Okay guys, I know you’ve all been wondering what the number one movie could possibly be. I mean, how can we possibly top Pulp Fiction and Casablanca? Well it was about this time last year that I was introduced to Citizen Kane. The movie is what inspired me to follow the AFI’s list. It may seem so small-minded to declare one film the best film of all time, and maybe even a little subjective. And though the list was compiled based on the opinions of hundreds of people in the movie industry, popular opinion has also catapulted Kane to fame, and for very good reason.
Citizen Kane is the story of Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles), a wealthy media mogul whose death has taken the world by storm when we first meet him. But his deeply complex, often enigmatic ways of doing business and conducting his social life are revealed in layers, peeled back through a series of flashbacks as a reporter tries to piece together the life of a man who lived ostentatiously but really only ever valued one thing—Rosebud. “Rosebud” is Kane’s famous dying word, virtually the only famous line, if it can be called that, to come out of the film. It’s meaning becomes the reporter’s obsession, instilling in the viewer the same sense of urgency he must have felt in trying to find a story behind the secluding walls of Kane’s Xanadu palace. In his quest, the viewer comes to know the sadly intriguing life of Citizen Kane—a newspaper owner, a one-time politician, an entertainer, a romantic, a fierce best friend (not always in a good way), and a sharp businessman.
The story is loosely based on the life story of William Randolph Hearst, newspaper magnate. This similarity caused much controversy leading up to Citizen Kane’s release, particularly for the scenes alluding to Hearst’s mistress. Hearst tried to have the release quashed, but obviously (and thankfully) failed. But for all the mystique in the plot and the media firestorm it created, Citizen Kane is not well known for its narrative elements, but rather for its technical construction. Orson Welles produced, directed, wrote, and starred in what was his first feature length film, made under pressure following the popularity of his War of the Worlds radio broadcast. In order to get RKO Pictures to make the film, Welles had to be as ruthless as his character, sometimes blurring the lines between the two men so finely it was eerily difficult to tell when Welles was acting and when he wasn’t. There’s a wonderful film that may be viewed before or after watching Citizen Kane called RKO 281 (1999)—the original referent to Kane before the title was known. It tells the story of how this famous film came to be, and the lengths Welles went to garner such status.
It’s quite the undertaking—the movie spans decades of many characters’ lives, so costumes had to be artfully done to account for the changing age of the characters. Notably, in his rush to get the film finished, Welles let Joseph Cotten, playing his best friend Jedediah Leland, do a scene with poor accouterments—his hairpiece and skin cap are noticeably askew in the film.
Welles, desperate for a success and not a failure, studied all the great films of the time, writing down which camera shots were used in certain scenes. He put his observations to the test—he was ruthless in his demands for the script to be filmed exactly as written, down to the last frame. He was so adamant about this that in a shot requiring a view of Kane from the floor up, the cameraman complained he could not get both Kane’s shoes and the top of his head in the same frame. When he suggested they pick a different shot, Welles grew angry and took a jackhammer to the floor of the studio so they could lower the plane and film it the way he wanted.
And every scene, from the dialogue to the costumes to the frames to the narrative, is this tightly controlled. As you watch, look for the way the camera shots mirror the action–when Kane is at the height of his power, Welles used shots from below the horizontal plane to make him look most imposing. When he has lost something or is made to feel smaller, the camera makes him appear half his size. Also pay attention to the length of the shots. You’ll notice in modern films that the cuts between shots are more frequent–this is partially to do with our decreasing attention span and our increasing penchant for action. But when the shots are longer, actors have to do a take perfectly, often with complex movement and precise dialogue. Look for how the actors move into and out of the scenes, how the camera is capturing more than just their activities, but also what is going on in the background. The small details, like young Charles Foster playing in the snow through a pin prick of a window as his mother signs his life away to give him a better chance, make for truly stunning and intellectually stimulating cinematography.
This precision and dedication make for the most fantastic piece of film to date, because Orson Welles’ passion is evident in every prop and staging arrangement. It may seem overly simplistic to name one film the greatest of all time, but in all aspects of film, this one hits the mark every time.