You’re not alive if you don’t know his name

Shane Murray 15 October 2009

Shane Murray praises the imminent re-release of Citizen Kane by the BFI

“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my art. I want to achieve it through not dying” -Woody Allen

Over the years, Citizen Kane and its maker, Orson Welles, have suffered many indignities caused by the passing of time. The numerous parodies and imitations of Kane and Welles, combined with the latter’s slow and painful descent from stardom, have stripped Kane of its lustre.

Worse, the simultaneous veneration of Kane and Welles by that gang of ivory-tower eggheads, film critics, have turned Kane into something ossified and dull, as out of time and irrelevant as the ruins of Pompeii. Impressive it may be, but for many, Kane is not seen as relevant, entertaining or interesting.

As Jorge Luis Borges said at the time of its release, “I dare to guess that Citizen Kane will endure as certain of Griffith’s films…have ‘endured’ – films whose historical value no-one denies, but which no one is resigned to seeing again.”  Borges was right, in that the release of Kane by the BFI will be greeted by a shrug of indifference and the lie of “Of course I’ve seen it before!” amongst the general public.

Citizen Kane does not deserve this fate. While it is easily one of the most over-rated films of all time, it still remains an excellent film. As Andrew Sarris said, “I like to think Citizen Kane simply as one of the many good movies turned out in Hollywood in the past seventy-five years.”

In particular, it has barely aged a day in terms of acting, direction, or cinematography. Barring the fact that it’s in black and white, it could be easily be a modern day film (if you disagree, compare it to There Will Be Blood). Kane avoids the fate of so many other films, not only from the 30s and 40s, but from only ten years ago, of looking horribly dated.

Its themes are universal and timeless (one only has to look at Xanadu and imagine not only Murdoch, but also the Coles and Beckhams) and the acting is, barring a few exceptions, almost flawlessly natural. The great achievement of Welles, however, was the direction of Citizen Kane. Every frame is perfectly arranged and the numerous audacious pans, low angle shots, and quick cuts complement Welles’ dominating performance at the centre of the film, as well as Kane’s slow, almost hallucinatory fall from grace.

Kane has also somehow survived the numerous parodies that have destroyed any suspense from the central mystery of Rosebud. However, that’s because the mystery isn’t important to the film; it’s about the journey through a man’s life, which tells us more than his last words.

To achieve Kane’s kind of immortality or agelessness in film is no small feat, and it is a rare one. “Classics” from the pre-1945 era in particular have suffered from the march of time, as people move on and form different tastes. Cultural references are lost, political attitudes move forward, and, more than anything else, patterns of speech and action have been altered beyond all recognition.

It is rare to see a film from the pre-war era that is not in some way dated, either by over-acting or unbelievable, stilted speech. Citizen Kane’s greatness is proved simply by its ability to stand the test of time. Even if it is not undisputedly the greatest film of all time (it’s probably not), Citizen Kane is still a film that everyone interested in cinema ought to see.

Citizen Kane is being released in cinemas across the UK by the BFI

Shane Murray