In the end, it should not have come as any kind of surprise. When Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo dethroned Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941) as the greatest film of all time in Sight & Sound magazine’s international poll of critics in 2012, it felt like the culmination of a decades-long process, one that saw Hitchcock’s initially maligned masterpiece slowly inching up the ranks until finally overtaking the movie that had sat atop the list since 1962. But more symbolic than Vertigo’s rise was Kane’s fall (. . . all the way down to second place), which seemed to represent more than just one film’s edging out the other by a few votes. In the year 2012, when more work from all over the world was more readily accessible than ever before, cinephiles seemed to be questioning, more loudly than ever, the value of a canon in the first place.
For decades, these all-time-top-ten lists had been dominated by the usual suspects: a rotating, exclusive club of consensus classics (made mostly by American and European men) that rarely allowed in new entries. And of course, Vertigo wasn’t exactly a shocking rejoinder to mainstream taste or a striking blow for inclusiveness—it was a widely beloved, endlessly written about, beautifully problematic classic from a director who was way more conservative in his worldview (not to mention more financially successful) than Welles ever was. Even so, the fact that Hitchcock’s most complicated and personal film overtook Kane made it seem as if, at long last, anything was possible. Once blinding in its freshness and invention, Citizen Kane had come to represent for some the stodgy, unchanging nature of the canon.
That historical irony is fitting for a film that has always thrived on contradiction, from its inception. Indeed, that is what has made it so essential for so long—and continues to do so. Upon his arrival in Hollywood, Welles famously called his studio “the biggest electric train set any boy ever had,” and he proceeded to use it like one. Thus, Kane is an explosion of form, combining effects and techniques and stylistic flourishes from the preceding decades of filmmaking (and coming up with several of its own), all in service to an audience-unfriendly downer of a story that offers no uplifting messages or clear moral vision. It was at once the peak achievement of Hollywood’s golden age and a rebuke of it—the work of an auteur thumbing his nose at the studio system even as he took full advantage of the resources it provided him.
The contradictions didn’t end there. Kane was that most American of stories: a child comes from nothing and becomes a great businessman. But the tale’s tragic trajectory felt older, darker: the hero dies broken and alone, unredeemed, a predatory rich man made increasingly phantomlike by all his possessions, as if a curse has been placed on him. It was a work of the left that still seemed to understand the allure of money and power.
All this made Kane an ideal object of fascination for a postwar generation—some, in Europe and other previously war-torn corners of the planet, seeing the film for the first time; others, in America, in the theatrical revivals it was regularly given and on television—who were reaping the benefits of economic and cultural booms while discovering the psychic and spiritual discomfort that came with them. Structured like a puzzle, it was modern in conception—indulging in and even acknowledging the artifice of filmmaking—but postmodern in effect, its deeper meanings (about which one could argue for days, weeks, months) seemingly hidden beneath the self-aware workings of its arresting style. It was a psychological riddle whose solution was, depending on whom you asked, either deeply symbolic or deeply unsatisfying.
Citizen Kane was the perfect movie for the second half of the twentieth century. But its mystery and majesty have never really waned. It remains shockingly relevant to this day. And it’s still one of the most breathtakingly beautiful films ever made, by anybody, anywhere.
Before the Beginning
Unlike many other masterpieces—such as, say, Vertigo—Citizen Kane never went through an initial period of disfavor. True, it was a financial disappointment, but that had more to do with the partial suppression of its release by an industry feeling the heat from the powerful press baron William Randolph Hearst, on whose life Kane is loosely based. But Citizen Kane was a cause célèbre long before Hearst caught wind of it during previews. It was one even before the cameras started rolling. Before he was an actor and director of films, Orson Welles was a theater and radio wunderkind—a brilliant, charismatic, and impossibly young figure who had quickly become a bit too ubiquitous. By the time he arrived in Hollywood, “Little Orson Annie” was already the subject of parodies.
He was also a fervently political artist, not to mention a divisive one during the Depression years, when he closely aligned himself with Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. In the years preceding Kane, Welles gained renown for daring, politically confrontational stage productions that often angered conservatives: a Macbeth set in Haiti, with an all-Black cast; a modern-dress version of Julius Caesar set in a fascist dystopia; and the pro-union musical The Cradle Will Rock, which was shut down by the government four days before its premiere date. While he was finishing Kane, Welles was also working on directing a stage adaptation of Richard Wright’s Native Son cowritten by Wright himself.
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