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Should I Watch..? Citizen Kane
What's the big deal?
Seriously? Is there something wrong with you? Ok, then...
Citizen Kane is a dramatic mystery film released in 1941 and marked the feature film debut of its lead actor, producer, director and co-screenwriter Orson Welles. Having made his name in 1938 with the controversial radio adaptation of The War Of The Worlds, Welles was given the unusual freedom by RKO Pictures to develop his own story, use his own cast and crew and have the final say in editing. The film stars Welles, Joseph Cotton, Dorothy Comingore, Ray Collins and Agnes Moorehead as well as numerous members of Welles' Mercury Theatre acting company, many of whom had no previous experience in film. The film is considered by fans, critics and film-makers as the greatest film in history and was repeatedly voted as such until 2012 when it lost out to Hitchcock's Vertigo (1). It was widely praised for its story-telling and narrative structure as well as its music and cinematography and set several precedents in movie making.
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What's it about?
In a vast dilapidated estate called Xanadu, an elderly Charles Foster Kane is approaching the end of his life. Amid the empty corridors of his mansion, Kane utters his final word - "Rosebud" - before dropping a snow-globe onto the floor which shatters on the floor. According to a newsreel obituary, Kane was hugely wealthy and influential as a newspaper publisher and his passing becomes a worldwide sensation. Reporter Jerry Thompson is intrigued by Kane's last word and sets out to discover the meaning.
Interviewing numerous people from Kane's past including Kane's alcoholic second wife Susan Alexander Kane, Thompson discovers that Kane's beginnings were based in poverty in Colorado. The film then slowly tells the tale of Kane's life from his upbringing under the care of banker Walter Thatcher, his parents's discovery of a gold mine to his career as a newspaper owner at the age of 25 after getting access to a trust fund. When Kane's business empire came under threat after the Great Depression, his life begins to take on another challenge when he develops political ambitions...
Charles Foster Kane
Susan Alexander Kane
Jim W. Gettys
Walter Parks Thatcher
Raymond, Kane's butler
Emily Monroe Norton Kane
Herman J. Mankiewicz & Orson Welles
Release Date (UK)
24th January, 1942
Biography, Drama, Mystery
Best Original Screenplay
Academy Award Nominations
Best Picture, Best Actor (Welles), Best Director, Best Black-And-White Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Sound Recording, Best Editing, Best Musical Score
What's to like?
I've been watching films all my life and reviewing them online since 2004 but rarely has a film stunned me into silence. Many people, some of them smarter than me, have been banging on for years about how great Citizen Kane is - to the point of making people take its brilliance for granted. But actually watching the film is a revelation because no matter what you've heard, the film is somehow even better. Welles is a visionary director, constructing scenes and shooting the action with all the skill of someone with all the experience of a veteran.
The story is rich and engrossing, never feeling slow or plumped full of filler. The film covers themes not just of power and corruption but redemption, the loss of innocence and what truly makes a man. The film's cast, mostly comprised of Welles' theatrical buddies at the Mercury Theatre, deliver assured performances as you would expect but once again, Welles proves to be a genius as his appearance as Kane is enhanced by astonishing makeup and prosthetics. Portraying the character through almost every aspect of his life, Kane becomes the living embodiment of the American Dream until it consumes him. The drama is also enriched by the orchestral score and skilfully shot by Welles, right up to the film's very last shot.
- The film was a box-office flop due to the efforts of newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, the supposed inspiration of the Kane character, who took objection to the film's portrayal of him. The film performed so badly that it was booed during the Academy Awards whenever it was mentioned.
- The camera looks up to powerful characters like Kane and down on others like Susan Alexander Kane. Welles borrowed the technique from John Ford's Stagecoach (2) and privately watched the film during the shoot.
- When Welles was asked how Kane's last words were known when he died alone, Welles stared into space for a long time before saying "Don't you ever tell anyone of this."
What's not to like?
How can anyone criticise a film like Citizen Kane? It's probably the most complete film I've ever seen and I suspect that very few others will get close. I guess that some modern viewers might be put off by the film's theatrical nature, despite the screen being filled with this epic story. There aren't any explosions or gratuitous sex scenes and while neither of these things would have improved the film, their absence might be jarring. But if anything, this demonstrates how far movies have fallen. Citizen Kane has more skill and imagination in its two-hour running time than entire franchises released these days, which are more concerned by blasting its audience with pyrotechnics, stunts and hip-hop than telling a story.
Of course, hardcore fans of The Simpsons might not need to watch the film as the film has practically appeared in various episodes over the years including the pivotal reveal at the end. But as I had no previous exposure to the film, I can honestly say that the film held me enrapt from start to finish. From the atmospheric opening through to the vast campaign rallies and the tragedy of Kane's ultimate fate, the film is a straight-up masterclass.
Should I watch it?
The film may have had its aura diminish with the passing of time but the film's place in history is assured. Citizen Kane is probably the most famous film in history, a genuine landmark picture that has proved massively influential to generations of film-makers. The only other thing I can compare it to is, weirdly, the Grand Canyon. You might have seen it many times in other medium but until you see it with your own eyes, it's impossible to grasp how incredible it is or how to describe it to others. It is simply magnificent.
Great For: lovers of cinema, film students, critics
Not So Great For: fans of The Fast And The Furious (3), newspaper tycoons
What else should I watch?
There are a limited number of films that are landmarks, pictures that changed the industry for ever. Films like Metropolis (4) which influenced sci-fi directors and writers even today - one can see the mechanical Maria in the likes of C-3PO from the Star Wars (5) films. I would also group The Wizard Of Oz (6), Gone With The Wind (7) and Casablanca (8) in the same group as all of these films occupy a unique place in cinematic history.
It's somewhat difficult to know what to compare a film like this to. Welles had a significant impact on Hollywood with many of his films becoming hailed by critics. Touch Of Evil (9) is one of the last of the great film noirs from the Forties and Fifties, featuring Welles delivering another powerful performance as Police Captain Hank Quinlan. His earlier effort The Lady From Shanghai (10) is also worth watching although don't expect it to make much sense on first viewing.
© 2017 Benjamin Cox