I met a kid recently who calls himself a film fan but who told me with a straight face that Citizen Kane was "overrated." Yes, there are people out there who do not appreciate the greatness and groundbreaking brilliance of this amazing film. Allow me now to explain why this movie still ranks as one of the best of all time.
The first motion picture by Orson Welles, Citizen Kane, has been called by many critics and movie lovers "the greatest movie ever made." The film is truly a masterpiece because of its innovative cinematography and narrative structure. Welles gives a powerful performance as the fictional Charle Foster Kane, showing his life as seen through the eyes of his friends and acquaintances.
Even though the first shot we see of Kane is a very intimate extreme closeup of his mouth as he mutters his last word ("Rosebud"), that is the closest we will ever get to him. During the rest of the movie, we see him through other people's eyes. We never feel that true intimacy again. The audience is like the "faceless" reporter (who is always in shadow, never directly facing the camera), trying to discover the meaning of Kane's life, piecing together bits of memories from others, but, in the end, missing that last segment of the puzzle of who Charles Foster Kane really was.
The story unfolds in a unique manner. A newsreel sequence tells us all the major points in Kane's life, so we know upfront where the story is going, but we are then shown many flashbacks to explore the intricate details that were overlooked, the pieces that make up a man's life.
One of the most impressive aspects of the movie is the perfect use of deep focus. Throughout the film, everything in the cinematic frame can be seen, whether in the foreground or the background. In one shot, Kane as a child can be seen crystal clear playing in the snow through a window, while his new guardian can be seen just as clearly up close. Every detail is sharply focused. Yet, although we are searching for revelations in Kane's life, something seems missing. We see all these images and events, but we still do not have a complete portrait of Kane.
The camera seems to silently poke around, revealing secrets to the audience. In the opening sequence, the camera passes right through the gates of Xanadu, Kane's estate, and the "No Trespassing" sign. It is as if we are sneaking in, looking at all these private moments. This technique is repeated a number of times. When we first see Susan Alexander, Kane's second wife, the camera takes us right through the skylight of El Rancho, the nightclub where she works, revealing the sad singer sitting at a table, devastated over the news of Kane's death. In another incident, while the reporter is reading Thatcher's manuscript, the camera slowly moves in and "peeks" over his shoulder, zooming in on the writing, showing us what is written about Kane. At the very end, when everyone has given up on finding the meaning of the cryptic word "Rosebud," the camera sneaks away and finally finds for us Kane's childhood toy, his beloved sled, right before it is burned and lost forever. Although we now know the secret, the film tells us that a man's life is too complex to be summed up in one word, or one object (or one motion picture).
Throughout the movie, we see portraits of Kane that are larger than life. Often Welles uses low-angle camera shots, tilting the camera up. We see the ceiling of the room he is in, giving an impression of the character's immense stature. Yet, this is at odds with the broken-down, emotionally-wrecked Kane at the end of the movie. Deep down inside, Charles Kane is fragile and vulnerable. Welles implies that his characters may not be all that they appear to be by using a number of mirror shots. For example, at the celebration scene, Kane can be seen dancing in a reflection on a window. Also, when Bernstein recalls his life with Kane, his image is reflected on the polished tabletop. Thus, it seems that there are sides to these characters that we do not know, portions of their personalities that we are unaware of, secrets that we are never told.
Kane still remains a mystery. He was a complicated man. He knew too many people but he was still lonely; he was searching for his youth, but he could never recapture it; he sought the love of the people through his newspaper, The Inquirer, and his short-lived political career, but that love eluded him. Welles portrayed Kane as a man who seemingly had everything, but what he had apparently meant nothing to him. He died disatisfied with his life.
Citizen Kane is a rich, multi-faceted character portrait and a visual gem, a pioneer for future films to come. Orson Welles brilliantly created a movie that shows us that a person's life is too great to be simplified. Too many films today still fail to reach the depth that Citizen Kane achieved.