14 August 2008

Citizen Kane (1941)

d. Orson Welles / USA / 119 mins.

Orson Welles's Citizen Kane has been discussed in every single way possible, from broader philosophical implications to the elementary structuring of a single frame, and all that's left are personal stories. Here's mine.

I first saw the film at the tender age of 15, shortly after the American Film Institute named it the No. 1 U.S. movie of the twentieth century. (But of course the canonical entrenchment goes on from there; the decennial Sight & Sound poll, the crème de la crème of pointless rankings, has had it in the top position since 1962.) At the time I didn't see the big deal was; I preferred Casablanca and The Godfather, and I dismissed Citizen Kane as a critical aberration and spent the subsequent decade complaining about its devoted following.

But time is a funny thing, and one need look no further than Citizen Kane to prove the point. This is a movie has defied, and defined, time. You see, 15-year-old boys are stupid. We are simple and have simple things on our minds. I have now re-watched Citizen Kane. Revisiting films is always a unique experience, like spotting a face in a crowd, someone you barely remember except for hairlines and smiles. I recalled the plot, and the images were vaguely recognizable, but it is an entirely different movie; it is a supremely well-crafted and entertaining motion picture, as a matter of fact. I still prefer Casablanca and The Godfather, but boy, do I also like Citizen Kane.

It seems many people come to Citizen Kane this way. When it was released, in 1941, it was popular among critics but decried by those who wanted to remain popular in the eyes of William Randolph Hearst (upon whom the character of Charles Foster Kane is based). The film famously lost Best Director and Best Picture to John Ford and his film How Green Was My Valley. It won the little-movie-that-can category – Best Original Screenplay – but was booed at the ceremony whenever mentioned (again, by those skittish Hearstwhiles). It took a re-release in the 1950s for the film even to turn a profit.

But yet, here it is, defying time to sit atop the heap of film canisters, looming over all celluloid like the blow-up print of Kane looms over the grinning human Kane standing at a podium. Why? Well, because it's a great a movie in its pieces and in its whole. The script, by then-25-year-old Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz, is deliciously layered and non-linear, exposing the rise and fall of a man who seems to be always smiling but is never happy. The camerawork is absolutely wicked: flowing like wind on a jetstream, it brings you along for a legitimate ride, and the deep-focus and chiaroscuro cinematography by Gregg Toland is splendid. (As has been noted elsewhere, Welles's appreciation of Toland is evident in his placement of Toland alongside himself in the screen credits.) Bernard Herrmann, who would go on to write some of the most recognizable and imitated scores in Hollywood history, put the flourishing brassy tones into Kane. Many very fine actors made their film debuts here, including Welles, Joseph Cotten, and Agnes Moorehead. Along with JFK, the film is also one of the best assemblages I've ever seen, thanks to editor Robert Wise, who links images and sounds with utter smoothness.

But is it the greatest movie ever? It's pretty damn great, but it's not perfect. There's a section near its end when the investigative reporter (who's trying to figure out what in the hell "Rosebud" is) interviews Kane's ex-wife for the second time, and it's far too slow in comparison to the rest of the film's pacing. Pauline Kael has noted the film's one big goof, too, which it only half-heartedly attempts to correct. (No one is with Kane when he breathes his last word). And while acknowledging how great the film is on a technical level, it is possible to overstate the originality in Welles's decisions. Citizen Kane runs like a Swiss clock and looks as good as any movie could look, but Welles was undoubtedly influenced by techniques already shown in the films of Ford, Howard Hawks, and Alfred Hitchcock – particularly Ford's Stagecoach and Hitchcock's Rebecca. (Rather than calling Citizen Kane groundbreaking, it might be more accurate to say the film is an innovative apprentice rivaling the masters.) But those are fairly petty complaints for a film and they hardly diminish its overall effect.

I suspect most critics wouldn't call the singular greatest, either; it's just that many, many critics would cite it as among the best, leading it to be a highly satisfactory consensus candidate. For example: In the most recent Sight & Sound poll, done in 2002, of the 145 critics who voted, a plurality of 46 put Citizen Kane somewhere on a top-ten list – enough to make it the most-nominated film, yes, but hardly a blowout. And even then, Hitchcock's Vertigo was only five votes behind.

Personally, I could name at least twenty-five movies I like more, but that means Citizen Kane is still toward the top, doesn't it? Its regard is probably owed to its fortuitous placement in history: after the birth of the studio system, before World War II; fresh enough to be innovative, old enough to be classic; independent and free, yet collaborative and restrained; sly, but in an amusing kids-in-the-candy-shop sort of way; a rebellious film that somehow became the standard against which films are placed. It superbly performs the task we demand from movies: it tells a very good story in a very good way. And greatest movie or not, that's what makes Citizen Kane timeless.


M. Carter @ the Movies 08 January, 2010  

It took me far too many years to see "Citizen Kane," mainly because I let all the critical acclaim convince me I'd end up disappointed. Then I smacked myself on the head, said "quit being a dope!" and watched it. And the minute it was finished I knew it was a masterpiece, so I watched it again ... which almost never happens!

There are too many things I love about "Citizen Kane" to type here, so I'll stick with the biggies: the cinematography, that untoppable twist ending, Dorothy Comingmore as Susan Alexander (so good) and Orson Welles turning C.F. Kane into one of the great cinematic antiheroes. There's just something so magical about the way all these elements come together that I'm not the least big ashamed to join the masses who've heaped so much praise on "Citizen Kane" over the years.

If you're interested, you can find my review here: http://mcarteratthemovies.wordpress.com/2009/10/20/no-8-citizen-kane-1941/

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