Why Citizen Kane Is Still the Greatest Film of All Time

– By JD Westfall, VW’s film connoisseur –

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Citizen Kane. You’ve likely known its name as long as you’ve known movies. You have probably seen still images from the film, such as the main character framed behind the giant portrait of himself. However, if you’re anything like 98% of my friends, you still have never given Citizen Kane a watch, or if you have, you didn’t get what the big fuss was about. So let’s look into it. While volumes upon volumes have been written about this masterpiece, few of us have the time to read a doctorate examination of its lasting appeal. So allow me to briefly outline them for you.

Story Structure – It’s become a very popular thing amongst filmmakers to begin their works by showing a single scene deep into the film, only to then flashback and show how things reached that point (see Inception, Mission Impossible III, pretty much any episode of Breaking Bad, etc). It happens so often it’s easy to think this is a recent development in the film world, but Welles was already busting it out in 1941.

Citizen Kane opens with the death of its lead character – an unheard of move at the time. We then go through a highlight reel about the man so we understand much of his life and accomplishments. Afterwards, we return to the present, after his death, to see a group of reporters discussing his final word, “Rosebud,” They interview many of his closest friends, business partners and his ex-wife. Each of these interviews prompts a flashback, which takes us through various stages of Kane’s life, and also shows him in different lights. Depending on the point of view, we see him as a benevolent philanthropist, a greedy businessman, trusted friend and selfish politician, to name a few. These keep building the enigma of the man until the reveal at the end, which gives us the final piece of the puzzle into understanding Kane.

Sound/Music – To understand the greatness of this film, one does best to consider the time it was made. Just 10 years before Citizen Kane‘s release a silent film was the highest grossing movie of the year (City Lights), but talkies were quickly becoming the mainstream. With the demise of the silent film came a problem. Sound was such a novelty that many films were content to simply fill themselves with wall-to-wall dialogue, assuming that that would provide sufficient entertainment for the audience.

Additionally, music wasn’t adapting. If you’ve ever seen a silent film you know that to make up for the lack of sound, music played throughout the entire film, no matter what was happening. When “talkies” came in, music continued as it had been. Nonstop dialogue was drowned out by music, and if those two were not enough, they added in far too many sound effects than were necessary (for a good example of all the flaws found in early talkies, view another 1931 film, Cimarron).

Fortunately, into this madness entered Orson Welles. Having had extensive experience in radio, he was well prepared to bring that skill to the world of film. See, in radio you must balance the audio. Since there are no visuals, you must be careful not to overwhelm the audience with an onslaught of sound. Dialogue, sound effects, and music must be used as building material to move the story forward.

In film this was almost completely unheard of (where they would often have all three of those things going at once and obscuring what’s actually happening. Again, see Cimarron). But Welles changed this with Citizen Kane. Many times, the music was composed before shooting the scene, so the actors could build around the music, rather than trying to force the music to fit what was already filmed. Why is this preferable? If you’ve ever studied music you know that it has an almost mathematical structure. So imagine trying to compose music to fit around non-rhythmic actions by the people on screen. It can be done, but is certainly difficult and oftentimes feels very shoehorned. On Kane they circumvented this by reversing the process, and the result is the most comfortable and smooth audio delivery ever witnessed in a film, even until the present.

Cinematography – A person might think that a group of radio professionals moving into the world of film would be hilariously inexperienced in the field of visuals. And that person would be right. Fortunately Welles recognized this and spared no expense in hiring the greatest cinematographer available, Gregg Toland. Of course, Welles’ own inexperience still shone through. He apparently believed that having only certain things in focus while the rest of the shot was blurry was an artistic choice, a way for the director to highlight to the audience what they should be watching. Thus, he told his cinematographer he wanted everything in clear focus, all the time, not realizing that such a thing was impossible. However, Toland was a good sport and embraced the challenge to find ways to make each shot super crisp all the way through, and succeeded, even with the most impossible shots.

Consider just one example: We’re shown a young Charles Kane playing outside in the snow, as the camera pulls back into the house to show his father watching through the window, clearly distraught over something. The camera pulls into the living room to show mother signing papers, until finally we see an older man who takes the papers and reassures the mother he’ll take good care of Kane. All the while we still see Kane far in the background, still playing, unaware he’s being given away to be raised by this stranger, and is still in clear focus. Consider the impact of this move. Rather than forcing us to focus on each passing character, our eye is allowed free reign of this shot, thus increasing the emotional resonance when we realize Kane’s fate, which he is still blissfully unaware of. Rather than the camera forcing us to spot this, it allows us to discover it fully for ourselves.

Makeup – Very few films achieve fame for the quality of their makeup (The Fly, Elephant Man, and … ummmmmm … OK, that’s it) but Citizen Kane‘s makeup work deserves to be considered among the best. Welles gave clear instructions to the crew that makeup was to be the main character in the film. Seeing as the story shows the main cast playing their characters over a period of about 50 years, we can see why it had such emphasis. But choosing not to be content with having “young Kane” and “old Kane” makeup, Welles had the crew design makeup for each character at every five-year stage of life, meaning that Kane at age 30 would look very slightly different from Kane at age 25. All the way up to his death. To see the full effectiveness of the makeup work, watch a key scene in the film where it shows the breakdown of Kane’s first marriage. It is merely a montage of Kane and his wife sitting at the breakfast table as it moves though about 20 years.

The Ending – (SPOILERS)

Among all the things you already know about Citizen Kane, you may know the ending as well. The answer to the pervasive question “Who is Rosebud?” is simply the sled we saw him playing with as a child. Thus, the fact that his dying word is “Rosebud” indicates that he views all the wealth he accumulated through his life as being worthless, when in fact the only time he was happy was childhood.

But is that all there is to it?

Consider that Rosebud is finally seen in with the piles of things shipped into his warehouse. At what point does that get referenced in the movie? When Kane meets his second wife. He’s walking along the street and gets splashed by a mud puddle, when the woman meets him. She asks where he’s going and he says to a warehouse to look at some childhood mementos, but he never makes it there because of the splash from the mud puddle. Rather, he accepts the woman’s invitation into her apartment. From there comes scandal, which destroys his marriage and his budding political career.

Think of what this means for Kane. It shows clearly that he seems almost burdened by his wealth, and in recompense has a desire to use this wealth to help others. He runs the paper to give people honest reports on world events. He begins his political career out of a desire to remove the current (and corrupt) governor from office. Instead, in spite of his efforts, the governor remains in office and Kane loses his reputation, much of his publishing empire, and his family. And all of this wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t been on his way to the warehouse to see his childhood mementos. To see Rosebud.

So when Kane dies, is he expressing his desire to return to childhood days when life was carefree and a simple sled could bring him happiness? Or is he cursing the object that ruined his life and all the dreams he ever held dear? We can’t say. And thus, Charles Foster Kane remains the enigma he was at the very beginning.

(END SPOILERS)

At this point, we’ve spent 1,447 words examining the greatness of Citizen Kane, and I’ve only scratched the surface. If you truly want to learn more, read any of those aforementioned doctorate dissertations on the appeal of Kane. Or better yet, just watch it again. It’s the greatest movie in history. It deserves your time.

 

J.D. became a film buff at age four after viewing his first Buster Keaton movie. Since then he’s found a passion for everything from Shakespeare to Sharknado.

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