Deconstructing Citizen Kane (1941)

The Warner Brothers Blu-ray Elite program is still sending me free Blu-rays, and the latest batch provided an extraordinary treat- the 70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition of Citizen Kane (1941). The film was named the best American movie ever made in 1997 by the American Film Institute. It’s a completely unfair title to give a film because it’s now doomed to a history of backlash from fans who don’t love it as much as ________ (name anyone’s favorite movie). Let’s put that moniker away and instead dive into what makes it such an enduring and amazing film.

Does Dracula live here? Why, no, it’s merely a degraded philanthropist and publishing magnate.

I think that any discussion of Citizen Kane has to begin with the phenomenal camerawork. It’s most famous amongst cinephile circles for its use of deep focus cinematography, a technique that brings the foreground, background, and middle-ground all into focus. Citizen Kane wasn’t the first film to use the technique. Jean Renoir had been using it to great effect in the late 1930s. However, Kane provides the most prominent example, and worked as the strongest trend-setter. The technique took mise-en-scene to a completely new level. Cinematographer Gregg Toland used deep focus cinematography along with several other techniques to take a grand story and drag it to the precipice of gothic horror. A great deal of the film looks like it’s right out of the German Expressionist tradition and would fit in with the classic horror films of the 1930s. To amplify the effect, Toland employed high angle shots, low angle shots, and perfect backlighting to create a shadowy, dreamlike retrospective on Charles Foster Kane’s life. All of this wonderful cinematography was punctuated by brilliant editing. Editor Robert Wise used an army of ingenious dissolves and screen wipes to bring the imagery to life. The transitions from scene to scene are phenomenal, and groundbreaking. Here’s a scene that demonstrates deep focus cinematography in action:

More deep focus, and a shot of a canonized wealthy man seeking political power. Ah, the American dream.

The story itself is as American as it can be. I imagine this is a large part of why the AFI latched onto it and placed special importance on the film. To be blunt, it’s a tale that could only be told as effectively if it came from early 20th century America. It focuses on a rags to riches story, materialism, monopoly capitalism, greed, politics, the journalistic ethics of a free press, and the inevitable fall from grace. We Americans love our stories about the wealthy, and the blood sport of seeing them fall from grace in 1941 was only enhanced by a decade’s worth of economic depression. The best part is that the film is a very thinly veiled story about publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst. Hearst was so enraged by the film that he led a smear campaign against it and ultimately hindered Welles’ career. The irony is that in doing so, Hearst had lived up to the characterization of him from the film that had offended him so much. Adding to Welles’ affront to Hearst is that the film’s famous item- “Rosebud”- was allegedly the nickname that Hearst gave to his mistress’ vagina. Imagine Hearst’s rage in discovering that something so private had been splattered onto screens all over the country.

Aside from the cinematography and editing, what makes the story work is a brilliant economy. There is a gargantuan amount of information that we learn about Charles Foster Kane in just two hours, all told from varying points of view. The opening sequence, “News on the March”, gives the audience all that it needs to know about the film’s protagonist and the people in his life in just ten minutes. It also sets the gothic tone for the film, and imprints it with the epic grandeur that Kane’s life deserves by evoking Kubla Khan and the pharaohs of Egypt. The best example I can give of the economy of the story is the sequence in which we see Kane eating breakfast through the years with his first wife. At first, he’s ambitious and starry eyed. Then, clip by clip, we see him degrade and rot into an egotistical, cynical mess right before our very eyes. All that was needed was a few minutes of clips of Kane eating breakfast.

I don’t know, and don’t care, if it’s the best American movie ever made. There’s no denying that it’s a tremendous cinematic achievement. There are many reasons that it’s required viewing for so many film students and cinephiles.

The Bonus Features:
Now, let’s talk about the fun stuff. The bonus features that come with the Warner Brothers Blu-ray of Citizen Kane– the Ultimate Collector’s Edition- are mind-blowing. The transfer itself is sharp. Xanadu has never looked so good. The package includes a 2-hour Oscar-nominated documentary from 1995, The Battle Over Citizen Kane. It also includes the 1999 HBO film, RKO 281, which won three Emmys. The film itself has two commentary tracks- one from Peter Bogdanovich, and the other from Roger Ebert. Rounding out the package are a series of miniaturized reprints of original promotional materials from the film, and a 48-page book featuring behind-the-scenes info and film stills. The Ultimate Collector’s Edition is basically a giant encyclopedia for any and all things Citizen Kane. There aren’t enough superlatives.


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22 responses to “Deconstructing Citizen Kane (1941)

  1. I recently had a chance to view this film again (though not as part of the fantastic release you’ve acquired), and it absolutely thrilled and engaged me for every frame. I’ve seen it three or four times now and studied it intensely, and it still startles and provokes me. A great American classic if ever there was one.

    Oh, and that Rosebud vagina thing is hilarious.

    • It’s a shame because of how great the movie is, but the Rosebud thing is honestly the first thing I think of whenever the movie comes up. Every single time.

  2. I haven’t watched it since studying film at university, but its a hard film to forget. Thanks for your thoughts!

  3. As if I needed another reason to get a Blu-ray player.

    • Ha… this was definitely worth seeing on Blu. I think most of the bonus features are actually DVDs, with only the film itself on Blu. Still, it’s completely worth it.

  4. Everytime I re-watch Kane I discover something new that I love. When I visited Hearst Castle in 2010 I was seing the film openning all along. They recently showed the film there for the first time for its 70th anniversary. I would have loved to see that! The Bogdanovitch voiceover is a must if you ask me because it’s full of anecdotes from the interviews between him and Welles (Welles used to live at Bogdanovitch’s house back in the 1970’s).
    By the way, I’m so jealous of the Blu-ray Elite Program! I’m planning on buying this edition of Kane.

    • I”m jealous that you went to the Hearst castle. I’d have a hard time not laughing about the similarity.

      • The more you learn about Hearst the more it is Kane. I tell you if you get near you should go! There are still wild animals from Hearst’s zoo in the area. I must say it is almost like a companion piece to the movie.

  5. I actually have the LAST anniversary disc, but alas it’s ONLY on DVD. Hehe

    Citizen Kane is truly fantastic. Best film ever? Nope. But definitely in the top 100.

    Once again… excellent review!


  6. Dan

    John, I totally agree that Kane gets unfair treatment because people watch it and expect it to be the greatest movie they’ve seen in their life. What’s impossible to recognize on a first viewing is all the influence that Kane had on other films that followed, especially because of the deep focus photography that you mention.

    The more you dig into this movie, the more it becomes clear that it’s a masterpiece and set the framework for so many films that followed. What’s so difficult for many viewers is trying to compare it to modern favorites like Star Wars, ET, or even something like Casablanca. It’s a different type of film that’s held back and gets hammered unfairly because of the “greatest of all time” designation.

    Nice job! Also, that Blu-ray release looks awesome!

    • I couldn’t agree more about how much more you get out of it each time. The first time I saw it, I WAS “that guy”- “That wasn’t as good as ______ (whatever my favorite movie was at the time)”. This was the fourth time I’ve seen it and I’m still latching on to things. This time, it was the camerawork. Last time, it was the American nature of it. It’s just so deep and layered.

  7. Phil

    Sight and Sound is the definitive movie list and it has picked Kane as #1 for the last 30 or 40 years. Any ranking of art is inherently ridiculous, but it is impossible to argue that another film is better or more important. I’m hoping to buy the Blu Ray soon so I can also get a copy of The Magnificent Ambersons which I’ve never been able to see.

    • A small note, and you may already know… Ambersons only comes with the Amazon version of the package. It’s so good. I caught it on TCM a few months ago.

  8. Nice nod to German Expressionism! It is a film that owes a lot to that era of film. The mood and lighting of many of the most visually stunning scenes feel similar to the work of Murnau to me.

    • I love that it’s kind of a missing link, working as a huge segue between Expressionism and film noir… much like the horrors from, uh… another studio that isn’t Warner Brothers… in the 1930s. Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, The Wolf Man…

  9. I am personally in the love Citizen Kane camp. This is a film I knew a lot about and that it was the greatest film ever made. So with all this build up I watched the film and it make every expectation I had. One of the things I liked about Citizen Kane is the story is not one you see everyday. Charles Foster Kane is not the most likable character and yet I feel bad for him every time I watch this film.

    • Yes, he’s a great forerunner for anti-heroes. He’s made human enough that you can see his rise and fall. It’s a big nod to the quality of character development.

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  11. JUST listened the Roger Ebert commentary yesterday,it was such a treat to listen to a expect critic who has seen the films dozens of times.I heard Welles learned a great of the usage of ceilings from John Ford’s Stagecoach,but had no idea what it was used for,Ebert just explained everything.I definitely gonna watch it many times more since I’m a filming technique geek.

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