Likely due to outside factors, Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’ first film, struggled at the box office when it was released in May of 1941. Couple those small audiences with a tepid critical response and even an Academy Award couldn’t stop the movie from fizzling away by the year’s end. More than a decade later, RKO sold its library to television and Citizen Kane started lighting up the small screen, encouraging enthusiastic reassessment. This time its success was undeniable: by 1958, Citizen Kane appeared on its first “greatest films ever made” list (losing the top spot to Battleship Potemkin) and has remained in such high esteem ever since. Notably, BFI’s once-a-decade Sight & Sound Poll of the Greatest Films of All Time, arguably the most prestigious ranking of this sort since it is compiled exclusively by critics and directors, had Citizen Kane in the number one spot five decades in a row, from 1962-2002.
However, in 2012 Citizen Kane lost the top spot on both lists, being surpassed by Vertigo with the critics and both Tokyo Story and 2001: A Space Odyssey with directors. Rumor has it that Citizen Kane won’t regain its crown and might tumble even further when this year’s poll is released. Today, IMDb’s top 250 movies ranks Citizen Kane at only #94 and on Letterboxd’s list of films by user rating it appears at a dismal #915 with an average user rating of just 4.18 out of five. Has Citizen Kane‘s star fallen? Is it time to radically reevaluate it once again and expose those film snobs once and for all?
First of all, I admit that my bona fides make my take on Citizen Kane particularly irrelevant. If you haven’t read my posts about movies before: I don’t consider myself a film snob (but I have been called one!), don’t aspire to be a professional critic, and I don’t think genuine film scholars would count me amongst their ilk. But I do care a lot about movies (see: this blog) and voluntarily participate in things like Criterion Month, so I’m not a layman either. I have now seen Citizen Kane twice: once was last night and the other time was half of my life ago, when I was in high school and I watched it from John’s bunk bed on his tiny TV. That’s it. While I did take film classes in high school and college, by some weird coincidence both of them had us watch another Orson Welles movie, Touch of Evil instead of Kane. The only other Welles-directed movie I’ve seen is Chimes at Midnight; I couldn’t even be bothered to watch The Other Side of the Wind when Netflix finished it a few years ago. Also, in preparation for this post I tried to watch Mank this afternoon but fell asleep after half an hour.
All that means is that I can’t give you a scholarly analysis or a regular Joe’s response, but I can tell you about what was stood out as meaningful to me, a casual aficionado(?) of cinema. One thing is the story, which is a times quaint and at times bitterly reminiscent of the stories we’re still seeing today. What I mean is that, with a few more curse words, Citizen Kane wouldn’t be that far from HBO’s Succession: a story of a media patriarch who makes an enemy of everyone who cares about him because he refuses to relinquish even a modicum of control. On the other hand, it’s also about his political aspirations being dashed because he’s exposed having an extramarital affair, something we now know people don’t actually give a shit about.
Actually, hold on, while we’re on this topic, you should go watch Donald Trump’s review of Citizen Kane. He calls it his favorite movie, which sounds like a really interesting insight into his psyche until he elaborates on it and says things like Kane, who ends up alone and miserable, had suffered a “modest fall” (implicitly so because he dies wealthy) and that Susan Alexander’s marriage to Kane was “not a great one for her, although there were benefits for her.” I’ve read that people who’ve been around Trump think he doesn’t really like any art or music or film and I believe them, so it’s easy to imagine that he says Kane is his favorite not because it means something to him, but because it’s considered “the best” movie, thanks to all those lists I brought up before.
But why was Citizen Kane really on all those lists? What makes it a landmark film that inspired generations of filmmakers? It’s its countless technical innovations — many of which modern audiences will just take for granted. It pioneered tropes, like shots of newspaper headlines and the Times Square “Zipper” news ticker to tell stories, broke down barriers by doing things like being the first film to show ceilings(?), made huge breakthroughs in old age makeup, and invented editing techniques like the wipe transition and the jump scare. That said, and I know it’s not fair to the movie, it’s very easy to not notice how innovative these things are. They’re just ceilings, after all. I see ceilings every day.
But! One thing that absolutely cannot be missed is the exquisite and extensive use of deep focus. Deep focus is when the cinematographer uses a very small aperture in combination with a wide-angle lens to keep all elements of an image in sharp focus. It’s not something I’ve seen a ton of, because it’s so tricky to do, I can’t think of another movie that do it so much. So credit goes to cinematographer (and fellow accomplished director) Gregg Toland for allowing Orson Welles to try to film every possible image he could dream up and creating one of the best examples of visually storytelling ever made. Whether I was watching a young Charlie Kane play in the snow in the background while his mother signs his life away in the foreground or a much older Charles pace uncomfortably in the background while his newspaper business is sold in the foreground, I was hooked by how stunning this movie is to look at. Seriously, like Avatar-level stuff here guys!
Citizen Kane has stood the test of time because it’s a good story told beautifully. It’s so influential because it was innovative and because Orson Welles got to live the ultimate fantasy of being given a huge budget and no oversight to make whatever movie he wanted with all his friends. That’s the dream. Pretty sure it hadn’t happened before or since. But what’s striking to me tonight is that despite all that legacy, all that clout, all that hullabaloo, I still think this is a very approachable movie for modern audiences. This ain’t one of those “it should be boring because life is boring” experimental foreign language films — it’s American as hell. Yes, you do have to have the patience to watch a whole movie with zero martial arts. But if you can get over that minor hurdle, you’ll find a story as complex as a person and equally worth your time.