During the 2017 holiday season, I got a great deal on the Best of Warner Bros. 100 Film Collection. Diane and I haven’t seen most of these movies, but we are committed to watching one a week and writing a short review.
Now arriving in 1941 to see the ‘greatest film of all time’: Orson Welles’s “Citizen Kane”. It is my second time seeing the film and Diane’s first though pop culture has long since spoiled the mystery. Does the movie live up to its hype? Will I hate it arbitrarily solely because of its popularity? What will Diane think of it?
Yes and no.
If you are otherwise unaware, “Citizen Kane” is the answer to the trivia question, “What film did Orson Welles write, direct, and star in?” It is a fictional biopic following the life of newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane, a character loosely based off the real life William Randolph Hearst.
I have been fascinated with Hearst ever since learning about him and his war with his rival, Joseph Pulitzer, in a high school journalism class. Welles’s version of Hearst in his character Kane is over-the-top but not nearly as sensational as his real world counterpart.
Its to “Citizen Kane”’s benefit that it is a loose resemblance rather than a movie about the wild exploits of Hearst or the more interesting bits of the invention of ‘yellow journalism’. The “model” of Hearst is more than enough to give us a compelling character in Kane. He’s over-the-top, rich, and has a great need to be loved. He’s a man who has everything anyone could ever want, but not the one thing he wanted: his childhood.
At the film’s outset, Kane’s mother has come into wealth and wants her son to escape their life and his abusive father. She has young Kane shipped off with the banker who will oversee his wealth until he comes of age. The banker makes sure Kane goes to the best schools and gets a proper education though it does little to reign in Kane’s personality or ego.
The entire story of Kane’s life is told after his passing by the people who knew him best to a magazine journalist trying to understand his final words: “rosebud”. Of all the movies we’ve seen that follow the entire life of a great person, this is easily the best. The after-the-fact storytelling focuses only on the highlights in stark contrast to something like “Cimarron” or “The Great Ziegfeld” that dragged at times. “Citizen Kane”‘s pacing is great and even with the mystery of “rosebud” solved, viewing the movie over and over again is still worth it.
The story still resonates in a way that makes me believe it timeless. While other movies on this list thus far have been watchable, none have honed in on the psychology of their leads like this one’s. Combined with Orson Welles’ outstanding performance and Charles Foster Kane feels imminently understandable. Despite his speeches, he never feels like a leading man playing a hero like so many other films of the era. He feels like a flesh-and-blood human with heart-and-soul problems.
The cinematography of “Citizen Kane” also stands the test of time. The shots and transitions in this film feel wholly different from other films we’ve watched thus far. Some of them work great – I loved the pan into the window in the pouring ran. Others are odd but unforgettable. For example, as we quickly see all the ways Kane has disappointed his foster father banker, the banker looks directly into the camera similar to a sitcom character like Zack Morris wanting to wink to the audience about the absurdity of the situation. The “screaming bird” transition before Kane destroys the bedroom of the woman who has just left him also stands out more than was likely intended.
I hate to call a movie like “Citizen Kane” overrated. In truth, it gets a lot of things right but not everything perfect. I think the movie’s lasting appeal comes from its intelligence, both actual and perceived, as it feels like the kind of film smart people should love. That, along with its story, acting, and composition, make it memorable and infinitely rewatchable. I think everyone should see it, but I wouldn’t blame anyone for not calling it the greatest of all time.