Citizen Kane (1941): Orson Welles' magnum opus and arguably the greatest motion picture of all time

Welles' mesmerizing narrative on power induced corruption

A Potpourri of Vestiges Review

By Murtaza Ali

Featured in IMDb Critic Reviews 

citizen kane, directed by orson welles
Citizen Kane (1941)- By Orson Welles
Our Rating: 10.0
IMDb Ratings: 8.5
Genre: Drama | Mystery
CastOrson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Comingore
Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 119 min
Color: Black and White

Summary: Following the death of a publishing tycoon, news reporters scramble to discover the meaning of his final utterance.

Citizen Kane is a 1941 movie directed by iconic American auteur Orson Welles. Welles' magnum opus, Citizen Kane is touted in American movie circles as the greatest motion picture of all time. Over the last one hundred years, cinema has been a proud witness to some ingeniously gifted, uber-talented movie makers whose penchant for cinema seemed to transcend the love for their own existence, and whose avant garde, sui generis works not only delighted and enlightened generations of viewers worldwide, but also paved the way for evolution of cinema as the art form of the 20th century. If cinema were to write its own tale of glory then surely Welles' name would be engraved in golden letters for having suffered the most in order to make his art see the light of the day. Throughout his career, Welles suffered miserably at the hands of pesky Production Studios, but he fought till his last breath to keep his works free from any commercial sabotage and cheap gimmicks. However, as with any avenue of promise, it’s almost impossible to keep the moolah out, for it’s the very fuel on which the business runs. The only thing that concerns the investors is profit, and the since the creative lot mostly have to rely on the Production Studios for funding, they have to devise a framework that caters to the whims of these investors, and simultaneously fulfills their minimal creative requirements. The higher the stakes the greater is the say of the man with the moolah!

Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane
Orson Welles in Citizen Kane (1941)
With every new movie that Welles made, the unsolicited interference of Production Studios became more and more intolerable. His second motion picture, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) was brutally sabotaged to almost half its length by RKO Pictures without him being even apprised; the original footage was also destroyed to stymie any efforts of a possible reversion. RKO Pictures justified the sabotage as a business decision taken to give the movie a happy ending. To Welles’ chagrin, another of his masterpieces, Touch of Evil (1958) was made to suffer a similar fate. Citizen Kane, being Orson Welles’ debut motion picture, fortunately happens to be his most pristine and original piece of work. Welles had leveraged his ‘The War of the Worlds’ infamy to gain the trust of his studio boss at RKO. He had made full use of the carte blanche granted to him to plan and execute the outrageously controversial screenplay of Citizen Kane, a privilege that Welles would never enjoy again.      

Citizen Kane: Camera Maneuvering, Special Camera Angles, Lighting
Citizen Kane: Camera Maneuvering
Citizen Kane undoubtedly represents the best that American Cinema has ever offered to the world. American Film Institute (AFI) has acknowledged the movie’s indelible impact on American Cinema by bestowing it with the top spot in its all time list of greatest cinematic gems. Citizen Kane is a technical marvel that has stood the test of time for well over six decades; the technological and creative innovation incorporated by Welles and his team is far ahead of the time. Citizen Kane pioneered the use of time switching and special effects as an epiphanic phenomena in the world of cinema. The camera plays a pivotal role in character development through the entire length of the movie as Welles uses it to brutally capture the different moods of his characters as they encounter different circumstances during their lifespan. Welles’ presence both in front as well as behind the camera enriches the movie with a sense of kaleidoscopic realism that helps bring the movie to life. Through Citizen Kane, Orson Welles not only immortalizes Charles Foster Kane, but also himself as an auteur, actor, writer, but most importantly as a great visionary of cinema.

William Randolph Hearst, the real life inspiration for charles foster kane
William Randolph Hearst
Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane, Citizen Kane
Charles Foster Kane
Citizen Kane presents a biography of a newspaper tycoon and business magnate, Charles Foster Kane. While the name Charles Foster Kane is fictitious, the caricature isn’t. In fact, the motion picture fits the classic definition of film à clef, being loosely based on the life of American media mogul William Randolph Hearst. Citizen Kane sparked unprecedented waves of controversy by taking potshots on the libertine modus vivendi of William Hearst, who in response mustered all his power and influence to ruin Citizen Kane and all those associated with it. What made the matter worse was a risqué reference—concealed in the word ‘rosebud’—to Hearst’s paramour Marion Davies. It was indeed the vindictive intervention of Hearst that made the movie crash at the Box Office, and got an American heartthrob like Welles to be booed off the stage while receiving the Best Screenplay Oscar for Citizen Kane. The movie presents a valuable thesis on power induced corruption, and brilliantly demonstrates how influential people often leverage the power vested with press and media to sway the public opinion.

Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane, Joseph Cotton as Jedediah Leland in Citizen Kane
Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton in Citizen Kane  
Citizen Kane also excels at the emotional level and underlines the delicate balance in human bonds of friendship and love that, if properly maintained, can hold people together despite all odds. The scenes between Kane and his childhood friend Jedediah Leland (sublimely played by Joseph Cotton) are an absolute treat to watch with Leland at his sarcastic best, trapped between his contrasting responsibilities of a critic and a friend. Kane's murmuring of the word 'rosebud' at the time of his death, and his public annihilation of his election opponent, Jim Getys represent the two extremes of human life: the very low and the very high. Citizen Kane thus takes cinema to new highs and lows, instilling even the most indifferent viewer with a completely new zeal and understanding for cinema. Citizen Kane is a living testament to the infinite potential of cinema as an art form, and as a great source of knowledge and learning. A true cinematic gem that is meant to be savored by anyone and everyone! 10/10

Readers, please feel free to share your opinion by leaving your comments. As always your feedback is highly appreciated!  

For Best Films by Orson Welles, please click here

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  1. An American magnum-opus and Orson Welles' greatest lagniappe to the world of cinema! Really liked the detailed account that you have given in your review :P

  2. I didn't like this movie much. However, there are some details mentioned in your article that makes me watch it again..

  3. It did not work for me too. Though I admit, it is not a bad movie, I think it is way too much hyped as I did not think of it as the best movie made ever or anything. Maybe, I need to be little more objective and give it one more go.

  4. Citizen Kane is indeed a great cinematic experience that gets better with every viewing. As far as I am concerned, it was only the second viewing that set the ball rolling. One reason that the movie is really dear to me is that it was the only movie by Orson Welles that was allowed to be made exactly the way he wanted it.

  5. You and I see pretty much eye to eye about this. BTW, this is a great review.

  6. Thanks... I am really glad to hear that :-)


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