Citizen Kane is the best film ever made. But what gives it that reputation?
If you’re not sure what the plot of Citizen Kane is, here’s a quick synopsis.
The film opens with the elderly Kane (Orson Welles) on his deathbed. A snow globe in hand, he utters the word “Rosebud” with his dying breath. A newspaper tasks a reporter with identifying the meaning of Kane’s final word. As he interviews those who knew Kane well, flashbacks depict his life story.
So why do people say Citizen Kane is the best movie ever?
The story of Citizen Kane is intimately linked with that of Welles himself. Critics labeled the film “quasi-biographical,” including elements from Welles’ own life, as well as those of well-known business tycoons.
Welles’ entry into Hollywood was certainly unique. RKO Pictures took an interest in him after his radio broadcast, The War of the Worlds, quite literally took the world by storm. The studio gave Welles unprecedented freedoms as writer and director. These included developing his own story, selecting his own cast (all but one of whom were new to film), acting in the film, and enjoying final cut privilege.
In terms of technique, Citizen Kane has been called revolutionary. But, according to French historian Georges Sadoul, “The film is an encyclopedia of old techniques.” Viewers were unaccustomed to chiaroscuro (high contrast) lighting, temporal jumps (flashbacks), impressionistic shots of ceilings, or deep focus cinematography (a large depth of field in where foreground, middle ground, and background are all in focus). Yet, filmmakers had done it all before.
The film’s trailer was also unique. It did not contain footage from the film itself. Instead, filmmakers shot it as a documentary of the making of the film. Said British actor Simon Callow, the trailer has “great playful charm … it is a miniature documentary, almost an introduction to the cinema … Teasing, charming, completely original, it is a sort of conjuring trick: Without his face appearing once on the screen, Welles entirely dominates its five minutes’ duration.”
Citizen Kane today
Today, Citizen Kane is a staple for film students, and critics continue to turn out books and documentaries on it. The U.S. National Film Registry selected Citizen Kane among its inaugural group of films for preservation.
Citizen Kane also holds a rare 100 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. They describe its popularity in this way: “Orson Welles’s epic tale of a publishing tycoon’s rise and fall is entertaining, poignant, and inventive in its storytelling, earning its reputation as a landmark achievement in film.”