An extremely wonderful, but definitely not a movie I would ever watch again because I wouldn’t be able to handle it a second time, Citizen Kane’s very title has become a masterpiece. “The Citizen Kane of its genre is about as great of praise as any film might hope to achieve. Citizen Kane’s unique status in the world of American cinema is held in its place in Hollywood history. At the height of the Hollywood studio system, when studio bosses controlled every aspect of filmmaking from production to exhibition, this film was made by a handful of brilliant artists who were given freedom to do whatever they wanted.
The examples in the film of why Citizen Kane is arguably the greatest film of all time: Introduction to Xanadu. Kane’s Death. News on the March. Introduction to Susan Alexander. Kane’s childhood, Kane Buys his First Newspaper. Introduction to Mr. Bernstein. Visual symbolism: Mr. Bernstein’s image reflected in table. Visual symbolism: Mr. Bernstein stands beneath painting of Kane. The Early Days, the Happy Days. Declaration of Principles Scene. Kane Celebrates Birth of His Newspaper Empire. Kane Returns from Paris with Wedding Engagement. Leland Recalls the Breakdown of Kane’s Marriage to Emily Norton. Kane Meets Susan Alexander. Gettys Springs His Trap. Kane Marries Susan Alexander; Her Opening Night at the The Missing Review. Susan Alexander at the El Rancho. Susan Alexander Rehearses for Opening Night. Susan Alexander’s Opening Night at the New Opera House.
Argument over the Bad Reviews. Susan Alexander on Tour. After Susan’s Suicide Attempt. Life is Boring in Xanadu. Susan Leaves Kane. As Susan confronts Kane. As Kane pleads with her. As Susan realizes Kane just doesn’t get it. Kane, watching Susan walks down long corridors and out of his life. Susan walking away from camera. Visual symbolism, Susan walking out of his life, and Kane’s Rampage After Susan Leaves a Symbolic action, Kane picks up the glass ball. Symbolic dialogue, Kane says “Rosebud” metaphor: Kane’s reflections in the mirrors Answer to the Riddle of “Rosebud.” Visual symbolism, fence, No Trespassing Sign, K sign in fence in foreground, Xanadu looming in the background
Visually, Welles and legendary cinematographer Gregg Toland forged a dramatic style combining such techniques as extreme deep focus, varied camera angles including low angles revealing set ceilings, and unconventional use of lighting and deep shadows anticipating the film noir style. Individually, most of these techniques had been pioneered in other films, but Citizen Kane masterfully brought them together with unprecedented acumen and maturity.
Narratively, Welles and veteran writer Herman J. Mankiewicz jointly crafted a storytelling tour de force combining non-linear narrative, composite storytelling from multiple points of view (a technique that would later be indelibly associated with Kurosawa’s Rashomon), varying narrative forms including the famous opening newsreel segment as well as interviews and flashbacks, and a dramatic span of decades with characters aging from young adulthood (or even childhood) to old age. Their characters are complex and ambiguous, and their dialogue crackles with wit and insight.
Thematically, the film tackles the mystery of man from nearly every conceivable angle except religion — love, happiness, money, power, sex, marriage, divorce, politics, the media, celebrity, despair, death — in a sweepingly ambitious study that asks anew the 2000-year-old question, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?”
What’s more, Kane accomplishes all this not as a rarefied art film for the ambitious few, but as a popular story for the masses, a riddle picture with the most famous twist ending in Hollywood history.
This ending, of course, is the explanation of Charles Foster Kane’s dying word, “Rosebud.” The twist behind the twist is that while the final shot satisfyingly resolves the question with which the picture began, the whole notion that that the answer to that question would somehow provide the key to Kane’s life was only a journalistic conceit. The film answers the question, but refrains from offering any final explanation or judgment of its complex protagonist, suggesting that a man’s life is more than a riddle to be explained or resolved.
That’s not to say that Rosebud isn’t significant. It is. It signifies innocence lost, regret, the failure of the American dream of rags-to-riches success. It also represents what Kane lost at an early age when he was taken from his mother and father and raised by an unloving guardian.
Deprived of love, burdened by too much money and power, Kane grows up with a ravenous desire to be loved despite being incapable of love himself, as well as an arrogance and sense of entitlement to getting his way. The tragedy of his life epitomizes the dark side of the pursuit of happiness, with failed marriages, broken friendships, dashed political aspirations, rapacious acquisitiveness, isolation, and despair.
Controversy surrounding the release of the film has become an enduring part of its legend. The character of Charles Foster Kane was widely recognized at least in part as a fictionalized version of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, and Hearst furiously did his best to suppress the picture and have it destroyed.
While working on Citizen Kane, Welles joked that “If they ever let me do a second picture, I’m lucky.” He was only half right. He was lucky enough to make many additional pictures, some of them masterpieces in their own right. That super awesome level of control and magic was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and Welles made the most of it. This is Citizen Kane.