Citizen Kane (1941)

Thousands of pages have been written about the artfulness and technical prowess that makes Citizen Kane a great film, cementing its status in the pantheon of classic films. And while there’s no denying the craft of the film, I’d like to focus on an element of the film that I think gets overlooked a lot when talking about Citizen Kane: it’s a damn entertaining film.

And I think where that start is the performances. Orson Welles brought many of the actors of the film from The Mercury Theatre, an independent roster of actors Welles founded at the age of twenty-one. A majority of the cast is made up of these talented actors resulting in memorable moments from even bit parts.

For instance, one of my favorite moments is when actor George Coulouris is reading a letter from the titular Kane. The final line of the letter is “I think it would be fun to run a newspaper.” The first time, he reads it through at a breakneck speed, skimming over the letter. He then repeats this final line again, this time slowing down, the incredulity of his voice unmistakable. Yes, it’s a small moment, but the film is littered with tons of these small moments where the actors breathe life and liveliness into each line of the film.

Another fun element is the structure of the film. The story is framed as a reporter’s quest to find out the meaning behind the dying word of Charlie Foster Kane: “Rosebud.” What follows is a labyrinthine venture through the various lives of people who were near to Kane. Instead of following the narrative flow of time, the film instead peppers moments as different characters recite their story as it overlaps with Kane’s life.

What this results in is a puzzle for the audience to piece together, fragments and moments of Kane’s life that don’t make sense together, but must be sorted out and placed just so in order to make sense. This can occasionally be a struggle as early scenes of Kane’s life drastically differ from the man in his later years, the youthful man of principle turning into the jaded owner of the vast Xanadu.

A strong element of the film’s enjoyment emerges from the filmmaking. While it’s certainly a film that can be examined as an artfully crafted work, on a pure visual level, it’s an entertaining watch. There are fantastical camera movements, such as when a camera goes through a sign, down a glass window into the bar below in what appears to be one smooth, continuous movement.

The camera also uses perspective in playful ways. The low-shots create a Kane that is big and bold, larger than life and commanding. It’s a visually arresting design enhanced by the lighting. The black and white cinematography by Gregg Toland is gorgeous. These vibrant uses of light conjures German Expressionism and adds cinematic delights to be enjoyed by the audience.

Placed together, these elements make Citizen Kane more than just a masterfully acted, bizarrely structured and gorgeous looking film, but a superb piece of entertainment. It’s a film that’s a gripping watch, each moment crafted with the point to be engaging and entertaining. There’s not a dull moment in the film’s runtime; the film glides into each scene amid the bustle of action and ending each moment before it overstays its welcome. And that’s a rare feat indeed.

© 2016 James Blake Ewing