Citizen Kane (1941)

Is there any more futile activity than reviewing Citizen Kane? I mean, film reviewing often strikes me as a futile activity anyway, but especially when it comes to a film that’s probably had millions of words written about it. By professionals, too, which makes it harder for a rank amateur like your humble scribe here to add anything worthwhile to the discourse. Most of those words lately have probably been about it getting knocked from the top of the Sight and Sound Top Ten by Vertigo earlier this year. No doubt it retains the top position of many other classic film lists, of course, but now it’s just the second greatest film of all time, at least according to that one admittedly significant poll… But it’s spent decades being generally acclaimed as The Greatest Film Ever Made, and so it’s probably never in any serious danger of being completely overthrown or anything like that; just a shame that the box office flop it suffered in 1941 did irreparable damage to Welles’ subsequent career…

Greatest Film Ever Made, though. That’s a hell of a critical baggage. And frankly, when I first saw the film, I didn’t get it. I mean, I’m fairly sure I thought it was good, but I didn’t understand the acclaim. Years later, when I first saw it on DVD in 2003, I realised part of the problem was the hideous print shown on ABC, which was so dark I didn’t realise the opening shot is actually of a NO TRESPASSING sign. Needless to say “Rosebud” was barely discernible too. I know that, conversely, there are complaints from some critics that the DVD is too bright, but really, would those people rather have this shitty and likely ancient 16mm print the ABC still wheels out? Also, part of the problem was, let’s be honest, me. I was 15 years old at the time, and this was shortly before my Great Awakening thanks to Alraune; I didn’t exactly have the, shall we say, critical apparatus to fully appreciate the film. I didn’t have the context.

And I now realise that context is a pretty vital consideration in the appreciation of most art, you can get a lot more out of something if you understand where it fits in with other things around it. This is more true of Citizen Kane (for me at least) than it is with most other films. Once I’d actually seen more films from the period in which it emerged, I realised just how strikingly odd it must’ve seemed in 1941… things like leaving all the credits to the end of the film (and Welles sharing his own end credit with cinematographer Gregg Toland, as was only fair, really), the use of deep focus and extraordinary staging in depth, the flashback structure (not unprecedented but hardly common), the use of sound, the number of ceilings visible in the film (again, not unprecedented but not exactly normal), the frequently strange compositions (lots of over-the-shoulder stuff, unlikely foregrounding of objects), and so forth.

I don’t deal in absolute statements like “so-and-so is the greatest xyz of all time”, as I think they’re indefensible in many ways. I don’t intend to get into the debate about Kane being The Greatest Film Ever Made, though I’m happier to accept a reduced form of the idea, like calling it the best debut feature ever made; I think that statement’s somewhat easier to support. The film is, of course, not universally beloved, and never has been—there is, I know, a school of thought that it’s not even Welles’ best film—and I can understand some of the accusations made against it, although I do think it is a genuinely great film and there are many reasons to admire it. I, however, have a very particular reason for liking it, and I will now explain what that is and why.

The pterodactyls.



Well, apparently it went something like this: Welles needed a bit of footage for back projection purposes for the picnic scene late in the film. I’ve seen various sources named as the source of this footage, but it seems to be generally agreed that it came from King Kong. And, well, the footage had pterodactyls in it. Amazingly, no one seems to have noticed until quite late in the game; Welles himself apparently had no idea until someone at RKO told him and asked him to redo the scene. And, having realised the pterodactyls were in Citizen Kane by glorious mistake, Welles then left them in deliberately.

You don’t see them that easily, to be sure; I never knew about them myself until they were pointed out to me (was it in Ebert’s DVD commentary? I think it was). Likely I’d never have been able to make them out anyway in the old ABC print I mentioned earlier. Even when you do know, they’re not immediately discernible; it’s a brief background appearance. But they’re there. And this anachronistic cameo is one of my chief reasons for loving Citizen Kane. Because, when all was said and done, in spite of all the obvious preparation and planning and all of that, in spite of all the accolades over the last 70-odd years, I look at the film now, as I did tonight for the first time in a long time, and I realise that despite everything The Greatest Film Ever Made was only human after all.

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