REVIEW: ‘Citizen Kane’ (1941)

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Grade: A

As I sit down to review Orson Welles’ 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 I’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 Welles’ 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.

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Citizen Kane’s protagonist Charles Foster Kane is based on newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst. The purpose of the film was to present a man in power’s obsession with himself and the fascination it brought the world. Throughout the film the word “Kane” appears frequently, increasing in size as the man’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.

That’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 – “since the pyramids, the costliest monument a man has built to himself.” 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 Welles’ first feature. He had become popular as a stage actor and for the infamous “War of the Worlds” 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 film’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.

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The film is edited in a way that makes it a visual puzzle that goes right along with the film’s narrative. Scenes are shot from different perspectives so that each version of the story adds more to the complete plot. For instance, Kane’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, Kane’s friend Jedediah Leland saw through Kane’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 Kane’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 Kane’s mistreatment of his wife.

There are so many elements to Citizen Kane and they deserve to be discovered on their own. I wouldn’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.

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  • G1000

    Doesn’t belong on any list of the greatest films ever made, in my opinion. It was by no means bad, but I still am attempting to understand why people regard it as a masterpiece. I guess I just don’t get it. I probably never will.

  • One of the main reasons it is a masterpiece is because there has rarely been so much thought put into each individual frame of a movie. Pause the movie at any point and you will see that the camera angle, the lighting, the scenery, all are symbolic.

  • G1000

    I realize that (and I loved the last fifteen minutes of the movie for that very reason). Welles’ direction is terrific. But the acting (apart from Welles’ portrayal of Kane, which was excellent) is decent at best, and the story not particularly compelling. Why are we supposed to care about Kane’s life (since he isn’t a very likeable character), and what Rosebud is? And the film hasn’t aged well in my opinion. Again, I realize I am in the minority here, but I just don’t think it belongs with films like “Duck Soup”, “West Side Story”, “Rear Window”, and the original “Mutiny on the Bounty” on any list of the greatest movies ever made.

  • We care about the character because Kane represents the fall from greatness. We all desire greatness in our own lives in some way. Kane achieved it and it infected and overtook him.

    Rosebud is significant because it is one of the important elements that the audience knows and nobody else does. Despite the greatness that Kane achieved, when he is at the end of his rope and on his deathbed, his mind goes back to the part of his childhood that was lost. If you think about it we all have a Rosebud – the simple thing that we did not appreciate enough when we had it because of our desire for greater things.

  • I don’t think a main character needs to be likable for us to care about him. In fact, the whole point with Kane is figuring out why he’s so disagreeable — why is a man who’s seemingly achieved every dream he’s ever had still so unhappy? The puzzle of Citizen Kane is figuring that out and trying to piece together the “Who is Kane” question from the beginning.

    And the really brilliant part of the movie, IMO, is that not only do the reporters not really get it at the end, but the audience doesn’t either. We’ve been shown so much, but it’s all just bits and pieces, glimpses from different points of view.

    Everything about the film, from the structure of the narrative to the setup of every shot, builds on that idea in a really masterful way that simply hasn’t been emulated by many other movies.

  • G1000

    Spoiler Alert for those who have not seen the film.

    Alex Carlson :We care about the character because Kane represents the fall from greatness.

    I think you’re giving Welles a lot more credit than he deserves. I honestly don’t believe he intended everything in “Citizen Kane” to “symbolize” something. I think the film has been dissected by millions of film lovers and scholars worldwide, and that many have found symbolic imagery in the film that the director never intended to “mean” anything. Certain images (such as the sled being burned at the end of the film) certainly were intended to represent certain things, but other images were, in my opinion, not intended to represent anything at all. Which brings me back to my main objection to the movie: a film has to work, first of all, as a film. You can say that “Citizen Kane” works as an allegory or a parable, and that it has a deeper meaning (which it probably does). But in order for a movie to be truly great, it must also be something you can just sit back, enjoy, and not have to analyze. While I recognize “Kane’s” technical brilliance, I found it a bore to sit through. Is it a film that everyone should see? Probably. Is it a “classic”? Most would say that it is. But is it the type of film I’d want to see again and again? My answer is a resounding no (and I realize that probably only 1 out of every 1000 film lovers feels this way).

  • Brandon Cooley

    At first I didn’t understand the message either, but after some time I started to think about Kane’s life of wanting success and I thought about his downfall. This is a movie that proves that life isn’t about success, money, or huge houses. I don’t agree with AFI because they put the movie at number 1 on the greatest movies of all time list, but this movie deserves to go down in history.

    They should remake this with a present day setting, since not many people know about it. Leonardo DiCaprio would be my pick to play the role of Kane.

  • I agree with most of what this review has to say. However, I will maintain that the AFI got it wrong as to which film was the greatest American film of the 20th Century…twice. Casablanca, made in the same year as Citizen Kane, is clearly the far more superior movie.

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