Citizen Kane

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(1941, directed by Orson Welles)

- inducted 2013 -

“I admit it: it’s hard to write about a movie like this without using well-worn platitudes. Forget the top 100, this is a film whose title has become synonymous with “greatest ever”, even though the voters in the 2012 Sight & Sound poll of greatest films chose the more recent Vertigo, thereby ending Citizen Kane’s 50-year reign as numero uno. Not surprisingly, much has been written, spoken, filmed and compiled about such an influential film, and much of it covers similar territory. For instance:

“What we talk about when we talk about Citizen Kane (a listicle for the lazy or uninitiated):
1. Orson Welles’ brilliance
2. The Mercury Theatre
3. The War of the Worlds radio broadcast
4. William Randolph Hearst
5. The special RKO Pictures contract
6. Orson Welles’ young age = 25
7. Greatest Film, etc. etc.
8. Rosebud (SPOILER)
9. Welles, Welles, Welles
10. References to frozen peas (maybe my house only)

“While most of these elements are worth discussing, I recently rewatched the film, and couldn’t help but notice the murderers’ row of technical talent compiled for this classic. For example, if you don’t revere cinematographer Gregg Toland’s work on the screen, consider for a moment the challenge of working with a novice director full of Big Ideas, and using that opportunity to unleash creativity. Toland’s inventive use of low angles and deep focus added volumes of subtext to Kane’s characters. He also employed radical visual techniques with altered viewpoints, including figures shot in heavy shadows or stark beams of light, through window frames and glass globes, and even in full-length mirrored reflections which managed to convey isolation among the film’s large scope and cavernous spaces of Xanadu or an opera house. Editor Robert Wise regularly employed breathtaking dissolves and montages to keep this mammoth-sized tale taut. One of the film’s great sequences captures the rise and fall of Kane’s marriage through a few scenes of bantering across a breakfast table, stitched together with quick camera pans. It’s two and a half minutes of pure joy, with no fat to trim.

This technical wizardry wouldn’t be possible without the unique puzzle that is Kane’s screenplay, credited to Herman Mankiewicz and Welles. It’s a larger than life character study of an old man who lies dead within the first few minutes of footage. It is worth noting that Kane’s primary existence is as a public figure on a huge stage, in his life and after his death. Therefore, we are only provided his legacy Rashomon-style, through newsreel footage, rumors and the contradicting memories of those who actually knew him. Overall though, the script, the visuals, the craft of the film is a trap. As much as Kane occupies most of the screen time, we’ll never truly understand his motives, as he is far too complex to be captured completely. However, we are left to ponder: Do life milestones define us or determine our fate? With Citizen Kane, at least we understand that the journey toward understanding can be very rewarding.

~ Patrick Williamson

Principal cast: Joseph Cotton, Dorothy Comingore, Agnes Moorehead, Ruth Warrick, Ray Collins, Erskine Sanford, Everett Sloane, William Alland, Paul Stewart, George Coulouris, Fortunio Bonanova, Gus Schilling, Philip Van Zandt, Georgia Backus, Harry Shannon, Sonny Bupp, Buddy Swan, Orson Welles
Screenplay by Herman J. Mankiewicz & Orson Welles, with uncredited contributions by Roger Q. Denny, John Houseman and Mollie Kent
Produced by Orson Welles
Director of photography: Gregg Toland
Art direction by Van Nest Polglase
Costume design by Edward Stevenson
Film editing by Robert Wise
Original music by Bernard Herrmann
Sound recording by Bailey Fesler and James G. Stewart
Special effects by Vernon L. Walker
Executive producer: George Schaefer (uncredited)

Duration: 119 minutes
Languages: English
Filmed in black and white
Sound mix: Mono (RCA Sound System)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1

Produced by RKO Radio Pictures and Mercury Productions
Released in USA by RKO Radio Pictures
Premiered in New York City, NY on 1 May 1941

Awards and honors:
- Selected as the #1 film of all time by Sight & Sound Magazine: 1962, 1972, 1982, 1992, 2002
- National Film Registry selection, 1989
- Selected as one of Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies,” 24 May 1998
- Academy Awards (USA), 1941: Best Writing, Original Screenplay (won)
- NYFCC Award, New York Film Critics Circle, 1941: Best Film (won)
- National Board of Review, 1941: Best Film (won)
- Academy Awards (USA), 1941: Best Picture (nominated)
- Academy Awards (USA), 1941: Best Director, Orson Welles (nominated)
- Academy Awards (USA), 1941: Best Actor, Orson Welles (nominated)
- Academy Awards (USA), 1941: Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic Picture (nominated)
- Academy Awards (USA), 1941: Best Cinematography, Black and White (nominated)
- Academy Awards (USA), 1941: Best Art Direction-Interior Decoration, Black and White (nominated)
- Academy Awards (USA), 1941: Best Film Editing (nominated)
- Academy Awards (USA), 1941: Best Sound, Recording (nominated)
- NYFCC Award, New York Film Critics Circle, 1941: Best Director, Orson Welles (2nd place)
- NYFCC Award, New York Film Critics Circle, 1941: Best Actor, Orson Welles (2nd place)