It’s generally acknowledged to be the finest film ever made. And you’ll get no argument from me. If it were technically brilliant but emotionally cold, I wouldn’t buy it. And there are lots of movies that reveal or remind us of deeper truths, but don’t change the way we look at film. What makes Citizen Kane so remarkable is that it did both.
By now you know that Kane’s dying word was “Rosebud.” (How anyone knew that fact when Kane died alone was never explained by director Orson Welles.) The film then goes back through his life, as reporters try to learn what the newspaper mogul meant. Along the way, Kane buys a string of newspapers, runs for political office, has an affair, and is destroyed by the very fortune that he held in contempt.
Citizen Kane was written by Welles and Joseph Mankiewicz, and was loosely based on the life of William Randolph Hearst. The movie made Hearst furious, and he would not allow any of his newspapers to run ads for the film. As a result, the movie was not widely seen at the time of its release, and was a financial flop.
Welles was just 25 years old when he made Kane. That could be one reason he wanted to develop new techniques, even remake the way films were made. With cinematographer Greg Toland, he created a lens to make foreground, middle ground, and background all remain in sharp focus. He had many low-angle shots that revealed ceilings, a rarity in movies made on sound stages. The extended scene at the dining room table that chronicled the breakup of Kane’s marriage was a brilliant use of set and costume changes. And on several occasions, props were split apart and then rejoined immediately to allow the camera to pass “through” them seamlessly.
There are lots of interesting quotes in the movie, my favorite coming when his financial advisor Mr. Thatcher tells Charles that he lost a million dollars. Kane answers, “You’re right, I did lose a million dollars last year. I expect to lose a million dollars this year. I expect to lose a million dollars next year. You know, Mr. Thatcher, at the rate of a million dollars a year, I’ll have to close this place in…60 years.” And what do you know, that scene happens to be available on YouTube: