Ranking: #6/111

Director: Orson Welles (USA)       

Genre: Social Drama

Citizen Kane has been described by the Criterion Collection as “the most dazzling debut feature in cinema history.” Many cinephiles and critics consider it the greatest film. It’s one of those great films that created a magic, a chemistry, on the Big Screen which could only have resulted from a happy convergence of several factors coming together in one place at one time. These factors include the larger-than-life theatrical personality and artistic daring of Orson Welles, the brilliance of Gregg Toland as a cinematographer, the thematic resonance of the screenplay as an exposé of a narrow understanding of the American Dream and the spirit of technical innovation embraced by both Welles and Toland in a supremely creative collaboration.

At the time of making Citizen Kane, Welles was new to the film world, having come from theatre and radio, and he was in the mood to experiment. He wanted to test the power of cinema as an art form: “I thought you could do anything with the camera that the eye can do, that the imagination could do,” he said about his directorial debut. Toland said that Welles at the time had “a full realization of the great power of the camera in conveying dramatic ideas without words.”

When the camera in the atmospheric opening sequence ignores the “No Trespassing” sign at the front gate of Xanadu, the palatial home and “pleasure palace” in Florida of newspaper tycoon Charles Foster Kane, it is a symbolic statement by Welles and Toland that they don’t intend to follow conventional rules in the filming of Citizen Kane. Rather, they were determined to push the technical boundaries of film as far as they could go at the time. Interesting camera angles, deep focus photography, multiple exposures, use of newsreel footage and other innovations abound. But there is never a feeling that the camera of Welles and Toland is simply showing off. That’s because they consistently keep form, or method, appropriate to their content. For example, it has been pointed out that several low-angle shots of Kane show his looming presence and growing power, while some shots have an extreme depth of field which highlight the media baron’s isolation. And it is this loneliness which is eating him up inside, despite all his success and wealth. This is the secret behind his last word as he dies, “Rosebud”. He has been pining all his life for a return to the innocence of his childhood, symbolised by his boyhood sleigh.

The narrative is wonderfully structured and the innovative techniques serve the narrative. We begin with the death of the central character and his mysterious last word.  Then we become part of a detective story to find out not just the meaning of “Rosebud” but, really, the meaning of this man’s extraordinary life as measured against the American Dream.

Ironically, the reporter Thompson asking all the questions about “Rosebud” never finds the answer. Only the viewer is given a privileged look into the furnace where Kane’s childhood sleigh is burning. This is meant to show the impotence of the very newspapers which turned Kane into a wealthy and powerful man. It also shows the new power of cinema which has become the king of the mass media. In cinema, Welles is saying, you can express the true meanings of life, not just the news. That is, cinema had become a new art form with power beyond what the newspapers can offer.

That was quite a prescient statement! Orson Welles had already exploited the power of radio, before he made Citizen Kane, with his famous radio adaptation in 1938 of H. G. Wells’s novel The War of the Worlds. This broadcast had caused some listeners to believe that a Martian invasion was really happening.  Now he wanted to use cinema to its fullest effect, too, as he had earlier done for radio. He clearly believed that radio and cinema would be the kings of mass media, superior even to the impact of newspapers.

But there is an even deeper message Welles invited us to absorb – that the life of Charles Foster Kane, who was an amalgam of media barons like William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, among others, became an empty shell, a fantasy on a grand scale, like Xanadu itself, exposing, in his downfall, a life that was all show with little real substance. The American Dream cannot just be about riches and worldly success, for that would be mammonistic materialism, pure and simple. Materialism brings neither happiness nor fulfilment to Kane.

But in the grandeur of his dreams, like those of Gatsby, Kane became a larger-than-life character, a force of Nature. Xanadu was a monument to himself, to his imagination, just as Gatsby’s mansion, his parties and his ostentatious displays of wealth were monuments to a twisted dream of his own glory.

In addition to having thematic depth, the film is also an editorial triumph, with powerful use of montage, or association of images through cutting and juxtaposing shots.

Welles never again reached the cinematic heights of his debut film. Citizen Kane, though, stands as a masterpiece from what subsequently came to be known as Hollywood’s Golden Age, lasting from 1932-1946.

Citizen Kane was selected by the Library of Congress in 1989 for preservation in the US National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. It remains a milestone in film history.