Reviewing an old movie is so much more difficult than reviewing a new one. While watching such classics, one really gets a feel of how far we have developed as an audience in our understanding of movies and how we accept things like colour, editing, music and special effects in recent films as standard filmmaking techniques that have always been there. It is hard to understand the importance of these classic films for the time they were made in and what they represented to the culture and lifestyle of those times. Citizen Kane has such a stature among filmmakers and film critics as one of the best films ever made and the regular cinema goers often remain confused as to what the big fuss is about. It is daunting to review a film of this standing and this is an attempt to understand exactly what makes this film so great.
Citizen Kane tells a timeless tale of a very popular, very rich businessman, his journey to fame and to his demise. The film constantly goes backwards and forwards in time and is narrated by different characters giving their own perspective on Kane while relaying his life story. Despite the change in narration several times during the movie, Kane remains the central character and the audience is put to task trying to figure out the mystery behind Kane’s last words ‘Rosebud’. The entire film has a melancholic undertone that points towards a tragic ending when the sad truth about ‘Rosebud’ is revealed.
What the film succeeds in doing (and many contemporary films have failed at this) is to create interest and intrigue, if not empathy, for the rather unscrupulous character of Kane. This meant that the film did not have to rely solely on the mystery of ‘Rosebud’ as it’s backbone, but was also capable of showcasing the drama, the extravagance and the depth of the characters within the Kane story with equal importance.
Needless to say, Welles plays the character of Kane brilliantly well. His is a robust scene-stealing presence throughout; a shrewd sharp and snappy business man through and through. The make-up is so effective that I wondered if the old Kane was played by a different actor. The supporting characters are also given sufficient depth and are played well by the actors. They add layers to the film rather than just being fodder to surround Welles with. As filmmaking signature styles go, there is much to enjoy for the film buff in all of us. Be it the wonderful journalistic news story at the start of the movie or all that overlapping dialogue peppered throughout. Welles is purposely discombobulating at times flitting back and forth between setting and tone. The beginning of the movie could be a haunted castle from a horror movie, transcending from there to a mystery thriller with the death of Kane, then becoming a news story as shown on TV, changing into a drama, then romantic drama, and finally a tragedy. But the transition from one style to another always remains smooth and the audience rarely realises these changes as they merge from one into another.
The script is undoubtedly well-written and has many popular dialogues that make this movie a classic but I wasn’t a big fan of the music. Perhaps I’m just used to soft background music rather than the loud often abrupt 50’s music used here. Or perhaps this is one of those movies that you need to watch again to fully appreciate the importance and relevance of the background score. The film had many memorable scenes which quickly become fan favourites; Kane saying his last words, Kane’s first wife confronting him about his affair and that explosive scene when Kane takes out his rage on Susan’s bedroom when she decides to leave him.
Naturally I found Citizen Kane very impressive from a film critic’s point of view. As well as being memorable because of its unusual narrative style and remarkable script, the technical details are novel and flawless for the time. Along with using new and inventive camera angles, Welles created and used the deep focus shot throughout Citizen Kane (where background and foreground are all in focus at the same time) as well as what was called the ‘wipe’ – whereby one scene is wiped away by the next oncoming scene. The complex filmmaking might be difficult to appreciate for regular cinema goers but, together, both its emotive story and innovative style solidify it as one of the greatest films of all time.