3 Reasons Why Citizen Kane is the Greatest Movie of All Time (and 3 Reasons Why it's Not.)

by Paul Deeter

This article marks the 100th published for Purely Kino. Thank you for reading whether this is the first article you've read or your 100th, I appreciate everything you've done to support the site, and hope you'll read the next 100 and 100 after that and then on. Thanks again.

Citizen Kane. A title that carries the weight of the history of every article, dissertation, commentary track and otherwise always relevant conversation about this massive film. It's a film that's seen constant showings and updated releases on home media, each time a remaster of the original cut with more features added to support the fandom and critical acclaim of the film. It's a movie that staggers its title and typeface on its posters; it begs the audience to try and out do it. 'K' is the chosen poster frequently with an image of Welles' character Charles Kane standing in a power pose next to it. It's an intimidation. It beckons interest. And it has over 80 years of relevance. This relevance has never dipped in 80 years. It's considered an American accomplishment. A brilliant brainchild of a first project by Welles in the perfect time for beautiful black and white films. This B&W picture has made cleaner remastering over years of laserdisc and DVD and Bluray releasing. This year saw Criterion Collection's acquisition of the title and first 4K release of this monumental film. What did I say again about relevance? Oh and the image used for the Criterion cover is the giant K in the classic picture font. K for Kane. K for King. All hail the King.

Originally set to be titled The American, Orson Welles' was scouted by RKO pictures and Warner Bros. for a pretty much free reign money offer of a film. Regarding the history of the feature BBC culture says this about Welles and his control over the picture: Today, no first-time director in his mid-twenties would be given such complete control of a major project. And no first-time director could possibly come to Hollywood with Welles’ naive ignorance and arrogance about what could be achieved. Welles had famously done his reading of the fictional science fiction classic The War of the Worlds over a radio broadcast that caused mass hysteria when it was thought to be a real attack on America by aliens. His finger to the pulse of great vocal work and charisma was ironically an attraction by RKO. RKO wanted a science fiction concept project from Welles after the notoriousness of this broadcast, but that idea lost wind pretty quickly. Famously Welles was set to direct a first-person camera shot style adaptation of Heart of Darkness the famous Joseph Conrad novella, a concept that would flounder out upon the development of a political thriller and the early work with Herman J. Mankiewicz. Mankiewicz would famously (or rather infamously) be involved to a degree that was under-accredited in history and would inspire David Fincher's biopic Mank in 2020.

Orson Welles worked with new faces and performers, including himself at the lead. For a first film he does a hell of a job in front of and behind the camera, showing a swagger onscreen and off with true confidence only a first-time creator could offer. He worked tirelessly around the clock on upwards of 18 hour filming days. There was a constant need for round-the-clock makeup work for 'old-man Kane' and a rigorous need for deep focus camera work and set control that would distinguish it technically from any other film of the time. Its development (which we'll touch on later) would be extreme, and this shows in the final picture. And it might surprise you to know that famously, the film would actually not be appreciated by the Academy; it was nominated for multiple awards including Best Picture, and would only take home Best Original Screenplay. It was not a box office hit but critically widely received as a new classic. It would suffer (ironically) media and newspaper censorship for its none too subtle depiction of William Randolph Hearst and his own tyrannical power over the news. The movie would be considered the greatest film of all time by multiple directors including Martin Scorcese, Paul Schrader, Gillian Armstrong and pretty much every other famous U.S. director. Its influence would exist in this country and many others: Yasuijiro Ozu would call it the best American film ever. And it is truly an American film. Year and year again yet, the BBC marks it the #1 Greatest Film of All Time. And famously, the world's best critic Roger Ebert would analyze the film time and time again on paper and at showings that would literally freeze frame every image to discuss the importance of each shot.

I've seen "Kane" at least 50 times on 16mm, videotape and laserdisc. I have gone through it a scene at a time, using a stop-frame film analyzer, at least 25 times in various film classes and at festivals. From my 1956 viewing, I remember only the overwhelming total impression of the film, which in its visual sweep and the sheer audacity of its imagination outclassed all the small-minded entertainments I was used to seeing at the movies. - Roger Ebert, 1991.

Roger Ebert, the most influential film critic of all time.

So you might be wondering where I'm going with an article that has spent so long on discussing its significance and what makes the film so great historically. But I intend to use the rest of this article as a list of reasons why (and why not) Citizen Kane actually is the greatest film of all time. I'm probably the 500th person to cover this topic; nothing can be said that hasn't already been said about this film. But here at Purely Kino let's celebrate the theatrical event with our own milestone 100th article, and take some time celebrating film.

First Reason Why: It's a technical masterpiece.

Orson Welles work with deep focus cinematography took advantage of the broad accomplishments made with camera technology that allowed for better image quality over grander shots. The film begs the use of largeness, it has the need for shots that cover grand sized settings. Big newsrooms are shown with full wide shots. Famously, a sequence in which young Kane's parents are discussing his adoption from his small Colorado home and we can see in focus Kane sledding in the backyard while simultaneously focused on his mother. The shot is a technical feat, and its just one of many that would exist over two hours of runtime. This is something that justifies a frame by frame dissertation. Additionally the style of shooting was revolutionary at the time, and even experimental in some aspects: Welles felt that the camera should show what the eye sees, and that it was a bad theatrical convention to pretend that there was no ceiling—"a big lie in order to get all those terrible lights up there," he said. He became fascinated with the look of low angles, which made even dull interiors look interesting. One extremely low angle is used to photograph the encounter between Kane and Leland after Kane loses the election. A hole was dug for the camera, which required drilling into the concrete floor. The movie would critically be considered a work inspired by German abstract angled filmmaking, with sharp angles and shadows used to accentuate shots unlike any American film had done before. Even today its incredible to see, especially in 4K.

First Reason Why Not: It's Influence Is Often Misinterpreted

Wait a film about an American media mogul working his way up in 'the American way' is considered problematic. Well maybe by then it should be noted that Citizen Kane in its early days wouldn't see the more ironic relevance it would see in perhaps 2016 when Donald Trump would become president. After years of being his own mogul and capitalistic tyrant, he accomplished what someone with no political power had done before. His money made him who he is and it let him win and win again due to buying out his opposition against his critics. There's even a line in the film where Kane squabbles about the current President and his wife says "he happens to be the President, and not you." and he replies "a problem I intend to fix one of these days." Why do I mention all this? Well Citizen Kane is Donald Trump's favorite movie (I'm not kidding.) It's certainly not a flawed film in its ambiguously considered glorification of Kane, but much like Martin Scorcese's The Wolf of Wall Street which it would inspire, audiences would still see some attraction in their characters' arcs. Clearly, it caused some danger, but not intentionally.

Second Reason Why: Orson Welles' Performance is Timeless

The wit and wisdom of young Welles is clear as he works his way up in power charismatically as Kane. He has a quick response to pretty much every interaction he's in, and is constantly manipulating conversations in his favor. This set the standard for screenwriting and satire, it still feels ahead of its time when reading the script. You can feel the attraction developing towards Kane along with your anger. He's smart and in control of pretty much every person in a room. His cockiness is at his best as he's young and working his way up as he gain control over the New York Enquirer. As he slowly ages into the more troublesome tyrant he is over the news and control of the media, he feels like a looming presence in every room. He hulks over a podium during a speech with images of his head and KANE in big letters behind him. As he gets scarier, his age becomes more evident with the makeup hanging heavy on him and he becomes crotchier and more terrible in the public, and in his relationship with his wife.

Second Reason Why Not: It Doesn't Treat Women Entirely Well

As long as Welles has been an actor and director, he's been widely considered a legend and an extreme talent. While there's not too much documented about the subject his on-set abusive behavior to the female actors is rumored (to the extent of cajoling a more tragic performance.) This is no unfamiliar feat, and some of the greatest directors like Stanley Kubrick have controversially harmed their female actors mentally for better more authentic acting. Marlene Dietrich spoke to his praises regardless. In her autobiography she mentions on her work with Welles on Touch of Evil...he was charmed by my outfit and that was enough for me. Nevertheless, I never worked with him again. Since both of us were always on the road in different countries, we didn’t often see each other. Yet thanks to the telephone, we remained in touch, and each one knew where the other was hiding. Along with many other things Orson Welles also taught me something about love. He.... admonished me: “Mark my words, you can’t make the man you love happy if you yourself are not happy.” That being said, and of any 1940s film, the female characters are shaped out in roles of suffering and trouble, most of the female presence is his wives and their turmoil. The best performance Ebert mentions might just be the brief scene by Kane's mother.

Marlene Dietrich in Touch of Evil (1958)

Third Reason Why: The Editing is Flawless

My favorite scene is before a party celebration when we see the transition between a still image of the staff of "the greatest newspaper in the world" a group of men sitting posing for a picture of The Chronicle as Kane says "Six years ago I looked at a picture of the world's greatest newspaper men. I felt like a kid in a candy store. Well six years later I got all the candy." The shot turns from a still image to a moving picture when Kane walks past the newly hired entire staff of The Chronicle showing he's taken over everyone for The Enquirer. As he says 'I got all my candy' another picture is snapped of the staff timed fittingly with his quip. But now the picture is for the Enquirer. It's a chef's kiss. One of my all time favorite scenes in cinema. Then of course there's the famous breakfast table montage between Charles and his first wife. One of the editing techniques used in Citizen Kane was the use of montage to collapse time and space, using an episodic sequence on the same set while the characters changed costume and make-up between cuts so that the scene following each cut would look as if it took place in the same location, but at a time long after the previous cut. In the breakfast montage, Welles chronicles the breakdown of Kane's first marriage in five vignettes that condense 16 years of story time into two minutes of screen time. It speeds by so quickly it deserves at least one rewatch.

Third Reason Why Not: It's No Paddington 2

To quote my mother concerning any film since 2017: "it was good but it was no Paddington 2. And Paddington 2 famously this year knocked Citizen Kane down a percent on Rotten Tomatoes and held a perfect 100% consensus, arguing it might be a better film, or maybe the best. This is all kind of a joke, but it does beg the question if the greatest film is an American drama. There's plenty other genre'd films to note and additionally brilliant foreign films. But is Citizen Kane the greatest American film of all time? That conversation is never ending.

As always thanks for reading. Cheers and here's to (at least) 100 more.