I had seen Citizen Kane at least twice prior to embarking on my quest to watch all 50 of the films on the BFI’s Greatest Films of All Time List, but it has been several years since the last time. As I approached this recent viewing for my project, I wondered if my previous opinions and impressions would stand. I always appreciated the film but could never reconcile it routinely appearing in the top spot in many best of lists, including the American Film Institute’s 100 Years…100 Movies and, until this year, the BFI list. I read with great interest when Kane was displaced from the #1 spot by Vertigo.
As i have mentioned before, watching these films in chronological order has helped place them in an enlightening context. Kane sits between 1939’s The Rules of the Game and 1948’s Bicycle Thieves. (On a side note, the 1940’s are curiously under-represented, featuring 3 titles. Only the 1980’s with 1 and the 2000’s with 2 fared worse.) On many accounts, Citizen Kane takes huge strides from The Rules of the Game and although 1941 was a great year for films (The Maltese Falcon, The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels, Dumbo), none stack up to the sheer cinematic invention of Orson Welles’s masterpiece.
Many things set Citizen Kane apart. One is the complex non-chronological narrative. The film begins with the death of the main character. A reporter sets out to discover the meaning of Charles Foster Kane’s last word and attempts to do so by interviewing several people close to Kane. All of the films on the BFI list up to this point were straightforward chronologies of events, with the exception of The Man with a Movie Camera which was not narrative.
Welles and cinematographer Gregg Toland use a variety of techniques to create a visually stunning experience. They borrow heavily from German Expressionism that would soon influence many of the great films noir that loom on the horizon. Citizen Kane is a film that matches cinematographic technique to its big ideas. This is a film that holds up to repeat viewing because there is so much going on visually that you will always discover something new.
Citizen Kane relies on music, Bernard Herrmann’s first film score, in ways neither of the sound films so far on the list have. Bernard Herrmann should get some honor for composing the music for the top 2 movies on the BFI list.
Citizen Kane’s long history of often being considered one of the greatest, if not THE greatest, film of all time is certainly not unwarranted. Although it will occupy a high slot on my list, it will not takeover the top spot. As much as I appreciate all that Kane does, I find that that’s where it always leaves me: at great appreciation. For me, it comes across as an intellectual exercise and a brilliant one at that. But it fails to excite me. I have never connected to this film emotionally.
My ratings so far:
- Metropolis (1927)
- Citizen Kane (1941)
- The Rules of the Game (1939)
- Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)
- City Lights (1931)
- The General (1926)
- The Man with the Movie Camera (1929)
- L’Atalante (1934)
- Battleship Potemkin (1925)
- The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
Next Up: Bicycle Thieves