Citizen Kane: The best movie ever? Why?

This is an honest question. I’ve seen “Citizen Kane” twice now. I just don’t get why it is considered such a great film.
Is it using some revolutionary filming techniques?
A modern storytelling style?
Is the plot deep and original?

Any film critique here in the dope-boards care to give me some pointers? Thanx

I think this will get better response in Cafe Society.

Off to Cafe Society.

DrMatrix - General Questions Moderator

The answer to your three questions is
Yes, yes and yes.

Considering when it was done, it was as revolutionary as Memento or Matrix in its time. Not that people understood it then.

  1. The use of depth focus, Welles’ use of the entire screen, not just the center, the use of darkness, editing. All combine to make something that was quite advanced back then. Not that you can see the ceiling in many shots. Most interior scenes in movies are shot on soundstages, and there is no ceiling - instead the lights go there. Welles uses the ceiling in a clever way.
  2. One can argue that the storytelling, by starting with the end (i.e. C.F. Kane’s death) madfe way for a non linear narration in movies.
  3. It is to an extent. Considering that the plot is an attack/satire of Randolph Hearst, whose campaign to stop the movie from being done is legendary on its own.

There are numerous online sources for this. I would venture that Citizen Kane is one of the first lectures on any liberal arts offering “Movies 101”.

Is it all that great? I enjoy it. Not only for technical or historical values, but I think it’s a good yarn, well told. And that’s, what’s important for me. I can watch Potemkin or Birth of a Nation and recognize that they’re important movies. But I’m not entertained. Citizen Kanes entertains me.

It’s harder to appreciate the genuis of this movie today because so many of the techniques that it pioneered have seeped into common usage. You just can’t concieve of modern movies without Citizen Kane.

For example, there’s a shot that recurrs three or four times in the film when two people are talking about Charlie Kane. The two people who are speaking about Charlie are in the foreground on the left and right of the screen while Charlie is in the background, oblivious to the fact that he’s being discussed. I see this shot about once a week in everything from science fiction movies to soap operas. And that’s just one little detail–practically every shot in the movie has been ripped off somewhere. If it seems a little cliched now, it’s because everybody has been ripping it off for fifty years.

I think this is one of the biggest things about the movie. It’s not even so much that any of the techniques were “revolutionary” on their own, but that Wells tried to combine so many different filming techniques into one movie. Wells made much use of light and shadow to evoke mood and emotion, which was not all that common; Wells also used a great deal of unusual camera angles throughout the film to convey things like importance and dominance, etc., such as the low camera angles pointing upward and even showing ceilings (which were rarely seen in movies of the time); some people also say this movie has some of the earliest forms of character acting in it. IIRC, this is also one of the first movies to rely so heavily on flashbacks and tell the story in a non-linear time line. I think the “revolutionary” part of it was just that it was one of the first movies to try to combine so many of these moderately used techniques all into one film.

Citizen Kane is good for the same reason the Beatles were good, except the Beatles made more money.

It’s not just that Welles used techniques before their time; he did stuff hardly anybody does even today. Like, say, carefully composing a shot not just so it looks pretty, but so it has a graphic storytelling impact (whatever that means).

Gaspode, honestly, The Matrix? All I’ll say is that Kane has special FX that are just as nifty – and twice as many pterodactyls.

As for “revolutionary” techniques, the film is remarkable for how extensively it relied on existing special effects techniques, and how well it masked their use. There are numerous shots in the film which are composites of three, four or five matte shots.

Sometimes the results are palpably phony; when the camera zooms in on the nightclub where Susan Alexander is interviewed, you can readily tell that the building is just a model. But one is not likely to realize that the sculpture of Thatcher in the lobby of his library is just a little table top-size model, “set” on a pillar which didn’t exist. Similarly, remarkably little of the interior of Xanaduu was real; a matte shot of a hallway would be placed inside a door frame surrounded by a painting of a wall and matte shots of tiny statues which had been blown up. I have read that the bats which appear at the “picnic” scene are actually footage from Son of Kong. And while it is just a small thing, I for, for one, can’t tell that the trucks building Kane’s mansion are really just ordinary toys.

Another remarkable example of artifice which goes unnoticed; in the long shot where the camera trucks upward past the opera stage to the stagehands standing above, there is actually a huge cut in the middle; this was two shots edited together, so that they matched seamlessly.

The film hardly invented nonlinear story telling. It has been noted, for instance, that the overall structure resembles a Spencer Tracy movie written by Preston Sturges called The Power and the Glory. Nevertheless, it had a complexity of structure which was pretty well unprecedented in a feature film.

Prior to its release, Orson Welles remarked in interviews that the movie was “a new kind of film”. He seemed to be referring largely to the complexity of Kane’s character, and the detachment the film has in examining it. While there had been movies about anti-heroes before–Warner Brothers gangster films in the 30s come readily to mind–they had tended to be fairly simplistic in depicting the central character. As Welles observed in the coming attractions trailer, Kane was both a great guy and a dirty bum.

Of course it is worth noting too that Welles gave a superb performance, depicting a complex man in many moods over a period of something like sixty years, and that the film featured the first, and arguably best, screen performances of a number of other distinguished actors.

Is it the greatest film ever made? IMHO it is silly to insist that there must be one greatest film that everyone can agree on, and silly to claim that one has seen enough films that you can be absolutely sure which movie it is that’s best. Nevertheless, Citizen Kane must be counted as one of the outstanding films of all time.

Even the incorporation of animation was new. In one scene, Susan sings an aria while the camera ascends from stage past all manner of rafters and backdrops to two workmen a hundred feet up, one of whom holds his nose to express his opinion. This was new: everything between the stage and the workmen was a drawing added later on. (Drawings had been used before- for example, very little of Twelve Oaks in GWTW actually existed- it was mostly painting on glass- but Welles used it as a plot device rather than just background filler).

Of course knowing what Rosebud is hurts the impact of the field; it should be like “Mousetrap” or “Murder on the Orient Express” where you’re honor bound not to reveal the ending, but unfortunately even people who’ve never seen the movie know that Rosebud was the name of Kane’s prostate gland.

Had the “film within a film” thing been done much before “Kane”? I found that the use of the newsreel to provide backstory was a nice touch (and they got the look of the newsreel right), and I can’t think of any previous film that used that technique.

Welles claimed (“off the record,” of course), that “Rosebud” was William Randolph Hearst’s nickname for his mistress’s, um…her, um…

The scene that always got me was the one late in the movie, after Kane smashes up Susan’s room, where he walks between two mirrors. It perfectly matches his psychological state at the time–not being able to escape himself. Also “old Thatcher’s” line–“Old age. It’s the only disease you don’t look forward to being cured of.” Man, I’ve got to see it again now.

On the director’s commentary on the Simpsons DVDs, they mentioned just how many shots were stolen from Citizen Kane. I swear, it seems like you could make at least half the movie just with that footage–it wouldn’t make any sense, of course, but the shot by shot would be the same.

Well, the thing about the Matrix is the tremendous impact it’s had on movie making. Though not very original in story, and with fx that had been seen in other movies before, the way it scored at the Box Office, reaching widely outside the demographic predictions (teenage boys) and the way that wire fighting suddenly became something to be used in other type of movies than brain dead Hong Kong action… Like it or not, The Matrix has changed a lot in the movie business. The same way Kane did over 60 years ago.

I would never argue against the long-term cinematic importance of Citizen Kane. Much of what has been said about it here is right on the mark. I really enjoy the movie myself, having seen it quite a few times.

Still, i think giving any film the title of “Best ever” is a bit of a stretch. This is an inherently subjective issue. Even while i appreciate the significance of Citizen Kane, and even though i like the movie a lot, there are others that i like more.

I often feel like something of a heathen, too, when i say that i’m not very keen on certain other movies that are historically very important. Griffiths’ Birth of a Nation is an example. I’ve seen it twice, and appreciate the innovative techniques etc. on display, as well as the scope of the film and its scenes, but IT BORES ME STUPID.

And just the other night a couple of friends knocked on my door asking if i wanted to see Eisenstein’s October with them at a local Russian festival screening. Well, i’ve seen October, as well as other Eisenstein films like Battleship Potemkin, and really have little desire to see them again. Same with Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will.

Nitpick: it was Bernstein, not Thatcher, who remarked about the “cure” for old age. I love that scene too, especially the part about seeing the beautiful girl on the ferry, and never forgetting her.

As for the “film within a film” technique, one instance where it was used before Citizen Kane is in Sullivan’s Travels. The movie begins with the closing scenes of another movie. Then the lights come on and we see the director of that movie, John Sullivan, (played by Joel McCrea), arguing with the studio bosses. Sullivan’s Travels was written and directed by Preston Sturges–another instance of his apparent influence on Welles.

People, people. The writing. Will someone please mention the writing!?!?

Ah, thanks, slipster. I knew it was time for me to see it again.

The writing was the only Oscar the film won. Herman Mankiewicz and Welles shared the Original Screenplay Oscar. Just who deserved that credit more is still in dispute.

It was also nominated for (actual winner)
Best Picture (How Green Was My Valley)
Best Actor, Orson Welles (Gary Cooper, Sgt. York)
Best Director, Welles (John Ford, How Green Was My Valley)
Cinematography B&W, Greg Toland (Arthur Miller, How Green Was My Valley)
Art Direction (How Green Was My Valley)
Sound (That Hamilton Woman)
Editing, Rober Wise (How Green Was My Valley, William Holmes)
Score, Dramatic picture, Bernard Hermann (Hermann won for The Devil and Daniel Webster)

Had the juxtaposition of real people/fictional characters (as with Kane next to Hitler in the newsreel) been done before?

Regardless of whether it’s the greatest film or not, it is the probably the greatest individual achievement in cinema history considering that Welles directed,co-wrote and starred in the film. All at the age of 25 IIRC. Amazing.

Can anyone else think of a film of comparable importance and quality with one person doing all three? I can think of some good comedies by Chaplin, Allen etc. but none of those films has had the impact of Kane.

Does Kane count as fictional :wink: ?