What is the greatest film of all time? It’s a question that I’m asked quite often and could be one of the most annoying ones too. Defining the greatest film isn’t an easy task as there are a lot of factors that are involved in judging a film. Citizen Kane is one film that is always on the top of critics’ list when naming “The Best Films of all Time” but what makes it rank so high? With the release of Mank, now available on Netflix, the newest David Fincher film to explore the origins of Citizen Kane so to speak, let’s take a look back at this 1941 classic film. What makes the film so iconic? Why is it so highly regarded after all these years and is it perhaps the greatest film of all time ever made?
Citizen Kane follows the story of a young boy whose family became unbelievably wealthy when the land they were living on was discovered to have gold! The boy, Charles Foster Kane, was essentially given up by his parents so that he could live with a man named Thatcher (George Alexander Coulouris). A banker who sets up a trust for Kane and becomes his guardian after Kane’s parents sign papers ensuring their financial stake and suspending their parental rights. It’s a rather shocking moment in the film and the boy is less than happy at the prospects of traveling the world and living in a life of luxury.
Fast forward to when Charles is (Orson Welles) is twenty-five and now has access to his trust, he decides to purchase the less than popular New York Inquirer and proceeds to make the paper highly successful even though, much of the news is something that one could consider to be yellow journalism, a term which features eye-popping headlines and articles that really aren’t based in fact. All of which is done to the dismay of Thatcher, the man who became Kane’s guardian when he was a child.
The movie does progress and we learn of his first marriage and subsequent affair with an inspiring singer. Not to mention his political ambitions that ultimately crash and burn once his affair becomes public. The main focus of the film is told is flashback sequences so that we can better understand who this Kane person really was. The film opens with his dying and uttering his final word “Rosebud”. An odd word and yet everyone that knew him doesn’t seem to know what he was referring to. This leads to an investigation as to who or what “Rosebud” means. Thus begins the flashback sequences that further explore his life.
One of the most striking things about Citizen Kane is how the movie is shot, acted and told. The script by Orson Welles and Herman Jacob Mankiewicz is well-written and I did enjoy the plot overall, but admittedly it isn’t one of the main highlights either. The cinematography by Gregg Toland is one that has inspired countless other films. The unique camera angles and even lighting effects are noticeable in the later Film-Noir films of the 1950s. Being just twenty-five when he directed the film, Orson Welles had a keen eye of observation when setting up a scene or sequence. Take for example the moment when Kane is having breakfast with his first wife. We see them age over the years and even catch glimpses of how their marriage is just based on their conversation and whether or not they are sitting close to one another. In actuality, this sequence was filmed in reverse, but is still a moment in the picture that is truly unique.
From the interesting and inspiring camera angles, to the sometimes dark lighting effects, Citizen Kane is bolstered by a style that many films that followed were inspired by. Personally, I was impressed with a great amount of sequences with my favorite being the moment when his second wife leaves him. This revelation causes him to explode and destroy her room in a fit of rage. Of course, at this point Kane is an older man and Welles matches the movements of an aging man perfectly. It’s a great moment but one that isn’t much of a surprise since we’ve learned much about this character already.
Who is Charles Foster Kane?
From the interviews that we are given, the flashback sequences and even the stories that were told of him, Kane could be conceived as a mythical figure almost. Someone who had the world at his grasp but due to some complications along the way, he lost it all in the blink of an eye. The question that is in everyone’s mind is “What does Rosebud mean?” The final words spoken from this great man, or so we think. First of all, there is no one in the room where Kane died to hear him speak his final utterance and yet it makes the morning papers. He died alone in his palace, the so called Xanadu, the massive estate he built to hold all his prized possessions and, in the end, to seclude himself from the rest of the world.
With his turbulent marriages and the disastrous fallout of his political future, Kane is a man who never got what he wanted in life-happiness. He spends nearly all his life trying to appease others, especially the women in his life that by the end, he dies a lonely old man with nothing to hold onto. Although, the film never specifically mentions what “Rosebud” could mean, I think it stems from the childhood that was taken away from him. Imagine, being removed from the only people you ever knew and were thrown into a life or luxury where you got everything handed to you on a silver spoon, and yet you were never happy?
Kane, by all aspects is a broken man, a damaged child that was stripped of who he was at an early age. During the course of the film, we also learn that Kane was expelled from numerous schools throughout his life. Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane) provides some interesting details into Kane while talking to Mr. Thompson (William Alland), the reporter who’s on the case to unravel the mystery behind “Rosebud”. Mr. Bernstein is my favorite character in the film because he acts as a personal aid to Kane when things become a mess and it’s his insights that make he such an interesting character.
The Greatest Film Ever Made?
If you look up Citizen Kane, you’ll see the sleuth of accolades that the film holds. Most critics highly praise the film for it’s script, style and musical score; plus the performances of the actors with a special nod to Orson Welles. While I can agree with most of why the film is praised and seeing how it inspired other such films, I can’t say that this ranks high with myself. Sure, I enjoyed the film for what it was, but I was more interested in the moments that we didn’t get to see-his childhood. The formation of who he became to be as a man is something that was playing in my mind during the course of watching Citizen Kane.
The story is well-told and the flashback sequences were very original for the time when the film was produced, something I feel we take for granted nowadays. Even the style and cinematography at the time were considered revolutionary but still, the plot of the film is just merely mediocre when I think about it. Citizen Kane is well-shot, acted and made but the story didn’t completely involve me. I wanted to know more about his childhood than what he accomplished or lost in adulthood. Even still, RKO Radio Pictures, who distributed the film, granted Orson Welles complete creative control over the film, and with that in mind, I was impressed with the final result. But, will I be watching this movie over and over again for years to come? I think rather not.
This isn’t to say that Citizen Kane is a bad film or boring; that’s not the case. It’s just a movie that didn’t really move me or inspire me in anyway. I liked the conflicted feelings that Kane displays during the course of his life and the problems that he faced along the way, but I feel that the movie is better remembered for its style and uniqueness then its plot.
Citizen Kane has inspired countless films based solely off its structure- Lawrence of Arabia, The Godfather and The Maltese Falcon just to name a few. I would call an inspirational film for numerous directors and screenwriters out there, but not for myself. There are films that I do consider some of the best of all time and some of them include- The Wizard of Oz, Metropolis, Gone With The Wind and Fritz Lang’s M. I’m sure you’ve noticed that Mank was released on Netflix not too long ago and I urge you to watch the film. It’s an exceptional take on the life of one man and the struggles of becoming a screenwriter, not to mention that it’s based on the life of the man who helped penned the screenplay for Citizen Kane!
Citizen Kane will either inspire you or leave you wanting more, I was the latter. Still, I do suggest that you check out the film if you haven’t already so that you can form your own opinion. Orson Welles defined a genre of film in more way then I think he even expected and his filmography is proof of that and being that Citizen Kane was his first film proves that he may have been ahead of his time. So, what is this so-called Rosebud? Let us know what you think after viewing this 1941 classic from the great Orson Welles!