Written by J.T. Johnson
ORIGINAL RELEASE DATE: May 1, 1941
DIRECTOR: Orson Welles
CINEMATOGRAPHY: Gregg Toland
WRITERS: Herman J. Mankiewicz, Orson Welles
MUSIC: Bernard Herrmann
Here it is! The film that has been hailed as the greatest film ever made. Not only did it top the American Film Institute’s “100 Years… 100 Movies” list, it remained number one with their 10th anniversary list. The consensus that it is the best has grown so much that film critic Roger Ebert himself said, “So it’s settled: ‘Citizen Kane’ is the official greatest film of all time.”
However, it was not always so. When the film was first released in 1941, “Citizen Kane” failed to recoup its costs at the box-office. In other words, it began as a failure. It was finally recognized as a great work of cinema through French critics. Then, the film’s American revival in ’56 secured its now famous reputation as a great movie.
It goes without saying that the film deserves it. The first thing that the audience sees is the extremely gothic-looking Xanadu estate of the enormously wealthy Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles). He is an old man now and in his hand is a snow globe. The last word he utters is “Rosebud” before he drops the globe, shattering it on the floor.
Now, it is the job of reporter Jerry Thompson (William Alland) to figure out exactly who the man was and to find out the meaning of Rosebud. Right away, thanks to one simple word uttered by a dying old man, the reporter and the audience have a mystery. But it is the life of the man that turns out to be the greater mystery.
Welles not only wrote and directed the film, he also starred as Kane. Only in his mid-20s, Welles turned in a performance that should make most other film actors envious to this day. He seamlessly and realistically transforms Kane from the idealistic young man who wants to work for the people to the greedy, power-hungry old man that Kane soon becomes. There is not a step to his performance that feels out of place.
Another great thing is the narrative structure through which Welles reveals Kane’s life. Today, it is nothing new to see a movie in which the story is told through multiple people’s perspectives. However, a lot of those films have still not captured the same sort of finesse that “Citizen” achieved.
There is one apparent flaw in the film that really turns out to prove Welles’ genius as a storyteller. When Kane utters his famous last word, he is apparently alone in the room with the doors shut. His butler, though, claims that he was in the room and that he heard the word.
However, this is a film about perspectives. The entire story of Kane’s life is relayed to the reporter through various people who were a part of Kane’s inner-circle. Therefore, the beginning of the film is the only time that the audience gets to see the world through Kane’s eyes as he lies in bed dying.
To him, he is completely alone in the world. Welles decides to visually show this lonely perspective. Just because the butler was in the room does not necessarily mean that a dying Kane saw him.
The filming techniques used in the film are not completely unique to this film. Flashbacks had appeared in other films before this as well as montage sequences to collapse time and space. However, no film had embraced these techniques as much as “Kane” did. Not only that, every technique is done to great effect and nothing ever feels out of place.
There is only one thing that may be a turn-off for certain audience members and that is the fact that the film’s story is a tragic one. This is something very rarely seen during the golden age of Hollywood. The only thing that saves the audience from suffering along with Kane is the fact that they are told right up front that the man died alone.
The fact that the audience is also told the story through other people’s eyes allows them the opportunity to study the man objectively such as a reporter would. The question of what the word Rosebud means is eventually answered, but it is rather insignificant. This film is ultimately a cautionary tale. People who receive power will have a desire for more. If one gives into that desire, they may end up like Kane… old and alone.