My Conflicted Relationship with Citizen Kane

There’s a handful of movies that I avoid writing about on here just because I feel like I don’t have anything particularly special to say about them.  Casablanca, Gone With the Wind, and Citizen Kane are all on that list.  But when the ladies over at True Classics decided to host a blogging debate about whether or not Citizen Kane deserves the title of “Best Movie Ever,” I thought it would be a good time to break my unwritten rule.

For a movie that is so widely considered the crowning achievement of American film, it can be fiercely divisive among movie fans.  In one camp are the people who agree that it is the best movie ever made and in the other are the ones who think it’s totally overrated.  I don’t think I fully belong in either camp.  Do I think Citizen Kane is the best movie ever made?  Long answer short, yes and no.

My only real issue with Citizen Kane is that’s it’s a movie centered around the final word said by a man who clearly died alone.  I have a very difficult time calling any movie with a plot hole that big the greatest movie ever made.  Someone tried to explain this on the Citizen Kane IMDB page as something incorrectly regarded as a mistake, that the scene was supposed to be from the point of view of Raymond the butler since later in the film, he mentioned hearing Kane say, “Rosebud,” before dying.  I’m sorry, but that is such a stretch of the imagination.  When I watched this for the first time, I didn’t think, “Oh, this must be from the perspective of some off-screen character I haven’t been introduced to yet.”  Instead, I spent the whole movie wondering why anyone even knew Kane’s dying word.  Then when the movie was almost over and Raymond mentioned being there, all I could think was, “Huh?  So someone was there?”

I can’t call this poor writing since the same tidbit on IMDB also said the script said the nurse was in the room when he died.  What I think happened is that Orson Welles was determined to have that scene shot the way we know it, and although it is spectacularly shot, it creates a plot hole.  I don’t see why they couldn’t have shown or even just hinted at somebody else actually being in the room.  The shadowy outline of a person standing by Kane’s bedside would have sufficed.  This frustrates me so much just because it’s an error that could have been so easily remedied.  After all, the mystery in Citizen Kane is the meaning of Kane’s final word, not who heard him say it.  So why raise that question when it doesn’t have to be raised?

That being said, I believe that Citizen Kane is a true marvel of technical film making.  I consider this and Casablanca to be the creme de la creme of black and white cinematography.  The Academy really ought to give Gregg Toland an honorary posthumous award for his work on Citizen Kane because it is criminal that he didn’t win an Oscar for that.  Who needs color when you have shots like these:

The camera work is every bit as impressive as the lighting.  I don’t think there is a movie that does low angle shots better than Citizen Kane:

I remember when I saw this shot for the first time, all I could think is, “How were they even able to move the camera when it’s that low to the ground?”  Leave it to Orson Welles to decide that floor level wasn’t low enough and to start digging into the floor of the soundstage to get it even lower.

And then there are the deep focus shots.  It’s easy to appreciate these shots on a superficial level, but it’s not as easy to fully appreciate how very difficult those shots often were to get.  So difficult, in fact, that some of the deep focus shots actually were impossible and had to be cheated a little bit.  But who cares if there was a little cheating involved?  Movies are all about creating illusions.

Surprisingly, there is one thing I don’t think Citizen Kane gets enough credit for and that’s for being an extremely expensive looking movie made on a rather modest budget.  This is the ultimate example of not needing an astronomical budget to produce a great movie.  According to IMDB, the budget for Citizen Kane was $686,033.  I put that figure into an inflation calculator and that comes out to be roughly $10.5 million in today’s money.  A $10.5 million budget is more what you typically see in small, independent films nowadays, not movies about extremely wealthy men that require lots of grand sets.  But just for kicks, I looked up the budgets for some more recent mainstream films like Transformers: Dark of the Moon ($195 million), Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 1 ($127 million), and No Strings Attached ($25 million).  Since I haven’t actually seen any of those movies, I also watched each of their trailers and I was amazed at just how cheap they looked compared to Citizen Kane.  All of those may have had significantly larger budgets, but the scene at Mrs. Kane’s boarding house has a richer look than anything I saw in any of those trailers.  The phrase, “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap,” comes to mind.

So ultimately, while I don’t think Citizen Kane is a perfect film, I still do enjoy it and have an immense amount of respect for it.  Even with that huge plot hole, movies don’t get better than this on the technical side of things.  And another thing to consider is that Orson Welles was only 24 years old when he made Citizen Kane and this was the first feature length film he directed.  I’ve seen a lot of early attempts at directing and if the biggest flaw one of those efforts has is a plot hole, well, that’s a pretty remarkable thing.

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6 comments

  1. Excellent, excellent. I found myself nodding my head several times whilst reading. It’s an act tantamount to heresy to call this film anything other than the greatest film ever made, it seems. I like it, but have never loved it. For innovations and camerawork it’s superb, and its subject and scope is unsurpassed, certainly for the time it was released (which you always have to take into account) but I’ve always had a nagging doubt that the story itself wasn’t, if I had to swear my life to it, the most intriguing.

  2. I am so glad I’m not alone. I’ve always found the story rather dull, but the manner in which it is told is superb. It is a master class in filmmaking. And I agree about the richness of the sets. Better than most of the garbage made today.

  3. You’re certainly entitled to your opinions on Kane, but I do have a major quibble with your quibble: that’s a really dubious “plot hole” based on minimal evidence. The opening scene is intentionally shot in a highly subjective, expressionistic style; the lighting and sound design make it anything but a realistic record of Kane’s death.

    Really, you could gripe about anything in that scene: why was it snowing on Kane’s lips? Why was the nurse so distorted? Why didn’t she say anything or call anyone when she found him dead? It’s intentionally detached and dreamlike. You shouldn’t let that ruin the whole movie for you.

    1. I think it’s rather silly to use any of any of those things to compare my argument to. It’s pretty easily understood why any of those things are the way they are, nobody is seriously going to question them. But there’s a lot of information you can correctly infer about Charles Foster Kane just from those first few minutes alone. You can figure that with all the fences he has up literally, he’s probably got a lot of fences up figuratively too. You can tell that he’s not just a rich man in a big house, this is the richest man in the biggest house with its own zoo and golf course. This was not a down to Earth man, everything about him was imposing and bigger than life. So when I saw a wide shot of Kane lying in bed with nobody else standing nearby, I got the impression that he died alone. Why should I arbitrarily choose to ignore that information yet accept everything else leading up to that shot?

      I’d also like to point out that this issue didn’t ruin the movie for me, I actually do enjoy the movie very much. I just can’t call it the perfect film, that’s all.

  4. Kane is a great film. One of my personal favourites. The greatest? That is a silly question really since it cannot be answered. But it certainly is great. Number five on my list of favourite films. I really enjoyed your piece on the subject – even though I must agree with Andreas above when it comes to your so-called plothole.

    Even though it seems to only happen when people are debating the merits of the film, it is good to see so many watching Citizen Kane – and enjoying it for the quite fun film it is.

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