Although the title "Best Film of All Time" may indeed be a bit of an overstatement, there's no denying that Orson Welles's debut is at least one of the best movies ever made. A colossal cinematic achievement and a landmark in film history, it is by many considered to be Welles's greatest movie.
Multimillionaire newspaper tycoon Charles Foster Kane dies alone in his flamboyant mansion, Xanadu, with his last word: "Rosebud". In an effort to figure out the significance of this word, a reporter tracks down the people who worked and lived with Kane; they tell their stories in a series of flashbacks that reveal much about Kane's life but not enough to unlock the riddle of his dying breath.
There is much to admire in Citizen Kane; from the technical aspects of the film, which totally revolutionised the way films were both seen and heard, to the magnificent acting and the non-linear narrative structure, which jumps back and forth in time while enthralling the viewer.
One can view the film on three levels: first, it can be seen as an unmistakeable piece of history, two, as a cinematic masterpiece in its own right and three, well, one can view the film to compare it to the rest of Welless work, in order to find out if, like some said, Welless career went downhill from that point. That statement, in my opinion, could not be more erroneous. The level of artistry involved in his latter films is as noticeable as it is brilliant; pictures such as The Third Man, The Lady from Shanghai, Touch of Evil should not be overlooked, and most of them are in the same level as Citizen Kane.
The cinematography (by master Gregg Toland), first of all, is astounding, there's just no other way to describe it. Ineffably gorgeous. Making inventive use of shadows, subjective camera movements, unconventional lighting (including chiaroscuro), long, uninterrupted shots or takes of sequences and facial close-ups (there's just too many to name), one immediately comes to the conclusion that the movie's pure genius. From the very first beginning I was stunned by the sheer power with which the prologue was portrayed. The snowball, the contrast of darkness and light, it was just oh so flawlessly executed by Welles. And the famous word "ROSEBUD" will always be remembered. As I saw the starting sequence, I instantly realised that I was in for a fascinating film.
And the acting is perfect; Orson Welles is intensely convincing as a man who ages many years throughout the film. He radiates charisma and talent whenever he's onscreen, and that's an incredible thing, considering that he both starred in the film and directed it. The supporting cast all do a good job; Joseph Cotten, in his first film, is merely wonderful (him and Welles would later have a reunion in the aforementioned The Third Man) and so is the rest.
The greatness of the film doesn't all lie in these aspects, however. It must not be overlooked that underlining everything is a part satire/part cynical look which was all pointing at a certain person. The film engendered controversy upon its initial release because it appeared to fictionalize and caricaturize certain events and individuals in the life of William Randolph Hearst, a powerful newspaper magnate and publisher, and the film drew remarkable, unflattering, and uncomplimentary parallels. Because of this, or rather, as a result of this, I consider Citizen Kane to be all the more great; because it dared to do things no-one would ever do, it dared to take risks. Welles deeply knew that he would get in trouble one way or another; and he faced it. He did not mind, he just went on making the film. And in the end, it happened, hence why the film only went on to win the Oscar for Best Screenplay, despite truly and evidently being the finest film of the year.
Citizen Kane cannot be simply measured in greatness. It is a film for the ages likely to be never forgotten, and not only has it surpassed the test of time; it has improved with age, too. Every time I see it there seems to be something completely new about it. Because, at its core, Citizen Kane is a powerful metaphor for the betrayal of principles, the failing (and falling) of the American dream, and a majestic meditation on the corruption that power may bring. The message it provides us with and the morals it teaches us are as important as the film itself.
In terms of narrative management, Welles is a master. He cleverly shows us the decline of an already unsuccessful marriage through a breakfast table sequence that is as impressive as it is odd. One-shots, age make-up, different hair styles and elongating furniture; Welles cleverly creates the passing of time and the deterioration of marriage with incredible skill.
Even today, Citizen Kane still proves to be one of the most innovative and sophisticated films of all time. It is without a doubt, along the likes of Birth of a Nation, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Psycho, one of the most influential. Countless films have followed its example and made use of deep focus photography like it did. There are others however, who, because of their love for it, have paid homage to the film in various ways. Spielberg, for example, memorialised a shot that was identical to the penultimate one in the film in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
To this day and age, Citizen Kane remains a masterpiece. To tell you the truth, if you have not seen it and don't have it in your DVD collection - shame on you, because you cannot consider yourself to be a true movie lover. Citizen Kane not only marked a tremendous advance in film language, it completely revolutionised it. It startles, it impresses, it fascinates; it's phenomenal.