As I sit down to review Orson Wellesâ€™ undisputed masterpiece Citizen Kane I realize what a daunting task I have before me. The film has appeared atop many of the greatest films of all-time lists and is widely considered to be one of the most influential films ever made. It has been analyzed and written about by intellects far greater than my own.
In this review Iâ€™m not going to try to make a profound comment on the greatness of Citizen Kane, but rather try to examine what the film means to me.
Orson Wellesâ€™ Citizen Kane is an epic film, written, directed by, and starring a man that is larger than life and based on the life of one of the most influential men in history. The film was a pioneer in filmmaking techniques, and it helped establish an attitude that film was about more than mere entertainment. It broke the formula and therefore was very unsuccessful at the box office, but it became an achievement that Orson Welles (and many other filmmakers, for that matter) would never again reach. Each frame is packed with symbolism as the film challenges you to dig deeper than the surface and find the truth it is attempting to convey. This is one of those films you can watch hundreds of times and still discover something new.
Citizen Kaneâ€™s protagonist Charles Foster Kane is based on newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst. The purpose of the film was to present a man in powerâ€™s obsession with himself and the fascination it brought the world. Throughout the film the word â€œKaneâ€ appears frequently, increasing in size as the manâ€™s ego blows up. It also gives the haunting feeling that the man inhabits more than just the room in which he exists; he is everywhere. Or at least he wants to be.
Thatâ€™s one of the brilliant things about Citizen Kane – all of the fascination is self-developed. Charles Foster Kane is representative of the many American socialites who came before and after him; people who are only talked about because they put themselves in the spotlight. Kane puts his portrait everywhere, he takes positions on issues that will make him popular, and he builds his mansion called Xanadu â€“ â€œsince the pyramids, the costliest monument a man has built to himself.â€ He is on a constant search for immortality and tries to achieve it through his possessions and his reputation.
The story of the making of Citizen Kane was quite contrary to the man it portrayed. The film was Orson Wellesâ€™ first feature. He had become popular as a stage actor and for the infamous â€œWar of the Worldsâ€ radio broadcast. Many of the actors in the film were new to the medium and few had any star appeal. The film had a modest budget and despite getting mostly favorable reviews, it was a flop at the box office. The audiences lack of favor towards the film would have driven Charles Foster Kane insane.
The film has the feel of an artist discovering a new medium and wanting to get the most from it. Welles experiments with camera angles, editing styles, and lighting and sound techniques each with an intellectual purpose behind them. The camera angles he uses are symbolic in themselves. For instance, he frequently uses low-angle shots that look up at Kane, which give the movie a theatrical feel and also make the character appear larger than they are. It also revolutionized the deep focus technique. The filmâ€™s cinematographer Gregg Toland developed a method of filming where characters that were usually blurred shapes in the background can be seen as clearly as the foreground characters. This allows for some of the most impressive tracking shots ever seen, particularly one of my favorites where the camera soars backwards through a window before settling on a table, leaving young Kane in clear focus out the window while the foreground characters create the scene.
The film is edited in a way that makes it a visual puzzle that goes right along with the filmâ€™s narrative. Scenes are shot from different perspectives so that each version of the story adds more to the complete plot. For instance, Kaneâ€™s accountant, Mr. Bernstein, looked at Kane as a hero so when the story is told through his perspective Kane is brightly lit and you see the positive aspects of his life. Contrarily, Kaneâ€™s friend Jedediah Leland saw through Kaneâ€™s falseness so you see a darker side of the man when told through his perspective.
The lighting of the film was very detailed and deliberate. The reporter who is gathering the information to put together the pieces of Kaneâ€™s life is never seen. The lighting is positioned so that his face is always in shadow, which makes him feel distant from the characters he is interviewing. This also allows for the viewer to put themselves in the position of the reporter and compare his journey with our own search for truth.
One of the most interesting uses of sound in the movie comes towards the end of the film when Kane is in a tent with his wife, Susan Alexander. As the pair gets in an argument, a woman screaming in the background can be heard getting louder and louder. It is unclear whether this sound is diegetic or not, but it does successfully represent Kaneâ€™s mistreatment of his wife.
There are so many elements to Citizen Kane and they deserve to be discovered on their own. I wouldnâ€™t call Citizen Kane my favorite film of all-time, but it is undeniable that it is a great undertaking and for somebody who loves everything that the art of film has to offer, it is a joy to behold.