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"Citizen Kane" @ 70

David Hudson

Updated through 5/5.

"It storms after us down the corridors of history like its own hero. Bloated, grotesque, tremendous; destroying as it goes; influencing and renewing too. Every fresh decade calls it the best film ever made. Every new generation poses and tries to answer the question, 'Why?'" Nigel Andrews in the Financial Times:

Citizen Kane is 70. Three score years and 10 after its New York premiere in May 1941, it is still everywhere. Not just in its own flesh, as reissue, telecast or DVD, but in the monstrous spell it casts on filmmakers. Long after the critics-turned-directors of the French New Wave first made Orson Welles a demigod — remember the young hero of François Truffaut's Les Quatre Cents Coups dreaming of stealing stills from a cinema showing Citizen Kane? — the figure of the haunted megalomaniac, presiding over the shards of his own life, is inescapable. From Michael Corleone in the Godfather films to Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood, via Robert De Niro's Jake La Motta in Raging Bull (the pugilist's Citizen Kane), the examined life is worth living, irresistibly, for an audience nourished on themes of ambition, self-destruction and the war between private and public actions.

He might have added to that list a more recent film that's drawn far more direct comparisons with Kane, The Social Network. If that correlation hadn't occurred to you, run a quick search on "social network citizen kane" and you'll find that it's occurred to a whole lot of people, among them, David Fincher himself. See, too, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky's review of The Social Network in these pages.

As to "every fresh decade," Andrews is clearly referring to the compendious poll of critics (and eventually, directors, too) that Sight & Sound has conducted every ten years, beginning in 1952. That year, Citizen Kane didn't even make the top ten. But it topped the ten in 1962, 1972, 1982, 1992 and, most recently, in 2002. In a piece for the Atlantic, DB Grady notes that it's been topping other polls over the years as well, including the AFI's "100 Years… 100 Movies."

"If the unconventional narrative style of the film transformed screenwriting, it is the technical detail of Citizen Kane that has overwhelmed the senses of audiences for seven decades," argues Grady. "Gregg Toland was considered to be the best cinematographer in the world at the time, and showed up at Mercury's office one day. 'My name's Toland,' he is reported to have said, 'and I want you to use me on your picture.' By way of explanation, Toland added, 'I want to work with somebody who never made a movie.' Welles called Toland 'the greatest gift any director — young or old — could ever, ever have,' and said, 'I was calling for things only a beginner would have been ignorant enough to to think anybody could ever do, and there he was, doing them.'"

On Twitter, @Criterion went on a little Kane binge today, pointing us to a scan of Bosley Crowther's 1941 review for the New York Times, a shot of Welles arriving at the premiere at New York's Palace Theater, Roger P Smith's 1984 essay for the Criterion edition (the laserdisc, of course) and to Peter Conrad's 2003 piece on Welles for the Guardian. Addressing the aftermath of Kane, Conrad writes, "As always after an attempted revolution, the world soon decided that it preferred the safe status quo. The providers of industrialised entertainment declared Welles to be unbankable. When he was still in his 20s, a steady descent into corpulence, shiftlessness and defensive irony began." Further in:

What can justly be said about a man who between 1936 and 1941 briskly revolutionized the arts of theatre, radio and film, but ended, in his last frustrated years, as a spokesman for cheap wine, lager, dog food, or any other product the ad agencies asked him to tout?

We have a choice between tragedy and comedy. Welles himself was unsure which genre suited him. Was he King Lear, deposed and deprived of power by craven conspirators, or was he Falstaff, who settles for self-indulgence and relies, like an overgrown infant, on always being forgiven? Of course he was both. But he came to suspect — as life had its humbling, tragicomic way with him — that the clown might be a wiser, better, more loving and more admirable character than the wildly infuriated king.

Lawrence French at Wellesnet: "Given that 'The Greatest Film Ever Made' certainly deserves a Deluxe release on it's 70th anniversary, which also happens to be how many years Orson Welles lived on the planet Earth, I would like to propose my own wish list of extras and improvements that Warner Bros Home Video can make to their upcoming Blu Ray release of Citizen Kane, which will most likely be released in September. Since RKO proclaimed September 5, 1941 as Citizen Kane Day, when the film went out at 'popular prices' in many theatres across the country, that would seem to be the obvious day for WB to release their new Citizen Kane Blu Ray disc."

Further reading: Pacze Moj on film canons; further viewing: B. Kite's Exhibits from the C.F. Kane Museum.

Updates, 5/5: Thanks to Sean Axmaker for pointing out Richard T Jameson's rich 1971 essay on Kane, now at Parallax View: "Citizen Kane would lose a great deal of resonance if it were the second instead of the first film of Orson Welles. Aside from 'Rosebud,' the first line that Welles's Kane utters is: 'I don't know how to run a newspaper — I just try everything I can think of.' It is hard to hold separate this man and the wunderkind who appraised RKO's studios as 'the biggest electric train any kid ever had to play with.' Citizen Kane is about a number of things, but my favorite 'about' is Orson Welles and his intoxication with the film medium. Or, if we must keep Hearst, etc., in mind, the very idea of media. For a good movie is about what keeps happening in it, and nothing happens in Citizen Kane as constantly as media."

And Ronald Bergan points us to his 1999 piece for the Guardian, arguing that "the very notion that any work of art can be judged as the best is anathema." For one thing, "It could be argued that the more poetic The Magnificent Ambersons, the quirkier Touch of Evil and the more elegiac Chimes at Midnight have stronger claims to the crown. Nor was Citizen Kane particularly influential stylistically." And he takes Kane apart, technically, structurally and thematically.

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