Every once in a while, there’s a movie that re-shapes the way we view art, and in the world of Hollywood cinema, there’s countless visionary masterminds that would helm unforgettable film projects that reshaped the way we view movies. Filmmakers like Stanly Kubrick, Steven Spielberg and James Cameron have all left an eternal mark on filmmaking, and have turned out some of cinema’s most legendary motion pictures. However, before any of them took the spot light, there was a young filmmaker named Orson Wells who was one of the very first to change the way we look at movies. His 1941 classic titled “Citizen Kane” is often regarded as one of the greatest movies of all time, if not the greatest movie of all time. Now of course people can have their own point of view on a film, but whether you think it’s a masterpiece or not, one thing is certain, this was a huge game changer, and it revolutionized the world of movie making in a way that phew other movies did before.
Here’s the premise in a nutshell, Charles Foster Kane was one of the wealthiest and most powerful newspaper tycoons of the time, but be was also a man surrounded in mystery and intrigue. Then on his death bed, his final spoken words get the attention of a news reporter who believes that his final word might give some insight on what kind of man Charles Kane really was. So the young news reporter goes around interviewing different people that had an impact on Kane’s life, and gradually we see the full story of Mr. Kane unfold from the perspective of these various people. It’s a fascinating character study as we witness the rise and fall of this publishing tycoon. At first he comes off like an idealistic social service man with great ambitions, but gradually he evolves into a ruthless miser who pursues power. Pretty soon, we see his real miserable self that didn’t disserve the amount of praise and attention he had previously achieved.
Orson Welles plays Mr. Kane and he does a respectable job in the role, and I always love a story of one man’s deterioration from point A to point B. It actually gets to a point where Mr. Kane doesn’t even seem to know what he wants, he just does things to prove he has power. Why spend a fortune on building a giant castle and fill it with a huge collection of statues, because he can, and he wants nothing more than the whole world to love and admire him for his accomplishments. Without spoiling too much, we learn that his final spoken words represent his biggest and deepest regret, something that was taken from him way too soon, and he was never able to recover from it.
The story when laid out on paper may sound very direct, and maybe even a touch average. However, the reason this film was such a big deal wasn’t just for the story alone, it’s was for how artistically the story was told and conveyed. Seriously, no other film at the time had such an artistic and crafty direction. The people who knew Kane always regarded him as someone larger than life, so when Kane is on screen, it’s often in the style of a low angle shot, making his presence come off as large, abusive and commanding. There’s also a heavy use of shadows, gothic angles and a really heavy atmosphere, much like a film noir. I always liked to believe that the heavy shadows were symbolic for the darkness on the horizon. Case in point, there’s a scene when Mr. Kane gives a big election speech in which he’s in the spot light, this is his shining moment, but the audience and everyone around him are shrouded in darkness. Then in the following scene, we see something really serious affect Kane, and change the way we perceive him throughout the rest of the film. It’s in this scene that it’s Kane who’s entirely in the shadows, while everyone around him is bathed in light.
That’s the beauty of this film, its overall look and direction could have easily been written off as style over substance, but on the contrary, this style is part of the dramatic story telling. Here’s another example of the film’s artistic quality being used to tell the story and convey the drama. When Kane first married, he and his with were very close, as emphasized through a small dinner table that keeps them sitting very close to one another. But over the course of many years, we see that table grow longer and longer, establishing that Kane and his wife are drifting farther and farther apart. This is only one example, the film really is chock full of subtle visuals that convey an important aspect of the story. Even by today’s standards, every shot in this movie is unbelievable to look at. I’m really glad this came out in the 40’s because I couldn’t imagine this film conveying the same effect if it was in color. It really has to be seen in Black and White, and the heavy shadows just add to the cob wonder that the film has to offer.
Another innovative technique this film conveyed was multiple narrators. Rather than have a linier back-story from one perspective, we see how he’s perceived from the points of view from several people, and as such the overall look and tone of the character changes with each flashback. This movie also incorporated a fake news real, which was unheard of at the time. Most of Kane’s story is given to us in the begging though a long news real that chronicles his life, a trend that many other films would attempt to replicate. Symbolism is also incorporated through jigsaw puzzles, as the news reporter is trying to piece together Kane's story, the people in Kane's life are trying to understand him, and to emphasize this, we commonly see the characters trying to piece together huge jigsaw puzzles.
I should note that the film is loosely based on real life publishing tycoons William Randolph Hearst, Samuel Insull and Harold McCormick, who all took some offence to this film. Hearst in particular was so taken back from this film that he refused mention the film in any form or fashion in his newspapers. I personally don’t think that Orson Welle’s had any animosity toured Hearst, he just wanted to tell a captivating tail of a tycoons rise and fall in power, in fact Welles incorporated aspects of his own life and experiences into this film. Never the less, the film was admittedly an initial box office bomb at the time do to its lack of marketing and newspaper headlines, despite strong critical reception. Over the years, it has aged masterfully and gained a reputation as a land mark achievement.
Now do I personally think this is one of the absolute greatest movies ever made ... no, but it’s undeniably a great movie in its own right, and is deservedly called a classic. People may go into this movie with unreasonably high expectations and then walk away from it saying “that’s it, I expected more”, which can happen when a movie gets such a huge reputation. Weather you think the movie is perfect or not, there’s no denying that this movie revolutionized the art of filming and pioneered new techniques that many future films would draw heavy inspiration from. It looks amazing, it’s an entertaining yet poignant character study, and it’s still very innovative in its story telling. Take that for what it’s worth, and if you have the time, check the movie that many regard as one of the greatest films of all time.
I personally give “Citizen Kane” 4 ½ stars out of 5.