“Citizen Kane” is not considered to be the most famous film of all time. That honor could go to “Gone With the Wind,” “The Sound of Music,” “Star Wars,” “Titanic,” or any number of blockbuster films that have been released over the past 30 years. It is definitely not, however, “Citizen Kane.”
What many – but not all—critics do agree about, however, is that “Citizen Kane” is the most respected, or best, film of all time. For example, when the American Film Institute assembled a panel of film scholars and critics to list the 100 greatest films of all time, “Citizen Kane” was ranked number one, followed by “The Godfather” and “Casablanca.” In fact, while all students of film are familiar with, and respect, “Citizen Kane,” it is considerably less well-known than most of the other films included on AFI’s list.
Orson Welles’ 1941 production remains the subject of much study and discussion more than 70 years after its release for a number of reasons. First and foremost is the degree of technical skill that went into its production. Welles, the father of film auteurs, co-wrote, produced, directed, and acted in his film of a wealthy newspaper publisher whose growing megalomania provide the seeds of his moral demise. Ostensibly based on the career of real-life newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, whose publishing empire made him one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the country, and whose efforts at preventing the release of “Citizen Kane” proved painfully successful, the film is both a fascinating quasi-biographical depiction and a marvel of technical innovation. In filming “Citizen Kane,” Welles employed photographed techniques that were considered truly innovative for their time, including the use of what is called “deep focus,” in which the scene is shot in clear focus throughout its physical depth. In other words, rather than forcing attention on a part of the scene through enhanced focus on the object of attention while diminishing focus on other parts, Welles and cinematographer Gregg Toland used a very sharp focus for both close and distant objects within the frame.
Another photographic technique used throughout “Citizen Kane” involved the use of low-angle shots, where the camera is positioned below the object of its attention and characters are filmed from a slightly-below angle. Another innovative technique employed in the film, and one routinely used since, involved the use of flashbacks as a major part of its narrative. “Citizen Kane” is filmed entirely in flashbacks, as an intrepid journalist seeks to unravel the mystery surrounding the last word Charles Foster Kane utters before his death, “Rosebud.” [The depiction of Kane whispering “Rosebud” just before his final breath is actually the film’s biggest flaw, as the character is clearly alone when he dies, so no one could have heard his last word.]
“Citizen Kane” is the most highly respected film of all time. It is not, however, the most famous.