Film & TV

Iconic Films: ‘Citizen Kane,’ Wunderkind Orson Welles’s Monumentally Epic Debut

TIMEJanuary 10, 2022

As “Citizen Kane” appears on countless critics’ and filmmakers’ all-time top 10 lists (many at No. 1), it wouldn’t be going out on a limb to state that Orson Welles’s 1941 debut feature is the most respected, if not the greatest, film of all time. While its popularity within movie industry circles is beyond worshipful, “Citizen Kane” was a box office flop and still remains a mystery to the majority of the movie-going public.

Although his acclaimed work in theater netted Welles numerous offers from Hollywood, he regularly demurred. It was only after the infamous 1939 “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast—which everyone listening believed to be an actual invasion from Mars—did the offers become impossible to resist.

Welles’s RKO Deal Was Unprecedented

RKO offered Welles a two-picture deal and (nearly unheard of at the time) complete artistic autonomy, including the ultra-rare “final cut.” Welles was 24 and had never acted in or directed a movie before. This was an unprecedented arrangement and not only ticked off the other major studios, but also dozens of jealous, seasoned filmmakers, who felt this “boy wonder” was being given unchecked carte blanche.

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Orson Welles and Gregg Toland direct a scene in “Citizen Kane.” (RKO Radio Pictures)

After a failed attempt at adapting Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” Welles teamed with Herman J. Mankiewicz, who was working on a spec screenplay based on the career of publishing magnate (and his estranged friend) William Randolph Hearst, titled “American.”

After an extended back-and-forth, the final script was finished, yet for many reasons this writing partnership ended in acrimony. This relationship provided the basis for the brilliant 2020 film “Mank” and the acclaimed 1971 Pauline Kael essay “Raising Kane.”

Even after multiple denials by Welles, it was impossible not to see the overlap between the title character he played and Hearst. Both men were born into enormous wealth, oversaw the mining of ore, ran multiple daily newspapers, cheated on their wives, ran for political office, and witnessed the significant downsizing of their own respective fortunes.

For those who have seen the film multiple times, it’s highly recommended to seek out any home video edition that includes audio commentary by the late critic Roger Ebert. It is to the credit of Welles and editor Robert Wise that “Kane” is so impossibly well-constructed, allowing Ebert to break it down scene by scene and address every technical facet and special effect, while largely avoiding remarks on the plot.

Few people, beyond those familiar with Welles’s stage work, are aware that many of the characters with major speaking parts were played by performers who were also making their feature debuts. Ray Collins, Agnes Moorehead, Everett Sloane, and William Alland had all appeared in previous Mercury Theatre playsall overseen by Welles. Another Mercury alum, Joseph Cotten, would also work alongside Welles in two future masterpieces: “The Magnificent Ambersons” and “The Third Man.”

Toland’s Cinematography Forever Altered Perceptions

Much has been said about the contribution of Gregg Toland’s cinematography to the overall artistic success of the film, which can’t be overstated. Toland didn’t invent “deep focus” or depth of field, or ceiling, floor, and background lighting, but he was the first to do all of them at once in the same film. His uninterrupted shooting of many key scenes, particularly one early on where Kane’s mother (Moorehead) signs away custody of her son, is mesmerizing.

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(L–R) Harry Shannon, George Coulouris, and Agnes Moorhead in “Citizen Kane.” (RKO Radio Pictures)

Many times after completion of the film, Toland recalled that he wanted to work with Welles because the first-time director had no preconceived notions of the look going in. A frequent collaborator of John Ford, Toland had much to offer the greenhorn Welles, and their partnership was mutually beneficial. So grateful was Welles for Toland’s contributions that he included both of their names on a single end-credit title card.

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The last credit of the film includes mention of Gregg Toland. (RKO Radio Productions)

Also included in most home video releases is the 1940 trailer for the film, which seems in itself no big deal—trailers are regularly included as bonus features. But the one for “Kane” was indeed unique. At four minutes, it is nearly twice as long as most trailers, yet doesn’t include a single frame from the film. Welles doesn’t appear in it but does provide narration while introducing the actors and extras as both their characters and as themselves. This de facto documentary short film shows that Welles acknowledged the commercial and promotional need for a trailer, yet his cheeky rejoinders and sarcastic asides indicate he would—to no one’s surprise—approach it with knowing droll irreverence.

Hearst Almost Prevented the Film’s Release

There are many people who have never seen the movie but are fully aware of the controversy that almost resulted in it never being seen and having its photonegative destroyed. After catching wind (via gossip columnist Louella Parsons) that the movie was “based” on his life, Hearst moved mountains to halt its release. While he wasn’t entirely successful, Hearst greatly crippled advertising and exhibition for the movie and sent Welles’s career into a tailspin from which it never fully recovered. The superb 1999 HBO movie “RKO 281” goes into great detail of this behind-the-scenes stand-off, as does the excellent 1996 PBS Oscar-nominated documentary “The Battle Over Citizen Kane.”

Is “Citizen Kane” the greatest movie of all time? As with all art, it’s highly subjective. It sits at No. 5 on my own top 10, which is not so much a “greatest” but more of a “favorite” list. I’ve seen it well over two dozen times and always discover something different with each viewing. The fact that it is on so many critics’ and filmmakers’ lists does provide it an undeniable level of universal consensus.

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Orson Welles in the famous mirror scene from “Citizen Kane.” (RKO Radio Pictures)

There is something few could disagree with: “Citizen Kane” forever changed the way movies were made and interpreted. The fact that it is still relevant 80 years after its release further supports its importance and staying power.

The greatest movie ever? Maybe, maybe not. The most influential?

Without a doubt, yes.

Originally from Washington, D.C., Michael Clark has written for over 30 local and national film industry media outlets and is ranked in the top 10 of the Atlanta media marketplace. He co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle in 2017 and is a regular contributor to the Shannon Burke Show on Since 1995, Mr. Clark has written over 4,000 movie reviews and film-related articles.