(United States, 1941)
The closer I get to #1, the more my choices will be second-guessed. That's okay for two reasons: (1) it comes with the territory, and (2) the list is opinion-based, so there's no right or wrong. (That statement might sound condescending, but you should read some of the e-mails I get about this list...) Over the past 30 years, nearly every critics' group that has cast a vote has named Citizen Kane as the best movie of all time. Objectively, that may indeed be the case, although I have no way of being certain. After all, my contention is that, in order to be able to name a movie the "best" of all-time, you have to have seen everything. I don't believe anyone qualifies. That's one reason this list is about subjective favorites, not objective quality. At any rate, I have a deep and abiding appreciation of Citizen Kane. Of course, it's one of the most influential films of all time (arguably second only to Birth of a Nation in terms of technical innovation), but it also tells an involving, compelling story and features a great performance (by Orson Welles). It is one of my favorites, although not quite beloved enough to crack the Top 10. I will admit that the first time I saw Citizen Kane (on television in the mid-1980s), I didn't understand what all the fuss was about. It took a few more viewings and a lot of reading to gain a full appreciation of the movie. For anyone who claims to love cinema, this is as iron-clad a "must see" as there is.
Plot Summary (Spoilers Possible):
The movie opens with an unforgettable image of a distant, fog-shrouded castle on a hill. We quickly learn that this place, called Xanadu, is the dwelling of America's Kubla Khan, Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles), a one-time newspaper magnate who could have become President if not for an ill-advised extramarital affair. Within moments of the film's eerie, visually-stunning opening, Kane is dead, uttering the word "Rosebud" as he hunches over. His death, like his life, is a big news event, and the paper he owned, the New York Inquirer, is desperate to unearth the meaning of his cryptic last word. After showing Kane's death, Citizen Kane presents a ten-minute "newsreel" that details the man's larger-than-life accomplishments. Then, as a reporter (William Alland) from the Inquirer digs into Kane's past to learn the meaning of Rosebud, the mogul's history is unraveled through a series of extended flashbacks that represent the sometimes-overlapping, non-chronological accounts of five eyewitnesses. As the story unfolds, we see Kane, aided by his closest friend, Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotton), build a nationwide newspaper empire out of one small paper with a circulation of less than 30,000. To do so, he displays equal parts ruthlessness and generosity, willing to lose 1,000,000 dollars a year to win the circulation wars. His New York Inquirer specializes in bold, splashy headlines that don't necessarily represent the truth. By the time he marries Emily Norton (Ruth Warrick), the President's niece, Kane is one of the most powerful men in America -- a public giant with designs on the White House. Eventually, Kane moves into the political arena, but his bid for the governor's office crashes and burns when his rival, Boss Jim Gettys (Ray Collins), exposes Kane's affair with Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore). Following this failure, Kane divorces his first wife, marries Susan, then goes into seclusion in his unfinished palace of Xanadu.
Citizen Kane has been lauded as the greatest motion picture to come out of America during the black-and-white era (or any era, for that matter). It also represents the pinnacle of Orson Welles' film making career. For, although Welles lived for more than forty years following the release of Kane, he never succeeded in recapturing the brilliance or fulfilling the promise of his first feature. Citizen Kane is a powerful dramatic tale about the uses and abuses of wealth and power. It's a classic American tragedy about a man of great passion, vision, and greed, who pushes himself until he brings ruins to himself and all around him. Of course, the production aspect that makes Citizen Kane so memorable is Greg Toland's landmark cinematography. The movie is a visual masterpiece, a kaleidoscope of daring angles and breathtaking images that had never been attempted before, and has never been equaled since. There's no doubt that Citizen Kane was far ahead of its time, and no denying the debt that the movie industry owes to Welles and his debut feature. Motion picture archives and collections across the world would be poorer without copies of this film, which will forever be recognized as a defining example of American cinema.
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