A (Nearly) Complete History of the Greatest Movie Ever Made, Orson Welles' 'Citizen Kane'

Citizen KaneCitizen Kane: the #1 favorite film of 100% of freshman film school students and young lovers of cinema. (Remember Michael Scott's nephew, Luke? Case in point.) Though the title of "greatest movie ever" is impossible to possess, Citizen Kane's praises have become so commonplace that, unfortunately, some tend to take its cinematic command for granted -- even though the film proved Orson Welles and famed cinematographer Gregg Toland to be real pioneers of the craft. Take a look at these incredibly insightful documentaries about the making of Welles' masterpiece, and renew your appreciation for a truly groundbreaking piece of cinema.

Every filmmaker has their dream career path: Get offered a hands-off two-picture deal with a major studio, have the greatest cinematographer approach you to make your film, go down in history as the maker of the greatest film in history. Oh, also, you do all of this at 25 -- on your very first picture. Sounds dreamy, huh? Well, for Orson Welles, it was his reality. (Is it possible to feel envy and reverence at the same time?)

Welles wasn't interested in being a filmmaker; he was already a talented and accomplished thespian working with his independent repertory theater company, The Mercury Players. In fact, he made quite a name for himself after his radio broadcast of War of the Worlds, such a name RKO wanted to sign him to a two-picture contract. After a few hits, misses, and pulled plugs, Welles made Citizen Kane, and the rest is cinematic history.

There are so many reasons to appreciate Citizen Kane. Toland's deep focus shots and beautiful lighting; Welles' and Herman J. Mankiewicz's story structure, the costuming, the makeup, the music -- even the sheer fact that a young nobody in the cinema world was able to make such a powerful film that has stood the test of time is worth the most focused and studious parts of our brains.

The documentaries below explain everything there is to know about the film, breaking down its production, budget, and artistic approach. The first, hosted by Barry Norman, was originally included on the Region 2 version of the film's supplemental material DVD.

And here's the second, very exhaustive, documentary entitled The Complete Citizen Kane, created as an Arena Special.

If you've never seen Citizen Kane, stop what you're doing immediately and watch it. And whether or not it makes it (publicly) into your mental list of favorite films, it still has the potential to open you up to just how influential one film can be to cinema.

Is Citizen Kane your favorite movie? (You can be honest.) What about the film and/or its production inspires you and your work? Let us know in the comments below.

[via Citizen Welles & Filmmaker IQ]

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Maybe not my "favorite" movie of all time (that list is something like: Boogie Nights, Cable Guy, Nashville, Lost in Translation, Taxi Driver, Seven Beauties...movies I could watch endlessly and never tire of), but I completely respect Citizen Kane for being as innovative as it is. People seem to attack Kane and the Godfather as being overrated, but really they deserve every bit of accolades that gets tossed their way. No film had the depth of field Kane had prior to its release, no film was ever photographed as darkly as Godfather (just look at those blacks in the frame: no noise). Those films are beautiful, honest, human, and innovative. You gotta show love, even if you couldn't watch it everyday.

February 1, 2014 at 4:12PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM


Cable Guy! Jeebus thats big piece of shit for me!!! :) Not saying tha CK is best one, but metioning CG ... Yikes

February 3, 2014 at 11:18PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM


I'm a huge fan of orson Welles! I love citizen Kane! Great post!
Remember what martin scorsese said

"I’m often asked by younger filmmakers, why do I need to look at old movies — And the response I find that I have to give them is that I still consider myself a student. The more pictures I’ve made in the past twenty years the more I realize I really don’t know. And I’m always looking for something to, something or someone that I could learn from. I tell them, I tell the younger filmmakers and the young students that I do it like painters used to do, or painters do: study the old masters, enrich your palette, expand your canvas. There’s always so much more to learn" - Martin Scorsese

February 1, 2014 at 6:52PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM


"Do I need to look at Old Movies ?" - I find it hard to believe that someone would ask that question (especially someone dreaming of being in a creative profession). And Yet , I know it is true.
Who in their right mind could walk through this world and think the now is everything ? Of course , you need to make a buck. You have to understand current trends ,but My God, does anyone really think anything has changed THAT much ? As if Mankind has evolved in the past few centuries - come on. Ooo - the Internet ! we have invented a new way to watch TV ! Big Deal . A real Artist will find a way to use whatever tools are out there. And a Real artist will also know enough to respect what came before them.
So now Story telling is Digital. Before that it was Film & before that it was Scrolls & Parchment and before that it was Painting or scratchings on a Church or Cave wall. What really has changed ? It's still pretty much the same 2 or 3 stories.

February 7, 2014 at 5:50PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM


Saying Cable Guy is on the same list as Taxi Driver is probably the same logic as putting Weekend at Bernies 2 up with Railway Man.

February 1, 2014 at 8:24PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM

shaun wilson

Yeah, really. You can watch Cable Guy over and over but not feel the same for the most influential film ever made? Even Jim Carry would think so.

February 2, 2014 at 6:02PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM


Metropolis influenced more directors than Kane ever did.

February 3, 2014 at 2:06AM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM

shaun wilson

Metropolis influenced more directors? Highly unlikely, considering it was a complete flop on release. That said, Kane epitomised two existing trends of the thirties and forties (flashback structured narratives and deep focus staging), so it gets more credit than it might deserve.

February 3, 2014 at 10:15AM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM


Not my favorite (that honor falls to "Vertigo"), but a truly stunning work, and a textbook of film creativity and knowledge. I can teach it to grade-schoolers and they'll get something out of it, it's so striking and memorable. It really is a director at the top of his game using every trick he knows how to use and completely upending the cinematic table. It still feels fresh and interesting and rebellious today, I can't even imagine how it felt compared to the other films of the time.

And it has one of my favorite pieces of writing in a movie ever, when Susan is about to leave Kane near the end and Kane tells Susan "you can't do this to me." and Susan smiles and says " I see. So it's YOU who this is being done to." Amazing line, and so telling of their relationship and her realization that she somehow still has power over this infinitely powerful man.

February 1, 2014 at 10:45PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM


Writing with passion is not about using all the time those expression "Greatest ever" "best in the world" or those adjectives: amazing, breathtaking, astounding, mind-boggling, mind-blowing, stunning, overwhelming, groundbreaking....
This bad habit is just taking away the meaning of those words and the text finally looks like a commercial to attract people to read something finally superficial.
There is NO "Greatest or best movie ever made" as well as there is no "Most beautiful girl in the world".
According which criteria, knowledge, talent,, cultural background, education or taste, are you able to publish such a statement? One simple question: How many no American movies have you watch in your adult life? How many language can you speak or understand? What do you exactly know about other countries creation?
This blog is a great space, and it would be even better if it could get a more mature tone, a more constructive approach and a wider vision of the creative world.
Sorry for my soso English, but i guess you got the idea.

February 2, 2014 at 12:03AM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM


Read the article. She was making a joke.

February 2, 2014 at 6:13PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM


Personally, the movie I love the most from Welles is The Stranger. Second, Othello, Then the battle scenes from Chimes at midnight, the mirror chase in Lady from Shangay, Akim Tamiroff acting on his movies. That man was simply brilliant, a genius. A wonderful actor who knew how to direct actors, a splendid editor, a visual artist, a sincere man who dind'nt sell his soul to Hollywood. Everything comes in mind when you mention Orson Welles. Quinlan Character in Touch of Evil, the first sequence of the movie with Mancini's soundtrack, The Inmortal Story's Jean Moreau, the gorgeous Oja Kodar in F for Fake, the whole movie itself.

Citizen Kane was the beginning of the decay of Orson Welles. Maybe Randolph Hearst banned him in the industry, maybe the man put his agents everywhere to create obstacles around every new project Welles began. That movie is made with human, technical and artistic grandiosity.

February 2, 2014 at 6:04AM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM


Something Welles had said a few times in interviews since was something like, I started at the top and have been working my way down ever since.

February 12, 2014 at 12:53PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM

Daniel Mimura

February 2, 2014 at 9:30AM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM


I wouldn't say it's my favourite, but it surely is up there along with Shichinin no Samurai, Vertigo.. Nice article!

February 3, 2014 at 9:14AM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM

Manel Menano

Definitely one of my favorite films of all time. I have to laugh with joy at Welles' portrayal every time I watch it. Once you know the payoff and are watching it for the 3rd, 4th or 100th time, the story kind of stops mattering. It's the characters and the filmmaking that really take center stage and grab you.

February 3, 2014 at 5:29PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM


IMHO, "Citizen Kane" should be studied and appreciated not only for its innovative cinematography, but more importantly, for it's dynamic use of sound and sound transitions. Toland brought the technical knowledge to implement Welles' naive, but sweeping visual sensibilities and marry them to Welles' amazing Radio techniques. In my opinion, it is the first sound film to utilize fully the marriage of image and sound, while retaining high artistic standards in each medium. "Kane" was one of those dynamic, "happy-accidents" of Hollywood where the right people came together at precisely the right time to produce an amazing result. Practically no one involved in this production ever re-attained the artistic perfection created by this film in their subsequent careers, but you could see echos of their sensibilities in later productions.

If you want to study in exhaustive detail the events and particulars of this film, I suggest you get the book, "The Making of Citizen Kane", by Robert L. Karringer. It's a fascinating read that is pretty even handed about looking at events without succumbing to rampant "auteurism" or character assassination.

February 4, 2014 at 4:09AM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM


What made Citizen Kane so special?

* development of early elements of Film Noir (as a dozen other films from 1930 to1940)
* Narrative Experiments
* Dialogue layering & seuqencing like in old days radio
* use of multiple microphones on Set to record
* mixing of sound & effects in movies in ways formerly only used in radio shows
* High/ Low angels of camera positions
* Non-Linear Story telling
* unique design and use of trailer (look at the trailer at trailersfromhell.com)
* use of optical effects, matte paintings in quite normal scenes & surroundings
* new techniques in make up and make up effects
* etc etc etc

Citizen Kane is "boring" for younger people and even some "media film amateurs" but as I get older and older....I encounter more why citizen kane is so relevant...but more so....the stories behind orson welles, Gregg toland and others ( Make up artist, sound technicians etc).

I did not like citizen kane at 16.....I like it more at age 27 and now with 44 - I have to say it is a "masterpiece"

February 4, 2014 at 11:59AM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM

Alan Rossmann

Guess I was really strange. I discovered all the old films on Late night TV when I was in my Mid- Teens. Luckily ,though I was a really uptight Teenager ,I was able to recognize the qualities of these old films and sucked them up like a sponge. It never occurred to me they weren't hip ,or somehow I wasn't supposed to be watching these Old ,uncool movies.

February 7, 2014 at 5:57PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM


I love CK. Greatest film?... Maybe? Most definitely one of the most influential.

As someone else has noted, peeps love to hate on CK and The Godfather. But they're simply two (of many) of the best films out there.

Personal list of films I feel are masterpieces:
- Taxi Driver
- Raging Bull
- Jaws
- 400 Blows
- The Godfather (Pt.2 as well)
- Apocalypse Now
- The Lives of Others
- Her
- Blue Velvet
- The Wages of Fear
- Aguirre: The Wrath of God
- Silence of The Lambs
- A Clockwork Orange
- Fargo
- Alien
- Happiness

February 4, 2014 at 1:58PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM


Good list, but you don't have anything made before 1955. There is a huge gap in the history of film that you should start exploring.

February 4, 2014 at 8:37PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM


Haha, very astute. Correct, ye be. But I'm gonna' go ahead and say, "Methinks I'm versed quite thoroughly", they're just not gonna' crack my personal favs list.

Billy Wilder, Hitch, Welles, Lang, P&P, Browning and Keaton are massive influences on me, but the real crux is the methods of production. The studio system was a well greased machine and some definite classics were churned out by some A-class mates... But my personal 'golden age' was the New Hollywood brats and the death of the classic studio. Cukor and Capra may be someones cup'o'tea, but they ain't mine.

Just don't assume next time - makes an ass-(of)-u-(and)-me. Thanks all the same tho!

February 10, 2014 at 5:57PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM


Cable Guy?

July 28, 2014 at 10:25AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Yes, this is the greatest film of all time. Don't agree? Watch it again. Still don't agree? Watch 100 more movies, then watch again. Still don't agree, watch another 100 movies, then watch it again. Repeat the process until you have perspective. At the end of the day, no other movie can possibly trump it.

August 16, 2014 at 9:07PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Actually, I think the correct procedure is to watch a number of films that came out BEFORE Kane and then watch Kane again. The degree to which Welles wrote much of our modern film language within a single film is what makes it so legendary. Add in his use of some tricks he picked up in radio (using an echo to suggest that a room is enormous when you can't afford to actually shoot in a giant room for instance) and you can really see what a monumental shift Kane caused once you see it within context. I think the problem for most people is that they hear all this stuff about Kane, then watch it and can't understand why people make such a big deal about it.

August 19, 2015 at 10:44AM


I believe Kane was a flop on its release also, and there was william hurst trying to stop to distribution. It only became appriciated many years later when some french film makers pushed for its revival

August 17, 2014 at 9:06AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM

London town writer