Quite recently, Orson Welles’ magnum opus lost its 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes because of a negative review dating back to 1941. The critic admitted: “It’s interesting. It’s different. In fact, it’s bizarre enough to become a museum piece. But its sacrifice of simplicity to eccentricity robs it of distinction and general entertainment value.” 80 years later, Citizen Kane has indeed become an indispensable part of cinematic history with many continuing to defend its sacred status as the greatest film ever made.
Welles was initially slated to make a film adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s seminal novella Heart of Darkness but due to problems with the production’s budget, he pivoted towards a collaboration with Herman J. Mankiewicz on the conceptualisation of Citizen Kane. The story of Kane (played by Welles), a newspaper magnate who bought the world but failed to save himself, is now known as one of the most memorable indictments of the mythological American Dream. However, Welles’ masterpiece is regarded as such not just because of its narrative but the way the auteur presented this timeless tale.
Martin Scorsese reflected on the impact of Citizen Kane on his filmmaking journey by revealing that it was while watching Welles’ work that he became aware of how the camera moves. Gregg Toland’s sublime cinematography and the use of deep focus along with other bold techniques changed the grammar of visual storytelling forever. It was so influential that French critics like Jean-Luc Godard formulated their own ideas of what an auteur is supposed to be based on the achievements of Orson Welles, eventually setting the French New Wave in motion.
The most famous innovation was the iconic low-angle shots for which a hole was drilled into the concrete floor. It was definitely worth it because it successfully translated the “larger than life” figure of Charles Foster Kane to the cinematic medium, making us feel as if we had to constantly look up to him while also hinting at the inadequacies of such a gaze. Toland recalled: “New developments in the science of motion picture photography are not abundant at this advanced stage of the game but periodically one is perfected to make this a greater art. Of these, I am in an excellent position to discuss what is termed ‘Pan-focus’, as I have been active for two years in its development and used it for the first time in Citizen Kane.”
Adding: “Through its use, it is possible to photograph action from a range of eighteen inches from the camera lens to over two hundred feet away, with extreme foreground and background figures and action both recorded in sharp relief. Hitherto, the camera had to be focused either for a close or a distant shot, all efforts to encompass both at the same time resulting in one or the other being out of focus. This handicap necessitated the breaking up of a scene into long and short angles, with much consequent loss of realism. With pan-focus, the camera, like the human eye, sees an entire panorama at once, with everything clear and lifelike.”
Citizen Kane is representative of something far greater than the social commentary Welles indulged in during his critique of the mindless accumulation of capital. It was symbolic of the liberation of the filmmaker since RKO basically granted him the freedom to make the film he wanted to make with the team that he selected. This was extremely impressive because Citizen Kane was Welles’ first feature film, arguably the greatest debut film of all time. Instead of the manufacturing of art inside the Hollywood system, Welles insisted on his autonomy and the result was pure cinematic brilliance.
Partially based on the lives of media tycoons like William Randolph Hearst (who tried his best to defame and suppress the production), Citizen Kane beautifully pointed out the dangers of deification on the basis of wealth and influence. Even though Kane was the most successful man on the planet who constructed his own paradise – Xanadu, he shared fascistic tendencies and was willing to incite war and spread panic. It is no coincidence that Donald Trump named Welles’ work as one of his favourite films and even had a rally in front of a gigantic portrait of himself (just like the one in the film). Kane’s character is deeply flawed and it is no surprise that narcissists have found comfort in this tragic portrayal of American individualism taken to its logical conclusion.
Due to Robert Wise’s fantastic editing and the unconventional structure of the story with multiple narrators, Citizen Kane transforms into a dual act of remembering and discovering. Constructed as an investigation of Kane’s final word – “Rosebud”, we piece together the revelations of the people who were close to him while we try our best to keep up with the extremely dynamic jigsaw puzzle. The audiences of that time were taken aback with the dark and unsettling tone with which Welles launched his attack on American values but that is exactly why the film has been immortalised. Welles reconstructs Kane’s life and his world inside the confines of our own psychological perceptions, curating a completely personal cinematic experience.
There is a reason why Citizen Kane is still associated with the obviously sensationalised tile of the “greatest film of all time”. It was an act of revolution which completely changed how films are made, shaping the thought processes of younger filmmakers for eighty years now. Its validity as a relevant social document is undeniable, despite the massive changes in the landscape of media and information. Many people have even slapped David Fincher’s Mark Zuckerberg biopic The Social Network with the label of “our generation’s Citizen Kane“, alluding to the fact that social media has changed the game but the man at the helm remains strikingly similar. When Welles was asked about it, he answered: “I must admit that it was intended, consciously, as a sort of social document — as an attack on the acquisitive society.”
He added, “I didn’t know that there were things you couldn’t do, so anything I could think up in my dreams, I attempted to photograph.”