Only a very privileged few could ever stand up against this perennial masterpiece, Orson Welles’ much-ballyhooed 1941 vanity project Citizen Kane. There isn’t any other film in mind (or you’d have to scour dusty old film libraries) that endured as much backlash and critical thrashing during its release, with its immediate box-office flop, and then amassed recognition through time, galloping like a dark horse and emerge a cinematic triumph, ever garlanded by any movie critic as “the greatest film of all-time”. Ask those BFI honchos and Sight & Sound pundits, they’ll give you a roll-call of how many decades this film has become a mainstay in numero uno in their top ten polls. With its almost legendary place in the canon of cinema, it has various attachments to its name almost dizzying in comparison to so-called “groundbreaking film”, a moniker used very lightly today but certainly not in 1941 when the golden age of cinema was just at simmering point – Citizen Kane deployed deep-focus cinematography for future filmmakers and film scholars to chew on, gave birth to the American biopic genre, re-established the dying montage cinema, and revolutionised the film narrative, eschewing linear storytelling and opts for dazzling, anti-chronological structure that has influenced hundreds of films we see today. In other words, this is a film worthy of a post-film pub talk. From Martin Scorcese’s The Aviator to Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, from David Lynch’s television series Twin Peaks to Matt Groening’s The Simpsons, Citizen Kane has been imitated, spoofed, paid homage to by a list that is almost boundless.
But for all its technical bravado and cinematic importance, audience throughout the years have somehow sidestepped the immensity of Kane’s most vital element – storytelling in cinema. If you’d think that James Cameron’s Avatar has officially revolutionised cinema, you’d have to see Citizen Kane to think twice. Avatar’s purported 3D innovation pales in comparison to what Kane has achieved, marrying technicalities with narrative ingenuity, utilising collaborative techniques (cinematography, editing, sound, misé-en-scene) to dramatically enhance the story of newspaper-mogul-turned-misanthrope Charles Foster Kane. The result is a genuinely exhilarating reconstruction of this renowned man’s life after his death, told through newsreels, flashbacks, detective investigation through the people that surrounded him and a series of montages so beautifully effective and allegorical. The breakfast montage, for instance. Years of marriage summarised in impeccably timed editing and intelligent scriptwriting.
And there is also the enigma of “Rosebud”, Charles Kane’s dying word, a deux ex machina that sets off the plot running, with detectives and journos trying to uncover the meaning of the word that might solve Kane’s death. This is where Citizen Kane really soars – a story that has an infinite resonance to our modern world, a metaphorical and metaphysical comment on commercialism, monopolistic proprietorship, capital greed and envy, and ultimately, the human pursuit of wealth and power as substitution to happiness. “I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life,” ruminates one of the journos in the film’s end, rummaging through the warehouse of Xanadu, Kane’s private palatial Alexandria, housing many of the world’s ancient artefacts. “Anyway, it wouldn’t have solved anything,” he continues. They think “Rosebud” did not exist. In fact, it did, and still does in the hearts of many. All the Murdochs, Turners and Rothschilds in the world had better recheck their ambitions, as Citizen Kane satirises that kind of life, that search for material glory only to arrive in an existential point of emptiness. As we see the flames licking Kane’s childhood sled named “Rosebud”, there’s a deeply poignant recognition that what Kane was searching for in his entire life was that sense of purity, something transient yet eternal, a paradox in a life of lost innocence.
A glorious, towering achievement in 20th century cinema. Even now, this remains the most revolutionary piece of celluloid since the dawn of the sound era, or perhaps since the invention of cinema itself. Thrillingly innovative, giddily entertaining and impeccably framed, shot, acted and directed. Orson Welles, for all his narcissism, will have you moved and converted.