The revised AFI List of the top 100 American movies of the past 100 years was announced yesterday, and as was expected CITIZEN KANE was still considered the greatest American film of all time. Since then, I've had quite a few emails from people saying that they've rented it, and were disappointed, and asked what the big deal is about the movie. Here's what I've been telling people:
In 1941 a first-time director; a cynical, hard-drinking writer; an innovative cinematographer, and a group of New York stage and radio actors were given the keys to a studio and total control, and made a masterpiece. ``Citizen Kane'' is a gathering of all the lessons of the emerging era of sound, just as ``Birth of a Nation'' assembled everything learned at the height of the silent era, and ``2001'' pointed the way beyond narrative. These peaks stand above all the others.
The movie opens with newsreel obituary footage that briefs us on the life and times of Charles Foster Kane; this footage, with its portentous narration, provides a map of Kane's trajectory, and it will keep us oriented as the screenplay skips around in time, piecing together the memories of those who knew him. The structure is circular, adding more depth every time it passes over his life.
The movie is filled with visual moments of brilliance: the towers of Xanadu; the doorway of Kanes mistress dissolving into a front-page photo in a rival newspaper; the camera swooping down through a skylight toward the pathetic Susan in a nightclub; the boy playing in the snow in the background as his parents determine his future; the great shot as the camera rises straight up from Susan's opera debut to a stagehand holding his nose, and the subsequent shot of Kane, his face hidden in shadow, defiantly applauding in the silent hall.
It's imagery like this, along with editing and the story that makes CITIZEN KANE great - even after your 130th viewing there's always something new that you'll notice. The fact that this holds true after 66 years is what makes CITIZEN KANE easily the greatest film of all time.