The title of this review is a total lie. I literally just said it to get your attention, and if you’re reading this, I have succeeded. Truth be told, Citizen Kane, often referred to as “the greatest film of all time”, is about as good as the vast majority of people say it is. The “elite” film critics, pundits, and historical analysts will often keep this film on the highest pedestal, despite nearly 80 years worth of films being made since then. I had put Citizen Kane on the bench for God knows how long as a sort of revolt against what seemed like a pretentious level of accolade, reserving it to be “overrated” on mere prejudice alone. There’s a reason it still draws constant attention though, and for me, it had been this image:
It’s well known that the core of Citizen Kane’s plot revolves around an ‘ashes to riches’ millionaire named Charles Foster Kane, along with his downfall in spite of decades of success. I’ve seen this master shot from the film repeatedly circulated, and each time causes me to pause in awe. It indicated not just the thematic gravity of Kane’s self-absorption, but illustrated a certain mastery of sweeping cinematography that quite frankly seemed unparalleled for a movie made in 1941. Upon finally viewing the film, I was completely impressed on both narrative and artistic fronts of Citizen Kane, as reflected in that image. This movie was way ahead of it’s time, sporting a clever dialogue, shots and cuts that were far from regular, and riveting acting that kept your focus solely on the screen. Perhaps there have been better films made since this one, but I now understand that director and lead actor Orson Welle’s magnum opus deserves most if not every accolade it’s received.
This film famously opens with Charles Kane, dying in his home built as a self-aggrandizing monument known as Xanadu. He utters the word “Rosebud” and drops a snow globe, drawing vigorous interest from his newspaper to backtrack and try to discover the meaning of this cryptic word. From the outset, nothing about this film is conventional. It begins with a news montage of sorts that inter-cuts with ‘actual’ events of Kane’s life, revealing the man’s entire story to the audience before the movie’s real narrative had even began. This was unheard of for films at the time, and reflected a technique rarely if ever used again in American cinema until the mid 70’s. This cutting technique and non-linear narrative format continues through the rest of the film, which puts a certain sense of unease upon the audience, as we look to see where Kane’s fatal errors take place throughout his journey to self-perceived greatness. This core story is lead by a witty script that allows each character to play cleverly upon each other’s dialogue. This isn’t a facet proprietary to Citizen Kane compared to other movies of the Golden Age of Cinema, but this screenplay has aged particularly well, vis-a-vis many of those other films.
The cinematography in this movie is top notch. Most films of the period were framed as though they were stage plays, which is understandable given that movies were still relatively new. Citizen Kane made extensive efforts to push the use of the film camera to it’s limits. The examples are endless: characters are framed in 3D aspects that give a greater sense of depth. Sometimes a scene takes place in an extremely wide frame, capturing detail in depth, especially evident within Castle Xanadu, particularly during one scene involving a puzzle. Stark contrast via lighting gives every shot an eerie atmosphere. Panning and movement beyond a rotating tripod is evident in nearly every scene, one of my favorites being a montage that takes place at an opera house, moving between the stage to the rafters to the seats. It’s nothing short of a dynamic viewing experience. I frequently hear the rejection of ‘black and white’ movies from other young people like myself, and oftentimes, I chalk this up to be the result of boring shots that fall short of engaging the audience. Citizen Kane heavily veered away from this trap that befell many other contemporary early films.
Citizen Kane is now available on HBO MAX. As many of you are still experiencing COVID Cabin Fever, I strongly recommend giving this film a chance. Even by modern standards, it exudes thematic messaging and a love of cinematic art to a degree that still sometimes seems hard to find. ITSLIKELITERALLYTHEBESTIDK/10.
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