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Citizen Kane (1941)

Warner Bros.

Cast: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton, Agnes Moorehead.

Rating: G

Run time: 119 minutes

Genre: Drama

Verdict: Brilliant (see rating system)

Hey kids, there's a reason this 66-year-old black and white movie routinely tops the American Film Institute's list of the best 100 American movies ever made - it makes virtually everything Hollywood churns out today look like the garbage it is.

Kane set a standard that's never been surpassed, and I mean never.

For a start, director (and co-writer and lead actor) Orson Welles devised groundbreaking camera angles and shadow effects that lesser filmmakers have been copying ever since. The story also jumps from past to present in "non linear" fashion, instead of following the traditional "one-damn-thing-after-another" school of storytelling. Read any filmmaking manual and you'll find this film referenced as a "how to" technical goldmine.

Second, the Oscar-winning script is magnificent, a witty, literate and often savage portrayal of the rise and fall of a great, but flawed man. Controversial in 1941, it still has bite today.

Third, the players don't look like they're acting at all - they're living and breathing their roles, none more so than Welles who ages from a passionate young man with the world at his feet to a disillusioned, lonely recluse. It's not just the amazing makeup; Welles knows how to shuffle and react like an old man.

Throw in great sets, tight editing from the young Robert Wise (director of The Sound of Music 25 years later) plus a moody score from famed composer Bernard Herrmann (Vertigo, Psycho, North by Northwest) and you'll see the film has everything.

One more thing, the 60th anniversary version of the film, which was completely remastered from the best surviving copies, is simply magnificent. Even in a smoky, crowded room it's possible to clearly identify co-star Joseph Cotton standing in as an extra. The picture gleams like no other of this era and the sound is admirably clear.

The story is well known: The 24-year-old Welles, who scared America with a War of the World's radio play that was so real it started a panic, subsequently won an incredible contract with RKO to basically do what he wanted. Citizen Kane was the result.

The movie begins with the dying word of Charles Foster Kane (Welles) "Rosebud" - and the efforts of a reporter to discover its meaning. Born to poor parents who give him up to be raised by a banker, Kane inherits a fortune as a spoiled, arrogant young man. He buys a failing newspaper, The New York Inquirer, and builds a publishing empire based on sensational journalism After marrying well, Kane dreams of a political career, but a reckless affair with a young singer puts everything in jeopardy.

While it's been argued Kane was a composite of many influential figures, most of the film's elements point firmly to William Randolph Hearst as its inspiration. Like Kane, Hearst was a practitioner of "yellow" journalism, had political aspirations and a mistress in the entertainment business (actress Marion Davies versus Kane's singer Susan Alexander. While Kane built a palatial Florida mansion called Xanadu, Hearst designed San Simeon, a fantastic California castle. Both were stuffed with expensive collectibles.

Hearst's strenuous efforts to prevent the release of Kane are documented in a fascinating documentary in the 60th anniversary DVD release, The Battle Over Citizen Kane.

Citizen Kane turned out to be oddly prophetic of Welles's own life. Like Kane, he achieved success early then faded, living a life filled with disappointment and setbacks. Citizen Kane remains his towering achievement - the best American film ever.

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