The movie that carries the burden of constantly being voted Best Film of All Time.
Welles’s theme is the corrupting nature of power, fame and worldly success, which he both condemns and finds fascinating.
This is the thinly veiled biography of W. Randolph Hearst, a wealthy press baron who moved into film-making. He owned the most extravagant mansion on the West Coast of America, San Simeon, and one of the most flamboyant lifestyles in America.
He openly kept a mistress, the actress Marion Davies, and did his best to build up her film career as a serious actress, even though her talents lay as a comedienne. He wrecked her life, much as Kane in the movie ruins the career of his opera-singer mistress.
Citizen Kane was a brave film for anyone to make, let alone a first-time film-maker such as Welles. It was a scurrilous attack to launch on so powerful a figure, and critics have always admired Welles’s courage in doing so.
But in some ways it’s a bizarre choice as Best Film of all time.
Citizen Kane has never been popular with audiences. Many people find it slow and uninvolving, a cold film about a cold man for whom we care little.
Though now reckoned to be a critics’ favourite, it received mixed reviews on release.
Hollywood’s leading gossip writer, Louella Parsons, pronounced the picture “repulsive" - but then she was one of the top columnists working for William Randolph Hearst.
Hearst, with characteristic ruthlessness, tried to buy up every print of the movie, then insisted that his critics rubbish the picture.
Predictably, his behaviour proved counter-productive. Though it failed initially at the box office, Welles’s supporters in the press campaigned vociferously for it as a masterpiece.
Cynics might note that this was the kind of exuberantly muckraking film about a press baron which might be expected to appeal to journalists, who traditionally feel little love for cross-media-owning proprietors, and often delight in biting the hands that feed them.
Despite the press campaign, it won only one Oscar, for its screenplay, losing out as Best Picture to the now-forgotten How Green Was My Valley. It was defeated by that film’s director John Ford for Best Director, and by Gary Cooper (in the flag-waver Sergeant York) for Best Actor.
Viewed today, Kane has rough edges. Some of the fake backgrounds, added in post-production to save money on sets, are awful.
So why does it repeatedly win polls, especially of film-makers and critics, as the greatest film ever made?
First, the bad reasons. Citizen Kane has become the favoured film of those who wish to berate Hollywood for treating movie-making as an industry, not an art. It’s seen as a one-off, hugely personal film by an artist who fell foul of the system.
Such is the Orson Welles aura that there are still those who try to make out that his conflicts with the studios were entirely the fault of Hollywood, and claim that his other films, especially The Magnifcent Ambersons and Touch of Evil, are much better than they really are.
Citizen Kane has become a token film with which supporters of the “auteur” theory - that all great films are essentially the brainchild of one man - can belabour the Hollywood system.
One problem with the auteur theory when applied to Welles is that, partly because he believed in the theory himself, he never created anything as good as Kane again.
Welles’s hubristic sin was the same as that of his fictitious creation, Charles Foster Kane: vanity. One reason he never got to direct a script as good as Kane again was that Welles claimed all the credit for the script himself - and unsurprisingly fell out with his co-writer, Herman J. Mankiewicz, an established craftsman who could have taught Welles a lot.
Rarely are great films the work of one man - famously so, in the case of Casablanca, the closest rival to Kane for the title of Best Film of all time.
Several of the technical innovations for which Welles has been praised, such as deep-focus, wide-angle photography from floor level, were not Welles's idea.
His cinematographer Gregg Toland had refined these techniques through years of shooting every kind of film from horror to period drama. Many of the so-called innovations of Citizen Kane are visible in the film that Toland shot for John Ford the year before, The Grapes of Wrath.
So why does Citizen Kane deserve to be considered a masterpiece? The screenplay remains a witty lesson in how to depart from chronology without losing your audience. The way it borrows from different genres (detective, newsreel, film noir and biopic) yet weaves them into a consistent style still seems daring.
The lighting and cinematography are stunning. Never has a flat cinema screen looked more three-dimensional.
Bernard Herrman's score (which was Oscar-nominated, and should have won) is masterly.
Indeed, the use of sound is brilliant throughout. It is one of the very few pictures that is gripping and atmospheric even if you close your eyes - a legacy of Welles's radio background, and proof that cinema is not only about pictures.
Welles’s anti-hero is as majestic in his hubris as a Shakespearean hero - a reminder that, even as an infant, Welles had staged Shakespeare’s tragedies in his playroom.
The 26 year-old Welles's portrayal of the man's disintegration is as charismatic as they come.
Most of all, it’s a brave film. Welles has often been praised for standing up to Hearst, whose hostility to the enterprise ensured its early commercial failure.
But it’s also courageously autobiographical. Welles based the character as much on himself as on Hearst. Like Kane, Welles had a wealthy father. Like Kane, he became the ward of another man. Welles even mischievously borrowed his guardian's name, Bernstein, and gave it to the manager of Kane's newspapers.
Like Kane, Welles was rich and a media phenomenon by his mid-20s - the Kenneth Branagh of his day. Like Hearst, Welles had as a lover an actress (Rita Hayworth) whose career he hoped to help, but whom he actually helped to ruin by taking her, albeit temporarily, out of the Hollywood studio system.
The course of Citizen Kane’s narrative predicts Welles’s own life story - early success followed by years of controversy, marital problems, reclusiveness and failure - with startling accuracy.
Citizen Kane is among the most intensely personal films to emerge from Hollywood, and reveals just how powerful is America’s obsession with glamour and financial clout.
But is Citizen Kane the best film ever made?
I think it is let down, artistically as it was commercially, by a certain lack of humanity - and not only towards the central character.
There’s a hint of cruelty and condescension towards the female sex that runs through the film. Kane’s talentless opera-singer wife is a distasteful and rather unfair slur on Hearst’s real-life mistress, the actress Marion Davies.
And the use of the word “Rosebud” as Kane’s dying word is a puerile joke by Welles. “Rosebud”, it was widely rumoured around Hollywood, was the name that Kane gave to an intimate part of Miss Davies’s body.
Citizen Kane’s is a flashy, young man’s movie that doesn’t truly engage the emotions. So, great though it is, I’d always rank it below films that can be relied upon to stir audiences and make them cry, movies such as Casablanca and It’s a Wonderful Life. But that’s only my opinion...
"Far and away the most surprising and cinematically exciting motion picture to have been seen here in many a moon. As a matter of fact, it comes close to being the most sensational film ever made in Hollywood. " (Bosley Crowther, New York Times)
"Orson Welles with this one film establishes himself as the most exciting director now working." (Archer Winsten, Post)
"Seeing it, it's as if you never really saw a movie before: no movie has ever grabbed you, pummelled you, socked you on the button with the vitality, the accuracy, the impact, the professional aim, that this one does." (Cecilia Ager, P.M.)
"A few steps ahead of anything that has been made in pictures before." (Hollywood Reporter)
"Welles has shown Hollywood how to make movies... He has made the movies young again, by filling them with life." (Gilbert Seldes, Esquire)
"So sharply does Citizen Kane veer from cinema cliche, it hardly seems like a movie." (Time)
"Probably the most exciting film that has come out of Hollywood for twenty-five years. I am not at all sure that it isn't the most exciting film that ever came out of anywhere." (C.A.Lejeune, Observer)
"An adult film, technically and psychologically adult, recognising the ultimate obscurity in which every human life moves; one of the few, the very few films to present not an abstraction, but a man... There is no question here of experiment for experiment's sake; it is a question of a man with a problem of narrative to solve, using lighting setting, sound, camera angles and movement much as a genuine writer uses words, phrases, cadences, rhythms; using them with the ease and boldness and resource of one who controls and is not controlled by his medium... The camera moves, voices mingle and echo in caverns of space, with narrative purpose and not from exuberance; a face is shadowed not because it makes a beautiful individual shot, but because the character, the motives of the speaker are shadowed." (Dilys Powell)
"A fascinating picture, but because of the congestion of technical stunts, it fails to move us." (Egon Larsen)
"The fact that the picture contains no "heart" will prevent wide popularity. Its appeal will likely be greatest to craftsmen capable of appreciating its technique." (Herb Sterne)
“Some of it is obvious but mighty little of it is crude or unskillful, and it is subtle where subtlety counts most powerfully. Above everything else it is full of young and vigorous energy. That must be why some people find it exhausting - some even tiresome. People who like a straightforward story with likeable people in it may find this picture confusing and unsympathetic, even cold and unpleasant. A psychological study of a very complicated man, told without signposts for the slow-witted or inattentive, is pretty much of a gamble. How it will fare will come out when the picture leaves the haunts of the highbrows and starts jogging through the second and third runs.” (James Shelley Hamilton, National Board of Review)
"Repulsive" (Louella O. Parsons - but she was one of Hearst's columnists)
"The closing scene shows the sleigh being thrown on a fire. The flames light up its name. The story significance is that the last thought of the doer of great things was of the sleigh he owned as a child, and that does not strike me as important enough to justify all the fuss and footage devoted to it... I was more bored than entertained." (Welford Beaton, Hollywood Spectator)
"Well, dear readers, that's that. You know now that all the vulgar beef, beer and tobacco barons are vulgar because when they were about seven years of age somebody came and took away their skates... 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." (James Agate, Tatler)
“Tinpot Freud, if not crackpot Freud.” (Paul Rotha & Richard Griffith, The Film Till Now, 1949)
"There is nothing about the work of Orson Welles to convince us that he has ever felt humility or love anywhere except in front of a mirror. The success of Citizen Kane, Welles's only unassailable achievement, stems in large part from the fact that the protagonist elicits mingled contempt and envy, feelings that Welles is perfectly equipped to dispense. The sentimental note in Kane, the quest for Rosebud, is much more of a useful narrative device than a convincing expression of fellow feeling." (John Simon, 1963)
"Actually rather tedious. We all know that it was incredibly innovative... We also get to see ceilings for almost the first time in the movies. Big deal. We can see ceilings any time by lying down at home... The story itself drags along at a snail's pace... It's a cold film about a cold man about whom we care little." (Rose)