The A+ List: Citizen Kane

And now we return to my list of all-time favorite films–those that I’ve awarded the rare A+ grade. For a film to earn that grade, it must be the perfect embodiment of its genre or, better yet, stand beyond genre. It must be at least 20 years old (so I know that it’s stood the test of time), and I personally must of have known and loved the film for years if not decades.

Can any work of art survive a reputation as celebrated as Kane‘s? For as long as I can remember, it’s been the default answer to the question “What’s the greatest film ever made?” With a reputation like that, there’s almost no way a novice can see it for the first time and not be disappointed.

And sure enough, it’s status has slipped a bit in recent years. In Sight and Sound‘s most recent once-a-decade list of the The Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time, it came in only second. But it came in first five times consecutively before that.

Cinephiles (including myself) love Citizen Kane because Orson Welles was so clearly in love with filmmaking when he made it. Everything about it, from the flashback-structured story to Gregg Toland’s deep-focus photography to Bernard Herrmann’s playful score brims with an adventurous spirit, as if everyone wanted to see what they could do with this new toy called cinema.

It’s important to remember that this was a first film for almost everyone involved–including producer, director, co-writer, and star Orson Welles. Most of the cast–veterans of Welles’ work on radio and the New York stage–had never worked on film. It was Hermann’s first movie score, as well.

Not everyone on Citizen Kane was new to movies. Cinematographer Gregg Toland used short lenses and very bright lights to accomplish amazing setups. Welles could place one person in extreme close up, another in mid-shot, and another in the distance and thanks to Toland have all three in focus. He could thus cover a scene in a single shot without it ever looking theatrical.

The story (a collaborations between Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz) could have been made conventionally. An egocentric newspaper tycoon (Welles) goes through life amassing political power and extreme wealth, but his self-centered world view blocks his ability to find love or real happiness. But into this story we have a production number, an opera, a newsreel, broad comedy, and tragedy of Shakespearian proportions. You can sit back and enjoy these set pieces, admire the amazing photography, and still be totally caught up in the story.

The structure of the story shows us Charles Foster Kane through multiple angles. The opening scene of his death feels like a horror film. The newsreel that follows it gives us his various public images, and provides an outline to help us follow the out-of-sequence movie that follows. In the five flashbacks that take up most of the running time, we see Kane from the point of view of people who knew, loved, and hated him.

You can’t discuss Kane without praising Dorothy Comingore, whose performance as Kane’s second wife outdoes all the others. Unlike other cast members, she was a Hollywood veteran–although stardom eluded her. It continued to elude her after Kane. To watch her subtlety age from an innocent young woman to a shrill, pathetic, yet sympathetic drunk is to wonder why this role didn’t jumpstart her career.

Perhaps Welles’ performance overwhelmed hers. He plays Kane theatrically larger than life, but that’s appropriate, because Kane is larger than life. A man of unending self-confidence and bluster, he does everything big. Even when he acts self-effacing, he’s promoting himself. I think there’s a bit of Welles in that.

You probably know that the story of Citizen Kane was inspired by the life of William Randolph Hearst and his mistress, Marion Davies. Hearst attempted–and to a certain degree succeeded–in suppressing the movie. But we have it now, and we should be thankful.

Citizen Kane screens at the Rafael this Sunday, May 31. According to a California Film Institute press release, Warner Brothers (which now owns this RKO film) will withdraw Citizen Kane from theatrical release the next day. Fortunately, this suppression is scheduled to last only through the end of the year.