If you ever find yourself looking at a “greatest films of all time” list, there always seems to be those handful of films that always find a place on that list. Some barely make it on, while others always seem to make it pretty high up…Than there’s Citizen Kane. A film that is almost guaranteed to make it to the top of the list, if not at least in the top 5. So why is a film about a newspaper tycoon so important? Newspapers are becoming more and more irrelevant by the minute. Kids today might no even know what a newspaper is! The first time I tried to watch this film, when I was a teenager, I turned it off half-way through in boredom. I was angry and couldn’t believe something like this could be the “greatest movie ever.” I could see that the cinematography was great and the acting was good, but I just didn’t understand why it was the best. Well, as it turned out, I didn’t do my homework. There is so much one needs to know before watching Citizen Kane to understand it’s brilliance. It is very hard for a person to come in clean, not knowing how the film got made and the importance it had on film at the time, to truly enjoy it as just a stand-alone movie. Well, my goal for this post is to share just why Citizen Kane was a big deal at the time, and still is 75 years later…
Orson Welles was given more freedom to make this film than any other film in his career.
The legendary contract that Welles signed with RKO Pictures in 1939 gave Welles the freedom to direct, write, edit and star and basically distribute it how he intended it to be. No other director at the time ever had that much freedom in the “sound era” of film.
Welles was only in his mid-20s when he made the film.
He was 24 when he signed the contract, 25 when filming the movie, and 26 when the film got released in 1941. And it was the first movie he was ever apart of. He never acted or directed in any other movie before this. Talk about setting the bar high! This would end up cursing Welles and ruining his entire career as a filmmaker, because he was never able to even come close to creating a film so brilliant as Citizen Kane.
It’s a miracle this film even got made to begin with.
The story of Charles Foster Kane is heavily based on the life of William Randolph Hearst, the big-shot newspaper publisher of the time. Hearst was so angry that he literally tried, and failed, to postpone the film and not get it made. Hearst was a powerful man and was like the Bill Gates of that generation. Thankfully Kane was able to still get it made though. What’s a great film without a little controversy attributed to it?
It was made in 1941, with no CGI or digital enhancements.
I like to think of Citizen Kane like a magic trick. The things that Welles was able to do with such limited resources in a time with no modern technology is tremendous.
The special effects in this film were revolutionary at the time.
Welles and his special effects department made it their mission to use everything they possibly could at their disposal to create this film. They used matte drawings, optical printers, complex fades and dissolves, and shadow play. If you see big buildings, skyscrapers, or houses, chances are they were hand drawn and not really there. The special effects might not be blatantly obvious like Star Wars, but Welles still wanted the film to look as realistic as possible, despite all the special effects.
Despite its large story arch, the film was made with a very low-budget.
Watching this film, most people probably wouldn’t realize that Welles was obligated to make this film with a budget under $500,000. Which, due to inflation, is around 8 million dollars give or take in today’s standards. This film is a perfect example of what some filmmakers are able to do with so little due to the magic that film can bring.
The film was entirely made up of different RKO Production movie sets.
Welles, on his first tour of the movie studio, described it as “the greatest electric train set a boy ever had.” The film was pretty much entirely shot on the movie studio, and Welles used everything he could have at his disposal.
The rise and fall story of Charles Foster Kane is extremely riveting.
As an audience, we get to experience every important event in this man’s life. We see how he went from the poor, innocent child in Colorado, to the richest and most powerful man in America, than to the man who died alone holding a snow globe.
The script is very good, and still very quotable to this day.
Even today, you can’t go by without hearing the word “rosebud” be muttered from a hard-core cinephile. There are many more great quotes throughout and the story is told in a non-linear style. This is something that was very rare at the time. The story is told in different flashbacks from many different character’s point of views. It’s amazing that this complex, very detail-oriented story was told in such a delicate manner. Which leads me to my next point…
Most directors would have been over three hours with a story like this, but Citizen Kane’s runtime is just under two hours.
Due to the fast-paced editing, and clever storytelling, this story of a very important man’s entire life is able to be told in a manner that never drags and is just the perfect run time. There is so much that goes on, and so many different events that are being told in this man’s life and it just flies by!
The make-up in this film is amazing.
There’s just something about black and white cinematography that always brings out the best in make-up for film. Welles of course portrayed Charles Foster Kane, and we see him portray different ages of Kane that range from his mid-20s to early 70s. It never for once looks fake. There are a lot of other characters as well that are at different ages throughout the film but still portrayed by same actor.
The performances from the entire cast are phenomenal.
From the lead performance of Charles Foster Kane, portrayed by Welles, to many others down the line, everyone is extremely riveting and convincing in their roles. A lot of the actors in this picture were actually unknowns in the film world, and people who Welles brought over from the theater scene in New York. Joseph Cotten as Jedediah Leland, Dorothy Comingore as Susan Alexander Kane, and Everett Sloane as Mr. Bernstein among many others bring life and meaning to their roles.
The cinematography is tremendous and ground-breaking.
Greg Toland was the man who shot this film. He was known as the guy at the time and the most established photographer working in film. Toland had just as much of an impact on the look of the film as Welles’ did. The lighting is pristine and the shot composition is revolutionary. Especially the use of deep composition. There are many shots throughout this film where what is going on in the background is just as important as what is going on in the foreground. The cinematography is my favorite thing about this film. The shot above is a perfect example of what I’m talking about.
This film will teach you everything you need to know about mise-en-scène.
Every shot in this film is extremely detailed and can be analyzed. The set-design, where the camera is located, the lighting, and how much space is in the frame are all perfect. One can really learn a lot about film and how it should be made by watching this film.
Set the look for future films to come.
This is arguably the most influential film in the sound-era. Citizen Kane taught people how the camera can show you everything and move anywhere. It doesn’t have to be still, and the characters don’t have to be filmed in separate closeups or medium shots. Characters can be in the background, middle ground, and foreground simultaneously. Welles used unbroken camera movements and only moved the camera when he had to.
The use of sound was very revolutionary at the time.
Ebert once said that Citizen Kane did in the sound era of film, what D.W. Griffith and The Birth of a Nation did for the silent era. Accumulating all the technical breakthroughs in film of the time and mastering them and putting them together. Kane was a big-time radio actor, and used his background in radio as an advantage in creating sound for the film. For example, during the famous political rally at Madison Square Garden (this scene is my featured image for this post), there is not really an audience that Welles is speaking to. However, the sound of the audience clapping and cheering is so realistic and gripping that not anyone for a second would have thought otherwise not knowing this to be true.
The editing is great and done by famous editor turned director Robert Wise.
Wise is known for directing classics like The Sound of Music, West Side Story, and The Day the Earth Stood Still, but at this time he was known primarily as a film-editor. The editing is very fast-paced with quick camera cut-aways throughout. There are also a lot of great montages in this film including maybe the best one “The News on the March” film montage in the beginning of the film that basically tells the entire life of Kane before the story really even begins.
Has a little bit of everything in tone and genre.
Citizen Kane is a tragedy that combines comedy, melodrama, and romance. It basically combines everything in tone that is great in film. It does not feel one-note. One person can feel exhilarated, angry, happy, sad, basically all the feelings while watching Citizen Kane.
The ending is one of the greatest endings in film history.
Without spoiling anything, it offers a conclusion that perfectly wraps up the entire story and gives the audience a feeling of revelation. It’s an ending that resolves but still gives people a sense of ambiguity so they can decide for themselves what exactly it means.
It teaches us very important life lessons about love, greed, and the importance of childhood.
It’s message and themes are very deep and teaches us the meaning of life and why fame and power are not the ultimate goals. It also expresses how important childhood is in a way that it can change/define a person, depending on how good or bad it was. The lesson this film teaches us will always be important and relevant which is exactly why I believe this film will always be important and never get dated.