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.