By John H. Foote
The Godfather Part II (1974) is arguably the greatest of American films, with its astounding artistry and complex themes, followed by The Godfather (1972), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) , On the Waterfront (1954), Raging Bull (1980), Schindlers List (1993), Apocalypse Now (1979)The Wizard of Oz (1939), and The Searchers (1956), each in one way or another drawing on the many innovations brought to the screen within Citizen Kane (1941).
Though the American Film Institute and Sight and Sound magazine routinely name Citizen Kane (1941) the greatest film ever made, it no longer is. Many films listed above have surpassed it. It remains an astounding achievement, a towering work of art created by Orson Welles who never again made a film as original or unique.
Citizen Kane (1941) though still magnificent in many ways is now dated and out of touch with today’s audiences. It remains a powerful film to watch, something all lovers of film should see, just to understand everything Welles was doing in the film was often being done for the first time. The performance of the actress portraying his second wife is shrill and over the top, given to whispery delivery that I suppose she felt was sexy. Women, in fact, are rather poorly treated in the film altogether, his first wife quickly dispatched in a car accident which also took the life of his son. There are times the indispensable Mr. Bernstein appears irritating, often annoying with his constant presence and comments, though his speech about seeing a woman one morning on the Staten Island ferry is legendary.
Orson Welles was just 24 when he made the film, and broke all the rules because to him there were no rules within art, to create was paramount, to find new ways to communicate was intoxicating to him, so he simply went out and did it without any consideration for anything other than finding new ways to tell a story. Already a national sensation due to his work on the radio and stage, Welles was considered a boy wonder and given the chance to make a film about anything he wanted, that is exactly what he did.
And his story, what became Citizen Kane (1941) was of course about William Randolph Hearst, the publishing magnate Welles disliked intensely. They met at a dinner, among the other guests were Charlie Chaplin, and the arrogance of Hearts bothered Welles at once, though ironically, he himself was known to have a massive ego.
His lead character, Charles Foster Kane, portrayed by himself becomes an enigma to us, a puzzle which will never be solved, on one hand charismatic, on the other a complete fraud, he is all too human. Welles performance is often not given the credit it deserves, for he is brilliant. At twenty-four he ages u to his eighties, and does so beautifully, not just looking old, but moving old, his body language suggesting great age.
Nominated for nine Academy Awards, the film won just one for its near-perfect screenplay. Had justice been done, awards for Best Picture, Actor, Director, Cinematography, and Editing would have come as well. The New York Film Critics were the only awards group to have the courage to name the film the best of the year, which clearly it was.
Its innovations are as follows, and again these are the reasons the film should be remembered. Welles stated his greatest influences were “John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford.” It is incredible that Welles would be the influence so many filmmakers to follow.
The Innovations include…
Though not the first to use the device, Welles made it look effortless, breaking the film into a non-linear story, so there is no beginning, middle, and end. He moves back and forth through time, the entire film essentially flashback to the life of Kane.
USE OF EDITING
There are so many great examples of superb editing the film, too many to list here. That the film makes sense while being told in non-linear is a tribute to the editor and director, but to list three examples, here we go. They each in one way or another are connected to the passing of time. Young Charles opens a gift from his benefactor who says “Merry Christmas”, cut to years later with a “and a Happy New Year” and Kane is now an adult. No title cards, nothing, just editing. The famous mise-en-scene breakfast table sequence which begins with Kane and his new wife sitting side by side at a table, barely able to take their hands off one another, their future still ahead of them, a few seconds later, a few years gone by, they are a little farther apart, not as loving, a few seconds later much farther apart, their voices strained, obvious displeasure with one another, she makes a nasty comment about one of Kane’s trusted workers, (Bernstein….Jewish) and finally they sit in stone silence, each at the other end of the table, she reading the oppositions newspaper, nothing to say to one another, the marriage over. An entire life of a marriage summed up in fifteen seconds, brilliant. Later in the film, Kane hopes to hire the best of the best of reporters and the camera closes in on a photograph of a group of reporters, suddenly a flash goes off, and Kane is visible among the men, walking into the frame, having hired them all. The editing of the political rally is sublime, shot to make Kane look God-like, the influence of the Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will (1935) no doubt in their minds. Brilliant, just brilliant.
USE OF DEEP FOCUS CINEMATOGRAPHY
Look closely and you can see right to the back of the room, it is all crystal clear. The most obvious is the party sequence for the newspaper crew with the dancing girls….the image is clean right to the back of the room. IN many films only the action in front is clear, behind them it is blurry as the filmmaker deemed that not important. Not Welles, he felt everything in the frame was important.
USE OF CINEMATOGRAPHY
Kane is made to look God-like, enormous during the rally, in later shots in the film he looks puny and alone. They shot sequences to show ceilings to emphasize the size of the people and the importance of their size at that time in their lives. Watch the genius of close-ups after the opening of his second wife’s’ opera, a nightmare, as he rises and applauds, the camera comes to his hands, then his eyes, obsessed with seeming to will her to sing better and be accepted.
USE OF SOUND
Coming from a background in radio and the theatre, Welles understood how important sound was to a story. His use of sound during his infamous radio broadcast The War of the Worlds was spectacular, and yet deceptively simplistic. He understood sound could be subtle, and all the more powerful for being so. Listen to the mournful music which announces his death, the trumpeting in celebrating his life, the loud crowd at the rally, and the echoes of loneliness in his home after all close to him are gone. The echoes of the footfalls in his mansion as he edges towards death, and his whisper of rosebud, spoke in mourning remembrance and loss, of lost hopes, and dreams gone wrong.
USE OF LIGHTING
While the film owes a great deal to the German Expressionism period, for its brilliant use of lighting and shadow, it also goes further keeping the characters often dimly lit for effect. We NEVER see the face of the reporter trying to solve the mystery of Rosebud, and the lighting gets darker as Kane loses his empire and friends moving into Xanadu, his mansion. There is a lovely use of theatrical shaft lighting during the reporters’ visit to the museum of Kane’s guardian as he reads the papers
In life, people do not wait for the other to stop talking before they do and in early film, as Hollywood learned how to use sound this is what they did. Welles wanted the work to be realistic, so he allowed characters to talk over one another, finish on another’s sentences, bringing to the film a startling realism we had never seen before.
Rosebud, of course, is a metaphor for lost youth, for lost happiness, perhaps Kane remembering the last time he was purely happy, which we see at the beginning when he is playing in the snow. The ever-present jigsaw puzzles his second wife is putting together are representative of Kane, solving a riddle, an enigma.
The achievement for the American Dream, then gone wrong, because for all he had he had nothing, and did not have what he sought, love and true happiness. He collected things and understood they were just things, especially the statues, human shapes to which he could do as he wished. He used his enormous wealth to buy things, and when he could not buy people his world caved in on him.
Welles was just 24 years old when he made the film, yet was convincing as an old man, something, not even the supposed great James Dean could master. So much he brought with him from the theatre world, including his own makeup people.
Using the fake documentary about Kane at the beginning of the film gives us a glimpse into what we are about to see, the documentary resembling The March of Time films that played in theatres before the feature. Using remarkable effects for the time, we see Kane with various world leaders including Hitler. Both Zelig (1983) and Forrest Gump (1994) would use these methods years later.
CHARACTERS AS WITNESS TO HIS LIFE
As the reporter moves from person to person interviewing them about Kane, he slowly pieces together a life, and despite his wealth a very sad one. They each have very different memories of Kane, yet each saw his flaws as well as his potential for greatness. To a greater deg, Warren Beatty used this device in his masterpiece Reds (1981).
THE CROWD SCENES
There are none, though the political rally seems to have thousands watching Kane speak at the podium. Nope. Brilliant use of miniatures, sound, and cinematography.
Like Saving Private Ryan (1998) this film has a huge flaw in the narrative in that NO ONE actually hears him say Rosebud. He is alone in the room, the doors to the room are massive, the nurse enters and we see her come in on a shard of broken glass, but the butler only claims to be there, and we do not see him. Thus the entire narrative, the search for the meaning of his last words, is false because no one heard him say it!!!!! Second if you look close at the Florida beach party you will see a prehistoric bird fly into view behind the Black singer, a leftover piece of stock footage they made the mistake of cutting in before they realized what it is was, and when the parrot screams, look close and can see right through his eye….cause it is not there.
FILMS INFLUENCED BY CITIZEN KANE
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), the final scene of the government hiding the Ark of the Covenant in a massive warehouse resembles greatly, the final shot of the Kane home where his massive collection is being dealt with and stored; certainly the portrayal of the American Dream in Kane resembles that of Don Corleone in The Godfather (1972), that sense of having everything and it not being enough; the enigma of rosebud is what Tarantino did with whatever was in the briefcase belonging to Marcellus Wallace which glowed gold when opened….we never knew. Every film shot in the broken narrative, The Godfather Part II (1974), again, The Sweet Hereafter (1997), so many others…and of course so many more.
So while the film has many innovations for which it should be hailed, it has been surpassed as the greatest film of all time be at least ten films, perhaps more. That should not stop anyone from experiencing the film, not just for the first time, but a few
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.