Stars: **** out of Four
Summary: Visually striking and intriguing, Orson Welles’ 1941 masterpiece still holds its place as one of the greatest American films.
Review: ‘Citizen Kane’ is a hard film to comment on. It’s like critiquing the Sistine Chapel, to some people. Not so with myself. I don’t think this is the greatest film ever made; definitely a great, but not the best. I personally give that honor to ‘Ben-Hur’, which I will also be reviewing down the line.
The structure of ‘Citizen Kane’ has definitely left its mark on similar fictional biopic movies. Both ‘Kane’ and ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’ begin with the titular character either dying or already dead. Both stories are retrospective looks into the lives of the title characters.
Charles Foster Kane, though, is much different from Benjamin Button. Based on a composite of Howard Hughes, William Randolph Hearst and even Orson Welles himself, Kane is a super-wealthy newspaperman who was given up by his parents when he was not even a pre-teenager. This one dramatic incident, it turns out, reveals to the savvy viewer the key to understanding the emotionally distant Kane. When Kane died, he uttered one word: ‘Rosebud’. A great deal of mystery surrounds it, compelling a determined reporter to search for its meaning, hoping it will reveal who exactly Kane was, since he died alone and without any real friends. In short, Kane was embittered to the point of sociopathy. Though he greatly desired love, he couldn’t recieve it, and therefore couldn’t give it. It’s only at the end of his life that Kane realizes what he was missing; but by then, it is too late. If you haven’t seen ‘Kane’, I can’t spoil the ending for you, since it is singular, iconic, and critical to the suspense of the film. It is also noteworthy for inspiring the end of another classic, ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’.
By necessity, the story is told from a very distant, detached perspective. I never really felt involved. I was intrigued, and fascinated, but it didn’t pull me in. This, depending on your tastes, can ruin the film for you. It didn’t for me, but I did feel it was missing something. This does seem to reflect Charles Foster Kane himself; intriguing, but never connecting. If this was intentional (which I believe it was), that’s an example of terrific writing.
The cinematography is very memorable, and dynamic. The opening shots of Xanadu, Kane’s estate, at twilight, set up a Gothic atmosphere that haunts us throughout. There is almost always something striking on screen, be it rain, lightning, snow, fire, or even dancing. Even the most pedestrian of scenes are shot in a way that calls attention to the meticulous detail in the background, by use of deep focus. ‘Kane’ deserves the acclaim it gets in this area.
As for music, Bernard Herrmann, who would go on to score, among other things, Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ and Wise’s ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’, does a good job in complementing the picture. Unfortunately, none of his music for ‘Kane’ really stood out to me.
‘Citizen Kane’ is certainly a great film. It remains, though, well off my top ten favorite motion pictures. Perhaps it is because of how much it reflects Kane himself.
If you consider yourself a lover of movies, you’ve gotta see this at least once. You may not like it, or you may love it, but it is valuable in a historic sense.