AFI Countdown Challenge #1: Citizen Kane

Ask most people with a smattering of knowledge about American film what the greatest movie ever made is, and they’ll probably say Citizen Kane, even if they’ve never seen the film.  It has that reputation.  Now, I don’t know anyone who says Citizen Kane is their personal favorite film with one noteworthy exception of someone I don’t know but know of.  Heck, I know at least one film buff who thinks Kane is something of a snooze.  Meanwhile, the writers and producers of The Simpsons think they may have recreated the entirety of Kane with scenes and clips from their show.  They may not be wrong there.

Why may they not be wrong?  Well, for one thing, unlike the last two or three entries, Citizen Kane is not exactly a film filled with memorable lines.  It’s not an overly quotable film outside of Kane’s (and the film’s) first words:  “Rosebud.”  Part of that is due to the fact the characters are given speeches and the like that do advance them as characters and move what passes for a plot along since Kane, as a biography of a fictional character, doesn’t have so much of a plot as a character progression, revealing to the audience the mystery of the man who was Charles Foster Kane.  So, really, no short, memorable lines like were seen in The Godfather or Gone with the Wind or Casablanca.

But for all Citizen Kane lacks in iconic lines, it makes up for with iconic images.

Welles came to Hollywood to make this, his first of 13 films, with a background in radio and especially theater.  It shows.  Just as the closing credits start, text informs us that many of the principal actors are, like Welles, new to film, having come with him from his Mercury Theater group.  But the real innovation here isn’t the acting (which is actually pretty darn great), but the set and the lighting.  Citizen Kane is a dark film, and by that I mean a film filled with shadows.  It fits since the film is a mystery, but the mystery is a man:  Charles Foster Kane, who may or may not be a stand-in for William Randolph Hearst.  Welles always denied that, but Hearst himself believed it, and that caused all manner of problems for Welles.  As both were men known to have huge egos, well, there was bound to be a clash.

The other distinctive thing about Welles-the-director’s work here?  Perspective.  Welles cut holes in the floors of his sets to get certain angles, and rather than build giant elaborate sets like would normally be seen in a film like this, Welles used blocking to imply massive sets without actually building them.

But if this is a character study disguised as a mystery, who is the man at the middle?  He’s Charles Foster Kane, whose parents lucked out with a gold strike and then opted to send young Charles away to be raised by a banker.  If it seems heartless, well, it probably is.  Kane’s father, who doesn’t actually have the fortune, is against it, but he believes in things like corporal punishment, and Kane’s seemingly heartless mother wants someone better than his actual parents to raise him with the best that money can buy.

The result is an egomaniac who can’t relate to other human beings.  He doesn’t really have any friends, spends money like crazy, goes through one wife before going for a younger woman who was something of an aspiring singer, buys more stuff, and dies alone after uttering a single cryptic word that turns out to be the word written on his original childhood sled, suggesting he was happy when he was poor.  He was a man who tried to fill the void with things, in a giant, imposing “pleasure palace” covered in “No Trespassing” signs.  He’s a man with more possessions than any sane man would know what to do with, who spent money without a thought, and whatever integrity he had disappeared not long as he bought a newspaper.

Was he an honest publisher of a major metropolitan newspaper?  He seemed to be more inclined towards sensationalism, buying the loyalty of the best newspapermen from his biggest competitor, and then you get a song and dance, he married a president’s niece, and we see a man used to getting his own way.

And then he starts losing.  His political career goes nowhere, his first wife and only son die in a car accident, and his second wife can’t sing because some things can’t be bought with any amount of money.  It’s not exactly a new message, or even one most people would be inclined to disagree with, but what makes Welles’ version different is that it doesn’t really spell that idea out as imply it.

So, that’s Citizen Kane, a solid film about an empty man, one prone to violent rampages when left entirely to his own devices by trashing an entire room, a moment that might not have been Welles acting as catching a temper tantrum of his own on film.  It’s covered in shadows like the man at the center before a burning hunk of wood maybe explains all there is to know.

By the by, as I said above, I do know of someone who calls Citizen Kane his favorite film.  Who?  Donald Trump, and he does have some reasons for saying so, but depending on whom you ask, he maybe doesn’t really understand the film’s actual themes.

NEXT UP:  Well, there isn’t one.  Not right now.  AFI did a revised list in 2007 which removed 23 films from the original list, AKA the one I went through, and a part of me thinks I should cover them at some point.  But, truthfully, I need a break from this.  Watching movies takes a lot of time, especially when it’s some three hour plus epic of some kind.  I’m glad I did this, even if I think my entries got weaker towards the end.  A part of me would like to challenge the other Gabbing Geek movie reviewer around here to cover that one, so Watson, if you’re so inclined, take a shot at it.

Otherwise, I may go on to take care of the last 23 starting in a couple of weeks.

For now, as much as I actually enjoyed this project, I’m gonna go do something else for a bit.

tomk74

Defender of the faith, contributing writer, debonair man-about-town.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: