Citizen Kane

Rated: PG
Runtime: 1 Hour and 59 Minutes

Reviewer: Dale
Grade: A

So this is it, eh? The greatest film of all time? According to pretty much every critic known to man, the AFI, and Sight and Sound magazine, among countless others. This is it, man. The one and only. There has to be a film that's called the greatest and I suppose it may as well be "Citizen Kane". If the critics of the world have to be stupid enough to make such a list, you may as well put this at the top of the list.

It goes without saying that this is the most overrated film of all time. I mean, shit, how can it not be? Other titles I would put on a Most Overrated List would go as follows: "The Searchers", "The Godfather", "Psycho" and "Barry Lyndon". But since I have kicked the dead dog that is "Barry Lyndon" once too often, I shall turn my spotlight instead on Orson Welles' undisputed masterwork: "Citizen Kane".

I would like to take a flamethrower to this film. I would like to rip it to shreds, set it on fire, and ceremoniously piss upon the ashes. The only thing is that I can't. Damn, just forget that this film is supposedly the greatest thing ever. Just forget for an instant the bloated reputation of Orson Welles and the whole film. Forget all that stuff and experience the film on its own terms. From a technical aspect, this film is astounding! It really is. The amount of technical skill and brio that is on display here boggles the mind. Almost every shot is constructed brilliantly. The use of light and focus and matte paintings and camera movement is simply awesome. Realize now that this was one of the first times that the camera was given the license to actually move! Gone are simple two-shots of two people, cutaways from one person delivering dialogue to the next person delivering dialogue. The camera here moves like a relentless animal, weaving and bobbing and never resting long. The use of shadow, reflection, sound effects. All are quite acute and supernaturally aware of themselves. Look for an instant at Welles's eyes in this film. He was twenty-five years old and he was making the greatest film of all time. And I'll be damned if he doesn't look like he knew it! He fucking knew he was making the film of the century! His cockiness, his ego shines through the entire production. This film is as much a document of what happened to Orson when he went to Hollywood as it is the fictionalized account of Charles Foster Kane and his legacy (or William Randolph Hearst, if that's what you want it to be). Welles never reaches these dizzying heights of artistry again, and it's a shame. He came close on "The Magnificent Ambersons": a film that may have trumped Kane had it not been for the meddling of the studio. He did make a marvel in "Touch of Evil" also, but he never quite paid the check that he wrote with "Kane".
If he had, well, to hell with Hitchcock.

Forget, as I said before, all that stuff about this film being the greatest ever. Think about it this way: this is the man's first film. It is his first movie and he has gathered a level of technical craftsmanship that other directors can only dream of. Many will use that "auteur theory" crap to suggest that this was Welles's show and his only, but that is just plain stupid. Look at the hypnotic, magician's mastery of shadow and mirror that cinematographer Gregg Toland creates in each shot. Listen to the crackle of Herman Mankiewicz's dialogue (oh, I'll let Welles have a piece of that). Marvel at the editing of Robert Wise (who would go on to make the original "The Haunting", "Sound of Music" and "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" among others) which lends this film a spry pace that most "great" old films lack. Listen to the music of Bernard Herrman, one of the original gods of film composition. Hell, look at the special effects which seamlessly blend Welles into stock footage nearly sixty years prior to "Forrest Gump". When you forget the hype and set aside the rather mundane story, the films visuals alone warrant your entire concentration.

Ah, but there is the shortcoming. Storywise, and often in terms of character, this film is hopelessly melodramatic. Sometimes, the emotions onscreen remind one of a soap opera. It's all just a little too much. The movie is so eager to please, so anxious for you to surrender to it, that it's often a bit too much. It's sometimes a little too bold, a little too overwhelming. It has major lapses in logic ("The desert coast of Florida?") and it's use of fog and mirrors and its labyrynthine plot basically are there to disguise the enigmatic hollowness of the entire enterprise. Sure, it looks great and it moves briskly. But still. Shouldn't the greatest film of all time have a better framework to hang all this on?

There are some marvelous themes under the surface here, however. Stuff about the loss of innocence and the way that time and life can cause us to forget where we started from and all that jazz. And Welles, Joseph Cotton, Paul Stewart, Everett Sloane and the rest of the cast do a marvelous job. And, hey, if I gave "Days of Heaven" an "A" for simply looking really, really great (and it does) then why can't I give "Citizen Kane" an "A" for its better qualities. It may be overrated but it still feels like the film is inventing modern filmmaking before your very eyes.