So many of the films that critics unanimously pick as the greatest of all time are overrated, confusing, ponderous, overly symbolic art pieces that leave viewers scratching their heads. The collective reaction is, "What in the hell was the director smoking?" Arty camera work and tons of symbolism and metaphors can never take the place of good acting, solid direction and, most importantly, a good script.
Much has been made of Citizen Kane's technical brilliance -- Welles' use of overlapping conversations, Gregg Toland's deep focus photography, set design that incorporates ceilings, etc. However, none of this would really mean anything if the film didn't have a great story and screenplay. Citizen Kane may be a triumph in filmmaking technique, but it is also a deeply engrossing story with characters we can relate to and sympathize with. Welles' Kane is a selfish, unhappy, overly controlling dictator who has everything and yet still manages to make himself more and more unhappy. Most of us know the feeling of not appreciating someone or something good in our lives until he/she/it is gone. We see the promise and idealism in Kane's early life, like him and believe, as Joseph Cotten's Jed Leland does, that Kane is a great man who can do so much good in society. As Kane's life progresses, however, he becomes more and more bitter, alienates everyone who cares about him and dies alone, longing for the simplicity of his early life before he became wealthy. When Kane, as an old man, loses control when his second wife Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore) leaves him, we can't help but feel for him -- even though most or all of his unhappiness is his fault. That the audience feels such empathy for such a flawed character is Citizen Kane's greatest triumph and is the true basis for Kane's reputation as one of the greatest films of all time.