Yesterday was the 75th anniversary of the premiere of Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, a film considered by many to be one of the best ‐ if not the best ‐ of all time. It’s great for many reasons, one of which is the storytelling structure. The life of Charles Foster Kane (Welles) plays out not necessarily as it happened but as various other characters remember it, with each flashback representing the recall of one person’s POV as they’re interviewed by a reporter. The divide of focalization is perfect for biography, especially when formatted as an investigation.
A number of movies have copied the structure of Citizen Kane in the decades since its release, each employing the method of multiple perspectives to a different genre. The phrase “The Citizen Kane of…” tends to mean “The greatest of…,” but with the following works I prefer to use it in the same manner in which we refer to certain action movies as “Die Hard in a…” None of them feel like a ripoff or parody of the 1941 classic, and one of them is even arguably a better film. I actually wish there were more that followed this style of plotting.
The Citizen Kane of Film Noir: The Killers (1946)
Welles’s movie is sometimes considered a film noir itself, but not by me. It did have a strong influence on the look of the “genre,” however, and in the case of Robert Siodmak’s adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s short story “The Killers,” Kane also clearly inspired its script. Here, in place of the reporter, there’s an insurance investigator (Edmond O’Brien) leading us from one flashback to the next, all based on interviews with people close to a murdered man (Burt Lancaster), who we learn was a former boxer turned gangster.
The Citizen Kane of Musicals: The I Don’t Care Girl (1953)
Unlike Kane, which is loosely modeled on the life of William Randolph Hearst and others, this is a biography of one real person, vaudeville icon Eva Tanguay (portrayed by Mitzi Gaynor). But instead of doing the usual sort of biopic, 20th Century Fox decided to make a movie about the development of a Tanguay biopic produced by George Jessel, who plays himself. This time in the reporter position is a set of screenwriters making inquiries into the stage star’s story, acquiring incorrect facts along the way before getting to the truth.
The Citizen Kane of Foreign Films: Man of Marble (1977)
“Foreign film” is no more a genre than film noir is, but that is this entry’s easiest distinction from the rest on the list. Andrzej Wajda’s masterpiece of Polish cinema is another focused on the making of a movie about a person, this time a bricklayer turned hero who has disappeared from the spotlight. Krystyna Janda plays the film student working on her thesis project who pieces together the biopic by talking to his friends and ex-wife. Like Kane with its newsreel, this film also has some slightly more concrete biographical material than memories, in the form of an old film about the guy.
The Citizen Kane of Documentaries: The Thin Blue Line (1988)
While actually working as a private investigator, Errol Morris began this film, arguably the best documentary of all time, which explores the case of a murdered Dallas police officer. The victim’s life isn’t chronicled, but like the rest of this list it concerns an inquiry regarding a person’s death and features a variety of testimonies from different witnesses ’ perspectives. It even sort of features flashbacks in the form of dramatized “reenactments,” each one of them changed to reflect another POV. Morris himself takes the position of Kane’s reporter, although in a way so do we in the audience.
The Citizen Kane of Historical Conspiracy Thrillers: JFK (1991)
Another about a man’s death more than his life (to the chagrin of many who expected another John F. Kennedy biopic at the time), Oliver Stone’s confusing but compelling historical drama chronicles the inquiry into the Kennedy assassination. Although basically a true story, at least in the foregrounded framing device, the film is filled with “flashbacks” depicting the dubious but possible accounts of a conspiracy to kill the president. Moving us down the rabbit hole is New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner).
The Citizen Kane of Composer Biopics: Immortal Beloved (1994)
Kane is simply the investigation into the meaning of “Rosebud,” the last word spoken by the title character. And this movie depicting some of the life of Ludwig van Beethoven (Gary Oldman) is simply the investigation by his assistant (Jeroen Krabbe) into the identity of his “immortal beloved,” whom he bequeathed his estate. It’s actually a fitting parallel since the (possibly untrue) story goes that Welles used the word “rosebud” because it actually was Hearst’s pet name for a certain part of his immortal beloved, Marion Davies’, anatomy.
The Citizen Kane of War Films: Courage Under Fire (1996)
The dead person in this movie from director Edward Zwick is a US Army captain (Meg Ryan), and the investigation is into whether she deserves a posthumous Medal of Honor. Denzel Washington plays the detective, interviewing her crew (including a young Matt Damon) about what went down during a rescue mission that led to the woman losing her life. The Kane style plotting and focalization isn’t just to account for different points of view and the shortcomings of memory but also to represent lies supporting a cover-up.
The Citizen Kane of Pornos: Citizen Shane (1996)
I did say that none of these feel like parodies, and that is still true of this direct porn parody of Citizen Kane. It’s really no more tied to the story of Kane than any other film on this list, even with its journalist (Anita Rinaldi) inquiring into the life of a recently deceased media magnate (Christopher Clark) to determine the meaning of his final words (“frozen button”). Obviously that’s close, but as you’d expect it’s just a very thin thread used to connect not just flashbacks but hardcore sex scenes. There’s also a sequel, Citizen Shane 2.
The Citizen Kane of Fake Music Biopics: Velvet Goldmine (1998)
Todd Haynes might be the most clearly inspired by Kane with his entry on this list, and not just because he admits to borrowing the structure (“I just thought: he has to be an object of everybody else’s projections, and distortions, and differing points of view”). Similarly sort of a roman a clef, the movie involves a central fictitious figure (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) blatantly modeled after a real famous person ‐ here, David Bowie ‐ whose life is explored by a reporter (Christian Bale) years after the rock icon faked his own death and disappeared.
The Citizen Kane of Animation: Hoodwinked! (2005)
This spin on fairy tale stories (a popular trend in animated films this century) is probably closer to the other classic film involving varied character perspectives on the same story, Rashomon. But like some of the others on this list, I think it qualifies as slightly inspired by both movies. And surprisingly there’s nothing closer to Kane in the animation world (maybe that should be the idea for Zootopia 2?) Here the inquiry comes from a police detective frog (voiced by David Ogden Stiers) attempting to uncover the truth about what went down at Grandma’s house.
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