Given extraordinary freedom by Hollywood studio RKO for his debut film, boy wonder Welles created a modernist masterpiece that is regularly voted the best film ever made.
“Nothing can detract from the film’s vivid Balzacian rendering of a dynamic society, its high-powered American virtuosity: the effect of Citizen Kane on the art of film has been incalculable.”
Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg, Hollywood in the Forties, 1968
The 26-year-old Welles, already renowned for his work in radio and theatre, used the unprecedented artistic license offered to him by RKO to create a fictionalised portrait of one of America’s most powerful men – press baron William Randolph Hearst. Charting the rise of Charles Foster Kane (played by Welles himself) – who decides to start a newspaper with his inherited fortune – Welles’ film is a classic story of the corrupting effects of power.
The use of deep-focus photography (keeping both foreground and background in focus) and abstracted camera angles, the non-chronological narrative structure and overlapping dialogue, were just some of the myriad formal innovations that Welles brought together for his groundbreaking debut. Such novelty and controversy proved a curse for Welles, whose career never enjoyed such indulgence again.
Any film to go after the dark heart of the American dream, from The Godfather (1972) to There Will Be Blood (2007), owes Citizen Kane a debt.