ON HIS BIRTHDAY: WHY ORSON WELLES' "CITIZEN KANE" IS STILL THE BEST MOVIE EVER MADE by David Rosler


The production year was 1940. The movie was released in 1941. The efficiency and artistic quality of the Hollywood RKO studio machine was at the top of its power. The Co-writer, Producer, Director and wunderkind visionary was Orson Welles, who was only 25 years old when he made the film. This seems astonishing but only out-of-context: 2 years earlier he panicked the entire nation with his terrifying simulation of a live, on-air radio broadcast of the earth being invaded by Martians. So realistic and effective was that radio Trick or Treat show for Halloween in 1938 that laws were enacted so that no one could ever do it again. And before that, Welles had conquered the New York stage with a string of hits while most New York theater producers and directors often had only one hit in their entire careers, if that.


For many years Citizen Kane was regarded as unarguably the finest American motion picture ever made, but somehow, in the last few years, there appears to be some kind of determination toward taking Kane off the top. This can be a nasty business, and when the herd mentality goes sour and nasty, as seems to be the cycle, they will eat anyone alive for the gamesmanship of the act. Rotten Tomatoes, a movie review website which averages movie reviews from up and down the spectrum, made news when it managed to dredge up an old bad review - one bad review - that took Kane off the 100% list and in some cold juggling of the numbers put a Paddington Bear movie on top of Kane. Maybe this is what happens when an outfit is a repository of over 1,000 reviewers and calculates the quality of classic motion pictures based on an average of reviewers, good and bad. It sounds like an impressive approach at first glance, but it's a nonsensical approach to movie reviewing, because, in-essence, it assumes Roger Ebert would have been equal to the hypothetical reviewer of the fictional Nebraska Post Examiner Gazette; you don't compare proven, thoughtful and insightful experts who have made motion picture analysis and assessment their entire lives with people who simply voice part-time opinions outside of their non-movie day jobs. It's absurd and damaging to the posterity of the art.

Several years ago, Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo inexplicably rose to the top in one list, overtaking Kane and again, this was reported with some kind of perplexing glee, as though this was a moment of celebration. While somewhat interesting, Vertigo is nevertheless a dreary and confused, slow-moving mess with fairly standard cinematic eye, average performances and on occasion a few embarrassingly obvious camera tricks; a movie that was mercilessly panned by critics when it came out and was low on everyone's list until it somehow shot to the top very recently. There are too many reasons for this event to nail down one, including a possible sudden societal shift from normal people talking about a sick character (Kane) and a modern audience relating to one (Vertigo). It is, of course, always in the mix that the recent tendency to try to take Citizen Kane down may simply be chalked up to the possibility that Kane is simply too good with which to compete for today's generally poor movie directors, so they put Vertigo on top so the top spot more resembles their own substandard offerings with a venerable name attached. This might be the answer for one list, because herd anxiety over competing with a genius usually leaves the genius struggling against the crush of the jealous crowd, as indeed was Welles for most of his career.

But Citizen Kane, this reviewer/filmmaker is happy to assure you, remains, in the aggregate, the finest motion picture ever created. As well it should be. You know the history and ability of the creative mind behind it all. But the entire creative ensemble of Citizen Kane was at its industry peak at that window-of-opportunity moment. The majority of the other lead and supporting actors came from Welles' own New York radio Mercury Theater who were the best of their time and trained under Welles; all were immensely talented from the start and learned well under their young genius director.

Cinematographer Gregg Toland was regarded as the finest cameraman of his day and between he and his young maverick director, re-defined how movies looked on the screen. To this day, Citizen Kane remains a foundational example of the pinnacle of the cinematographer's art.


Welles (right) with Cinematographer Gregg Toland

Composer Bernard Herrmann was another young actual artistic genius who, in the late 1930's, connected with Welles on radio. Herrmann wrote his first film score when he created the music for Kane and Herrmann would go on to be regarded by most film aficionados as the finest film composer to this very day. Herrmann's brash, relentlessly American score in the upbeat moments of Kane, and his brooding low tones, with unconventional orchestral arrangements for the equally-brooding on-screen moments of Kane were entirely unique to motion pictures in 1941. Like Welles, Herrmann wanted to re-invent his medium, and Herrmann bucked everything film music had established by 1941, which up to that point was based on scores with large, rich, swelling vibrato strings mimicking the romantic styles of the Vienna concert hall, which made sense considering many of the Hollywood movie composers up to that point literally came from Vienna. Just as Welles and Toland re-defined the look of the movies, in a seeming instant young Bernard Herrmann re-defined forever how movies would sound and, more importantly, how movies would emotionally feel to the audience; an artistic conviction he would continue for the rest of his life.


Young Bernard Herrmann, left, with young Orson Welles, who, together and apart, would change the movies forever.

The film is thick with endless magnificent visual effects to tell its grand-scale tome and the crew handling the matte paintings, scenic miniatures, rear projection and superimpositions were none other than the by-then-well-versed visual effects crew (minus Willis O'Brien's animation-specific pals) from RKO's King Kong, made in 1933, a film which astonished the world with its visual virtuosity upon its premier, just as Kane did, 8 years later, in 1941.

Indeed, even if Citizen Kane was not the greatest movie ever made, it surely would remain the greatest movie accomplishment on its union budget ever created, and in this regard, Citizen Kane is nothing short of entirely miraculous for its time. Kane, a Hollywood union film, was made for only $839,727.00. In today's numbers, when movies for TV are made for a few million, most average TV episodes are between $1 million - to - $2 million, national commercial spots cost upwards of $300,00.00 to produce, and movie budgets from major studios usually start at around $70 million, Citizen Kane, as a union film, in today's dollars would have cost an approximately astonishingly low $13, 130,700.00 ($13 million-plus), yet Kane looks like the most expensive movie of its day. And be sure, no other $800,000.00 movie from that day looked fractionally near as huge as Kane. 1940's The Grapes of Wrath and 1944's Laura, both fine movies and made for approximately the same budget each, look not remotely near the scope and nowhere near the visual artistry of Citizen Kane.


Citizen Kane is what it is not for money spent, but because it was a collaboration of artistic geniuses led by the most impressive dramatic genius of his time. The very notion that such a spectacle on a modest budget could be produced by a 25-year-old with no prior motion picture experience whatsoever, let alone producing, at a time of simple but cumbersome and expensive antique cameras, with no internet from which to learn and books all very basic, at a huge union Hollywood studio would be, without this singular example, regarded as entirely beyond the remotest possibility. It would be a total and complete fantasy. Yet Welles produced Citizen Kane as well as acted in and directed it, and in so doing, created a staggering masterpiece.

And then there is Welles' own performance as the title character. A plainly resentful Academy denied him one of the most deserved Best Actor Oscars in motion picture history. As we see Kane in different ages in his life, from brash young maverick (Welles playing himself, perhaps?) to stiff, reclusive old tyrant (very much the reverse of what Welles would become in his actual old age), Welles' performance is entirely Oscar-worthy by any standard and almost beyond comprehension for an actor directing himself for the first time in front of a camera at the impossibly tender age of 25. If nothing else, Welles' on-screen sense of genuine older-age maturity is mind-bending. Over the years, the many people who did not previously know of Welles' age when he made Kane, upon viewing Kane and being informed of Welles' age by this reviewer/filmmaker, were and continue to be universally stunned by the revelation. It just doesn't seem possible, yet there it is.

Like the movie's mystery of Rosebud, the movie itself has a mystery. Why has it endured and remained so incomprehensibly fresh and original - as so many experts have correctly noted - after not simply all these years, but after all these decades? At the risk of pointing the way for imitators who might, in lesser efforts, shave off the film's edges over time with poor imitations, I have a suggestion as to that answer; as to why Citizen Kane remains so powerful, so vibrant and fresh.

The answer may well be that never before and never after have two cinematic aesthetics collided so powerfully and masterfully on-screen. The film's complex and darkly atmospheric photographic quality; the stylized, classic compositions; the plays with distortion of light and reflection and the elegant artificiality of the old-school visual effects techniques, in other words - the powerful visual qualities - ladled heavily onto the foundation of the story, give the film an intimate and excessively dreamlike quality. Yet the story itself is a hard-bitten, razor-edged and merciless tale told on a gigantic scale. And these two diametrically-opposed dramatic aesthetics collide with amazing harmony insomuch as the story is told in flashbacks, memories - which can be much like dreams, if you will - in which Kane is recalled sometimes with sentimental affection, other times startling pathos and other times as a sinister, barbaric monster controlling the lives of all around him; the perfect stuff of dreams and nightmares, perfectly translated onto the screen. These two dramatic harmonies of story and picture being brought together by a true and mesmerizing genius discovering for the first time his sudden, passionate love for the ultimate storytelling media, leading a small army of geniuses all at the height of their skills, might well be the answer to the film's own aesthetic Rosebud; that of its seeming Fountain Of Youth. The odds of this ever happening again are a million-to-one. The odds of the styles used falling into fashion once again make it many, many millions-to-one. With odds like that, the kind that define Da Vinci's Mona Lisa, regarded by many critics as the greatest painting ever created; Shakespeare's Hamlet, regarded by most experts as the greatest play ever written; and Beethoven's 9th Symphony, which seems to be near the top of most scholars' greatest symphonies lists, it is no wonder that Citizen Kane, in the minds of most, remains the greatest movie ever made. With odds like that, and time spans like those of the other artistic examples mentioned, it is also quite possible that Citizen Kane will remain the greatest movie that ever will be made. May 6. Happy Birthday, Orson.