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People Will Think what I Tell Them to Think

  • Feb 15, 2009
Pros: Best movie ever? It makes its case

Cons: Ending no longer a surprise twist - EVERYONE knows it

The Bottom Line: My favorite movies are still Goodfellas, Lord of the Rings, and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Whenever some film organization gathers up the list of the best movies ever made, Citizen Kane is the perennial chart topper. It doesn't matter what other movies are on it - Battlefield Earth could rank number 2 and Citizen Kane will still be perched aloft, scanning the competition which is scaling the ladder after it. It ranked number 1 in the American Film Institute's list of the great movies ever made. When Kane first appeared on my radar nearly 12 years ago, I made it a point to track it down and watch it. I remember not being all that impressed. If I was writing this review based on my memories from my high school years, I would have kicked its teeth in for being overrated. Then when I decided to review it, I figured I had better refresh my memory just in case. I thought to myself "Great, I have to sit through this thing again," and found a copy of it.

I'm glad I did. While I'm still not about to crow about Citizen Kane's infallible status as the best movie ever, the last 12 years have probably done something to my tastes. I can understand why Citizen Kane is the most revered alumnus of film's master class. There is not one element of it that isn't fine-tuned. The story is engaging and very well-written. So if anyone wants to make a case for Kane being the best and most essential movie ever made, I'll understand. 

As any serious film nut knows, Citizen Kane explores the life of media mogul Charles Foster Kane. It was based on the life of a real media mogul. Kane begins when the title character dies within the walls of an enormous manor in Florida. Upon his death, Kane utters a single but seemingly significant word: "Rosebud." After Charlie Kane finally passes over, there are the obligatory extensive obituaries to his life. Every newspaper trips over another trying to write the most slobbering tribute to the remarkable life of Charles Foster Kane. But one looks for a different angle, and it decides to make Kane's mysterious final utterance their angle. Who was Rosebud?

A reporter interviews several of Kane's associates in his effort to learn the meaning of the elusive Rosebud. In the process, we see the life of Kane slowly unfolded. In the very beginning, Citizen Kane shows us just how clear the line between public perception and private life can be. Film buffs all know the first scene in Citizen Kane is the one where Kane dies, saying his famous last word and dropping his snow globe. But the next ten minutes deliver a quick newsreel giving us the obligatory platitudes about how great Kane was while only briefly touching on the bad points. And by bad points, I mean it mentions that he was divorced after a sex scandal. There's nothing which would be considered truly bad in this era. It isn't like Kane was a secret Nazi supporter or anything like that.

After the newsreel, the rest of the movie revolves around the reporter scooping up the hidden private life of Kane. For the way people often go gaga over the "twist" ending, you would never remember that between the famous beginning and the famous ending, there's an entire journey bridging those two points. This journey introduces us to a Kane who is remarkable only for his need to have control over everything he can get. Kane is the typical image of the rich greedy person sitting in his chair by the fireplace, swirling a glass of ultra-fancy wine. A contemporary comparison with Kane would be Charles Montgomery Burns, the evil and cruel boss of Homer Simpson.

Charles Kane can't even be called remarkable for a rags to riches story. His wealth wasn't earned. He was taken from his home by a man named Thatcher at a young age. He hates Thatcher but gets access to his fortune and is given his job running a newspaper. From the very beginning, you get the feeling Kane is only doing things to prove he can do them. He steals the best reporters from the most widely-circulated paper in the city, and his code of journalistic ethics is only for show. As his old paper critic, Jeb Leland, says, Kane only does things to prove he can do them. And it seems like Kane always has something to prove. He is highly competitive and his drive results in his amassing a huge fortune which culminates in a 49000 (yes, forty-nine thousand) acre manor which he calls home.

His material success is to be envied. But his personal success is nonexistent. Kane is the template for every lonely materialist from Charles Montgomery Burns to the main character from There Will be Blood: A contemptuous person who sees his friends as accessories and everyone else as competition. There are no moments in Citizen Kane with Kane shooting the breeze with his buddies. Kane really doesn't have any buddies. Although he is good at entertaining people and looking personable, there is a difference between looking personable and actually being personable. Even his two wives think of him as being too emotionally distant. As the movie wears on, you get the feeling Kane only buys things to make up for what he lacks personally.

There is only one moment in Citizen Kane in which Kane looks like he may have something more than a slab of granite for a heart. It's the moment when he first meets his second wife, Susan. Susan helps him by offering him a glass of warm water and invites him up to her apartment, where he performs a few shadow tricks and seems genuinely happy that she has no clue who he is. But this is ambivalence because it results in his divorce from his first wife, Emily. Kane goes out and marries Susan after divorcing Emily. Does that make him happy? No, but it makes Susan very unhappy.

It's during the scenes between Susan and Kane when we start to get the view of just how selfish and monstrous Kane really is. He wants control, so he tries to control Susan's singing career. When it's clear Susan has no talent, he makes her push on with her singing career. Even when she decides she really wants to quit, he makes her keep going. In the waning scenes of Citizen Kane, there are few scenes of Kane venturing outside of his manor in Florida. (He calls it Xanadu, from the famous poem "Kubla Khan.") Susan leaves him to seek a life of her own. After this, Kane, deprived of his only emotional support, realizes all too late just how much his material success cost him. Finally, Kane dies leaving a single clue as to the life he wanted but was deprived of after Thatcher took him away.

Citizen Kane of course is the baby of Orson Welles. He directed and starred in it. Whenever he appears, he commands the screen with a brooding presence and a low baritone voice. He really does come off as the man who, as described by Leland, wanted to be loved but had none to give. The shadows and light fall on him just the right way, and they give him the look of someone who is dishonest and angry even when he's trying not to be. (When Susan leaves him, he makes the mistake of saying "You can't do this to me." Susan points out those last two words as she walks out.) The camera placements and angles set a standard which stands to this day and is still influential. There is not a single moment of insincerity in the dialogue or performances. 

Besides being the greatest movie ever made, there's another piece of silly trivia which Citizen Kane in known for: It lost the 1941 Best Picture Oscar to John Ford's How Green was My Valley. But there's an appropriate type of poetic justice involved in this loss. John Ford is among those directors whose names are mentioned whenever the greatest American director is argued over. Orson Welles was deferential to Ford. He reportedly watched another classic John Ford film, Stagecoach, 40 times while he was making Citizen Kane. While people still talk about the 1941 Best Picture as if it was the greatest injustice since slavery, How Green was My Valley is a more heartwarming movie and Ford received the ultimate compliment that Welles would study his movie so closely.

Honestly though, I don't believe How Green was My Valley was better than Citizen Kane. And I'm a sucker for heartwarmers. Anybody who is even remotely serious about being a movie buff must see Citizen Kane. Even if you don't like it - and I wonder if that's possible - the hype is simply too much not to.


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More Citizen Kane reviews
review by . October 17, 2011
posted in Movie Hype
Citizen Kane      "Rosebud..."       "Welles's accidental semi-autobiographical film stops trying to tell a good story, but tells a story perfectly."    Is this the greatest film of all time? Well to answer this question we have to understand the type of person who watches this film. When someone out of the blue decides to become a film critic, of course they rummage through various critic's lists and polls', …
review by . August 21, 2010
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I think Orson Welles was the greatest creative genius in film who never really reached his full potential.  Having said that, he remains one of the greatest creative figures in American cinema and radio!!!  Since Scotman has done an excellent review about the movie and the plot, I wanted this review to beprimarily about Orson Welles the creative genius and some information on the "back story" about the movie that made his reputation.      After creating a …
review by . August 05, 2009
There are lots of movies we can argue one must see in his lifetime.  Casablanca, Ben Hur, Star Wars, The Godfather, The Wizard of Oz, Gone with Wind... just to name a few, but few stand as high on that list of "Movies you should see at least once," quite like Citizen Kane.  At the time of it's release in 1941, it was hailed as one of the movies which changed the industry.  The reasons why are all but forgotten now.  So all Citizen Kane has to stand on now is it's story, …
Quick Tip by . August 29, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
I think Orson Welles was the greatest creative genius in film who never really reached his full potential.  Having said that, he remains one of the greatest creative figures in American cinema and radio!!!  Since Scotman has done an excellent review about the movie and the plot, I wanted this review to beprimarily about Orson Welles the creative genius and some information on the "back story" about the movie that made his reputation.      After creating a …
Quick Tip by . July 25, 2010
A really classic picture, depicting the attitude of that decade.
review by . March 04, 2010
In 1941 actor/director/writer Orson Welles would release one of the most cherished films to ever hit the silver screen. Many have cited it as the greatest film of all time, and many more agree that Citizen Kane is the quintessential American movie. Like all great films it transcends traditional narrative to become something all its own. The movie almost holds a surreal feel as audiences are thrust into the luxurious, yet lonely life of Charles Foster Kane.     Citizen Kane is …
review by . September 23, 2007
And so we come to this, the pinacle of American film making. Often cited as one of the greatest films in movie history, and one that I saw for the first time only about three years ago. Does it live up to the hype?    God, yes.    Much is made, and rightly so, about the technical inovations in this movie. There are many and they are notable. The use of zooms before zoom lenses, the use of deep-focus, the appearance of ceilings, Greg Tolland's wonderful cinematography, …
review by . December 13, 2006
This movie is very over rated and if produced today, it would seem rather humdrum. I believe that this movie is as famous and/or popular as it is because of how the film was made, rather than content itself. Allow me to explain, Orson Welles had a heck of a time bringing his vision to the screen. He faced production problems and funding issues and other thorns in the side. Once he was able to finish the film and the end product was like nothing done before, it was and is placed on a pedestal. However …
review by . August 30, 2005
posted in Movie Hype
I'm not going to weigh in on the silly debates over the merits of this film. All I will say is that I've seen it several times before in theaters with decent to mediocre prints, but I just picked up a copy of the "two-disc special edition" and the transfer is stunning. I have to say that up until I saw it on this dvd I merely "appreciated" the film as important; this time I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the compositions that look so fine on this dvd. Whether or not you like the film, this is …
review by . November 19, 2004
A few weeks ago I had the astounding honor of fulfilling one of my lifelong goals; I met Roger Ebert.    Me and my co-directing friend went to the Savannah Film festival with big cheezy grins on our faces. We were going to have a once in a lifetime opportunity to go through a shot-by-shot question and answer session with Roger Ebert. That in itself was incredible, and more than enough to keep this Alabama boy happy the rest of his days. I have spent the last decade reading his …
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Hi! I'm here in part to plug my writing and let everyone know that I'm trying to take my work commercial.      Now, what about me? Well, obviously I like to write. I'm … more
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Citizen Kane is a 1941 American dramatic film and the first feature film directed by Orson Welles, who also co-authored the screenplay. It was released by RKO Pictures. The story is a fictionalized pastiche of the life of William Randolph Hearst and Welles' own life. Upon its release, Hearst prohibited mention of the film in any of his newspapers. The film traces the life and career of Charles Foster Kane, a man whose career in the publishing world is born of idealistic social service, but gradually evolves into a ruthless pursuit of power. Narrated principally through flashbacks, the story is revealed through the research of a newspaper reporter seeking to solve the mystery of the newspaper magnate's dying word: "Rosebud."

Citizen Kane is often cited as being one of the most innovative works in the history of film. The American Film Institute placed it at number one in its list of the 100 greatest U.S. movies of all time in 1997 and again in the revised list of 2007. In a recent poll of film critics and directors conducted by the British Film Institute, Citizen Kane was ranked the number one best film of all time by both groups.

The film opens in a night setting on a vast palatial estate, on which the sign "No Trespassing" is posted. We are in Xanadu, and witness the last word spoken by enormously wealthy media magnate Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles). He utters the word "Rosebud" while holding a glass globe of a snow scene, which ...
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