Citizen Kane: the greatest film ever made?

I wouldn’t blame you if you were put off by the title of this post. After all, it’s a pretty moot point which people will continue to argue over, disagree about and use as a subject for television documentaries probably for decades to come. And whenever these discussions kick off, Orson Welles’ masterpiece Citizen Kane always gets mentioned, much to the annoyance of those people who don’t rate it very highly.

So, why start it all up again now? Because, dear reader, the British Film Institute is doing one of those wonderful things that it does quite regularly – showing classics of the golden age of cinema on the big screen. For a few pounds it is possible to go to the pictures to watch flickery black-and-white productions that you may believe you know like the back of your hand from their appearances on your television screen. But you have never actually seen them as the director and studio intended. For the 40s film fan there are fewer better treats to be had in life. Think you have fully appreciated this or that film? Think again. You will discover details and nuances you never dreamed existed especially if, as is often the case, you are looking at a restored print.

Carol Reed and Margaret Lockwood

In recent months the BFI has done a Carol Reed season that saw us off to the South Bank for his two wonderful collaborations with Graham Greene, The Third Man and The Fallen Idol. An actor often favoured by Reed was James Mason, and so we also got to see him descended into rumpled-but-attractive middle age and wrestling with the moral dilemmas of the Cold War in The Man Between. As well as taking an only partially successful trip into surrealism as the injured Republican leader shot in a bank raid in Odd Man Out, and taking the entire film to die.

More recently still there has been a Margaret Lockwood season. I have adored this doyenne of Gainsborough Studios since I first saw The Wicked Lady as a film studies student. All my ennui-driven, black-clad contemporaries chomped on sweets and sneered as the film wound on, but I was entranced. In this picture, a classic melodrama directed by Leslie Arliss in 1945, Lockwood plays a delightfully amoral noblewoman who, bored to tears with her life and husband, turns to crime to satisfy all sorts of dark desires (James Mason is back to take a hand here too). Eventually, however, she transgresses too far and thus must face terrible retribution on her deathbed, unfortunately thwarting the stunningly modern solution to her marital problems dreamed up by the other three people involved in them. It’s a delightful film, which deserves more respect than it generally gets, even if you will be humming the infuriatingly catchy “When love steals your heart” for days if not weeks after leaving the cinema.

Lockwood, of course, was also one of Hitchcock’s leading ladies during his first, British, career. She embarks on a terrifying train journey in The Lady Vanishes during which first her own sanity and then her life are called into question. Having marked this one off as necessary viewing, we also went back for another film in the season that was a complete contrast to both of the above – the 1934 version of Lorna Doone, directed by Basil Dean, in which a very young Lockwood plays the ingenue role of Annie Ridd. This was a complicated assignment – the director was in the throes of marrying his girlish star Victoria Hopper and he had driven Lockwood’s predecessor in the role to a nervous breakdown. Dean was essentially making a silent film in the era of talkies, and Lorna Doone pays lavish homage to that era in production, acting and editing techniques. A straightforward and unobjectionable adaptation of RD Blackmore’s classic, it was an unexpected joy to watch and comes recommended should an opportunity to see it befall you.

Man and monster

But back to the substantive issue of our recent viewing of Citizen Kane. Or issues – there are many. The first revolves around the persona of the leading man. Where does Orson Welles stop and Charles Foster Kane begin? Then there’s the knotty problem of auteurship. As a new director with RKO Welles was given unprecedented creative freedom – but that didn’t mean he made the film single-handed and there are arguments about the extent to which his collaborators, screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz and cinematographer Gregg Toland are responsible for elements of the film. Originality – to what extent is Citizen Kane a thinly-veiled portrait of the arguable egomaniac Welles, or of the press magnate William Randolph Hearst – certainly writs flew around at the possibility. Referentiality – is Rosebud a simple McGuffin or a coded reference to some figure in Hearst’s (or even Welles’) life?

Regardless of all these obfuscating factors which, for our present purposes, it is probably safe to ignore, its greatness seems to me to stem from the way it excels in three or four different areas of film production, any one of which would have been enough to secure it a reputation as a classic. At the start we seem to have a cracking thriller plot which is soon revealed to be based on a particularly innovative and unusual narrative structure – the film opens with Kane’s lonely death and obituary then works forwards using compressed time and multiple viewpoints from his childhood to uncover the motivations of the man. Nonetheless, true to the codes of the genre, Rosebud appears repeatedly on-screen to anyone with the eyes to see and there is a satisfying payoff as the credits roll. We also have a bravura performance from Welles and his magnificent supporting cast. Then, as the film progresses, it develops a level of emotional depth and honesty that is sorely unusual in Hollywood narratives of that period and perhaps even 60 years later as well.

The character of Kane is monstrous – he wrecks lives and hurts everyone unfortunate enough to come into contact with him, including driving his second wife to attempt suicide – but we have a cast-iron psychological explanation for his behaviour. We are shown how his mother acted in what she believed to be his best interests, but mistaking material luxury for emotional necessity. His father was well-intentioned but weak and unintelligent. So the young Kane grew up in a loveless, money-worshipping environment, adopted by a banker, supplied with no role model whatsoever for healthy human development. It is up to each and every viewer to decide, Welles’ undoubted screen-lighting charisma aside, whether to forgive him. I have a suspicion that Welles was not a great actor, but rather one of those people that produced the same version of himself in every performance he gave. However, from a man who convinced America’s radio listeners that they were in the midst of an alien invasion, one has to ask how much that really matters.

And finally, to add to the outstanding narrative, lead performance and depth of psychological truth (which Welles rather typically dismissed as “dollar-book Freud”) we have a great piece of direction with cinematic innovations including the extensive use of deep focus and low-angle shots as well as some special effect techniques including the ageing of the cast and the use of miniatures. Welles also brought his experience of radio to the production, which has a complex and overlapping soundtrack that would not seem out of place in a radio play. Considering that all these separate issues are woven together into one towering film, it is not hard to understand why it has a reputation as the greatest ever made, or to feel that it may actually deserve it.

Subtler pleasures

As a matter of fact, my own candidate for the greatest film ever made involves Orson Welles but is not Citizen Kane. I mentioned it at the beginning – it is Reed’s beautiful piece of homage to German expressionism, The Third Man. It’s got a lot in common with Kane: Welles himself; Joseph Cotten; a signature tune acting as a counterpoint to the action; that German Expressionist aesthetic. But Reed was able to keep Welles in check (partly by imprisoning him in a coffin for the entire first half) and his film is the stronger for it.

To my mind the star of the film is arguably Trevor Howard, the restless, driven, sardonic and knowing presence at its centre in his role as unlikely (and unlikeable) hero Major Calloway. Still, the best line goes to Welles: “In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed – they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love and five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock.” Its visuals and direction are so satisfying, its plot so tense and twisty, its ensemble cast (regardless of Welles’ involvement) so clearly on top of their game that I will personally take its subtler pleasures over the three-ring circus of Citizen Kane on most occasions. But that is not to understate the magnificent achievement of that film, or to deny its place as one of the greatest movies ever made.

Watch the trailer and find out more about seeing Citizen Kane on the big screen from the BFI here.