There Will Never Be a Greater Film Than Citizen Kane
by NIR SHALEV
It all began in 1872, when a former California senator had a bet regarding whether all four of a horse’s hooves are off the ground at the same time during a trot. He hired English professor Eadweard Muybridge to use his latest invention, a type of motion camera to record the event. After that, with the advent of the moving pictures French “filmmakers” took over the process and motion pictures were in full swing. Then came the Russians; most notably and importantly Sergei Eisenstein (Battleship Potemkin, 1925), whose editing techniques are studied and fully utilized even today.
And then in 1941, came Orson Welles. He wrote, directed, and starred in his first full-length film Citizen Kane and history was made. What’s so important about his film is that it utilized everything that was used throughout the previous six decades’ worth of filmmaking techniques and various approaches to storytelling.
Citizen Kane, based on the life and times of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, tells the story of a young boy, Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) whose parents had traded him for money. His mother believed that he would be much happier in his new, rich life than living with them in a mining town. As Charles grew so did his obsession with collecting things because his purpose in life was lost. He was selfishly compensating for the loss of his “original” childhood by filling up his “new” life with everything that he could collect and he was doing so with the money that he’d earned selling newspapers. After all, he owned the company and used dirty politics and tricks to expand his territory to a national level. Charles went through two wives, both mostly unhappy, and lost a son of his own and also his best friend. In the end, he died alone and all of the billions of dollars worth of statues, paintings, cars, and animals, along with his newspaper business and gigantic mansion went to waste.
So what makes Citizen Kane the most accomplished, magnificent, entertaining, and perfect movie ever made? Well, aside from the terrific, character-driven story you have one of the most technically proficient films that had been made to that time and it still puts most films, if not all films today to shame.
Citizen Kane utilizes every trick in the book and not a single one is put to waste. No one at that time had used camera angles as low or as high as Welles did- even cutting holes into the floor and placing the camera at literal floor level; no one had used the transitions that he did; no one had used musical numbers, shadow puppets, and a pterodactyl in the same film; no one had used optical illusions like he did, using them to develop characters instead of simply to entertain moviegoers; and no one had the audacity to join the writers’, film actors’, and directors’ guilds in order to accomplish said feat. Orson Welles was born a genius and it shows with each viewing of his masterful film debut. Of course, because it was different than what Hollywood was used to seeing for the prior 40-plus years it was panned and discarded, and his carte blanche status at the studio was revoked.
I have watched Citizen Kane many times, an accurate number I cannot recall, and it never fails to astonish me. Its gorgeous black and white cinematography is to die for; the brilliant sets, evoking seven different decades’ worth of knickknacks and memorabilia are beautiful rendered; it has sharp and lyrical dialogue that amuses me even today; each character’s development is fully realized and they all seem like human beings and not caricatures; the aforementioned optical illusions (like the scene where Kane stands by a desk with a couple of colleagues and the windows in the background seem to be normal in size, and then when he walks away from the desk and toward the windows they seem to grow many times in size, creating the metaphorical illusion that Kane is a small person); and of course, the story of a man that had it all and yet would quickly trade everything for his “original” childhood.
There are numerous sequences in the film that bring tears to my eyes, usually due to every character’s fragile humanity. There are others that make me laugh, like when Kane turns 24 and tells his adoptive father that since his newspaper business is losing a million dollars a year and would probably continue to do so, he’d eventually have to close the place in 60 years. The showy sequences always feel genuine and were written with the intention of being interesting, entertaining, and important to the story, and all at the same time.
There is a kind of magic feeling that emanates from every shot in the film. That feeling is never dull, never feels repeated or superfluous, and has managed to remain within me for years. I believe that that magic feeling will rest in my heart for as long as I live and will always make an appearance whenever I re-watch the greatest film of all time, Citizen Kane.