Orson Welles, 1941
“I don’t care that it just lost the top spot in the Sight & Sound ‘Greatest Films of All Time’ poll for the first time in 50 years to Vertigo- Citizen Kane will always be the king of classic cinema. Forget decades of pseudo cinephiles complaining that it’s overrated; Orson Welles’ magnum opus, largely seen as a towering ‘takedown piece’ on newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, is still an exciting and incredibly vivid experience as its 70th anniversary Blu-Ray release last year strongly attests. Its story may not be as deep as cinematographer Greg Toland’s deep focus, but the passion involved with inventing a new cinematic language involving quick-cut editing, a delirious use of dissolves, and, in the words of Roger Ebert on his original DVD commentary, ‘a higher percentage of special effects than one of the Star Wars movies,’ has never failed to mesmerize me.
“All the bells and whistles aside, Welles makes great use of his Mercury Theatre players throughout the film, particularly Joseph Cotten and Everett Sloane, who both may have more memorable quotes than Kane. But whether or not you buy into the auteur theory, or believe Pauline Kael’s arguments that co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz was the real brains behind the project, it’s undeniably Welles’ show. The grand quadruple-threat, who was only 24 at the time, kills as the power-mad multi-millionaire publisher in a performance that’s at first amusing in its sheer youthful confidence, then devastatingly touching in the character’s old-age decline into lavish loneliness.
“Even if Citizen Kane never again tops Sight & Sound’s poll, its 50 year run as the greatest film ever will be impossible to beat. From grainy VHS copies, to sharp DVD and even sharper Blu-Ray special editions, (with some big-screen revival showings along the way), Kane has never stopped getting to me. I know, no matter what tops whatever ‘best movie ever’ poll, that it never will.” - Daniel Cook Johnson
“First, I have a confession to make: I didn’t vote for Citizen Kane.
“That’s not to say I don’t think Kane is one of the greats, because it clearly is. It’s just that, when the time came to choose the twenty films, I decided that if I was limited by how many I could pick then I should pick twenty movies that, as a friend of mine put it, I’d ‘go to the mat for.’ In short, movies that aren’t just great to everyone but also special to me. So goodbye Kane, hello A Hard Day’s Night! and Blow Out, two movies to which I feel personally connected in a way I never quite have with Kane.
“But perhaps that’s inevitable, considering what a colossus Welles’ first masterpiece has become, looming mightily over film history… that is, until its unceremonious dethroning by Vertigo in the Sight and Sound poll this year. Nonetheless, for any movie lover who came of age in the last five decades, Kane was inescapable, a movie that could never simply be great, but rather one to which discussions eventually turned to whether it was indeed the undisputed cinematic heavyweight champ.
“Frankly, that’s quite a burden for one movie to bear, and it’s a testament to how damn good Citizen Kane really is that it managed to withstand that level of scrutiny for fifty years (good luck, Vertigo!). And now that it’s been freed from that level of responsibility, it’s time for people to take another look at the movie on its own terms, not those that have been imposed upon it by critics, scholars, and lovers of cinema for the last fifty years.
“Much like the English teacher who wishes he could experience Romeo and Juliet for the first time the way his students do, I’m envious of all the cinephilic young turks who will be enjoying their first Kane experience now that it doesn’t rule the roost anymore. Rather than having its legendary status drummed into them from the start, they’re more likely to come to it the way they might come to any classic work- in a film studies class, a retrospective, or simply through word of mouth. In this way, they’re more likely to enjoy it after their own fashion without having to take sides, as if participating in the “is Kane #1?” debate were akin to pitting Team Jacob against Team Edward.
“The way I see it, Kane has the potential to become the fun uncle of American cinema. After all, it’s been around so long that it knows all the old stories and where the bodies are buried, and every time you see it, it’s got a new joke or magic trick for you. It’s not top dog anymore, but it’s fun and approachable and nice enough to remember your girlfriend’s name even if you haven’t seen it in a year or two. In other words, it’s about time for Citizen Kane to be cool again.
“Because, really, it is cool, especially if you can learn to come to it with fresh eyes. Decades of cinematic influence may have robbed the celebrated flashback structure of its novelty, and Kane’s deep focus photography isn’t so jaw-dropping to an audience that takes digital touch-ups for granted (although honestly, isn’t the fact that it looks so damn good on Blu-Ray all the more impressive considering Welles didn’t tweak the visuals with HD in mind?). But what’s unmistakable is the verve with which Welles infused the film, from the opening logo to the end titles. A consummate showman from the beginning, Welles came to Hollywood with a bag full of radio and theater tricks (plus a few he learned from watching movies), and the vision- and sound judgment- to include as many of them as the story could handle but no more. Seeing the movie today, it’s amazing to see how dense the movie is- with narrative, with characters, with technique and style- but it never collapses under its own weight. Lumbering white elephant art this isn’t.
“It’s tempting to read Kane as a movie that anticipates Welles’ career slide, as Kane’s brash youth gave way to troubles later in life (was Don Quixote Welles’ Susan Alexander?). But in light of the films that followed, I prefer to see Kane as a cautionary tale from the youthful Welles to his elder counterpart. As Charles Foster Kane falls from grace and entombs himself in Xanadu, one can almost hear Welles telling himself, ‘don’t let this be you. Learn your lessons the first time, and then move on. Keep searching. Keep experimenting. Don’t pit yourself against the world- be a part of it. Enjoy life, if not too wisely then too well. And if you fail, go down in flames so you can light up the sky. Be the guy who can look his 25-year-old self square in the eye without a modicum of regret.’
“Citizen Kane is still the same movie it’s always been, even if the audience has changed. And just because it doesn’t need your love doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve it.” ~ Paul Clark