Is Kane the greatest movie ever made? Between 1962 and 2002 that was its reputation and the consensus view: it topped Sight & Sound’s poll for four consecutive decades, only to be displaced by Vertigo in 2012. This year, it polled #3rd, behind Jeanne Dielman and Vertigo. Is Welles’ reputation in eclipse then? Does his first and most accomplished Hollywood movie withstand the test of time? Does it still speak to us, intellectually and/or emotionally, or has this vaunted classic accumulated too much dust sitting on top of the canon?
Orson Welles’s debut is an extraordinary piece of work whichever way you look at it. This was the most sophisticated movie to come out of the Hollywood studio system to that time, and it opened up the creative possibilities of the narrative feature film on an unprecedented scale.
Nor is the film “only” an aesthetic tour-de-force. Thematically, it’s just as complex. It’s the life story of media magnate Charles Foster Kane, or William Randolph Hearst, or George Orson Welles, but someone else is always telling it, and then someone else is retelling it from a different perspective. “’Rosebud”, Kane’s enigmatic last word, remains a potent symbol because the different meanings ascribed to it aren’t wrong, they all have value, even if none of them gives us the whole story.
The impossibility of accounting for someone’s life may be the key Welles’ theme, along with the equal impossibility of measuring up to your own aspirations. There is a terrible emptiness at the heart of such a project, and Welles’ dynamic, baroque style can be interpreted as a rush to deny or stave off that knowledge, just as Kane himself fills warehouses with objets d’art.
Sunday’s screening in our PANTHEON series will feature free refreshments and a short introduction by an expert in the field.
The former champion still feels like a grand summation of film’s early development as an artform and a glimpse of the future, too. At the same time, it’s a hugely entertaining portrait of the media narcissism and demagoguery that underscore American politics.
Sadly, it’s fashionable now to chip away at its greatness. This temptation should be resisted. The audacious American masterpiece of the 20th century, not only for its cinematic innovations and storytelling vigour, but for how accurately it dissects the ’American character’.
film that amply rewards repeated viewings, revealing new depths, new nuanced details, new mysteries. There is no greatest film, but if there were, for me this would surely be the strongest contender.
Herman J. Mankiewicz, Orson Welles
Also in This Series
In the Mood for Love
Wong Kar-wai's most popular film is a love story about two neighbours (Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung) who are drawn together by the long absences of their respective spouses.
In Abbas Kiarostami's self-reflexive non-fiction narrative feature, Sabzian, an illiterate film buff who passed himself off as the Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf plays himself in reconstructions of his fraud.
Orson Welles's debut was the most sophisticated movie to come out of the Hollywood studio system to that time, and opened up the creative possibilities of the narrative feature film for generations. For nearly 50 years it was "the best ever made".