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.