Eighty years ago, Orson Welles released his first picture, Citizen Kane. Plagued by controversy due to the inspiration of the main character, the film failed to make any profit, was snubbed at the Oscars, and was quickly forgotten about for many years to come. However, it was fortunately re-released in 1956, was reappraised, and is now considered to be the greatest and most influential film of all time. Now, eighty years later, it’s time to once again assess the “greatest film ever made.”
Based on media mogul William Randolph Hearst, Citizen Kane follows reporter Jerry Thompson (William Alland) as he examines the life of the recently deceased newspaper publisher, Charles Foster Kane. Upon learning of Kane’s dying word, “Rosebud,” Thompson begins interviewing past friends and family of the wealthy tycoon’s life, desperate to find the meaning behind the word.
Welles makes his directorial debut hot off the heels of his impressive radio career, and truly set a precedent for all future films to come. The worst thing about the film is also the best, and it’s that you’ve already seen it before. Upon a first viewing, some may find the film to be generic or boring, but that is only because a newer film took inspiration from the bar set by Welles. The entire cinematic experience as we know it today is only here due to Citizen Kane and its innovative style.
To start, the acting, particularly from Welles, is superb. Often in classic films, the acting feels corny or silly by today’s standards. However, Welles played Charles Kane in a timeless way that still holds up eight decades later. All the emotions that Kane feels are convincing: his joy, his sadness, his anger. At times you want to cry for him, others you’re afraid of him. Never once do you feel that the story is disngenuine, largely due to the convincingly human portrayal from its lead. Other standouts are Joseph Cotton as Jedediah Leland and Dorothy Comingore as Susan Alexander Kane, but there are just as substantial stars offscreen.
Cinematographer Greg Tolland blasted the motion picture industry to a new standard when he stepped behind the camera. Welles and Toland used deep-focus shots, allowing the audience to see everything on screen so that they could choose what to hone in on, creating an immersive film experience that was rarely available at the time. Plus, the duo’s use of low angles allowing ceilings to be in frame made the experience even more wowing at the time. It’s common knowledge that Welles chose to make innovative and unique style choices because he didn’t know that films weren’t traditionally done that way. This is perhaps the most influential example of “blissful ignorance”.
The makeup used on the leads to age them through time is quite remarkable. By today’s standards, it is still impressive. In a strange way, it makes you feel that a middle-aged Kane is more real than the actual twenty-five-year-old Welles bringing him to life. Sure, there are times when you notice something strange about the latex or masks, but these times are rare and in between, hardly a reason to be pulled from the film.
In terms of story structure, Citizen Kane once again sets a new industry high. The plot is famously nonlinear, being told by different characters in the form of flashbacks. This nonlinear structure has been seen in many films since and will continue to be seen forever. It was a fresh form of storytelling that may have not originated from Welles, but it was most certainly popularized by him.
It’s now time for the actual criticism of the “greatest film ever made.” In terms of plot, the film is somewhat hollow. There’s no real conflict or antagonist throughout the runtime, other than Thompson’s search for the meaning behind “Rosebud.” The characters are believable, the style impressive, and the nonlinear structure lively, but there’s never anything to get really worked up about, other than debating afterward about a dying man’s last word.
Now eighty years later, Orson Welles’ directorial debut still holds up. It is impossible to not credit the picture with reshaping the way we view films and movies today. Although it may be more of a technical and stylistic triumph, there’s no question that Citizen Kane has more than earned its place as one of the greatest and most influential films ever made.