WHAT I LIKED: There's a certain trepadation that comes with watching what is supposedly the greatest film of all time, so I've always been reluctant to do so in the past. I mean, what if I didn't enjoy it? How can something possibly live up to that reputation?
Well, with all the talk about 'Mank,' at the moment, I finally bit the 'Citizen Kane,' bullet the other day, and what was clear to me first of all is that, quite unsurprisingly, it's an utter technical masterpiece.
Every shot is breathtakingly lit and framed, and the cuts are creative and amusing. More than that though, the camera is used brilliantly to hint at things that are never explicitly stated so that you're left on tenterhooks as Orson Welles shows you characters from a distance and uses music to build tension and expectation. The narrative structure is also innovative in the way it uses flashbacks to tell the whole thing, and the fact that Welles did all this via his directorial and acting debut at the age of 25 is astonishing. Don't take my word for it though; the fact Roger Ebert claims it to be the one film that epitomises every technique from the emerging sound era pretty much tells you everything you need to know.
In the end though, all of that technical greatness could be discussed at great length, but without anything else it could still be a film only of atmosphere, and surely that's not enough for one which holds such a significant place in history? It's what all that stuff is serving on a character/thematic level that I'm really interested in and was kind of worried about, but to my great relief, 'Citizen Kane,' didn't let me down in that department either.
In case you didn't already know, the narrative is basically a character study of an enigmatic newspaper mogul whose death sparks a journalistic investigation where a reporter ends up talking to people who knew him. It then takes the approach of many films since - showing contrasting aspects of one person through different snippets of their long life, only via flashbacks. From what we see, Kane is at varying times joyous, reactionary and impulsive; he longs to be a lover one moment, a working man's hero or an indulgent philanthropist the next, but he never thinks too deeply about properly achieving any of those things and thus never does. He opts for the easy route every time by controlling those around him, and whilst perhaps the best summary of his character is that "he's always got something to prove," eventually his troubled, distant childhood eats away at him and his zest for life diminishes when he's forced to recognise that all of those attempts at fulfillment have amounted to nothing but tragedy.
That's a fascinating and rather heartbreaking thing to watch, but it's through the lens of that fascinating directorial work - and performance of course - that you're constantly engaged and gagging to piece together the man from all of those contrasting traits. You're also of course though rather brilliantly doing that along with the journalists investigating and characters remembering him in the flashbacks, so every single moment in the film is overltly made out to be subjective. In my mind that's a genius move on screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz and Welles' part, as it alone enables the thematic point that the entire film translates, making it timeless and universally transcendent.
Kane is a complex man who was many things to many people at many different times, and in the absence of an objective reflection of him, we are forced towards the conclusion that it's possible for us humans to be just that. We can be full of life one minute, beaten down the next; feel passionate about something without knowing how to achieve it; want to be something but fail; be both good and evil all at the same time. Those are the kinds of points that only such a nuanced character study can translate when every moment is a part of a mystery about uncovering who one complex person really is from so many different perspectives. The final conclusion about Kane ultimately just being a big kid trying to make his way in the world only adds further impact and meaning to that.
In the end then, I'm relieved to say that I think 'Citizen Kane,' truly is a masterpiece, and it most definitely lives up to its enormous reputation.
WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE: This isn't one of those masterpieces with no fat on its bones. There are parts of the flashback sequences which could have certainly been cut down to keep the intrigue up in the first act. Seeing Kane's joyous entrepeneurship early in his career for example does drag long after its made its point.
VERDICT: 'Citizen Kane's breathtaking command of cinematic technique and its overtly subjective flashback sequences make for a nuanced character study that will have you longing to get under one man's skin whilst you're in your seat, and considering the potential complexity of humankind as a whole once you've left it. It really is a masterpiece, so you really shouldn't wait as long as I did to see it.