The British film magazine Sight & Sound recently released its “Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time” list, which it compiles every 10 years by polling film critics worldwide. Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo deposed Citizen Kane from its long run atop the list. That’s just plain wrong.
Let me make this clear before we go any further: I am a huge fan of Hitchcock’s films. And as such, would make the case that Rear Window, North By Northwest, Psycho and The 39 Steps are to this published film critic at least as good as Vertigo – a great film I love – and maybe better. Hence it is his best film (I could also argue the merits of The Birds and even The Trouble With Harry. Hitchcock’s legacy is that strong).
But the real bugaboo here is Vertigo over Kane. As much as I nearly loathe numerically ranked “Best Of” and “Top” or “Greatest” lists of any artistic and creative endeavors – I’ve said it here before and elsewhere: art is qualitative not quantitative – when it comes to greatness in cinema, Orson Welles all but set the bar with his very first film when he made Citizen Kane, released in 1941 to pretty much a resounding commercial thud.
No matter. Time and perspective served Kane well. And time hasn’t diminished how masterful, revolutionary and audaciously daring the movie is. It proved that the Hollywood studio system could create magnificent art that advanced cinema in a number of ways.
There is some personal sentiment at work here, but even without that the aesthetic case of the greatness of Kane above and beyond all others can be forcefully made. I first saw it as part of a high school film class. I was the course’s projectionist and had after-hours access to the prints. My teacher so praised Kane that I watched it even before the rest of the class. And was so astounded that I even screened it again before seeing it with the others.
For Christmas that year my parents gave me The Citizen Kane Book, a coffee table hardback which contained the shooting script by Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz, liberally illustrated with stills, and Pauline Kael’s New Yorker essay “Raising Kane” that (rightfully I believe) argued that Mankiewicz’s considerable contribution to the script is a source of the movie’s greatness as much as Welles’s genius. By now I have seen Kane at least a dozen times and know it not just scene by scene but shot by shot and nearly dialogue line by line.
Despite all that, there’s much about Kane that goes beyond its personal impact on me to argue why it is far greater than Vertigo. It revolutionized the notion of structure by not following a linear plotline and having many narrators tell parts and different versions of Kane’s story. Its stunning use of depth of field – cinematographer Gregg Toland even developed a special lens to achieve the deep focus – as well as shadows and light in the black & white photography were just as transformational. The placement of the camera – Welles had the studio floor torn up and a hole dug so the camera gazed up at Welles as Charles Foster Kane to reinforce his towering presence – was also revolutionary and stunning, as are the framing of and motion in its shots. By look alone it underscores how film is visual storytelling.
Yes, there are movies with far more impressive acting, a charge that the film’s critics have used to denigrate its stature. But Welles gives a bravura performance, and Joseph Cotton shines in his support role. And it was an audacious endeavor, telling by inference and similarities the tale of publisher William Randolph Hearst, one of the most powerful men in America throughout the first half of the 20th Century. In the final analysis, Citizen Kane was in sum a pivotal advancement in fulfilling the promise of cinema.
I have to wonder about many of today’s critics after this poll (also because another life-changing movie in my experience, Lawrence of Arabia, didn’t make the top 50 list). But then again we live in an age where, even in good films, I really like I often wonder if any thought was given to where to place the camera and frame the shot.
One other thing makes me feel like the primacy and artistry of Kane has been neglected. I have pointed out to many self-professed film buffs how Velvet Goldmine is splendid homage to Kane in plot, structure and even shots (which enhances that flawed yet still significant film). The response has been “no way” to “you’re crazy,” even if that fact is dead obvious to anyone who knows Kane.
The fact that Welles debuted in film with a masterpiece and then so tumbled from grace works against Kane, as he has a very spotty (yet still fascinating) oeuvre. And conversely, Hitchcock produced a hearty and stunning body of work full of differing triumphs along the way that the rise of Vertigo is not a total surprise.
But it is not and can ever be as monumental, groundbreaking, visionary and influential as Kane, which, even for its initial box office failure, changed or instigated that in the art of cinema in so many ways. If you haven’t seen Citizen Kane and gotten to know it and why it matters as well as the story behind it (see HBO’s wonderful RKO 281), you haven’t really fully seen cinema.
Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
From The Progressive Populist, October 15, 2012
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