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Dissecting the Classics – Citizen Kane

December 7, 2018 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard
Citizen Kane

Today’s column is special, as it’s my 100th solo column on 411 Movies! I’ve been doing this January of 2017 (Back when it had the title of “Taken For Granted” and just didn’t seem to work), and here I am at 100. I’ve covered some of my favorite movies and movie series of all time, dedicated entire months to my favorite genres and directors, and even occasionally fit in a reader request, which I always appreciate seeing. Thanks to all of you for clicking, reading and engaging over the last two years and here’s to another 100 columns and beyond.

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics . In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.

Citizen Kane

Wide Release Date: September 5, 1941
Produced and Directed By: Orson Welles
Written By: Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles
Cinematography By: Gregg Toland
Edited By: Robert Wise
Music By: Bernard Herrmann
Production Company: Mercury Productions
Distributed By: RKO Radio Pictures
Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane
Dorothy Comingore as Susan Alexander Kane
William Alland as Jerry Thompson
George Coulouris as Walter Parks Thatcher
Ray Collins as Jim W. Gettys

What Do We All Know?

Orson Welles’ debut feature Citizen Kane is widely considered one of the greatest films ever made, topping most prestigious lists like the American Film Institute’s 100 Years… 100 Films and the Sight & Sound Poll for many years before Vertigo took that honor. It is celebrated not just for its narrative and performances, but for its innovation and virtuosity. Welles was not a seasoned filmmaker, but he created a film that changed the rules for how movies could be made, created dozens of iconic moments, and which permanently change the course of how movies were made.

For what it’s worth, I don’t consider Citizen Kane to be the greatest movie ever made, or even necessarily a top ten film. But I am someone who is bothered by the dismissive nature many people have towards the movie’s quality. I’m not here to talk about every single facet that makes Citizen Kane a landmark in filmmaking technique – this isn’t a Wikipedia article and while I do care about things like cinematography, narrative structure, etc., I’m not a specialist and if you want to take a deep dive into all the ways Citizen Kane changed the game, there are plenty of resources available to you. I’m not here to argue for the film’s place in history; it doesn’t need defending. But what I am here to do is tell you the things that make the film one of my favorites and a film I can watch over and over again and never be bored with.

What Went Right?

While I’m not going to take a deep dive in the technical aspects of Citizen Kane, I am going to talk about the end result of it. This movie is a gorgeous looking, meticulously shot, highly innovative masterwork that still stands the test of time as one of the most interesting movies on a purely aesthetic level. Its use of optical illusions like the massive fireplace and enormous windows are really cool and make sense thematically (i.e. even grandiose objects look small given the proper perspective). The iconic scene where Kane is running for New York Governor is an amazing use of models to create a convincing crowd, I love effects shots like the hall of mirrors and the “going through a sign and a window” shot, and its use of deep focus to keep everything in frame looking equally in focus leads to some truly incredible shots. Orson Welles trusted cinematographer Gregg Toland to bring anything he could imagine to screen, without any experience of what shouldn’t be asked, and Toland delivered. I may not fully understand the movie magic and I’m definitely not the person to explain it, but the hard work pays off and I can see the evidence. And you can copy and paste all of that praise for the innovative sound design.

Taking a look at all those technical achievements, it seems almost counterintuitive to look at how small and contained the story of Citizen Kane is. A quasi-biographical but mostly fictional look at one man who seemingly has everything, Citizen Kane is character focused and dialogue driven. It’s a story about a news tycoon told like a news documentary, an in-depth look at an enigmatic individual whose impact was massive but whose true nature seemed elusive to everyone. With the exception of a few scenes where the main character is a child, Welles plays Charles Foster Kane at all ages of his life, and the movie belongs solely to him. Other characters come in and out of his life and they are the ones we hear the story from, but Welles is the centerpiece, the performance that grounds the film and it is an all-time great one. Charles Foster Kane makes full use of Welles gifts for gravitas, ham and beneath the surface emotion that bubbles up at the right moment.

But while Orson Welles’ performance is praiseworthy, the character he plays is anything but. Citizen Kane is the definitive cinematic meditation on the phrase “money does not buy happiness” – a scathing critique of the wealthy and the corrupt. Kane inherits a fortune by happenstance from his mother, uses the wealth to take over the newspaper and radio industries so that he can influence his country with his opinions, attempts to run for Governor of New York with a libelous campaign against his opponent, and builds up Xanadu, an impossibly large mansion that he never sees completed. He puts considerable time and energy into making himself newsworthy, hoping for the adoration of the masses or even just his wives, but never puts effort into loving them back. Kane is hollow, empty, and in many ways stuck in permanent childhood – a power hungry spoiled brat who almost always gets his way and reacts violently when he doesn’t. It’s fascinating to see a man who has so much and with such large ambitions put so much money and effort into making a monument to himself, only to leave the world unhappy and longing for a time when he had nothing except for the love of his mother and the whimsy of childhood. Er, spoiler warning for one of the most famous endings in film, I guess.

Lastly, I’m a big fan of how the story is told and why it’s told that way. The news headline opening reel is a great sequence that tells the whole story in terms of breadth but not in depth, letting us now that the stories we are told are usually incomplete, shallow or even flat-out wrong versions of actual events. Starting with a death and a recap of the main character and then telling his story through flashbacks is a pretty daring narrative structure (especially in 1941), but it works. It shows us who the mysterious Kane really was, while always emphasizing that even the people who knew him best didn’t really know him all that well. Using an unreliable news documentary format to talk about a newspaper tycoon who used his platform to spread false information is just clever, and helps tie everything together on a thematic level.

What Went Wrong?

As a film, there are no notable flaws about Citizen Kane. It is as masterful as it is innovative, it’s subtle enough for it’s message to come to the viewer authentically but blunt enough that pretty much every functioning adult is going to get it, and it’s both entertaining and emotionally powerful. However, I do think Citizen Kane is a victim of its own hype. I don’t think it’s overrated, as some would doubtless accuse it of being. In fact I’d say that it’s starting to swing towards being underrated as more and more younger voices who haven’t given the movie a fair shake start to make their voices heard. But whenever you’re called “the greatest movie of all time” by so many, you’re bound to fall short for just as many others. I think if we are ever going to get back to having a healthy appreciation for the brilliance of Citizen Kane, we need to acknowledge it not as the definitive greatest movie of all time, but simply one of them.

And In Summary…

Bottom line, Citizen Kane is a great movie that deserves most of the praise it gets. It may be overrated by some, but it’s underrated by just as many. I love this movie, I loved it the first time I saw it and it hasn’t lost any of its luster for me. Honestly, in some ways, I feel it’s even more valuable as a cultural artifact in today’s landscape than it has been in a long time. Orson Welles, Gregg Toland and all of the rest of the people made a daring film that eschewed traditional structure and abandoned the phrase “it can’t be done” when it came to how to present the movie. It’s had an incalculable impact on how films are made and stands the test of time as one of the best cautionary tales ever made. For me, it deserves praise of one of the finest films of all time, one that is worth studying and critiquing and, perhaps ironically, a towering monument to the singular talent and vision of one of the most unique performers the 20th century ever gave us.

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Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The Matrix, Batman (1989), Casablanca, Goldfinger, X2, King Kong (1933), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Dark Crystal, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, The Silence of the Lambs, Alien, Aliens, Casino Royale, Superman: The Movie, Superman II, Batman (1966), The Maltese Falcon, Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, 12 Angry Men, Aladdin, The Wizard of Oz, Dial M For Murder, Godzilla (1954), The Hurt Locker, The Breakfast Club, Iron Man, The Shining, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut, Blade Runner, Rosemary’s Baby, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Princess Bride, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Toy Story, Star Wars – Part 1, Star Wars – Part 2, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Die Hard, Spirited Away, Airplane!, Dirty Dancing, RoboCop, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Captain America: The First Avenger, In the Heat of the Night, West Side Story, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Rocky, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Sixth Sense, The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Clerks, Goodfellas, The Avengers, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, Frozen, Jaws, The Omen, The Incredibles, Life of Brian, Escape From New York, Independence Day, Vacation, Ghostbusters, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Hook, Men in Black, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Double Indemnity, Lethal Weapon, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, No Country for Old Men, The Exorcist, Psycho, Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Haunting, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King

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Citizen Kane, Aaron Hubbard