The mark of Kane

With Sight & Sound’s once-in-a-decade Greatest Film of All Time poll looming in 2012, David Thomson launches a series of occasional debates on the canon, here wondering whether Citizen Kane will – or should – retain its top spot.

David Thomson
Updated:

Poll countdown essay no. 10 | from our January 2011 issue

Do you have time for a few words on the 2012 election? No, not that one – I fear that Barack Obama controls his own future, or surveys it from afar. That November decision is too grave and frightening to talk about. I refer, instead, to the election this magazine will stage in 2012.

It is in years ending with 2, you may recall, that Sight & Sound brings back its poll of critics, writers and filmmakers on the best films ever made. The Top Ten. Now I don’t mean to get involved with all ten, or not immediately. My worry is over number one, Citizen Kane, the picture that won this poll in 1962, 1972, 1982, 1992 and 2002.

Such steady glory has made Orson Welles’s picture a kind of password. Nowadays Citizen Kane stands for all of cinema, and I am not about to suggest that it deserves less than that mind-numbing status. Still, I regret the numbing of minds and I wonder whether this automatic authority has stopped young people from seeing the 1941 picture, or really looking at it when they do sit there in the dark with it? If it wins again in 2012, that will be 50 years in which it has been top – and that can turn the ‘top’ from a real place into a rather hollow idea. Kane begins to resemble Queen Victoria (and she reigned 63 years).

Please don’t jump on this modest request to think carefully. I have admitted many times (too many?) that Citizen Kane changed – or focused – my life. I love the film, and not just for its alleged technical innovations (like deep focus, overlapping talk, sets with ceilings, or its carte blanche contract). I love its emotion, and the fact that after all these years and viewings its message remains unsettled. More than 1941 grasped, it is a film about meaning and purpose. The question endures: is “Rosebud” the way to an answer for life, or just the macguffin a dying man utters to set up his own labyrinth?

I have written a book about Orson Welles and I think I have read all the others on him – from Peter Noble to Barbara Leaming, from Rosenbaum to McBride to Conrad. And I hope to stick around to see what Simon Callow will say at the end of his fabulously Wellesian three-volume project. I have suggested before that the thing about books on Welles is that they are all worthwhile – because the man was so recklessly averse to being dull.

Forget top tens for the moment, but acknowledge the possibility that Orson Welles was the most interesting, complicated and tricky person who ever picked up a movie camera. Part of that antipathy to dullness is in the way he did so many other things – he was radio and theatre, bull-fighting and cheap wine, he was a magician and a would-be politician, he was father and husband, enormous but beautiful, he had the most sincere voice as well as the most fraudulent. He was lovable and awful. And that bundle of contradictions energises Charles Foster Kane as much as it does George Orson Welles.

Think of him that way, then look at the work again, and the thing most likely to stop you putting Kane at number one may be the thought of The Magnificent Ambersons. The Christmas I dream of is the discovery of Orson’s director’s cut of his 1942 film in some loft in Rio de Janeiro, its nitrate stable, its ending complete, with the Ambersons facing ruin – a film for our time? If we had that, I dare say, Ambersons would go to number one, if only because it would prove the more tragic and intimate of the first two films. It is still possible to find Kane too clever or too much of the hard-to-map labyrinth.

Anyone who has lived would be in tears at the end of his Ambersons. And we want to be moved, don’t we?

There’s the point. Like life, cinema relies on the principle of ‘show me something I haven’t seen before’. So the habit of Citizen Kane can become dismaying. Think of the marvel in opening that 2012 issue of Sight & Sound to find that the winner is… Sunrise? Tokyo Story? The Godfather? Vertigo? There Will Be Blood? Juke Girl? (It’s a little 1942 picture by Curtis Bernhardt, with Ann Sheridan and Ronald Reagan. No, it’s not a masterpiece, but I like it. And I doubt its chance of toppling Kane is much less than that of the Coppola, the Ozu or the Hitchcock.)

Frenzies of democracy

By now, wary readers may be asking themselves, “Is he wondering whether we should deliberately not vote for Citizen Kane?” Well no, not yet, anyway. (If in the next 1,000 words I suggest that, you may write me off.) I’m not even sure that I won’t vote for it myself. Though if you study the results over the decades, it seems that many voters flinch from putting their top ten in an incriminating order – how do we begin to assess whether La Règle du jeu is ‘better’ than L’Atalante or Lola Montès? Instead, the critics use alphabetical order or chronology, because we know in our bones that orders of merit are just a foolish and vulgar game. But vulgarity is waxing larger, and its artificial light now eclipses sunrise, the pale moon after the rain, light in August or even L’eclisse.

I think I know the editor of Sight & Sound well enough to guess he would demur if pushed to defend the idea of a valid hierarchy, a fixed ordering, in the films made since 1895. Yet as the editor of an instrument of the British Film Institute (not the most secure body in a shaking culture), he would concede that the poll has to run. If there is wisdom in forgoing it – in saying, “Come along now, children, we’re beyond this” – there is also a weary recognition that kids now demand fun as a right. So I suspect he longs to face a dawn when he adds up the votes and discovers that the winner is The Passion of Joan of Arc, Pretty Woman or Juke Girl. That news would be posted all over the world, and be a brief ‘hit’, and the value to Sight & Sound would be more substantial than the relief to Carl Dreyer or Curtis Bernhardt.

The game is not just vulgar, it’s stupid. Yet we all love games and – as the winner in another Sight & Sound poll recently – I must say I enjoyed winning as much as I know it was ridiculous. Was the cinema always prey to these games? Remember that the Oscars only arrived in 1927-8, and they are tottering now. Who really cares who wins an Oscar? Yet movie writers and bloggers live on that ‘contest’ as much as the Academy depends on the TV revenue from awards night.

Once upon a time we went to the movies, automatically and habitually, without keeping scorecards. We didn’t expect to rank the best summer days; we revelled in summer. It may have been in Brussels in 1958 that the games began. There was a world’s fair of some kind (and who needs world’s fairs now we have the Net?) and a panel of young directors (it included Satyajit Ray and Robert Aldrich) was asked to determine the best films ever made. Cahiers du cinéma, then at its peak of subversive brilliance, responded with another list, and we were off. By 1962, Kane was top at Sight & Sound. But don’t forget that in 1952 Welles’ film had not appeared in the top-ten list? Why? Because it was hard to see and had been since 1941.

So list-making goes on apace now and newspapers are always seeking fresh angles for reader polls (best left-handed character?) where Cinema Paradiso is likely to win. The critics are cool but patient with such frenzies of democracy. They will pass, we tell ourselves, and ‘the public’ is a concept that has to be endured, if not embraced. So the games have become a climate now assisted by the new ease with which nearly any movie can be found and ‘enjoyed’ on that small screen we most of us live by. But the Sight & Sound poll does stand above the collective of lesser polls. It’s been around longer. It draws on an ‘informed’ electorate. It restricts itself to once a decade. Do you see why the magazine is trapped into playing the game it invented?

The worry lies in the underlying notion that if the cinema is the new art and the modern sensation – not to mention the playground of the young – then shouldn’t it renew itself every few years? Doesn’t it deserve upstart miracles, audacious ventures, and next year’s breakthrough in self-destructive beauty, formal insurrection and razzle-dazzle? So the polls have celebrated wonderful and important movies made since 1941 – and over the decades there has been some thought that Vertigo or the first two parts of The Godfather might take over the championship. Those are treasure houses, and I speak as someone entranced by Vertigo in 1958 when it was a widely dismissed flop. But honestly, as time passes, isn’t there something goofy in Vertigo, not just far-fetched but crazy, that restricts it? (Is it as good as Rear Window?) And while I watch The Godfather every year, I do so to reprise known pleasures – whereas with Kane I find inner rooms and mysteries at every viewing. Citizen Kane, if I may say so, is more intelligent or questioning than Vertigo or The Godfather. And it is fixed on more important and eternal issues.

There are classics of modern film – take your pick: Pierrot le fou, Persona, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Céline and Julie Go Boating, The Shining, Raging Bull… Or from more recent decades, Taste of Cherry, The Puppetmaster, The Lives of Others…? Moreover it’s always possible that one of those (or one of the many others you could add to the list) will assert themselves 20 or so years after they were made and be revealed not just as great films, but greater works than their first audiences appreciated.

Then how do so many of us still feel the best picture ever made came 70 years ago, as a rebuke to the factory system that existed then – and as the work of an arrogant, comeuppance-ready 25-year-old? Let’s go further: is Citizen Kane really more than La Règle du jeu, The Shop Around the Corner, His Girl Friday and The Lady Eve? (And I am confining myself here to more or less the moment of Kane, which was crowded out with pictures that look glorious now but were deemed routine then.)

I don’t know what to do, but I want to suggest that if Citizen Kane wins again in 2012, it would be understandable yet depressing – and the downcast feelings would reflect on the medium and on us. The poll is not going to be abandoned, but it might be conducted with more flexibility.

In American sports (you see, I love games too), there is a tradition of teams retiring a player’s number from future use – so no New York Yankee will ever again be number 5, because it was Joe DiMaggio’s number. No Boston Celtic will wear 33 because it was Larry Bird. And so on. You may never have heard of, let alone seen, these masters, but you can grasp the idea of a pantheon, a hall of fame, that lets later players strive for their excellence. I think that’s why there have been efforts to mount campaigns for ‘modern classics’ among movies, free from the daunting pressure of the oldies.

Cultural anxieties

But the cinema’s relationship with history is uneasy. On the one hand, we can see so much now. Video’s range is enormous. Turner Classic Movies recently ran all four hours of Boris Barnet and Fyodor Otsep’s Miss Mend (1926) in a sparkling print. In San Francisco a few months ago, a packed house exulted in the new, enlarged version of Metropolis with a live score by the Alloy Orchestra that was like a rock concert. That strange, muddled film was a sensation again.

On the other hand, anyone who has taught film or tried to write about it in recent years knows the dispiriting conviction in young people that the medium began with Jaws and Star Wars, sensations in their day that may have marked the close of a vital period in filmmaking. Quite recently I met a kid at a good American college who is doing a film major. He was very knowledgeable about certain aspects of film, but a moment came when I happened to mention Gary Cooper. Blank look. This young man had not seen a Cooper film. He had not heard of him.

A part of what I fear is that while a few of us continue to vote Citizen Kane in to its paramount position, young people may have stopped seeing it. There are plenty of reasons for that: it is in black and white; it talks too much of the time, and with such rapidity; it is difficult for a beginner to follow; and kids don’t recognise any of the people in the picture. Plus they may not have much sympathy with that old institution, the newspaper.

Writers wouldn’t stoop to a public contest on the best novels or poems ever written – would they? And the Kindle carries Laurence Sterne as easily as Colm Toibin. In academe, it is taken for granted that excellent young minds might spend three years on Thomas Middleton or Ford Madox Ford. And film has its lower-case academy now where people take 12 years to write a book on Curtis Bernhardt – agreed, I don’t know that book, but I’m ready. (Turns out there is such a book, an interview, edited by his son.)

What is altered is the sensationalism, and it’s natural enough that academe is disapproving of that drug when official, controlled medicines might be prescribed. There are some who feel the Brussels poll of 1958 coincides with the first demise of cinema – not just the deaths of moguls and stars (DeMille and Gary Cooper, Gable and Mack Sennett, for example), not just the worshipful revisionism of the New Wave, redoing American genres by turning them inside out, but the emergence from Hollywood of edgy films that say, “Oh come on, you don’t take this flim-flam seriously anymore, do you?” Films like Touch of Evil, Rio Bravo, Some Like It Hot, Anatomy of a Murder, Psycho – films that sauce the old gaze with postmodern mockery. So Rio Bravo is not a western, but a movie about a group of people making a western.

Not that Citizen Kane was ever in the mainstream. It was a deliberately arty picture from a young man who intended to defy Hollywood, and who could have spelled out why its factory was as bad for critical thinking and progress as the New York Inquirer. Welles was revolutionary and self-destructive, and he would be adopted by the many cultural anxieties that perceived Hollywood as a rotten place and a delusion, as well as the factory that had given us Sunrise, Bringing up Baby and The Shop Around the Corner.

I seem to recall in a final interview (and all his interviews had the weight of the last word) that Welles offered a murmured remark how Citizen Kane had not yet been surpassed. I agreed with him then, and now. But the ‘best’ candidate is not always the one to select. I have a hunch that while Barack Obama was the inspiring choice in 2008, as well as the promise of change, Hillary Clinton might have been the shrewd pick and the working president more likely to be re-elected in 2012. As I say, it’s a guess. I do not propose or foresee any diminution in the study of Orson Welles, or the obsession with him. He was right in thinking he was important; and if sometimes he seemed self-important, well, that was a pioneering trend too.

You may say that resolving not to vote for Kane in 2012 would be an entirely artificial gesture. You’re right. But the poll and what it signifies are also made of mist, whereas the reality of film history is factual and mundane. Across the street from where I live, a cinema – the Clay (a Wellesian name) is closing in a few days’ time. It was once the jewel of arthouse cinemas in San Francisco. It was never a great screen, but how many people now notice such requirements, or prefer them to their home-cinema set-up? Home is grand and nice, but the movies were once a place for crowds, palaces and a sensation.

The first time I saw Citizen Kane (in 1955, I think at the Classic, Tooting), I hurried to the earliest screening, because of what I’d heard and read about the film (and because of Orson’s wicked charm in The Third Man). I anticipated a large crowd, but I was the only person there. That was a heady way to see what I remember as a fresh print – fresh eyes, anyway. And for a time – for decades, even – I believed the picture was the lesson and influence of that afternoon. But as I look back on it, I’m not sure the real lesson wasn’t the emptiness of the cinema and the Xanadu-like splendour it allowed me.

So get ready for the vote next year. Survey the field. Go back to some of the old films I’ve mentioned. Take a look at Gary Cooper. Don’t miss Citizen Kane, and pray for a restored Ambersons. Dismiss the poll as the self-promoting device of a nervous institute, if you will. But think of what it conveys. And don’t forget Juke Girl.

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