Citizen Kane (1941)

08 Oct

citizenkaneThe greatest movie ever made! It’s intimidating. Not only was it intimidating to write about, but it was intimidating to even watch Citizen Kane. I kept putting it off and off. What if I didn’t like it? Didn’t get it? Became bored? Lost my self-respect as an old movie lover? Learned to doubt my judgment? Quit watching movies? Sunk into a depression!

Fortunately, nothing quite so dire occurred. I even enjoyed it a little and I wanted to share my thoughts and impressions and learn what other people think of this film, as well.

1. It’s not a movie; it’s a compendium of cinematic techniques! That’s a slight exaggeration. But what seems to make the movie stand out is how Welles synthesized – and enhanced – the various techniques available to a filmmaker at that time.

During the last years of the silent era, directors such as King Vidor, F.W. Murnau and Josef von Sternberg had reached a level of visual beauty and virtuosity that was sublime. Then sound became the norm and visual storytelling was replaced with dialogue. But just as early silent filmmakers had to learn how to fully exploit the visual possibilities of cinema, it took a while for filmmakers in the ’30s to learn how to fully exploit the use of sound.

What Orson Welles seems to have done – as a radio man – was to fully realize the aural possibilities of film and wed them with the visual possibilities. He allowed cinematographer Gregg Toland to indulge his use of deep focus cinematography and Welles employed various aural techniques familiar from radio, like overlapping dialogue in the montage sequences.

As far as I can tell, this is what makes Citizen Kane the greatest film of all. It is the finest example of all that is possible in film. Not that all movies should be like that (probably most shouldn’t – it would be too much to use every trick in the book in every single movie). The vast array of techniques employed by Welles is admittedly dazzling, but also distracting. I found myself repeatedly watching what the camera was doing rather than the actors. We never get to just look straight on at a character. They are always in shadows or in deep focus or with the camera looking up at them or down on them or peering closely into their face.

citizen-kane-welles-podiumBilly Wilder believed that if the audience was paying attention to a shot, it was a sign of bad directing, because the audience is not supposed to notice how a film is made, but only the story. I suppose that’s why we remember individual moments from Welles’ films and remember the stories of Wilder’s films.

2. During the opening when we are introduced to Kane’s enormously disproportionate Gothic mansion, I half-expected Dracula to walk by. Welles’ film is not only a summary of cinematic techniques, but is a summary of practically every movie genre under the sun except the western. There is the horror story, the drama, the journalism screwball comedy, documentary, political satire, mystery and detective story.

3. Much is made about Charles Foster Kane’s (Welles) desire to be loved and his inability to love. In fact, they hammer this point home so often that I kept thinking that couldn’t be the point of the film. It couldn’t be that obvious. But perhaps an obvious plot allows more room for layers of symbolism.

But as much as the film obsesses about how lonely and pathetic Kane is, in truth, everyone looks lonely and pathetic. Joseph Cotten as one-time friend Jedidiah Leland is alone in a retirement home, reduced to begging a stranger to smuggler cigars in to him. Kane’s ex-wife is alone, drunk, in a club, thinking back on all that was. Everett Sloan as Mr. Bernstein, Kane’s business manager, is alone in a cold office. Everyone is alone and disconnected and spend half their time hidden in shadows as if to reinforce how unknowable people are.

It’s a disconnected world that Welles’ creates, which makes everyone seem more pathetic than sympathetic. Kane’s loneliness is just blown-up in proportion because he’s rich and larger than life.

4. Charles Foster Kane was essentially raised by a bank. George Coulouris as Walter Parks Thatcher – Kane’s guardian – has no other personality outside of his bank. I thought that was funny. No wonder Kane grew up so emotionally stunted. He veers between being pathetic and insufferably arrogant and self-aggrandizing. One hardly knows whether to be irritated or saddened.

90551-050-cdc7d41f5. I can’t do a puzzle anymore without thinking of Dorothy Comingore and having an urge to shout across the room, even though it’s unnecessary.

6. My brother wondered how Kane could stand so close to that gigantic fire. The heat coming from that thing would have been intense.

Conclusion: I think, on the whole, I enjoyed Citizen Kane more than I did any other film by Welles, including Touch of EvilThe Lady from Shanghai, The Stranger, and The Magnificent Ambersons, though The Stranger runs a close second. The sheer variety of interest is compelling, if still not emotionally engaging.

I actually owe my resolution to finally see Citizen Kane to FictionFan’s Book Reviews and her excellent review of the book Citizen Kane, by Harlon Lebo. It is a history and appreciation of the movie and FictionFan recommended viewing the movie before reading the book, which I am looking forward to doing.


Posted by on October 8, 2016 in Movies


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11 responses to “Citizen Kane (1941)

  1. Vienna

    October 9, 2016 at 12:19 am

    The greatest film of all time? The critics keep telling us that’s the case but do a quick survey of a few film friends and I bet it isn’t even in their top 50.
    As you say, Welles uses great technique but if an audience can’t get involved with the characters or plot, what’s the point of technical wizardry .
    Well done you for taking it on and being honest in your assessment.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      October 9, 2016 at 5:30 pm

      Thanks! Yeah, it does seem like a film that’s primary appeal is more for people interested in how films are made rather than story or character. But it is interesting how detached Welles seems from his characters. Was he not interested in character or was that really how he saw people? It’s curious.


  2. Carol

    October 9, 2016 at 9:08 am

    ‘It is the finest example of all that is possible in film.’ Exactly.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Michaela

    October 9, 2016 at 9:33 am

    Lots of great observations! This will sound weird, but I think it’s unfair to Citizen Kane to keep touting it as the Greatest Film of All-Time. It builds up so much expectation, and lately it seems like many people feel disappointed by it. Regardless, I really enjoy it. It’s surprisingly funny, which isn’t mentioned often, and the characters are all intriguing.

    It just struck me, though, that nobody ever lists Charles Foster Kane as one of their favorite characters — he’s really enigmatic, which I think is the point. Like you said, this film seems to be more about film itself rather than actual characters, but somehow, I never minded that. I guess Orson Welles just dazzles me too much.

    Liked by 2 people

    • christinawehner

      October 9, 2016 at 5:44 pm

      No, I think that’s a great point about how the film is built up so that people’s expectations are impossible to meet! And it scares people off (like me…though I enjoyed it more than I thought I would). Perhaps it would be easier if people could feel like they were discovering the film rather than doing their cinematic duty.

      Welles is pretty dazzling! It’s funny you should mention the humor…I once read that Welles thought his film was misunderstood and that he thought of it partly as a comedy. Perhaps I should watch it with that in mind next time.


  4. The Animation Commendation

    October 9, 2016 at 9:45 am

    You finally saw it, awesome! Yeah, I found it overrated, but it was a compendium of great cinematic techniques as you said!

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      October 9, 2016 at 5:37 pm

      I finally mustered up the nerve! 🙂 I can see how this film would have been mesmerizing for directors and cinematographers – it’s practically a how-to film! But yeah, I can see why it was not more popular on its release, too.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. FictionFan

    October 10, 2016 at 4:54 am

    You’re so perceptive when you watch films – I really hadn’t noticed all the technique stuff and so on till I read the book, so it helped me to at least be aware of why all of that is so highly praised. But like you, the film itself doesn’t quite do it for me. I’m intrigued to hear what you think of the book when you get a chance to read it. Thanks for the link!

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      October 10, 2016 at 9:14 am

      You’re welcome – you really did start it all! 🙂 I confess I came at the movie with a determination to figure out why the film was considered so great…I expended far too much brainpower and time trying to figure it out and it was only when I read a review mentioning the use of sound that it finally clicked.

      Yeah, I don’t think it’s a film destined to be high on my list of movies I hold in affection, either. It’s too clinical or detached or something.

      I’m determined to begin reading the book this very month…I hope…:)

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Cátia

    October 11, 2016 at 2:21 pm

    If someone asked me to make a list of my least favorite films, “Citizen Kane” would definitely be the number one title on that list. I had high expectations for it – “the greatest film of time” and all that – but I was extremely disappointed by the end of it. So much so that I haven’t seen an Orson Welles film since – and I saw “Citizen Kane” over two years ago. However, after reading your wonderful review, I started to recognize its value a little bit as “a compendium of cinematic techniques,” as you so eloquently put it. You actually made me want to watch it again and look for technique instead of storyline, if that makes sense.

    Also, I have nominated you for a Sunshine Blogger Award.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      October 11, 2016 at 4:01 pm

      Thank you so much! I am honored. 🙂

      I know exactly what you mean about the technical perspective instead of the story line! I can see why so many directors found it influential, but it’s not a very warm film, is it! It’s hard to connect with the characters.

      I know what you mean about not wanting to watch Orson Welles movies, too! It was because of his other films that I was so afraid to watch Citizen Kane. 🙂



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