Citizen Kane at 75: 8 Reasons It Remains the Most Influential Film of All Time

RealClear Staff

            

On May 1, 1941, a film made by 25-year-old Orson Welles, who had never directed a movie before, made its world premiere and would shake the very foundations of Hollywood. "Citizen Kane" changed movies forever, introducing many of the techniques used in movies today.

1. It Begins at the End

"Citizen Kane" is a time traveler. That is, it begins with the death of Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) as a 78-year-old man. His last, dying word is "Rosebud." What does that mean? A newsreel agency sends a reporter to interview people who knew Kane, and the film jumps back and forth in time to glimpse at scenes of Kane's life.

What's the big deal, you might ask. Well, although it's common now -- Quentin Tarantino has made a living out of it -- it was nonexistent in the first 4 decades of commercial filmmaking. For years, the beginning, middle and ending of a Hollywood movie was the beginning, middle and end of the movie. After "Kane," films began to us non-linear storytelling methods.

2. It Popularized Deep-Focus Photography

Up until "Kane," shots in most Hollywood films would only focus on one "plane of depth" of the shot -- usually characters standing in the foreground -- while characters on another plane, say the background, would be out of focus. Partly, it's because for many years photography didn't have the ability to keep all the planes in focus; but even when the technology became available, it wasn't used much because directors liked controlling which characters the audience would focus on. 

Welles used "deep-focus" camera techniques, including special film, lenses, and lighting developed especially for "Citizen Kane," that made everything on screen appear in focus at the same time. This technique reveals depth and challenges audiences to search the screen for crucial pieces of the puzzle.

3. The Special Effects Were Really Special

Even back to the silent era, part of Hollywood's world-wide appeal was its unmatched ability to transport audiences to different times and different worlds. But even an industry that was constantly pushing the envelope special effects-wise took notice at Welles' ambitious use of optical effects. Through special effects, a camera could careen down several stories and "through" the skylight of a building and settle on two people talking in a room. Kane's vast estate, Xanadu, became a castle-like fortress. And a newsreel really looked like a newsreel -- because Welles would drag footage from the "newsreel" Welles had shot on the cement floor of the editing studio to create scratches.

4. You Could See the Ceiling

Say what? Well, back then, lights were so heavy and so many were needed to create the cinematic lighting you're used to seeing in movies that most indoor shots were made on sets with lights suspended from the rafters. Thus, the sets of most films back then were built without ceilings -- but you'd never know because the camera angle hid this fact. Welles, however, loved low-angle shots, and had sets constructed with ceilings. He and his cinematographer Gregg Toland worked out an innovative lighting scheme that could handle this.

5. The Use of Overlapping Dialogue Was Groundbreaking

Ever notice how in super-old movies, no one ever interrupts the other, even when they're having an argument? In "Citizen Kane," made just 14 years after the introduction of sound in movies, Welles wanted a more realistic approach to dialogue. The film is packed with overlapping dialogue, as in this scene, in which Kane is constantly interrupted as he is trying to have a conversation.

6. Even the Makeup Was Innovative

One of the great debut performances in film history, the 25-year-old Welles played Charles Foster Kane from his 20s into his 70s. Makeup artist Maurice Seiderman, rather than just cover Welles with latex wrinkles and gray hair, made a complete body cast and used it to create custom-fitting body pads and facial appliances that show Kane aging gradually over 27 different stages of his life. The level of detail is astonishing: Welles wore special milky bloodshot contact lenses to make his eyes look old, and 72 different facial appliances, including hairlines, cheeks, jowls, bags under his eyes, and 16 different chins. Some pieces even had artificial pores that matched those in Welles' own skin. 

7. Welles' Sequences Still Are Imitated

Welles' fake newsreel that opens "Kane" has been imitated countless times. But there are many other sequences in the film that amazed critics at the time that have also proved influential. Check out what is called the "breakfast sequence," in which Welles is able to show the dissolution of a marriage through a series of scenes at the breakfast table. Then look at how the Pixar movie "Up" uses some of the same condensed storytelling techniques to show a much happier marriage. 

8. Welles Was the 1st Triple Threat

Although it happens regularly now, Orson Welles was the first to write, direct and star in a major Hollywood film. And to think he was 25 and it was his first-ever film, the achievement is all the more amazing. Welles, though was no newbie: He was a national celebrity for his success in theater and on radio.

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