Warning: Wikipedia contains spoilers
Produced in 1941, the film deals with the inability of Charles Foster Kane (played by Mr. Welles) to love. Instead Kane has only "Love on my own terms." As a result, Kane eventually alienates every loved one around him and dies a lonely recluse in a opulent, but crumbling estate.
Kane dies in the opening scene of the film; this is followed by a newsreel pastiche documenting Kane's public life; the remainder of the movie is told through flashbacks being related to a reporter trying to improve the newsreel; the newsreel is regarded as functional but not especially profound, and the reporter is searching for the meaning behind Mr. Kane's dying word, "rosebud."
What is revealed has been described by Jorge Luis Borges, in a 1941 review, as a "metaphysical detective story. [Its] subject (both psychological and allegorical) is the investigation of a man's inner self, through the works he has wrought, the words he has spoken, the many lives he has ruined. . . . Overwhelmingly, endlessly, Orson Welles shows fragments of the life of the man, Charles Foster Kane, and invites us to combine them and reconstruct him. Forms of multiplicity and incongruity abound in the film: the first scenes record the treasures amassed by Kane; in one of the last, a poor woman, luxuriant and suffering, plays with an enormous jigsaw puzzle on the floor of a palace that is also a museum. At the end we realize that the fragments are not governed by a secret unity: the detested Charles Foster Kane is a simulacrum, a chaos of appearances."
The film combines revolutionary cinematography (by Gregg Toland) with an Oscar-winning screenplay (by Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz), and a lineup of first time silverscreen actors, associates of Mr. Welles' from his stint at the Mercury Theater, such as Joseph Cotten and Agnes Moorehead.
Film scholars and historians view Citizen Kane as Welles' attempt to create a new style of filmmaking by studying the various forms of movie making, and combining them all into one. Examination of the techniques used by Welles and his crew reveals elements of expressionism in the use of light and shadow, noting the influence of German and Russian filmmakers. The film is even seen as one of the predecessors of method acting, as seen during the scene where Kane vents his anger at his political opponent, Jim Gettys, at the top of a flight of stairs. (Welles actually tripped and broke his ankle during the filming of that scene, but the scene continued and made it into the final print of the film.)
Another unorthodox method used in the film was the way low-angle cameras were used to display a point of view facing upwards, thus allowing ceilings to be shown in the background of several scenes. Since movies were primarily filmed on sound stages and not on location during the era of the Hollywood studio system, it was impossible to film at an angle that showed ceilings because there were no ceilings on the stages. Welles' crew used black cloth draped above the set to produce the illusion of a regular room with a ceiling, while the boom mikes were hidden above the cloth.
During the filming, Welles prevented studio executives of RKO from visiting the set. He understood their desire to control projects and he knew they were expecting him to do an exciting film that would correspond to his The War of the Worlds radio broadcast. Welles' RKO contract had given him complete control over the production of the film when he signed on with the studio, something that he never again was allowed to exercise when making motion pictures.
Much of Kane's life is seen by critics as a fictional parody of (or attack on) media baron William Randolph Hearst. The most notable reference to Hearst comes early in the film, as Kane (played by Welles) provides a quote that mirror's Hearst's own comment on the Spanish American War: "You provide the pictures, I'll provide the war." (An often-debated Hollywood legend says that the reference to "Rosebud" was also an attack on Hearst: allegedly, it was a nickname used by Hearst to refer to the private anatomy of his mistress, Marion Davies!) On hearing about the film, Hearst offered RKO Pictures $800,000 to destroy all prints of the film and burn the negative. When RKO refused, Hearst was so angry that he banned every newspaper and station in his media conglomerate from reviewing or even mentioning the movie. This struggle was, itself, turned into a movie, RKO 281. Although these efforts damaged the film's success, they ultimately failed considering that nowadays, almost every reference of Hearst's life and career made today typically includes a reference to the film's parallel to it.
Although it was little seen at the time of its initial release (largely due to Hearst's blacklisting of the film), and virtually forgotten until its revival in the 1950s, its critical fortunes have skyrocketed since. Many critics consider the film the best ever made; the American Film Institute ranked it #1 on its 100 Greatest Movies list; it has been selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry; and the film is consistently in the top 5 on the Internet Movie Database. Beginning in 1962, and every ten years since, it has been voted the best film ever made by the Sight & Sound critics' poll.
In 2003, Orson Welles' daughter Beatrice sued Turner Entertaiment and RKO Pictures, claiming that the Welles estate is the legal owner of the film. Her attorney said that Orson Welles had left RKO with an exit deal terminating his contracts with the studio, meaning that Welles still had an interest in the film and his previous contract giving the studio the ownership of the film was null and void. Beatrice Welles also claimed that, if the courts did not uphold her claim of ownership, RKO nevertheless owes the estate 20% of the profits, from a previous contract which has not been lived up to.