For those that find in them a certain joy every time the orchestra of film kicks, when those studio logos lighten the dark of the screen and the familiar trumpet notes sound, you know what I mean when I say that the greatest films ever made are a must see for everyone. Those top 100 or 200, or 500 films that everyone should see before they die. Film is subjective though, and there are many lists. Fortunately for us, the American Film Institute compiled a list of the top 100 films of the 20th Century. From top to bottom, the list compiles the greatest American films released in the first 100 years of cinema.
Number one on that list is the venerable, pioneering and monumental achievement of Orson Welles, Citizen Kane. Citizen Kane was the brain child of Orson Welles as the producer, director, and star in the 1941 production. It was hailed at the time as a masterpiece of film, both in its presentation and the innovation used by Welles in filming it, in photography, editing, and sound.
The film tells the story of a wealthy businessman’s final words from his death bed, the enigmatic “Rosebud”. A reporter spends the course of the film trying to uncover the source of these words, in the process uncovering the web of secrets that made up Kane’s life. Knowingly taking from the lives of famous business magnates William Hearst and others, the film found a cold reception commercially, in part due its delay by RKO and being forced to hold off a proper release until after World War II. The vignettes of Charles Foster Kane’s life, a panache of pieces that the viewer is left to put together, are presented in a strikingly moving fashion, the story of Kane’s mother and her newly acquired wealth destroying what little family and childhood Kane had before being sent away. The film then pulls out and moves to Kane’s rise in the publishing industry and his profiteering through questionable journalism, turning him into the materialistic amalgamation of robber baron stereotypes seen at his death bed.
There are layers of controversy associated with the film, beyond which Welles based his characters on, parts of the story even being considered autobiographical. The film’s screenwriting credit was questioned extensively as Welles and Mankiewicz received the credits for the screenplay, but some questioned whether Welles actually contributed enough to receive credit. The controversy died with age, and most now concede the dual nature of the film’s writing process.
Probably the only reason this film ever saw the light of day was the unique contract Welles had with RKO granting him full creative control over his work. Therefore, no one ever saw the work until it was finished, and once again it was locked away for a few years by RKO for its subject matter. The film essentially ruined Welles for the rest of his career. It’s success in Europe after World War II, and eventual success in the states in the 1950s not withstanding, he never had the power or the freedom to make films as he did in this his first work. The fact that the film is now considered one of the greatest ever made is ironic only in that it was for so long ignored and forgotten.
The film itself, when placed along side later works of art is probably not the greatest film ever made, but when approaching AFI’s list, it is one of the most important films ever made, both in its willingness to tackle a powerful public figure, sacrificing a career for the art form, as well as the pioneering genius of the film techniques that Welles helped introduce to the movie industry.