The motion picture masterpiece Citizen Kane, released in 1941, is widely considered to be the greatest film ever made. It excels in every aspect that a film can excel: remarkable and memorable scenes, a delicate balance of humor and drama, a careful blend of cinematic and narrative techniques, and a countless number experimental innovations. The film deserves its slot at the top of the AFI's list of the 100 greatest films of all time.
The film's director, star, and producer were all the same person - Orson Welles. At age twenty five he also aided in the authoring of the script and with the cinematography. The film received unanimous critical praise at the time of its release, continuing to grow as the years went past and Kane's influence on films of every later era became evident.
Interestingly enough, Citizen Kane was far from a commercial success for a number of reasons. The first and most vital has to be the ongoing Depression and the start of World War II, which hurt the film industry as a whole, especially those films that weren't images of a better time, like Gone With The Wind. Another problem was the fact that the film was not distributed at all by RKO Pictures, the film company that produced Citizen Kane. It simply didn't have the finances to operate, and Kane was to be the last film made by the company.
The big reason for the failure of Kane at the time was the ongoing effort by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, who saw the film as being a negative depiction of his life and career. He threw a great deal of money and effort into legal efforts to block the film; when that didn't work, he literally spent his way into bankruptcy by paying theatres not to show the film. Many did - in tents outside the theatre house.
The film itself is the tale of the controversial life of a publishing tycoon, Charles Foster Kane, who used some underhanded business tactics to gain control of the publishing world, attempted to use his influence over the media to get himself elected to higher office, and eventually sunk into despair at his retreat house, Xanadu (named such after the famous Samuel Coleridge poem).
The acting in the film is wonderful. Welles drew from his Mercury Players, an acting troupe he had helped organize and put on the theatrical map in the late 1930s, and they all put on a show in what was the film debut for many of them. Many of these, most notably Joseph Cotton and Agnes Moorehead, went on to solid film careers in their own right.
More importantly, Citizen Kane is a widely acknowledged milestone in cinematic technique. It uses film as an art form to communicate and display a non-static view of life, which was really done for the first time here. The film made clever use of lighting, shadow, deep-focus shots zooming out from extreme foreground to extreme background, low-angled shots revealing ceilings, sparse use of revealing close-ups (which in virtually all other films of the age was a major staple), overlapping dialogue, a cast of characters that ages throughout the film, frequent use of transitionary dissolves, and long, uninterrupted sequence shots. For the most part, none of these techniques had appeared on film before; today, virtually every film made today owes something to the creative masterpiece that is Citizen Kane.
Citizen Kane garnered nine Oscar nominations, but only one win for Best Original Screenplay. The other eight nominations included Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Director (both for Orson Welles), Best Black & White Cinematography, Best Black & White Interior Decoration, Best Sound Recording, Best Dramatic Picture Score, and Best Film Editing. Orson Welles became the first individual to receive simultaneous nominations for Best Actor, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Cinematography.
The film was recently remastered and released on September 25, 2001 as a two-disc DVD set from Warner Bros.. Included is the remastered film (on a side note, it looks gorgeous!) with two full-length optional commentaries, one from film critic Roger Ebert and the other from Welles' biographer Peter Bogdanovich; the movie premiere newsreel; storyboards; rare photos; call sheets; alternate ad campaigns; and lots of other stuff. But the real gem (besides the gorgeous film, of course) is a two hour long documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane, outlining the troubles of RKO Pictures and the efforts William Randolph Hearst went to to stop the film from being distributed. The documentary itself won the 1995 Oscar for Best Documentary, so it's of a much higher quality than many documentaries one finds on many other DVD releases.
Citizen Kane is a wonderfully dramatic and humorous film. It broke all sorts of cinematic ground and is an absolute gem to watch even today.