I have recently been pondering the question as to whether Citizen Kane is, as many claim, the greatest film of all time?
There is no question that it should certainly be considered with the highest regard for such an accolade. But perhaps the first question we should be asking is what makes a film “great?” What is in the composition that makes one film considered to be art and another viewed as mere entertainment? In my opinion, films that achieve high critical recognition (not necessarily award recognition) typically employ four integral components.
FIRST… a great film is technically innovative. It usually brings to the table new styles or techniques of filmmaking. In some cases, the techniques employed are common methods of the craft that have been significantly updated or used in an unorthodox manner to elicit a new or different result. In the case of Citizen Kane, the technical innovation employed by the filmmakers was revolutionary. This was due in part to the film's nubile director, Orson Welles, who suffered a lack of knowledge about the craft of filmmaking. Welles demanded that his directorial debut have a fresh new look that had never been attempted in the Hollywood of the era. His desire for deep focus photography required that his cinematographer, Gregg Toland, develop new lenses and styles of camera work that had never been utilized in the Hollywood tradition. A perfect example is the boyhood scene wherein the figure of a boy seen playing in the snow off in the distance through a window remains in clear focus, even while subjects closer to the camera remain in clear focus as well.
This was a feat never before achieved in filmmaking simply because the lenses capable of photographing such artistry had never been developed. KANE pushed boundaries of the art of filmmaking adding an entirely new dimension to the craft of cinematic photography. (Check one in the box for greatness.)
SECOND… great films typically employ a mastery of mise en scene. Beginning with production design and employing the contributions of the set department, the lighting department, the costume department, the props department (amongst others), all of whom work in unison to create a world that is both believable and one which emotes the subtext of the characters, the setting, and most importantly the story. The production departments that brought Citizen Kane to life effectively mastered these elements, allowing each component to complement the other while not allowing any one element to overtake any one scene, except when absolutely necessary or called for by the script.
A good example of mise en scene at its finest would be the z axis scene, wherein the character of Kane is seen walking towards a bay of windows which eventually dwarfs him.
The tall windows signify the influence of the outside world which now seem to be humbling Kane. Within the scene there is also a reflective boardroom table which mirrors these windows. Atop this table lies the contract that will relinquish control of Kane's empire. Framing the scene are figures who are dressed in somber, funerary black, but which are separately illuminated, exemplifying their disconnect with one another. Lastly, a big black ink bottle (the signifier of permanence) rests on the table next to the contract near center frame… the final exclamation if you will. This scene depicts exquisite composition and attention to detail and that is the sort of thing that sets great films apart from their flawed counterparts.
THIRDLY… a great film must also display a fine balance of nuance that is expressed by its director(s), actors, cinematographer(s), editor(s), and score composer(s). If you think of the top Oscar awards, the categories include Best Picture, Best Director, Best Performers (actor, actress, supporting), Best Editing, Best Cinematography and Best Score. These categories represent the figureheads in charge of the heavy lifting on most motion pictures. To have any one of these aspects out of tune with another could spell certain doom for a film production. But when all of these talents work in perfect harmony, a movie can become a cinematic landscape on which the finest art can be presented. The breakfast montage sequence from Citizen Kane, for example, displays a near perfect marriage of these elements; from strong tonal performances, to well paced editing, to skilled photography, to an emotive sonic landscape that drives the sequence (along with expressive set dressing and costume design).
(watch in full screen mode)
Orson Welles may have been a newbie when making Citizen Kane, but his many years of theatrical experience gave him a deeper understanding of the key elements of good storytelling.
LASTLY… a great film usually says something universally true about the human condition or the zeitgeist of its era. This is where scriptwriting comes into play. A compelling story is necessary, of course, but a great film, or even play typically says something far beyond its dialogue. (This might explain why Shakespeare;s works are still being performed nearly 400 years after his death-- over the works of his many contemporaries.) Clearly one of Kane's most important messages is that with great power can often come great evil. Scene by scene the film echoes this point, eventually concluding that such power can also lead to the loss of one's true meaning, purpose and identity. A valuable lesson for us all.
But does this alone make Citizen Kane the best film of all time? I am certainly impressed with its legacy and contribution to the film world. It is an inspiring work for filmmakers and movie goers alike. I never seem to tire of watching a masterpiece. Getting to the core of greatness that is centered a the heart of Citizen Kane is one of my favorite pastimes. The film works on multiple levels and never seems to get old because it speaks to our human sensibilities, not just our need for escapism. It sets a standard by which we can certainly gauge the creative integrity of other films. Art and entertainment both have there place in the cinematic landscape, but only true art will stand the test of time to tell us something about ourselves. And that, in my opinion, is what sets apart a great film from all the rest.