A Video Essay Guide to ‘Citizen Kane’

Many consider Citizen Kane the greatest movie ever made. Here are five video essays to help you learn more about Orson Welles’ masterpiece.
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By  · Published on May 29th, 2018

In my last video essay round-up, I wrote about five essays that deal with Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece, Vertigo, the film that topped the 2012 Sight & Sound poll of the greatest movies of all time. For my next guide, it seems only fitting to examine the film that sits at number two on that poll after topping it for fifty years, Orson Welles’ debut feature, Citizen Kane.

I saw Welles’ 1941 film for the first time last fall. As I walked into the screening, I had no idea what to expect. How can something with such a reputation live up to the hype? Well, it did. I was, simply, blown away. I’m sure I’m not the first person to notice or say this, but it’s one of those films that just sits in the back of your minds for days and days. If you’re like me and looking for help as you navigate the thoughts that permeate the mind post-Kane, here are six video essays you should watch.

Orson Welles: Who Is This Man?

A good question, and the title of a recently published video essay by Luís Azevedo. In this piece, Azevedo explores the “shape-shifting roles of Orson Welles.” Though Citizen Kane was Welles’ debut film (he was the director, producer, co-screenwriter, and lead actor), he had a towering reputation as a stage and radio actor. This is, in part, why RKO took a chance on Welles and gave him the money to make the film, thus beginning one of the great acting careers in the history of Hollywood. This essay takes a look at Welles’ roles from Citizen Kane on.

The Influence of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca

A year before the release of Citizen Kane came Alfred Hitchcock’s under-appreciated masterpiece, Rebecca. How much do I love Rebecca? I place as my fifth favorite film of all-time, the second greatest Hitchcock film (behind Vertigo), and prefer it to Citizen Kane (the choice between the two is kind of like asking someone if they would like a million dollars or a million and one dollars).

Regardless of where you stand in the Rebecca v. Citizen Kane debate, there’s no question that the former film influenced the latter. In fact, at the time that Hitchcock was shooting the film, David O. Selznick, the legendary producer, hired Welles to create a radio adaption of Rebecca, based on Daphne du Maurier’s novel of the same name.

Don’t believe me? Well, check out the below video by film scholar Rob Stone, who places the beginnings and endings of the two films side-by-side:

Still don’t believe me? Then check out this video essay I made (I realize it is the height of vanity to include one’s own video essay in a video essay guide), which extends Stone’s comparison and further explores the relationship between Mandereley and Xanadu, the two mansions that are essential to both films. For more on these essays, check out this article I wrote on this website in February.

The Houses of Kane

The video essay takes many forms; my favorite may be the videographic epigraph, taking a quotation/excerpt/any piece of text and using it alongside the moving image to articulate an argument about the film(s) in question. One essay that does this masterfully is Paul Malcolm’s  “Notes Towards a Project on Citizen Kane.”

Malcolm takes the three houses of Charles Foster Kane (Welles): his childhood home, his snow globe, and Xanadu, and combines them with quotations from Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space. The end result is a beautiful contemplation on space, the home, and Kane himself.

Framing Kane

Further exploring the complexities of Charles Foster Kane is the below video essay by misteramazing. As the title suggests, the essay takes a look at how Welles and cinematographer Gregg Toland expressively use framing to tell the viewer about Kane.

At thirteen minutes long, this essay is an incredibly in-depth look at how Kane went from a rich, newspaperman at the top of the world, to a disgraced politician with everything in the world but happiness.

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The Influence of Citizen Kane

For a quick overview of just how groundbreaking Citizen Kane was, I suggest you check out the below video essay by Jacob T. Swinney for Fandor. This essay does a great job in discussing the Welles aesthetic: expressive lighting, deep space, long takes, et al.

As Swinney says at the end of the essay, if you’ve just watched Citizen Kane and thought, “I’ve seen most of this before,” that’s because you probably have. Using films like Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Shining, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, Swinney shows just how essential Citizen Kane is to the history of cinema.


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Will DiGravio is a Brooklyn-based critic, researcher, and video essayist, who has been a contributor at Film School Rejects since 2018. Follow and/or unfollow him on Twitter @willdigravio.