Citizen Kane is so commonly called “The Greatest Film Ever Made” that it is tempting to scoff at this label out of hand and stubbornly defy the pressure to conform to such widespread applause. After all, few are apt to admit their tastes align with so many, and certainly no film could deserve such uniformly lofty praise.
This contrarian impulse is, of course, rather silly considering the film’s daring aesthetic, dark subject matter, and real-life muses had little mainstream appeal at the time of its release. It certainly was not a film that set out to please the masses. It was quite simply the work of a new and exciting genius. And sure, the film was appreciated critically upon release, but it was only truly championed later by those who saw the genius of Orson Welles and fit this film into a grander narrative of Welles’s jilted cinematic career. Its acclaim is, at least in part, a consolation for one of cinema’s most abused artists. As the story goes, Welles was a man ahead of his times, a misunderstood and mistreated prodigy, and oh what skill he showed in this most excellent debut! If only he were given such freedom again!
Yet, while all this makes a great story, the reality is that Welles had a long and fruitful career. Despite being a renowned divo, he worked in many varied genres and created many so-called “great” films. No, Citizen Kane is not great because of its place in the life of its tragic creator – it is great simply because it represents a damn near perfect piece of filmmaking. Welles employed so many new visual and sonic approaches to relay his ideas that it is breathtaking to see them married so seamlessly. There is not enough space here for a survey of these many techniques (besides, enough ink has been spilt a hundred times over on that), but it is safe to say that there is no doubt Welles understood his medium in a way few had or ever will.
It is impressive that, truly, Citizen Kane still feels ahead of its time. Orson Welles’s personal narrative may be incorrectly romanticized, but so much of the legend is true – he was, in fact, a mad cinematic genius, more than capable of making incredible, cinema-defining film after incredible, cinema-defining film. And Citizen Kane, indeed, may well have been his masterpiece. Although I personally prefer Touch of Evil, there is something about Citizen Kane that is so crazily ambitious that any viewer is left in awe of its craft. Orson Welles was also gutsy enough to portray a man who was alive at the time of the film’s release; a man with an incredible amount of power to wield. This is one of the reasons for the legend – many said that the film flopped as a result of a smear campaign against the film by William Randolph Hurst, the man Kane is based on, and the man who happened to all but control the media at the time.
Citizen Kane takes the character study and turns it on his head. Instead of an intense look inside the head of its protagonist, we view Kane through the lens of each and every person who interacted with him in some intimate way, but we never see more than a mysterious glimpse of his own view of himself. It’s daring for Welles and alienating for the viewer, who is always kept at an arm’s length. Of course, that is all part of the intrigue and part of the brilliance of the film. Featuring a strong lead turn from Welles and excellent work from Joseph Cotten (who I also love in Shadow of a Doubt, and you will too), Citizen Kane is a film landmark, and it’s awfully good to boot.