering, Xanadu-exploring narrative is a temple to it.
If we were eliminating the white and male, we would lose a lot of great Hollywood films, so I’m not suggesting that Citizen Kane be jettisoned because of race or gender. But when compared to other great films of its era, ranging from the later ‘30s with films like The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind to the early ‘50s with Singing in the Rain and Tokyo Story we find great films that invite broader audiences and tell their stories with a combination of technical skill and emotional excellence. – Mike McClelland
“Sure, they’re just like anybody else. They got work to do, they do it! Only they happen to be the best men in the business!”
To answer this question it’s instructive to saunter over to the American Film Institute website and peruse the list of Top 100 Films of All-Time. You can certainly quibble with this list. Maybe you feel The Graduate is too high and Singin’ in the Rain too low, or how number 15 should be number 3. You could go on and on with the quibbles, except when it comes to number 1: Citizen Kane. It’s not only one of the greatest films of all time, it might be the greatest in terms of its influence on the art of filmmaking.
Kane launched the modern era of filmmaking, rejecting the standard shot-reverse-shot close-ups and medium shots of standard Hollywood product for a more fluid form of filmmaking. Cinematographer Greg Toland and force of nature Orson Welles embraced the artificiality of film, placed the camera at angles it had been rarely placed for long, extended takes and used light and shadow as sources of emotion and mood. Whole books have been written about the depth-of-field techniques pioneered by Toland that kept the entire image in focus, giving Welles the ability to layer his shots from foreground to background. Throw in nonlinear structure of the screenplay and the mystery of “Rosebud,” and the reasons why you have to engage with this movie to be film literate become obvious.
Look, Citizen Kane doesn’t have to be your favorite film. You don’t even have to like it. But, you have to understand its significance. If you want to come at me with Lang or Eisenstein to be contrarian, fine, we can have those arguments all day, but Battleship Potemkin and Metropolis give hints to the potential of film, impressive accomplishments for a medium still in its infancy. Welles launched an era and will always be number one because of it. – Don Kelly
“You can’t buy a bag of peanuts in this town without someone writing a song about you.”
When it comes to evaluating a film, there is a difference between greatness and goodness. A film is good if it is engrossing, weaves a compelling story and/or dazzles in some way. A good film is an entertaining one. But greatness is something more ineffable, more difficult to pin down. Greatness in a film has to do with the historical impact of the work or what that film reveals about human nature or society. A great film advances the cinematic medium but it does not necessarily entertain the viewer.
This distinction is particularly useful for determining whether or not Citizen Kane is a great film. Citizen Kane is neither Orson Welles’ best film as a director—that would be Touch of Evil—nor his best film as an actor—look to The Third Man for that accolade—but it is undeniably his greatest film. Citizen Kane is absolutely a great film: it changed cinema forever (it essentially invented the flashback), featured indelible cinematographic innovations (young Kane playing in the snow in the background through the window while adults have a conversation, for instance) and revealed so much about both the human condition and US capitalism and political culture. For entertainment, most viewers would prefer Touch of Evil or The Third Man, but neither of those films could possibly exist without Citizen Kane, which on the engrossing scale pales in comparison to them. – Ryne Clos
“You know, Mr. Bernstein, if I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a really great man.
Of course it’s a masterpiece; Orson Welles, with indispensable help from screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz and cinematographer Gregg Toland, changed movies the way the Beatles changed pop music, their influence so pervasive that it’s hard to imagine that movies ever looked any other way. But even if it still hovers near the top of any GOAT poll, it’s hard to imagine it’s anybody’s truly favorite Welles. If the uncut Magnificent Ambersons ever reemerges, that would be the one to beat; but the young whippersnapper who made Kane grew up to move beyond the stylistic dazzle of his debut and develop into a more mature filmmaker who could take even a pulp project like Touch of Evil and turn it into a profound meditation on the nature of truth and cinema itself. Sure, Citizen Kane is like the bratty debut Great American Novel; but that disillusionment is even richer in Ambersons and yes, Touch of Evil, and in both, the showmanship and cinematic magic is more than just the flash of a born hot-dog: it’s the thematic meat of a major artist. — Pat Padua
“Who is this one? Whose favorite son?
Yes, Citizen Kane is great. Here is why:
I showed it once a few years ago in a high school journalism class I teach. I had one boy that was quite impassive. We’re talking “Larry, is this your fucking homework” level of not giving a shit. Blank-faced, no sense of humor. He just did not care. Was this kid going to like Citizen Kane, a movie older than his grandparents? Yeah, right.
Yet, Welles captured his attention. After some complaints during the newsreel part at the beginning, the kid embraced the mystery and bought it. Hook, line and sinker. He loved it. We’re talking Mikey with his bowl of Life.
The movie also gave Jack White a cool acapella refrain. And in true Kane fashion, he faced a potential lawsuit for its use. – David Harris