Reviews, Vintage Vault — December 6, 2012 at 3:00 pm



I guess Rosebud is just a… piece in a jigsaw puzzle… a missing piece”


After analysing every film in the Sight & Sound Top 10, we finish on Citizen Kane. Of course we do. Only now has the film been “dethroned” from the top spot, after residing there for 50 years. Truly, it earned its place. Should it remain untouchable? Surely it shouldn’t remain at the top of the poll forever, should it? I would be happy if it did. If, as all the films swapped and interchanged – many vanishing from the Top 10 completely – I would firmly, indefinitely and concretely ensure Citizen Kane remains. Ground-breaking, profound and personal and created by a genius; I support its immovability. What a shame then, that it moved down a spot in 2012.

Orson Welles

The starting point is always Orson Welles. Akin to Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’, Citizen Kane has become mythic in its status in history partly due to the creator, and the many talents he had. We are fascinated by writer-directors – and we often laugh at the audacity of their self-casting within films like Reservoir Dogs and Signs. Orson Welles chose not-only to write, direct and produce the film; he also took the titular role; portraying a man from his young-twenties through to old-age. This brave decision is the type of choice that oozes genius – supreme confidence and, crucially, the correct casting.

Welles has a cherub-like charm that carries the film on his shoulders alone – and features that remain when he is made-up to look like an old man. The film covers the rise and fall; life and death of Charles Foster Kane; a shrewd businessman; a political force; a paranoid recluse. Partly influenced by the life and times of the media-magnate William Randolph Hearst, it was a film of its time that, through Hearst’s influence, newspaper coverage was slim – and it failed at the box-office. But, a good film doesn’t hide away and positive reviews kept the film known. Bit-by-bit, Citizen Kane became the masterpiece as it is known today. It’s also worth noting that Welles was only 24 years old he made the film – and to think that he achieved all this at such a youthful age adds to his genius status.

Writing, Direction … and Innovation

But Welles was not alone in creating the film. He co-wrote the script, and the story is broken-up, told from the perspective of a reporter investigating the final word Kane stated on his deathbed: “Rosebud”. We are told about Kane through his friends, family and lover – and the different perspectives reveal a different side to him. He was a public figure – a showman. But, socially and personally, he had identity issues – isolating himself from the world in an incomplete fortress – Xanadu. He pines after his childhood, symbolised by his precious sled; the aforementioned “Rosebud”.

Pauline Kael argued that this story is what certifies Citizen Kane as a masterpiece – and, rather than crediting Orson Welles with this, she supported a popular opinion that co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz is the real master behind the film.

But, the story alone is not what separates this film from the rest of the pack. Technically, the film is almost a how-to use-a-camera tool-kit. Dissecting each scene, you can find numerous techniques that were ahead of their time – everything from the ground-breaking use of deep-focus (though Mizoguchi used it before 1941) through to the continuous shot from behind a gate and, despite the instruction to not trespass, we do, by hovering over and into Xanadu. One shot, revealing a lover of Welles manages to pass through a glass roof and another shot is situated in the ground, looking at such an angle that Welles had to adjust the flooring to get so low. Gregg Toland is attributed to the majority of these techniques – but again, it was Welles that managed to include the young Toland in his production crew.

Bernard Herrman’s score is simply fascinating – changing completely as the scene adapts to suit the different perspective discussed. The casting includes the scene-stealing Joseph Cotton, who would go on to appear in Shadow of a Doubt and The Third Man. The make-up to give the impression that 24-year old Welles would look like an aging man – inspired by Make Way for Tomorrow – is flawless, still standing the test of time today. The list goes on and on.

So much more…

Barry Norman writes how the film “speaks afresh to each succeeding generation” and this truly is Orson Welles crowning achievement. It is no surprise that people compared this to The Social Network (not that it compares that much) – but I’m sure you could find countless biopics and life-stories that owe a debt to Citizen Kane. Indeed, most films owe a debt to Citizen Kane. This is a film that has influenced almost every successful or critically-acclaimed director – Spielberg, Scorsese, Paul Thomas Anderson … and everyone else. This short analysis is not enough – and indeed, there are many books available to support every different aspect which has established this film amongst the very best. I cannot think of a film amongst the Top 10 that is accessible and yet technically ground-breaking, and also created in such a unique set of circumstances that it could never be remade. It is the film you would use as an argument to prove that films from the 1940’s are incredible. It is a film you would use to convince someone that these lists matter. And it is a film that, despite its shift from the top spot in the poll, will never be truly removed. As it remains the Greatest Film of All-Time in virtually every other poll in the world. And I whole-heartedly agree.

Epilogue: This brings to a close an analysis of every film in the 2012 Top 10 Greatest Films of All-Time. I hope you attempt the same challenge and, when you do, read the previous analysis linked below:

10. 8 1/2 (Fellini, 1963)

9. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer, 1927)

8. Man with a Movie Camera (Vertov, 1929)

7. The Searchers (Ford, 1956)

6. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968)

5. Sunrise (Murnau, 1927)

4. La Regle de Jeu (Renoir, 1939)

3. Tokyo Story (Ozu, 1953)

2. Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941)

1. Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1956)

Tags Bernard HerrmanGreg TolandJoseph CottonSight and Sound


  • Simon, you spotlight what’s so incredible about Citizen Kane. You could cite its technical achievements (which are many), its brilliant framing structure, or even its foreshadowing of what would happen to Welles in the future. There’s much to dig through that it’s hard to know where to start. Great job analyzing it. I really need to re-watch this on DVD (it’s been sitting on my shelf for too long) and write a post about it.

    • Thanks Dan – there is a new BluRay release which (I hope) has the Barry Norman presented documentary – it truly is a brilliant watch and summarises why CITIZEN KANE is so important. Thanks for your comment Dan!

      • I have the two-disc DVD set, and it has the famous Pauline Kael documentary. That’s really interesting but focuses mostly on who really created it. Roger Ebert’s commentary on there is also excellent. I haven’t seen that documentary you mention, but it sounds like it’s worth checking out.