When he directed Citizen Kane, a twenty-five year-old wunderkind Orson Welles had already had some success with his War of the Worlds radio broadcast and his independent Mercury Theatre company.
But despite his success, RKO Pictures took a huge risk by giving him a movie contract that gave him full creative control to make whatever movie he wanted. Welles had control over his own script, his cast and crew, and even the final cut of the movie. It's like the company just said, "Go ahead and have at it, Orson. We know you're a boy genius."
Welles would go on to reward their faith with some of the most innovative directing of his time… and a movie that routinely gets the gold star for best movie ever made.
Citizen Kane was the only film where Welles had total creative control. His second effort, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), was taken away from him and recut. From then on, he took directing-for-hire work while scrounging up money for his pet projects, many of which never came to fruition. All this struggle and heartache for the guy behind the greatest movie ever made?
Producer and director Orson Welles wrote the screenplay for Citizen Kane… but he wasn't alone. He penned this masterpiece with a newspaper film critic from New York named Herman J. Mankiewicz. Mankiewicz wasn't a dude who wrote a lot of screenplays. In fact, he was usually asked by movie companies to edit and fix other people's work that just needed a little polishing.
For this reason, a lot of Mankiewicz's film work is uncredited. But he did manage to get himself a Best Writing Oscar along with Orson Welles for the screenplay to Citizen Kane in 1942. So at least Herman got some recognition at one point.
Believe it or not, Orson Welles founded Mercury Pictures in 1936 when he was (get this) twenty-one years old. He got the thing running as an independent theatre company and eventually used it to produce Citizen Kane.
But here's an interesting tidbit: even before Welles used Mercury to produce Kane, he used it to produce the insane radio version of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds a sci-fi program so real that people were rumored to have jumped out of windows because they actually thought aliens had invaded earth.
So let's just go ahead and say that the young Mr. Orson Welles had a very mature talent for affecting his audiences on a deep level. And thanks to him and his indie film company, we now have one of the best movies ever made. Not too shabby, Orson. Not too shabby at all.
For starters, you can thank a dude named Gregg Toland for the quality of this film's cinematography. Let's not forget that this movie is from 1941. It's old. It's so old that when they talk about "The Old War," they're talking about the American Civil War, not World War I or II.
Now that you've got some context, let's dig into what really made Citizen Kane one for the books.
Citizen Kane is especially famous for pioneering something called deep focus, which means that everything in a scene is in sharp focus regardless of whether it's close or far away from the camera.
Normally when you watch a movie, you'll only see the thing that the director wants you to pay attention to in focus (the hero and heroine are obvious examples). But Welles was interested in composition as well as narration, and devised a way to make sure everything in the shot was in focus. As a result, you'll see action taking place on multiples planes: some in the foreground, some a small distance away, and some in the extreme background.
Check out this scene for an example. Note three specific fields of action: Kane's mother in the foreground, his father a little ways back, and Kane himself in the background out the window.
What's the point? Well besides giving the shot a more artistic composition (and seriously, doesn't it look pretty?), it allows Welles to make multiple points about the drama onscreen without disrupting the main action. Take the scene above. It's very important since it shows us young Charlie Kane enjoying his last day of childhood innocence with his sled. It also show us why his mother is sending him away and the not-especially-nice man she's sending him away with.
On the surface, the scene needs to be about Mom and Banker Guy talking about what's to be done with him. But by using deep focus, Welles adds in a little nugget—the happy boy and his sled—that doesn't seem to be a big deal, but sets up the famous reveal at the end.
Oh yeah, and the notion was so good that other filmmakers made use of it as well. Just one example of how Welles' efforts here defined the language of the whole darn medium.
Another big innovation in this movie is the use of low-angled shots, where you have characters shot from beneath so that you can see the ceiling in many scenes. This has the effect of making the scenes really ominous and menacing, especially when Kane is involved.
Here's another good example of filmmaking innovation in Citizen Kane: the idea of montage. The concept had been around a while, actually. Communist filmmakers first posited it as a way of "filling in the blanks" by making unspoken connections between two shots. That's a fancy way of saying that, with careful filmmaking, the audience can pick up on unspoken cues to infer meaning where it isn't directly stated.
In Citizen Kane, Welles took that notion and turned it into an art form, most notably with the famous "breakfast table" scene. It's a few brief snippets of dialogue captured over several years of Kane's first marriage, showing the love between Kane and his wife first cooling and then giving way to open resentment. The whole thing only lasts about three minutes, and yet we find out everything we need to about the dissolution of a union over the course of a few years. And thanks to the fantastic editing, he let us "fill in the blanks" without having to spend huge amounts of time explaining what happened. Talk about efficient time management.
Welles likely perfected the art of the montage with that scene, but you've probably seen countless examples of the same technique. Any kind of training scene, for example, uses montage, and commercials use it all the time since they have a very short period to make their point. Welles didn't quite invent it, but he knew how to do it right.
Put all this together, and you've got yourself a piece (arguably the most important piece) of movie history.
Bernard Herrmann wanted to find a way to express both the vastness of Kane's power and the innocence of his childhood and the sled that represents it.
In fact, he makes such close connections between his music and ol' Rosebud that it actually serves as a sort of clue as to what Kane means when he uses that word. Overall, it's fair to the say that the score is pretty ominous in its beginning, since it is meant to reflect the total isolation and darkness of Kane's home in Xanadu.
Overall, though, the score is a lot about the opposing moods of glorious victory and shattering darkness. Which kind of makes sense, really, since that's what 99% of Kane's life is: a pretty intense roller coaster of highs and lows.
When you think of rabid fandoms, you don't tend to think about grainy black-and-white movies that take place half a century before they were made. But Wells breaks molds right and left: why shouldn't he break the mold when it comes to fandom?
Some fans are so into Citizen Kane that they've written their own fan fiction to fill in some of the plot holes. Other fans are satisfied with using their time to explain to others why Citizen Kane is such a big deal.
Whatever way you slice it, you're bound to find a rich fan community if you do a bit of Googling around Citizen Kane. After all, you don't get called the number one movie of all time without picking up some devoted fans along the way.