What Makes Citizen Kane a Great Film: 4 Video Essays Revisit Orson Welles’ Masterpiece on the 80th Anniversary of Its Premiere

To under­stand why Cit­i­zen Kane has for so long been referred to as the “great­est film of all time,” sim­ply watch any film made before it. Glib though that often-made pre­scrip­tion may sound, it gets at a truth about Orson Welles’ tale of the rise and fall of an Amer­i­can media mag­nate, his first and by far his most high­ly regard­ed pic­ture, now just days from the eight­i­eth anniver­sary of its pre­miere. “Its impact on cin­e­ma was so pro­found, and its tech­niques became so ubiq­ui­tous, that its once-rad­i­cal ideas now seem com­mon­place,” says the nar­ra­tor of the Youtube series One Hun­dred Years of Cin­e­ma, whose episode on the year 1941 could hard­ly have focused on any oth­er movie.

Among Cit­i­zen Kane’s most vis­i­ble inno­va­tions is cin­e­matog­ra­ph­er Gregg Toland’s use of deep focus, which allows Welles and his col­lab­o­ra­tors to make con­stant nar­ra­tive use of every visu­al detail. This encour­ages the audi­ence to “read the whole frame at once, much in the same way that one would read a paint­ing, each lay­er adding an ele­ment to the sto­ry.”

More sub­tly, “what sep­a­rat­ed Citi­zen Kane from the kind of films that pre­ced­ed it was the over­all ambiva­lence of its tone. It’s a film about one of the wealth­i­est, most suc­cess­ful men in the world, and yet per­me­at­ing the entire film is the gloom of fail­ure.” The lega­cy of these and oth­er dar­ing artis­tic choic­es man­i­fest in the work of sub­se­quent gen­er­a­tions of direc­tors, includ­ing such names cit­ed in the brief Fan­dor video essay above as Quentin Taran­ti­no, Mar­tin Scors­ese, Wes Ander­son, and Steven Spiel­berg.

“The cre­ators of Cit­i­zen Kane had the free­dom to play and inno­vate,” says Michael Aran­da in the episode of Crash Course Film Crit­i­cism above. “Many of their tech­ni­cal exper­i­ments changed the way film was being used as a sto­ry­telling medi­um — which, arguably, could be anoth­er way to define ‘great­ness.’ ” Welles him­self put it dif­fer­ent­ly: “There is a great gift that igno­rance has to bring to any­thing. That was the gift I brought to Kane, igno­rance.” Of course, he had the good excuse of being 25 years old, although already more than estab­lished on the stage and the radio. When Hol­ly­wood came call­ing, he brought his cre­ative­ly spir­it­ed Mer­cury The­atre Play­ers with­in to make use of the rel­a­tive­ly vast pro­duc­tion resources avail­able at RKO Pic­tures. One of Welles’ col­lab­o­ra­tors in par­tic­u­lar has recent­ly been back in the pub­lic eye: Her­man J. Mankiewicz, who’d pre­vi­ous­ly writ­ten scripts for Welles’ Camp­bell Play­house series on CBS Radio.

David Fincher’s bio­graph­i­cal dra­ma Mank, which won a cou­ple of Acad­e­my Awards last week­end, tells the sto­ry of the trou­bled screen­writer’s involve­ment with Cit­i­zen Kane. Orig­i­nal­ly writ­ten by Fincher’s father, Mank drew its first inspi­ra­tion from “Rais­ing Kane,” a 1971 essay by New York­er film crit­ic Pauline Kael that famous­ly depict­ed Mankiewicz, not Welles, as Cit­i­zen Kane’s pri­ma­ry author. Sub­se­quent schol­ar­ship, as explained in the Roy­al Ocean Film Soci­ety video above, has revealed that Kael was labor­ing under a mis­ap­pre­hen­sion (if not a grudge). But the fact remains that all the par­tic­i­pants in Cit­i­zen Kane did their bit to great­ly advance the medi­um of cin­e­ma, and for the young Welles the pic­ture became proof of his artis­tic matu­ri­ty: a mas­ter­piece, in the orig­i­nal sense.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Orson Welles Explains Why Igno­rance Was His Major “Gift” to Cit­i­zen Kane

Jorge Luis Borges Reviews Cit­i­zen Kane — and Gets a Response from Orson Welles

Jean-Paul Sartre Reviews Orson Welles’ Mas­ter­work (1945): “Cit­i­zen Kane Is Not Cin­e­ma”

When Ted Turn­er Tried to Col­orize Cit­i­zen Kane: See the Only Sur­viv­ing Scene from the Great Act of Cin­e­mat­ic Sac­ri­lege

How Orson Welles’ F for Fake Teach­es Us How to Make the Per­fect Video Essay

What Makes Ver­ti­go the Best Film of All Time? Four Video Essays (and Mar­tin Scors­ese) Explain

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.