I get a little tired of people telling me that Citizen Kane is the greatest film ever made. Don’t get me wrong; I love the film, but calling it the “greatest ever” seems a little hard to swallow. I’ve seen a lot of Welles films, but certainly not all of them… I have to tell you that I don’t even think Kane is the best Orson Welles film. I tend to like Touch of Evil better. It seems a much more relaxed and confident film to me.
(For the record, I’m frequently interviewed by people who ask me variations on this… “What is your favorite film?” “What’s the greatest film ever made?” I don’t have an answer for this. The greatest film ever made, and my favorite, is moldering in a can somewhere, waiting for me to find it. I have a real weakness for auteurish films by obscure people like Max Davidson, Warren William, or Charley Bowers.)
Citizen Kane could hardly have been a bad movie if it tried. Welles was a first-time director, but he was given a great cinematographer (Gregg Toland), a great composer (Bernard Herrmann), a great editor (Robert Wise), a great co-screenwriter (Herman Mankiewicz) and a great cast. He was protected from studio interference by contract and they adhered to it.
RKO in the early 40s was a really great place to make a movie. I often cite William Dieterle’s The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) as another film done at the same studio at about the same time, that is also a great film. Both Welles and Dieterle were influenced by German expressionism, with the editor, composer, and studio brass the same for both films. (I would be remiss not to point out the scene at 47:05 when we first see Simone Simon. I will only say that I’d have worked on this film for free.)
Some of these same people went on to do other great pictures at RKO. Kane’s editor, Robert Wise, moved up to the director’s chair, and worked for producer Val Lewton. Lewton headed up a B-unit there that made twelve amazing pictures, largely free of studio interference, between 1942 and 1946. Lewton was allowed to make pretty much anything he wanted so long as he used the studio’s title, which led him to make a film like Curse of the Cat People (1944)–basically a sentimental Christmas story with a ghost in it.
I realize that I’m painting an overly rosy picture of RKO as a studio that left artists alone. I do remember what happened to The Magnificent Ambersons, but that was an unfortunate anomaly that was not typical of RKO’s behavior at the time. In fact, Robert Wise, who was responsible for the studio-backed recutting of Ambersons, was embarrassed and defensive about it even as late 1995 when he was grilled about it at Cinecon.
But as I get back to Kane, I see a film with Welles being extra ambitious to make an artsy film that would get people talking. He succeeded, but as a result, Kane is not exactly subtle. The direction calls attention to itself at nearly every opportunity. Flashy editing, flashy photography, dramatic lighting… it’s all there. This doesn’t make Kane a bad film–far from it–but I find that Welles matured as a director and did more confident, more cinematic work later in his career.
The legend around Citizen Kane is that Welles did his very best work for his first film, and that everything he did afterward was a step down.
I don’t believe that. Welles was highly idiosyncratic, and he had a reputation of being “difficult.” He tended to offend studio people and they tended not to hire him for a second picture. This meant that it became progressively more difficult for him to get work as a director, and he had to resort to using technical people who were less than the stellar crowd he got on Kane.
That’s easy to say, because the crew for Kane is among the best ever assembled for a movie. Almost any other crew would be a step down.
Welles was unable to make great films from lousy budgets, but he managed to do good, solid work with much smaller budgets. The Lady from Shanghai (1947), made for skin-flint Harry Cohn, still has a lush Wellesian feel, especially when we compare it to other films made at Columbia during this period.
When I watch Citizen Kane, I note that Welles seems to be relying heavily on advice from his cinematographer, Gregg Toland. Kane is very much a photographer’s film, and that’s fine by Welles, who loved heavy Expressionist lighting. But there comes a point at which I feel Welles is using Toland almost as a crutch.
Toland was tinkering with special lenses that let distant objects and closer objects stay in simultaneous focus. Normally directors use different lenses, focus on the character speaking, and then rely on the editor to combine disparate shots of actors in the cutting room. This practice is rough on inexperienced actors, because they are frequently not talking to another person, but rather to a bank of lights and a camera lens.
Watch this scene from Citizen Kane.
This is all one continuous shot, with no edits, which is pretty amazing. The actors are all in focus at once, so that they can speak and react to each other. It’s great from an acting standpoint, and we have nothing but respect for Toland at being able to set up shots like this.
Ultimately, though, Welles has used technical bravura to forward his thinking, and it’s stage-bound. The scene plays like a well-lit, well-acted stage scene, which is basically what it is. There isn’t much that is terribly cinematic about it.
Compare this to the opening shot of Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958)
This is also a continuous shot with no edits, but notice that Welles is thinking differently. Characters come in and out of frame, cars move, lighting shifts. It’s not a stage scene; it could never be a stage scene. Welles still doesn’t like the cut-cut-cut editing mentality, but he’s made a quantum leap forward in how to implement it successfully in a movie.
It is fair to say that Welles never made another movie as slick as Citizen Kane is. I think Welles is judged unfairly by film fans. I doubt that anyone in the history of film ever had a deal as sweet as the one he got for Kane. That his later films can’t live up to that isn’t his fault. I think he did grow and mature as a director, but casual viewers get so lost in the flair of “Rosebud” that they miss his other accomplishments.
The “greatest film ever made” is a highly subjective thing. It makes people angry and combative. I find the AFI lists of greatest films consistently annoying, because they omit so many films that I love in a rush to get to the most popular ones. If you want to say Citizen Kane is the greatest film ever made, then that’s OK for you. I’m here to say that it probably isn’t his best work as a director. Many people don’t like the film because it’s so flashy. I understand that too.
I respect individual taste on what constitutes a great film—just so long as “great film” and “Adam Sandler” don’t go together.