Hailed as “the greatest movie of all time” Citizen Kane was Orson Welles debut feature film which he not only starred in but also directed and co-wrote the screenplay for. Having your debut film heaped with such praise should be taken as a major point of pride but considering that Welles was only 24 at the time it should be considered so much more.
Unfortunately with 70 years of praise and hype behind it new viewers should be forgiven for feeling a little disappointed by the film upon first watching it. Subsequent viewings however will yield more enjoyment as the viewer becomes more impressed by it’s unique visual style (cinematographer Gregg Toland developed a technique for ensuring the the foreground, middle-ground, and background were all in focus simultaneously), simple yet engaging storyline, and outstanding acting.
Welles stars as the titular character of Charles Foster Kane, a reclusive millionaire media mogul, who dies virtually alone within the first 5 minutes leaving the contents of his mansion, his businesses, and his last word ‘Rosebud’ as his legacy. It’s the latter of these that becomes the catalyst for the film as a group of newsreel men set out to interview Kane’s friends, family, and business associates in an effort to decipher the meaning behind this last word. The interviews are told though a series of flashbacks to various periods in Kane’s life making use of non-linear storytelling to develop Kane’s character based on the interviewees perception of the man himself. Masterfully controlled and edited the film avoids becoming confusing and serves to show a fully rounded individual and his progression from likeable, impetuous youth to grizzled, embittered old man over the (nearly) 2 hour run time.
During shooting newspaper magnate William Randal Hearst, with whom viewers can see an obvious comparison to Kane, attempted everything he could to prevent the film from being made even going so far as to accuse Orson Welles of being a Communist to prevent it’s release. Although many consider the film to be based on Hearst’s life Welles claimed that the story was a composite on many individuals from that particular era, this can be seen to be true as there are also elements from the life of Samuel Insull (a Chicago utilities magnate from the time) represented in the film.
If I hadn’t been very rich I might have been a really great man
– Charles Foster Kane
Despite it’s success the film was originally a flop when it was first released and was universally booed at the 1941 Academy Awards every time one of it’s 9 nominations was announced. The film was re-released for the public in the 1950’s after spending nearly a decade locked up in the RKO vaults.