Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941)

this week, we tackle what might be the biggest classic of all: Orson Welles’ 1941 masterpiece Citizen Kane, considered by many critics and scholars to be the greatest film ever made.

The way it’s talked about in hushed, reverent tones, a lot of people avoid seeing the movie because it feels like homework; however, you might be surprised to learn it’s a fun watch. True, it’s ultimately a tragic tale about a rich man’s futile search for love and meaning. But it’s also funny, poignant and endlessly intriguing.

I’ve probably seen the film a dozen times, but I’m always surprised how fast it moves – two hours are over in a blink – and how many new things I notice about the narrative, the characters and the innovative filmmaking techniques. It’s practically a new movie every time I watch it.

The basic story of Citizen Kane, including one of the most famous reveals in cinema history, is so embedded in modern culture that even people who haven’t seen it still get the winks and references in other works. A select few may also know it’s a rough jab at publishing mogul William Randolph Hearst.

But even if you somehow know almost nothing about it, the movie’s still a fascinating experience. In fact, I envy you for getting to watch it with no outside influences weighing on your opinion. I’m genuinely curious what that would be like.

The film opens with the death of newspaper tycoon Charles Foster Kane (Welles), who utters the word “Rosebud” with his final breath. A reporter attempts to uncover the meaning of the mysterious term and interviews those who were closest to the difficult man. He gets multiple perspectives on Kane from his business manager, Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane); his former best friend, Jed Leland (Joseph Cotton); his ex-wife, Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore); and the memoirs of his childhood caretaker Walter Parks Thatcher (George Coulouris).

As the information he learns – presented to viewers through multiple flashbacks – merges into a single narrative, we witness Kane’s compelling rise to fame and fortune. However, we also discover how quickly those envious traits can be squandered when they serve as a substitute for what really matters in life.

Many people who watch Citizen Kane for the first time tend to walk away disappointed because of the unrealistic expectations that come with titles like “greatest movie of all time.” I know when I saw it as a teenager, my immediate reaction was “That’s it? What’s the big deal?”

But I didn’t understand how groundbreaking it was because the countless filmmaking techniques that Welles pioneered became routine over the next several decades. Creative elements that we now take for granted, such as flashbacks, montages, and multiple narrators, were downright revolutionary at the time.

It’s hard to process that kind of genius from a present-day perspective. You have to put yourself in the mind of a 1941 moviegoer to understand how many heads must’ve exploded in theaters all over the country.

Scratch that. Citizen Kane was initially perceived as a box office bomb – primarily because of the controversy surrounding the movie and Hearst’s refusal to run ads for it in his papers – so its genius wasn’t widely recognized until the mid-1950s. That’s why multiple viewings of films are so important; they change over time just like people do.

I try to revisit Welles’ masterpiece every couple of years because the sheer number of complex themes and characters make it impossible to fully appreciate the first time around. Honestly, it’s why I’ve been putting off this entry in Catching Up on the Classics for eight years; I knew it would be a struggle, and it has been. Citizen Kane is the kind of movie you write a doctoral thesis about, not a 950-word article.

But I love talking about my favorite parts of the film. Some are obvious, like Welles’ astounding performance; the 25-year-old actor portrays Kane along his journey from young, idealistic dreamer to bitter, soulless old man and makes it seem effortless. Or Cotton’s less obvious, but equally affecting work as the best friend Kane slowly loses as the millionaire grows more cynical and calculated.

Still other brilliant elements reveal themselves only with repeated viewings: the intricate special effects that are often more astonishing than modern CGI, or the powerful breakfast montage that communicates the collapse of Kane’s first marriage. And that’s not even getting into how Welles angles his shots to subtly manipulate the audience’s perception of certain characters – notice how the audience constantly looks up at Kane and Leland, but down on weaker characters like Susan.

Even the last-second answer to the “Rosebud” mystery provokes all kinds of debates. Is it a McGuffin, simply there to move the plot forward? Or is it a metaphor that sums up why Kane led such a miserable existence? There are convincing arguments for both viewpoints.

—Josh Sewell, Instructor in Film Studies (