Citizen Kane (1941)

Citizen Kane (1941), directed by Orson Welles.

The nonlinear life, loves and death of a wealthy newspaper magnate. Told in flashbacks as journalists try to figure out how to write his life.

It has monomaniacal focus on Kane's character and ambition and the puzzles of his personality. Is he trying to buy or command love because his parents were cold? Who really knew him? Did he ever love anyone? What did his dying words mean?

Such concentration on one huge ego is wearying. He doesn't change or develop at all: from young and ambitious to old and rigid, he's the same person and it's all about him. He never achieves any self-knowledge, or even considers that he should.

It is a good film, with especially impressive special effects (often meant to be invisible) but I do not understand the cult of "Citizen Kane as the best film of all time." It was made by a certified boy genius and employed much innovative photography; does that make it a great film? Welles said he learned everything by watching John Ford pictures; why is there no cult of The Grapes of Wrath (1940) or How Green Was My Valley (1941)?

It is almost without humor. Oddly enough, I have a hard time taking such a film seriously.

In his commentary, Ebert (a huge fan) calls it a "shallow masterpiece": plenty of surface detail but not much depth. You might classify it with other films that present mysteries which are never solved, like The Birds (1963) or Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975).

I know I'm in the minority, but I've seen even harsher critics:


Despite its status as a revered classic, Citizen Kane is not entirely without its critics. Boston University film scholar Ray Carney, although noting its technical achievements, criticized what he saw as the film's lack of emotional depth, shallow characterization and empty metaphors. Listing it among the most overrated works within the film community, he accused the film of being "an all-American triumph of style over substance." The Swedish director Ingmar Bergman once stated his dislike for the movie, calling it "a total bore" and claiming that the "performances are worthless." He went on to call Orson Welles an "infinitely overrated filmmaker."

Similarly, James Agate wrote, "I thought the photography quite good, but nothing to write to Moscow about, the acting middling, and the whole thing a little dull...Mr. Welles's high-brow direction is of that super-clever order which prevents you from seeing what that which is being directed is all about."

Jorge Luis Borges famously called the film "a labyrinth with no center" and predicted that its legacy would be a film "whose historical value is undeniable but which no one cares to see again."

Bernard Herrmann score.

Available on Blu-ray with two commentary tracks: Roger Ebert and Peter Bogdanovich. Ebert's is almost entirely about camera and lighting technique and the clever stage construction. He says "what is the best film ever?" is a pointless question, but he answers Citizen Kane because he likes watching it.

Bogdanovich's is more or less a subset of Ebert's and repeats some of the same stories.