Where do you start with Citizen Kane? Still to this day, Citizen Kane is anecdotally considered to be the greatest movie of all time. Ask the average cashier at your local cinema what they think the greatest film of all time is considered to be, and they’re unlikely to throw The Rules of the Game or Vertigo at you. Undoubtedly, it is perfect in every single way. And I mean every single way – not just standard, easily identifiable proficiencies like acting, writing and cinematography, but more intangible brilliances like ambition, innovation and scale. Consequently, it is the most analysed film ever. In the 70 years since its inception, many people have tried to ‘get’ Citizen Kane, as if it is a film with one single ‘answer’.
So, is there anything that hasn’t been said about Citizen Kane? Well, yes. I think Citizen Kane has as many meanings and interpretations as Orson Welles has noses – seemingly infinite. I just don’t know if I’m at the point where I can interpret the film in a wholly original way, for the simple reason that it is the most scrutinised film ever made. It is an enigmatic mystery, and like all good cinematic mysteries, is essentially unsolvable.
If there is a single greatest film of all time, then it is without a doubt Citizen Kane. Then why is it my seventh favourite movie and not my favourite? Well, it’s just that six other films mean something more intimately personal to me than Citizen Kane. But Citizen Kane will open your eyes to the world of cinema unlike any other film. It does exactly what all my favourite films do – it tells a very personal story that stands for something much larger about the nature of humanity.
Citizen Kane tells two stories simultaneously. On one hand, we witness the rise and fall of media mogul Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles), based on the life of media tycoon William Randolph Hearst. Kane rises from his abandoned childhood to become the owner of the largest newspaper in America, but eventually dies alone and ostracised in an unfinished mansion called Xanadu. This tale is framed through a reporter named Jerry Thompson’s (William Alland) quest to uncover the meaning of Kane’s final word – “Rosebud”.
Citizen Kane sees every element of filmmaking come together in a way that, perhaps, had never been done before, and may never be achieved again. Orson Welles has an auteurist grip on every aspect of the film: directing, producing, acting, writing – he was the Tommy Wiseau of his day. Welles was only 25 years of age when he made Citizen Kane, his debut film, and it’s as if he is straight-out experimenting with the possibilities of the cinematic form in only a way that an inexperienced filmmaker would. The mise-en-scene of Citizen Kane is one of the most strikingly innovative, and innovatively striking, black-and-white films ever made. The ground-breaking use of deep focus cinematography, where all figures in the frame are in sharp focus; the foreshadowing of film noir in its chiaroscuro lighting, where light and shadow often contrast and interplay; and the frequent use of low-angles and Dutch tilts all add to this dark and moody atmosphere.
Citizen Kane is also one of the founding documents of non-linear cinema, as the dual storylines interweave constantly and seamlessly. We are like Thompson, slowly discovering the life of Kane but remaining somewhat distanced from it, as his life is often filtered through the lens of the people Thompson interviews. Kane himself is the most complex character ever committed to the big screen, as we learn so much about this ambitious, egotistical, vulnerable, materialistic, ruthless, principled man, yet he remains such a mystery. He is certainly an embodiment of the fallacies of ‘American Dream’, as his rise from humble beginnings to capitalistic dominance gives him no emotional catharsis, but he is so much more enigmatic than that.
Indeed, the one word that embodies why Citizen Kane means so much to me is ‘enigma’. I can watch it endlessly and just let its mystery wash over me. How it brings together such perplexing characters, sizzling dialogue, intricate narratives and visual power is endlessly fascinating, and imbues all these elements with a punchy thematic core. It is about the overbearing dominance of the mass media in the 20th Century; how myth can forge the projection and perception of your personality; the tragic cleansing that comes with death; the ugliness of aestheticism; and the inherent arrogance of the American Dream. But they are only a handful of the infinite ideas it grapples with.
Surely, its meaning lies in that final word – “Rosebud”. “Rosebud” is revealed to be the name of Kane’s childhood sled, and thus his final word is an expression of longing for the simplicity of childhood. And for me, Citizen Kane is all about how the simple joys of life are what form your identity and enhance your existence, not tangible trivialities like power and money. I know that’s not a particularly perceptive observation, but it is the message that hits me most profoundly and poignantly.
Citizen Kane has become something of a cultural touchstone to drop into conversation in order to make yourself seem as erudite as possible. When I first saw it around a decade ago, that’s certainly what it was for me. Now, I could list all the powerfully glorious moments and aspects of Citizen Kane all day, but it is really just a film you have to see to believe. Don’t see Citizen Kane because it is considered to be the greatest movie of all time; see it because it is the greatest movie of all time.