Citizen Kane is a 1941 drama film, functioning well as the directorial debut of Orson Welles. Welles also stars as the lead in the film, playing Charles Foster Kane, and documents his rise to fame, as well as his downfall, through a series of flashbacks told by the supporting cast. Being called by many as the “greatest film of all time”, Citizen Kane may very well be just that, at least on a technical level. The film is beautifully made, being shot in a way that actually puts many modern films to shame. The rest of the film, while not on the same pedestal as the cinematography, still allows the film to be compelling enough to be a fairly entertaining film, even almost 70 years after completion.
The film opens up with a character muttering the word “Rosebud” as his final word. We find out that the dead man was Charles Foster Kane, played by Orson Welles. The character is primarily based on the life of William Hearst, but also on the person portraying him. The character of Kane is both an autobiographical character on Orson Welles, as well as the late newspaper tycoon Hearst. This leads to an interesting back-story on the film’s production. Orson Welles actually got one of the top Hollywood contracts at the time, being given complete control over the film. This means that the cut of the film that made it to theaters actually was a director’s cut. It also meant that when William Hearst found out about the production, he attempted to make sure that it never made it to theatres.
Because the real Hearst was in control of several newspapers at the time, he had a lot of money and power. He almost managed to buy the film’s rights from the studio it was produced in. Welles refused, no matter how much money was thrown at his feet, and the film eventually got released. Hearst still didn’t back down though, and refused to allow advertisement for the film in his papers. This meant that a large portion of the country did not get much information about it. Because of this, Citizen Kane actually did quite poorly at the box office, and really only received its praise in later years.
Now that some of the background of the film’s production has been explained, it’s time to get into what actually makes it good. For the most part, it isn’t really all that special. What does set it apart from many films of the time was the way it was filmed. Citizen Kane actually introduced a few filming elements into mainstream films. The most prominent example of this was a technique called ‘deep focus’. That is where everything that is seen on camera stays in focus, as opposed to where either the foreground or the background is out of focus. The film also used a few low angle shots, something that was almost unheard of at the time. Since films were usually filmed on sets without ceilings, shooting towards the ceiling seems odd. Welles averted this by shooting in more advanced studios, as well as covering the older ones with a curtain. Many different angles and other film techniques are also used, making the film seem more modern than it actually is.
One of the more surprising things about Citizen Kane is the fact that it still doesn’t feel all that dated. Apart from the occasional film grain, and the fact that it isn’t in color, there really isn’t all that much to give away the fact that it was made nearly 70 years ago. This is quite a feat, and really speaks to the film’s quality. However, the rest of the film doesn’t quite live up to the way it was made.
Since the entire film is basically driven by a reporter’s desire to find out what the word “Rosebud” means, most of the story is told through flashbacks. Almost all of these flashback’s focus on Kane exclusively. This leaves little room for development of other characters, and also means that Orson Welles’ Kane needs to be exceptionally well acted. It’s not really that Welles did a bad job, but I would definitely say he’s a better director than actor. There are some scenes where he acts really well, as well as some scenes that he is off a touch. The supporting cast is more or less unnoticeable, and no one you really care about. This is pretty much a one man show, with no room for anyone else. In this regard, it is much like the real William Hearst’s life.
I can’t say I agree with the unofficial consensus that Citizen Kane is the best film of all time. It may be, at least technically, but the fact that it focuses so heavily on one man, with an acting performance that is inconsistent makes me question how good it truly is. It’s definitely well made, with the cinematography being top-notch, even after all these years. While I have no doubt that it has been revolutionary in the world of cinema, almost entirely from the way it was made, it also manages to be a fairly entertaining film, even now. The story told through flashbacks gives us a good look and insight into the character of Charles Foster Kane, and while he isn’t always acted exceptionally, we still end up caring about the character. The other characters may as well not be there though, as they end up being the backdrop for Kane. It’s most definitely a film to watch if you are interesting in film history, or if you just want to learn a bit about William Hearst. You’ll likely be glad you checked it out.