Citizen Kane The Greatest Film Ever Made

Citizen Kane holds the weight of cinema on its shoulders. Often cited as ‘The Greatest Film of All-Time’, the film maintains an unusual place in film history. This post attempts to outline one particular way in which the film gained its unique reputation.

The accolade in fact refers to the Sight & Sound poll taken every ten years. Kane took the top spot in 1962 and has not budged in over 40 years. In 1952 it was De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves that came out on top and at that point Kane did not even feature.

Although critics were enthusiastic about the film on its release in 1941, Kane was not a particular success with audiences. It had become partly-notorious for an attempt to suppress its release by William Randolph Hearst, the tycoon who took offense at the parallels between Kane’s life and his own. The film did however gain several major Oscar nominations alongside other key titles of the year such as How Green Was My Valley, The Little Foxes and The Maltese Falcon, claiming one win for Best Screenplay.

So something clearly changed between 1941 and 1962 for Kane to be selected as the pinnacle of all cinema. This shift can perhaps be pinpointed to post-war France where all the American films that had been prevented entry during the war suddenly flooded its screens. So its audiences were experiencing Hollywood cinema of the early 1940s in a condensed period of time, an experience that clearly had an effect on many of its young viewers. When the French magazines Cahiers du cinéma celebrated popular Hollywood cinema throughout the 1950s it was perceived as a strange affectation by other contemporary European film magazines such as Britain’s Sight & Sound.

However, when these very critics, such as Truffaut and Godard went on to spearhead the nouvelle vague in 1960, their films became praised as milestones in contemporary cinema. This therefore posed problems for Sight & Sound critics who were enamoured by the films of the nouvelle vague yet against the popular Hollywood cinema that the New Wave filmmakers celebrated.

‘The French Line’, a 1960 Sight & Sound article, took a look at the ten-best lists published by Cahiers du cinéma. They were pleased to find revered titles as Ivan the Terrible (1944), Les Quatres-Cents Coup (1959) and Wild Strawberries (1957), but were very surprised (and dismayed) to find titles such as Rio Bravo (1959), Run of the Arrow (1957), Wind Across the Everglades (1958) and Vertigo (1958). The author wrote, ‘One’s first reaction might be to conclude that these men must be very foolish’ [1] but based on the evidence of their films found it was hard for the writer to accept Resnais, Truffaut, Chabrol and Godard as fools.

Classical Hollywood cinema was therefore being reassessed in the 1960s and indeed many of our contemporary perceptions of cinema were cemented at that time. It was also a period during which the reputations of Hollywood figures were being reconstructed. For example Humphrey Bogart became a romantic cult hero for young movie fans – as reflected in Jean-Paul Belmondo’s adoration of Bogart in A Bout de Souffle – and retrospectives of Buster Keaton’s films elevated him out of the shadows as a master of cinema. Similarly Orson Welles became seen as a crucial cinematic icon.

One of the defining characteristics of Orson Welles’s cinema is a struggle for control. Indeed a great number of Welles’ films were taken out of his hands and re-edited (or chopped up), including The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), The Lady From Shanghai (1947), Othello (1952), Mr. Arkadin (1955) and Touch of Evil (1958). Then there were all those projects that never made it, either unfinished or doomed from the start, such as It’s All True (circa 1943), Don Quixote (circa 1955) and The Other Side of the Wind (circa 1972). [2]

In Welles’ persistence to make films in the face of resistance from studios and financiers he became an inspirational hero for filmmakers and cinephiles, his cinema ingrained with a message of never giving up for cinema’s cause.

Critics and cinephiles believed Welles to have been greatly misunderstood and mistreated by a Hollywood who could not see the brilliance in his work that was so clear to them. Welles’ tragic fall from grace and his role as an underdog against the system only heightened adoration for him. He became seen as a neglected ‘genius’ whose opportunity to flourish had been crushed by a system so clearly against originality.  And it was Citizen Kane that defined this tragedy, becoming the iconic film that represented much more than the film itself.

The Sight & Sound poll reflects this shift and in 1962 we find the point at which Citizen Kane cemented an extraordinary reputation.

Christian Hayes.

[1] Richard Roud, ‘The French Line’, Sight and Sound, Autumn 1960 p.167.

[2] For more information on this see the illuminating documentary The Lost Films of Orson Welles (Germany/France/Sweden, dir: Vassili Silovic, 1995) which includes many clips from both unfinished films and curiosities.

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