History, Legacy & Showmanship

The Greatest Film of All Time?: Remembering “Citizen Kane” on its 75th Anniversary

December 31, 2016 - 12:27 pm   |   by
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Coate: In what way is Citizen Kane significant and/or influential?

McBride: Welles was a maverick who always bucked whatever establishment he was working in and against. That’s one reason true Welles aficionados admire him so much. From Kane onward, he challenged everything about filmmaking technically, thematically, and politically, and brought new approaches to his work, blazing trails for all the rest of us.

McGilligan: It is hardly original to say Citizen Kane is a compendium of cinematic technique up to that time. (Of course I hardly realized this when I first saw it.) Still today, Kane has the capacity to astonish, technically as well as artistically. It has the deep, rich, complex texture of a novel as well as all the cinematic qualities expected of a screen masterpiece. It remains “modern.” And it also remains vastly “entertaining.”

Naremore: Kane was a crucially important film for Andre Bazin, one of cinema’s most influential theorists. Partly via Bazin, it and Welles’s other films were a major influence on the French New Wave. (“All of us will always owe him everything,” Godard famously said.) It influenced the American avant-garde in the 1940s, especially Maya Deren, and Hollywood film style in the 1940s and 50s. In the 1960s, it was a touchstone, not only for Truffaut but also for the “New Hollywood” of Bogdanovich, Scorsese, and Coppola. Since then, it’s been alluded to more times than I can count, though nobody has made quite such a politically dangerous film. Even Rupert Murdoch doesn’t have as much power over movies as Hearst had in 1941. Somebody should do Trump.

A scene from Citizen Kane

Coate: Where do you think Citizen Kane ranks among Orson Welles’s body of work?

McBride: My favorite Welles film — my favorite of all films — is The Magnificent Ambersons. That’s partly for personal reasons — the story and its Midwestern setting resonate deeply with me — and partly because of its more emotional nature than Kane. As Truffaut observed, Ambersons is something of a rebuke to Kane, which is rather chilly and detached; in Kane, he noted, Welles was thinking more about the medium, and in Ambersons, he was thinking more about the characters. I also have a special love for films maudit — damned films, ones that have been hacked up and mistreated, as this one has. One of my goals is to go to Brazil to try to hunt for the uncut work print, which might still exist. I think Chimes at Midnight is Welles’s best film. It is like Ambersons in being profoundly moving. It has Welles’s best performance, as Shakespeare’s Sir John Falstaff. I’ve championed the film for fifty years and was proud to participate in this year’s Blu-ray restored release from Criterion, which has brought it the larger audience it deserves. For many years, when people would tell me Welles hadn’t done anything of importance since Kane, I would ask, “Have you seen Chimes at Midnight?” Invariably the answer was no. They no longer have that excuse…. Welles said Ambersons and Chimes represent more than anything else what he wanted to do in films. Where does Kane fit in? It’s always one of a kind. I don’t have a ranking of the seven best or ten best Welles films. It’s somewhere high among them, as are Touch of Evil and some others. But I think it’s idle to rank films — even if I and others have done that. I wrote the highly personal and self-indulgent The Book of Movie Lists (1999) and participated in the 2012 Sight & Sound poll of international film critics. I feel somewhat embarrassed I didn’t put Kane on my list in that poll, but Welles was the only filmmaker with two films on my list of ten films, Ambersons and Chimes. I have somewhat worn out Kane, unfortunately, by watching it too much, but it remains the film of films for me in the sense of a life-changing, unique experience that can never be surpassed for its influence. It is still astonishing.

McGilligan: This is a tricky question to answer, because Welles has such a tremendous body of work — in radio, theater, television, and journalism, as well as film. But Kane is his signature film and the one that seems to cover all of these other fields, with sound innovation (influenced by radio), newsreel-type immediacy that evokes TV, and deep political and thematic concerns drawn from history and real life. Kane ranks high on his list, probably at the top, although hard core Wellesians (including Welles himself) might have their own favorites. 

Naremore: Chiefly because there’s a popular myth that Kane was Welles’s only great movie, but also because it has topped so many all-time-best lists, I seldom nominate it as Welles’s number one. I tell people to check out The Magnificent Ambersons, The Lady from Shanghai, Macbeth, Othello, Touch of Evil, and Chimes at Midnight. Andrew Sarris was right when he said that even if Welles had never made Kane, he would still be among the cinema’s Pantheon directors. I think Kane’s reputation has made its something of an albatross for Welles to carry. Having shown the film many times to students, I feel they always expect it to be earth shattering and aren’t that deeply impressed. It’s difficult for them to see it for the first time unburdened by its reputation.

A scene from Citizen Kane

Coate: What is the legacy of Citizen Kane?

McBride: I will turn over the podium to Truffaut, who wrote, “We loved this film because it was complete: psychological, social, poetic, dramatic, comic, baroque, strict, and demanding. It is a demonstration of the force of power and an attack on the force of power, it is a hymn to youth and a meditation on old age, an essay on the vanity of all material ambition and at the same time a poem on old age and the solitude of exceptional human beings, genius or monster or monstrous genius. It is at the same time a ‘first’ film by virtue of its quality of catch-all experimentation and a ‘last’ film by its comprehensive picture of the world.”

McGilligan: Kane towers over most other films. Few are in its league. It has a legacy for filmmakers as the film to beat, and for critics as one of the best of the best. For scholars, it provides bottomless theory and analysis. Kane has something for everyone, including a young high school student seeing it for the first time completely unaware of its mystique.

Naremore: Kane is central to the history of cinema; it shaped my own attitude toward films and that of many distinguished theorists and directors; but it has accrued such a reputation that new viewers seldom see it unburdened by the discourse around it.

Coate: Thank you — Joseph, Patrick and James — for participating and sharing your thoughts about Citizen Kane on the occasion of its 75th anniversary.

A classic still from Citizen Kane

IMAGES

Selected images copyright/courtesy The Criterion Collection, Mercury Productions, RKO Radio Pictures, Turner Pictures, Warner Home Video. Joseph McBride photo by Ann Weiser Cornell.

The premiere of Citizen Kane in 1941

- Michael Coate

Michael Coate can be reached via e-mail through this link.

 Citizen Kane: 75th Anniversary Edition (Blu-ray Disc)     Citizen Kane: 70th Anniversary Edition (Blu-ray Disc) 

 


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