• Citizen Kane

    By Roger P. Smith

    Since the dawn of the sound era, an estimated 25,000 feature-length films have been produced—and that’s in the English language alone. When, in the early 1960s, an international group of film critics were polled as to their “number-one film of all time,” Citizen Kane was in first position. The repetition of this poll in the early 1970s and once again in 1982 produced the same result: Citizen Kane was a solid first each time. Even more important than the opinion of critics is the opinion of audiences. They too, decade after decade, have ranked Citizen Kane as their favorite film. For what truly sets Kane apart from every other film commonly called a “masterpiece” is that it’s also an enormous amount of fun.

    If one thinks about it, the very idea that there could be unanimity of opinion on such a subject as “the best movie ever made” is absurd. Not only have different generations viewed movies differently, but groups within each filmgoing generation seek different things. Some search for an aesthetic experience; others look for social relevance; still others rank storytelling as the ultimate purpose of a film; and yet another group believes insight into human psychology is the special province of film. Citizen Kane’s accomplishment is, simply, that it achieves greatness whatever one’s perspective may be.

    Despite the fact that Citizen Kane can’t truly be called “art”—or perhaps because of it—its greatness is undeniable. While some critics have gone so far as to call Kane kitsch, such people tend to regard estrangement from popular entertainment as proof of worth. In stylistic terms, the film is an amalgam of many forms of popular entertainment—the historic radio plays, the breakneck pace of vaudeville comedy, the cheap emotions of pulp fiction, the phony drama of the newsreel, the cartoon-like, larger-than-life quality of the characters. It is these “popular” qualities which underlie the film’s extraordinary claims on our attention.

    While numerous individual elements of the film are truly artistic—cinematographer Gregg Toland’s deep-focus camera work leaps to mind—those elements are subservient to what was presumably Welles’ original purpose, and certainly his ultimate effect: to grab the audience from the very first frame and take it on a breathless rollercoaster ride through early twentieth-century America, leaving it at the end of the trip exhilarated and spent, but begging for more.

    As for the social relevance of Citizen Kane, it—like the film’s art—is there when needed but always subjugated to the film as grand entertainment. At the time of Kane’s release, social commentators (particularly on the Left) felt the film failed to inveigh sufficiently against the abuse of wealth and power by such as Kane/Hearst. Instead, it tells the audience what it already believes: money doesn’t buy happiness. While the absence of a desire to transform human consciousness may bother some, for most of us Kane-as-Daddy Warbucks, lonely despite vast riches, is a far more engaging character than the malefactor of great wealth some would have him be.

    It is in the telling of the story of Charles Foster Kane that the film transcends the limitations of popular entertainment and achieves greatness. That it does it through the devices of popular entertainment is irrelevant. From the first moment when the camera conspiratorially draws the viewer behind the giant iron gate with its “No Trespassing” sign, to the final moment when the sled is consumed by flames, every aspect of cinematographic art—photography, music, set design, editing, costuming, special effects—is assembled with a unifying vision into an endlessly fascinating portrait of a not-all-that-fascinating man.

    The New York opening of Citizen Kane was at Broadway’s RKO Palace, newly converted from a vaudeville house, on May 1, 1941. While from the beginning the film’s extraordinary quality was recognized, it was not what today would be called a blockbuster. Its initial release earned RKO most, but not all, of its total cost—as Hearst-inspired fears of booking on the part of many exhibitors probably contributed to its failure to earn a profit. However, beginning in the 1950s, a series of releases brought the picture to the attention of a new generation of filmgoers. Most of them saw the film in grainy 16 mm prints in “art” houses.  Despite all of the attention the film has subsequently received, few viewers have, according to Welles himself, seen the film as he intended it to be seen.

    It is with a great sense of privilege that we present this Criterion edition, which we believe is as exact as possible a recreation of Welles’ masterpiece. This videodisc was derived from a fine grain master positive provided by the UCLA Film and Television Archives. Every possible form of electronic enhancement techniques has been used to make this videodisc the closest approximation of the experience Welles intended to give the viewer. Citizen Kane deserves nothing less.

17 comments

  • By EGOR
    November 25, 2008
    03:21 AM

    The Citizen Kane trend of "greatest film of all time" is subject to change. The year 2006 saw the arrival or revival of Melville's long forgotten Army of Shadows, the same year it was the best rated among critics (four stars at least by each). It is now considered his masterpiece. Melville was and still is a known filmmaker. With that said one can only see what other films are buried from other parts of the world and waiting to be seen.
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  • By Kenneth Starcher
    November 25, 2008
    01:58 PM

    I just bought the original CITIZEN KANE laserdisc off ebay. I have it sitting beside me right now. That laserdisc truly is a piece of film and home video history, and I feel truly priveliged to own it. The special features and the packaging are just awesome, and the film itself is wonderful. I am proud to have the original Spine #1 as a part of my home video collection!
    Reply
  • By Rhyl Donnelly
    November 26, 2008
    12:41 PM

    Keep more of these essays & archive laserdisc material coming (if you can)! I just purchased a laserdisc player last year and plan on collecting a few Criterion titles, but the discs themselves may not survive as long as one would hope. You guys had a huge impact on what DVDs are now (bonus content-wise), as I'm sure you are aware. Keep setting that bar higher.
    Reply
  • By Troy F.
    November 26, 2008
    05:06 PM

    Criterion has expanded my appreciation in classic cinema thru the years. I was there at the beginning (I still have my Citizen Kane AND King Kong) and continue to be amazed at the quality and diversity of titles and extras. And the new site shows that commitment. You guys have rocked, do rock and will rock for home video to come. Bring on the Blu-ray guys. Here we go again!
    Reply
  • By Paul Hansen
    November 26, 2008
    10:07 PM

    I purchased my Citizen Kane original the same day it was released. It's still a prized possesion (as are many of the original early Criterion/Voyager releases). You remain our favorite company in our household.
    Reply
  • By Tom Yates
    November 27, 2008
    09:00 AM

    'The Magnificent Amberson'? Criterion released this on laserdisc (15-20 years ago)--any chance that it'll be released on DVD? While we're on my wishlist--the Janus 100 Essential Film box set included 'Le jour se leve'--since I had nearly all the films on Criterion DVD, it made no sense to buy the box set--any chance that 'Le jour se leve' will ever get released as an individual title?
    Reply
  • By Pearce
    November 27, 2008
    01:51 PM

    Love the essay. Don't like the comments section. Don't care what spammers & loudmouths have to say.
    Reply
  • By Steve Cherroff
    November 27, 2008
    05:33 PM

    Forgive the sacrilege, but when are Criterion movies going to be available online? I like to study films and their scripts on my P.C.
    Reply
  • By Sandra
    November 28, 2008
    06:36 AM

    The deep focus is great, but the editing is cross-fade-atrocious. Punny match cuts and slow cross-fades really drag the movie's grade down in my book. Overall, still a great movie, but I dropped my jaw when I saw Robert Wise's name in the credits (since I'm a great fan of the Haunting).
    Reply
  • By Adam
    August 03, 2011
    09:41 PM

    Just got this on Ebay for a few bucks. No laserdisc player in my keep, but Criterion Spine #1, awesome. Going on the wall.
    Reply
  • By Ed
    August 23, 2011
    07:35 PM

    Just wondering, if Citizen Kane is so important, that it got #1 spine treatment, why hasnt criterion released it as a dvd?
    Reply
  • By Michael Koresky
    August 24, 2011
    11:48 AM

    Warner Bros. owns the rights to Citizen Kane, and surely won't license it.
    Reply
  • By Shaun Pearson
    August 24, 2011
    07:09 PM

    Tom, Criterion released "Le jour se leve" in 2009 on the Essential Art House line. About a year ago it went out of print with other Studio Canal titles. This is one I snatched up at the time because these Carné/Prévert poetic realist films are some kind of perfect (Port of Shadows, Les enfant du paradis). FYI, it can still be found on a site that rhymes with Schamazon dot com for under $20.
    Reply
  • By Shaun Pearson
    August 24, 2011
    07:12 PM

    Oops my high school French teacher would be alarmed. Make that: Les enfants du paradis
    Reply
  • By Zergham T.
    December 28, 2012
    08:44 PM

    I just picked up a sealed Citizen Kane laser disc for 4.99 at a used video store in Toronto, spine #2 :)
    Reply
  • By Something
    August 06, 2014
    12:04 AM

    Man, I wish Warner would cough up the rights so criterion could do the Blu-Ray.
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    • By Something
      August 29, 2014
      03:36 AM

      Also fun story, according to Wikipedia, this was released on what would be my birthday in 1984 (December 1)

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