Citizen Kane: My Review

Posted: July 9, 2011 in AFI 100, Movies

  Citizen Kane (1941)

Dir. Orson Wells

Starring  Orson Wells, Joesph Cotten & Dorothy Comingore

Ranked #1 on AFI’s Top 100 Films of All Time


On my final day of the 100 movies in 100 days experiment, I decided ahead of time that I would end it with AFI’s number one movie on the list.  While Pulp Fiction had such a profound effect on me as both a writer and filmmaker, Citizen Kane gave me the appreciation for film as a whole.

Charles Foster Kane was born into poverty, child to Mrs. Kane and her boarding house business.  Upon his death, Kane utters the word Rosebud and that launches Jerry Thompson, a reporter, into trying to find out the story of Charles Foster Kane.  He interviews friends, colleagues and associates in an attempt to find out about the man and the last words he spoke.  Thompson finds out about a man who was born poor, gained money from land his mother bought that had gold, purchased a small newspaper and rose in both the political and media arenas.  We then find out about his fall from grace with stories of his affairs and isolation in his large home called Xanadu.  Eventually, Thompson learns of the origin of Rosebud and it all starts to make sense.

Citizen Kane is by and far one of the few films that can be agreed upon by a majority of critics and film institutes world wide as one of the greatest films ever made.  Any person familiar with film and with an appreciation of it should have it in their top ten.

The success of this film comes from the story of Citizen Kane and the technical aspects that were quite revolutionary at the time and still are nearly seventy years after it’s release.  The biggest technical aspect was the cinematography of the film.  Orson Wells used various forms of filmmaking and combined them all into one.  It was the ability to deep focus that put this film over the top.  Keeping everything from the furthest point to the closest thing in near perfect focus was achieved with various tools.  DP Gregg Toland experimented with different lenses and lighting to create massive depth and sharp focus.  They also used an optical printer on top of the other reels of film to keep background in focus with the close-ups of characters in a lot of scenes.  They would also reshoot some scenes with backgrounds lit and then darkened on top of foreground lit and darkened.

The story telling technique was another important aspect of this film.  Using flashbacks as the primary way of telling the story, screenplay writer Herman Mankiewicz created a non-linear narrative with various associates of Kane’s telling the story instead of the single storyteller.  Mankiewicz does this with multiple characters to create a cinematic equivalent of the unreliable narrator in literature.  Each narrator gives us a different aspect of Kane’s life with each story overlapping.  While it was used in film before, it was never this effective.

Of course, the story of the making of Citizen Kane is as intriguing as the film itself.  An obvious biographical story of William Randolph Hearst, the media mogul of those times who controlled print, radio and film, Hearst was enraged when he learned of this film being made.  He did everything in his power to make sure this film was never made, threatening theaters, studios and reviewers to never talk of the film nor give it positive reviews.  If you purchase the DVD of this film, you will be treated to the film ‘ The Battle Over Citizen Kane ‘ which is the equivalent of Heart of Darkness to Apocalypse Now.

While I always put this film as number one on my list, as it is on so many others’ lists, many think it is a perfect movie, I can assure you that it is not perfect.  Its success comes from the story, acting and technical merit.  Orson Wells wrote, directed and performed in a movie that will be watched, reviewed, dissected and loved for its balls to make and its amazing storytelling.




  Ben-Hur (1959)

Dir. William Wyler

Starring Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Haya Harareet & Stephen Boyd

Ranked #100 on AFI’s Top 100 Films of All Time



As we near the finish of my 100 movies in 100 days, I decided to watch the last movie on the list today and the first movie on the list to finish it tomorrow.  Today I watch one of Hollywood’s biggest biblical epics and winner of 11 Academy Awards, Ben Hur.

Judah Ben-Hur was a Jewish Prince living in the glorious city of Judea.  He lives the good life and is a good man, kind to all including his slaves.  Things start to change when the Roman Empire steps up its military presence in the city.  Tensions run high when Massala, an old friend of Ben-Hur’s, comes to the city.  After an accident where some tile falls, causing the Roman governor to fall from his horse, Ben-Hur is sentenced without trial to hard labor rowing in a galley war ship for Quintus Arrius.  After the ship is damaged, Ben-Hur rescues him from death and after time, is adopted by Quintus.  He goes back to Judea as a skilled chariot racer and crosses paths with Massala, also an accomplished chariot racer.  He races him to avenge his imprisonment as well as that of his mother and sister.  Eventually he gains his revenge but swears away his Roman citizenship, blaming them for his family’s ills.  It is at this point that he witnesses the crucifixion of Jesus at the hands of the new Judea governor, Pilate.

Let’s talk about what I loved about this movie, what stuck with me when I watched this for the first time this morning.  This movie is shot beautifully in 65mm Super Wide Screen at the aspect ratio of 2.76:1.  This is one of the widest shot films in history and it is seen in all of its glory.  Nothing is out of focus and everything has a deep richness and color to it.  No movie since has accomplished this scope and none ever will.  Of course this aspect and wide shot is used stunningly in the greatest scene in this film and possibly all others after it.  The chariot scene alone is worth sitting three and a half hours through this film.

This is, of course, a big downfall for me.  I don’t attribute this to my waning attention span crippled by TV and Internet, but rather to the pace and lack of a truly compelling story.  While the story is not a complete and utter failure, it has numerous pitfalls and pacing issues to say the least.  The acting is also quite forgettable, with the exception of Charlton Heston as the title character, Ben-Hur.  While he is at times slightly over the top, his performance is on par with his portrayal of Moses.

While I’m talking about story, I also felt that the Christ story was completely out of place.  While the official title for the film is Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, it stuck out like a sore thumb.

While epic in time and in scope, this is far from being a true Hollywood epic.  While I fell in love with the cinematography and the scope of the film, the set design and the costumes I could not find much else to make me excited to see this film again.  Maybe I should give it a couple more years before watching it again.



  Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

Dir.  Michael Curtiz

Starring James Cagney, Joan Leslie & Walter Huston

Ranked #98 on AFI’s Top 100 Films of All Time


There are legends and then there are true legends.  George M. Cohan is just one of those people who was more than a singer and dancer.  He was so much more and today I watch a film dedicated to his life called Yankee Doodle Dandy.

George M. Cohan was born to Vaudeville actors and according to him, born on the fourth of July.  After a performance where he stars as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the same president to the White House summons him.  While there, he starts reflecting on his life.  We see his rise to fame with his family on the Vaudeville Circuit, his fall from grace and how he pulled himself back to the stage and success with hit song and plays after song and play.  After leaving the White House, he joins a military parade singing Over There, one of his hit songs.

It’s interesting watching James Cagney perform song and dance when he was known better as the King of Gangster Films like Angels with Dirty Faces, Public Enemy No. 1 and The Doorway to Hell.  Cagney was in fact a product of Vaudeville, so playing George Cohan seemed to be a relatively easy transition for him.

For everything that George Cohan was known for, it’s probably his patriotic numbers that most people will associate and remember him for.  This plays quite an important role in Cagney taking the role of Cohan.  In the forties, several congressmen and lawyers were headhunting in Hollywood, looking for anyone that they could label as a Communist and blacklist them.  Cagney’s name was brought up quite often in those circles and was a target for the government.  He always insisted he was a liberal and a supporter of Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Of course, this film is all about success and patriotism, and those themes run through out the entire film.  Success comes from Cagney in this role and the fact that he sings and dances entirely himself through this whole film.  He doesn’t dance like Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire nor does he sing like the musical stars of those days, but he’s such a great actor that he fools everyone.  He does it with such bravado that you buy that he’s done this for years and years.  Of course Cagney does have roots in Vaudeville but nowhere near what Cohan did.

I wouldn’t call this a musical nor would I call it a docudrama.  I think it’s a fine mix of both, where the musical interludes exist to move the story forward and do not steal from the overall experience.



  Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

Dir. Peter Jackson

Starring Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortenson and Christopher Lee

Ranked #50 on AFI’s Top 100 Films of All Time


Today, I take a very long walk into the realm of Middle Earth for my 100 movies in 100 days.  Today I stand along elves, hobbits and man in Peter Jackson’s epic film Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

Sauron was a dark lord, using a ring to gain power to defeat all of the races on Middle Earth.  In a battle on Mt. Doom, Prince Isildur defeats him and the ring is separated from Sauron’s hand.  Because Sauron’s life force is imbedded in the ring, it must be destroyed in Mt. Doom.  Islidur does not, possessed by the evil power in the ring and it goes missing for several thousand years.  Eventually it goes into the possession of Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit.  It is found by Gandalf, a wizard who knows it must be destroyed because Sauron is looking for it.  Eventually, it is entrusted into the hands of Frodo, Samwise, Pippin and Merian.  They are tasked with taking the ring to Mordor and Mt. Doom to destroy it once and for all.  They take Aragorn and Boromir, both who are race of man, Gimli the Dwarf and Legolas the Elf.  Along the way, an Orc army who detains them from furthering in their adventure confronts them.

When I first saw this movie, I was excited.  I read those books and those books were my first big reads when I was a child.  There is no way one could go into this movie and not come out going “wow!”

However, taking the time needed to swallow it all in and having watched it again today, I have a lot of issues with this film.  Not nitpicking problems that I’m sure many Tolkien nerd have had issues with in temrs of being faithful to the original material.  The problems I had are as a filmmaker and as a student of film.

The biggest one is that this movie is far, and I mean far too long.  The pacing, which is incredible seeing that Peter Jackson as the director had so much to put into it, is bad.  There is a large amount of action and battles, but not enough to keep this thing moving at a brisk pace so that you go “wow, that was three hours?”  Sadly it feels far longer than that.

How would you shorten it?  I’m not entirely sure how to make it shorter and what’s even more depressing is that there is an extended cut of this film adding an additional 35 minutes to it.  Why oh Why Peter Jackson?  Why would we need more slowly paced additional material for a film that feels far more than adequate in the material department?

My other larger gripe exists in the action scenes.  While some are amazing and epic in scale and special effect looks, some are just disappointing.  The scene with the battle with the troll in the mines is awesome and the creature, completely digital is still by far the best computer generated monster I have ever seen.  The action and choreography are above awesome and at times, I felt myself getting lost in that battle.

Then of course there are action scenes that don’t work.  The large battle at the end of the movie is scattershot and discombobulated.  It’s seems like it was choreographed by a 12 year old with action figures in his bedroom all alone.

Want another example of action not working?  The battle with Gandalf and the Balrog is awesome.  The effects are there and look as real as a flaming monster gets.  Then we get to the scene with Gandalf and Saruman fighting.  You have two of the most powerful wizards standing toe to toe preparing for an epic fight and all you have is a lot of staff pointing and old men flying through the air and into walls.  I would seriously doubt and have trouble believing that this is all Peter Jackson could handle.

I’m sure that a many of the Rings fans will give me crap for this review, but from my viewpoint, this movie was good but not amazing.  In fact, all three movies were fun to have seen, but in no certain terms would I ever list them as epic.  There are fatal flaws in these films both on the source material translation and some of the overly hyped special effects.  Overall, I enjoy and like the movies but like I said, they are in no way epic and in no way belong on a list like this.