Citizen Kane is one of those pop culture touchstones that most people are aware of in some way, regardless of whether they’ve seen it or not. That’s hardly surprising, either. Not only is Citizen Kane often touted as the greatest film of all time, but it’s also inspired countless pop culture references (including several of The Simpsons‘ most memorable gags) since it arrived in theatres over 70 years ago. So clearly, Citizen Kane can lay a solid claim to being the most influential movie ever made. But is it really the best ever, as well? Probably not (no movie is) – it comes pretty damn close, though.
Directed by legendary auteur Orson Welles from a script co-written with screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, Citizen Kane opens with the death of reclusive magnate Charles Foster Kane (Welles). In his final moments, the elderly, bed-ridden Kane drops a snow globe and whispers one final word: “Rosebud”.
From there, the story unfolds largely in flashback, as reporter Jerry Thompson’s (William Alland) interviews Kane’s those who knew him best in an effort to uncover the truth behind Kane’s last cryptic utterance…
I can still remember watching Citizen Kane for the first time a few years ago and being blown away by the modern cinematic techniques on display. This old black and white flick had everything you’d expect to see in a contemporary release, from elaborate camera moves to believable special effects and make-up, and even an intricate, non-linear narrative structure.
That these artistic and technical elements are present in Citizen Kane decades before they became commonplace just goes to show how much of an impact the film has had on everything that followed. Admittedly, many of these creative ingredients had been used before in isolation, but it took Welles and his team to bring them all together under one roof. When you then factor in Gregg Toland’s pioneering use of deep focus photography, you’re left with arguably the first example of cinema as a unique storytelling medium, instead of merely a showcase for pre-recorded plays.
But for all its lofty accomplishments, what really makes Citizen Kane such a fantastic film is quite simple, and grounded in timeless storytelling fundamentals: it tells an engaging story about a compelling, relatable lead. Stories based around the rise and fall of a flawed protagonist lend themselves naturally to pathos, and Welles exploits this to its full extent. True, Kane is never portrayed as being entirely on the side of the angels, but through a combination of top-notch screenwriting and Welles’ own charismatic and layered performance, he remains a character we both root for and pity.
We watch as he continually acquires possessions (and people) only to promptly ignore them in a desperate attempt to possess and control a world too large for even his reach, and we empathise with him, knowing that he was always doomed to fail. And who could watch as an older Kane wonders aloud what kind of man he might have been if circumstances had been different and not feel some sense of solidarity with the old tycoon?
Citizen Kane offers more than a mere character study, however – and this is where, once again, Welles’ film really raised the bar. By employing a non-linear structure, the movie is able to paint a portrait of Kane that reveals a complex man who changed constantly while somehow also remaining fundamentally the same, as well. In doing so, it asks bigger questions about whether an individual can ever be truly known by others as more than aspects of an unseen whole, and whether a life can be summed up in a single word.
Does this effectively squeeze out the wider cast of characters (many of whom are reduced to two-dimensional caricatures, and played as such)? Sure, and indeed that’s one of the criticisms occasionally levelled at the film. But the central figure of Kane is so overpowering, and Welles’ performance so towering, that this (and any other minor quibbles) barely registers to the average viewer.
Ultimately then, Citizen Kane has a lot in common with its tragic protagonist (not to mention its infamous director): it’s ambitious, engrossing, mesmerising and inevitably falls short of the impossible standards it sets itself. Flawed or not, though, the film also shares one further similarity with its lead: the rare ability to completely transfix those who encounter it, long after it has faded from view.