Tuesday, February 16, 2010

52 Perfect Movies: Citizen Kane (1941)

Well this is certainly an intimidating one, isn't it? What more could I possibly add that hasn't already been said? You will, I trust, bear with me if I cover some well-trod ground here. But to put it simply, Citizen Kane is often called the greatest motion picture ever made, and that may very well be the case.

Sure, it's been said so many times that there is sometimes a bit of a backlash, with people questioning if it really deserves such a status. And while I'm not sure I'd indisputably agree, I can certainly see where those are coming from who make that claim. Orson Welles' masterpiece is moviemaking at its finest--the ultimate product of a distinctly modern art form.

There are several reasons for this, but first and foremost, I believe the source of Citizen Kane's greatness comes from a technical standpoint. For one thing, there is a level of cinema verite achieved in this film that was unequaled up to that point--a level of realism in the acting and in the script by Welles and Herman Mankiewicz that was a sign of things to come, following as it did upon the 1930s, a decade in which the art of the sound picture was still being perfected.

The camera work by Welles' cinematographer Gregg Toland is astonishing. Anyone who's ever taken a basic film class has probably had things pointed out to them like the deep-focus shot in the Kane cabin at the beginning, or that classic image of Kane walking across the hall of mirrors. Yet as oft-repeated as these things may be, they continue to ring true. This is a film that visually engages you, and never lets go from beginning to end.

The opening newsreel sequence is another example of the realism at work here, as it plays out very much like the actual newsreels of the day, without feeling as if it were staged or created for a movie. Here, as also with the aforementioned cinematographical gymnastics, the editing plays a major role, and Welles' editor was none other than future director Robert Wise, obviously a man of prodigious gifts.

And yet even in a film of such technical prowess, we find dramatic performances of exquisite power--this is another testament to Citizen Kane's greatness. Welles had to be monumentally proud of what he was accomplishing--one can tell in his confident, multi-layered portrayal of Charles Foster Kane. Joseph Cotten, who won an Oscar for his efforts, is the McCoy to Welles' Kirk, if you will permit me a geeky comparison. The southern gentlemanliness of Cotten the actor may not jibe all too well with the supposed New Englander he is portraying, yet the authenticity of the part comes through in spades nonetheless.

I'm always especially struck by the campaign speech scene, perhaps because more than any scene in the film, this one for me most effectively combines the power of the film's technical proficiency, and the awe-inspiring power of Welles' dramatic performance. It does what movies were invented to do--overwhelm the viewer completely. Seeing it on a big screen intensifies the effect immensely.

Citizen Kane is a film which is the very definition of the word "epic", the type of event picture that fairly signaled that the motion picture as an art form had officially been perfected. If the 1920s and '30s was an age of experimentalism and trial and effort, Kane sets the tone for the slickness and masterful technique of the 1940s and beyond. This is Orson Welles' magnum opus, and watching it, one gets the feeling that more care and unadulterated passion was put into it than any other film of its era.

A big part of this is due to the fact that Citizen Kane is very much an auteur film, foreshadowing the director-as-visionary phenomenon that would really take over some 25 years later, after the collapse of the studio system. It was Welles' pet project, realized on a level few ever are--and yet unfortunately, fallout from the picture, whose main character was a fairly negative portrayal inspired by William Randolph Hearst, one of the chief media moguls of the day, would stymie Welles' career, which would never be quite the same again. Ironic for the man who made what may be the greatest movie of them all.

To those who have heard about it for years and find its reputation intimidating, I urge you to strip away all the academic hoopla and critical baggage the movie carries. Come to it as cleanly as you can; approach it as you would any other film. You will find that, on its own merits, minus the ponderous rep, Citizen Kane still has the power to move and astound. It is a timeless film, one of great richness and depth, and it also happens to be one which just might be the very finest film ever made.

NEXT UP: Casablanca (1942)

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