The 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.
Billy 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.
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 Evil, The 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.