Citizen Kane

Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles), an unimaginably wealthy publishing kingpin, drops his snowglobe and dies alone in his bed. His last dying word, “Rosebud,” sends the national newspaper journalists into a frenzy, all eager to discover it’s true meaning, in the hope of shedding some light onto the tycoon. Led by Jerry Thompson (William Alland), the reporters speak with Kane’s former wife, friends, employees, business partner and butler on their search for the truth. Could it be the name of a girl? A dog? A boat? Or just the rambling ravings of an insane old man?

Up until last year, Citizen Kane has topped Sight and Sound magazine’s Greatest Film Of All Time list, but was recently toppled by Vertigo. It’s been a little while since I’ve seen Hitchcock’s classic, so I can’t vouch for whether the change is correct or not, but I can say that I have no problem with Citizen Kane having been up there for quite so long. This film actually appears on all four of the lists I’m currently working through, and so great is its reputation that I can’t imagine a respected film list denying it a place. I mean, it spawned the prefix “It’s the Citizen Kane of…” as a way of saying a film is the greatest of a specific type. And heads up, this isn’t going to be the Citizen Kane of Citizen Kane reviews. So what makes it so important? Why is it revered by so many people? Will every paragraph in this review end in a question mark?


No. Well, maybe. I haven’t written the rest of them yet. In terms of just why everyone considers it to be incredible, there are almost too many reasons to mention. The most famous of course is that Orson Welles directed, produced, starred and co-wrote this masterpiece, and all at the age of twenty four. That’s one year younger than I currently am, which sends me into an impossibly steep downward spiral of self pity at how comparatively little I’ve achieved in a similar amount of time. What makes it possibly worse is that Kane was Welles’ first feature length foray into film-making, having previously only worked on two shorts and an uncredited role as a narrator in Edward Ludwig’s Swiss Family Robinson. It is almost impossible to separate the character of Kane from the figure of Welles, as they both launch onto the screen with unparallelled levels of ambition, confidence and fervour. This is currently the only Welles film I’ve seen (other than The Muppet Movie), and by the looks of it I’ve got some great films ahead of me, and I look forward to seeing if any of them have such a well rounded creation of a character as Charles Foster Kane.

Born into nothing and sold by his poverty stricken parents,Kane built an empire from his new ward’s meagre New York Daily Inquirer, which he initially took over because it sounded fun. His intense confidence and high sense of self drove him on to greatness, as did his sense of what the public wanted, converting his conservative news journalism into a publicity and celebrity gossip rag, as that way there’d be more ‘news’ to print. You can say what you like about his ideals, but he was certainly correct in his endeavours. Welles ably displays Kane’s changing virtues and opinions throughout his years, as what becomes most important to him slowly changes, from garnering wealth and power to trying to please those closest to him. His wealth eventually becomes too much to handle, and his inability to control his spending destroys every relationship he ever had. His wife Susan (Dorothy Comingore) dreamed of singing on stage and living in a palace – so he builds her an opera house and the largest home ever seen, regardless of whether she can actually sing or stand to live with him. He makes the world what he thinks it should be, but just like John Hammond in Jurassic Park, he only thought about whether he could, he didn’t stop to think if he should.

Some scenes have not fared well from copycats and mimics in the many years since this was released, and it is often clear in which direction the film will head – when Kane’s associate Leland (Joseph Cotten) keeps Kane’s original hand-written copy of the newspaper’s manifesto, there is no chance of it not coming back to bite Kane later on in the film. And if you’ve seen the film before but had somehow forgotten the meaning behind Kane’s famous dying word, the solution is pretty well rammed down your throat at the start of the film.

By far my favourite aspect of the film in the innovations in cinematography, and the wide variety on show here. Be it the camera descending through  a storm-lashed skylight into a high-ceilinged, cavernous bar to rest on Susan Kane being questioned by reporters, the dining montage between Kane and his first wife Emily (Ruth Warrick) keenly showing the gradual but inevitable distancing between the couple as his work becomes increasingly more important to him or the film’s use of light and shadow, with characters (often reporters) shrouded in darkness, there is much to be learned from Gregg Toland’s work here. And that’s before even discussing his innovative deep focus photography technique, allowing every aspect of the screen – fore-, back- and middle-ground, to be seen clearly simultaneously.

The make-up and prosthetics are also incredible, with the same actors used to portray the various characters throughout their lives (except as children), and in many places it looked just as good as Guy Pierce’s appearance in Prometheus.

One thing that surprised me was how unimportant the search for Rosebud’s meaning was. In terms of plot it sets the whole thing up as a nice maguffin, but the more important aspect is seeing Kane’s life through the eyes of those that were most important to him, rather than necessarily discovering the solution to the initial quandary. In fact, the plot device is all but forgotten until the last scene, set in Kane’s never-ending warehouse-like home full of the clutter he’d collected throughout his life (I’m positive the ark of the covenant is in there somewhere). Instead, the film sets out to join the dots laid out in the opening montage of Kane’s life, filling in the gaps with the details behind the legend.

So is it the greatest movie ever made? Probably not (that’s Jurassic Park), but it could well be one of the most important. Kane‘s legacy and influence cannot be overestimated, and it remains technologically impressive at over seventy years old. 

Choose Film  9/10

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22 thoughts on “Citizen Kane

  1. Oooh, you like Jurassic Park too? That was *my* pick for the club.I've seen this movie three times, and two of those times was on the big screen. I am still too intimidated to write about it. I mean honestly, anything that could be said about this movie has already been said a hundred times. Because of that, I admire anyone who actually does. So good on you! Nice review, and I love the cinematography in this as well.

  2. My liking of Jurassic Park cannot be understated, it's my favourite film, ever. I had screenshots of it as my desktop wallpaper for many a year, from the doors of the park opening, to Gennaro being eaten on the toilet. Thank you for picking it, it was one of the first reviews I ever posted!And cheers for the compliments, I honestly had no clue how to write this review, because as you said, its all been said before, so I just thought I'd get on with it and get it out of the way! Best of luck for when you get round to giving it a shot, I look forward to your thoughts on it. And I imagine it must have been amazing to see on the big screen.

  3. Not surprisingly I too was very impressed with Citizen Kane. It is a monument.To my great embarrasment I actually did not catch the meaning of Rosebud, mainly because I was half asleep near the end (not because of the movie) and my conclusion was that Rosebud did not have a meaning at all and that it was the journey rather than the destination that mattered. To find out that Rosebud was his lost innocence was actually a bit of a downer. I actually prefer this simply to be a brilliant insight into the psyche of extraordinary person.

  4. I do love Jurassic Park too (it would almost certainly make my top 20), but Citizen Kane is better because of Orson Welles' audacity in dropping the bombshell in the most subtle of ways. Until the bombshell, Citizen Kane feels average, but the whole meaning of the film is revealed literally before the final curtain.It is revealed that the whole point of the film is Rosebud and that while the audience has forgotten about it in a couple of hours, Kane hasn't in a lifetime. Rosebud symbolises the only happy point in Kane's life and that while he has all of his money, he is only a shell of a man without his greatest memories – something he realises towards the end of his life.In my opinion, only Casablanca is better.wizzardSS

  5. Jay, I'll echo what Simon says in that I've been meaning to write about Citizen Kane for a while and just keep putting it off. I'm glad that you mention the cinematography, which is just remarkable and so innovative for its time period. The shot of Kane speaking at the political rally with the giant image behind him is amazing. He uses the set design so well to convey what's happening in the scene. When Kane's life starts going sour, we can feel it more than just with the acting. The breakfast montage that you mention is a great example, and the mirror shot in his mansion is another good one. It's too bad that Citizen Kane must live up to the "greatest of all time" label, which doesn't allow some viewers to see how great it is.

  6. Good review. This was the first film I saw that critics loved where I felt that the praise was justified. I have no problem with it being named best film ever (unlike Vertigo which is most definitely unworthy in my opinion.)Three things related to Citizen Kane: 1. If you still have the DVD I highly recommend you listen to Roger Ebert's commentary for the film. It is the best one I have ever listened to. (Skip Bogdonavich's, though.)2. If you have the double DVD version then watch The Fight for Citizen Kane. It is a documentary about how William Randolph Hearst tried to destroy the film because it was a thinly veiled portrait of himself.3. Check out the movie RKO 281. It is a movie re-creation of how Welles made the film. How did he get the famous shot looking up from Kane's shoes to the ceiling? By jackhammering through the concrete floor and placing the camera in a pit under them.

  7. I think you can be forgiven for not seeing the answer to 'Rosebud', as the reporters in the film didn't find it either, and its only on screen for a couple of seconds at most.

  8. I agree Casablanca is better, but in terms of what I'd most happily watch day after day, Jurassic Park wins for me hands down. You make a good analysis of the film's meaning, I agree with the points you made.

  9. Here's a second vote for RKO 281–great little film.Kane is one of those films that tells you a lot about the viewer. It's not simply that some people love it and others hate it–the reasons that people love or hate it tell a lot about the person in question. That said, I can't for the life of me understand how anyone could find this film dull.

  10. I think the hype about past 'great' films is easily the thing that makes them most susceptible to disappoitnment. I'd much prefer to see many films that are deemed classics with no such knowledge of their status, but alas this of course cannot be so. And by the way, Siochembio is Siobhan, not Simon 🙂

  11. I should be watching Vertigo fairly soon, so I'll let you know how worthy I think it is of its new status.I've still got the DVD (picked it up second hand last year). It's a 2-disc one, but as usual the Region 2 copy doesn't have half the extras of the US version – the only commentary I've got is from Ken Barnes, and The Fight for Citizen Kane is nowhere to be found.I've added RKO 281 to my LoveFilm queue, thanks for the recommendation.

  12. To follow this up – one of my friends hated Citizen Kane and really didn't understand it. I was trying to figure out why.The reason? She turned it off 10 minutes before the end through sheer frustration.

  13. Gah! I took this as my latest selection to a semi-regular movie night I attend, and the other two guys, who don't normally watch anything pre-Star Wars, both really enjoyed it. I hope you've forced your friend to re-watch it, even if it required A Clockwork Orange-style enforcement.

  14. A few days before I started writing this (but a couple of days after watching it) TSorenson reviewed Kane on his site too. This seems to be happening more and more to me, I watch a film, and a site I follow posts a review before I get the chance! I suppose I should learn to type my reviews up a bit quicker really!

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