Citizen Kane – Orson Welles

Sight and Sound magazine consistently voted Citizen Kane the greatest film ever made from 1952 – 2002, and arguably only dropped that streak to second this year due to the media hype surrounding the BFI’s celebration of Alfred Hitchcock’s work on London Southbank putting Vertigo into the top spot. Orson Welles was given complete artistic freedom by RKO; this consequently enabling him to do things that had never been done before in cinema. For example – the use of deep-focus photography, using abstract camera angles, the non-chronological narrative structure and overlapping the dialogue. It was this innovation in cinematic style and narrative form that has ensured that Citizen Kane is still so highly regarded today.

Orson Welles’ original use of style is optimised through his deep-focus cinematography. This cutting edge direction allowed the director to hold our attention in unusual ways, through using stylistic alternatives from a plain cut. For example, within the scene that Charles Foster Kane’s mother is signing across her son to Mr Thatcher, we see them at the table discussing the contract, the father and his apparent unease to the left of the frame, with Charles in the distance playing outside framed by the window. As shown in screenshot 1. Welles’s commitment to an external perspective on the action allows a hugely complex scene to show all the different aspects by simply eliminating the cut.

1. citizen_kane_2

The majority of Directors, not just in 1942 but even today would have used a – shot reverse shot approach. However Welles is pushing the boundaries of cinema and creating a shot that is showing tensions between the father and mother, Mr Kane’s objections contrasting to the mothers severity, whilst throughout the whole time the boy who is at the centre of the discussion is beginning kept central to the shot, through the use of Welles’s deep-focus cinematography. The ingenious use of camera angles and camera positioning within the film is recognised at the end with Orson Welles, the director and producer sharing the first credit with Greg Toland the cinematographer for the picture. This just shows how fundamental the cinematography is to the make-up of the entire film. It wasn’t just through the use of deep-focus that this is apparent but also through the innovative use of deep-space mise-en-scene to show the character development of Charles Foster Kane. Within the shots depicted within screenshots 2, 3 and 4 we can see Kane, yet again at the centre of the frame and focus, as he was when he was a boy however this time he is inside, still in the distance looking on. Clearly paralleling the shot from his childhood, we now see an older Kane, and the narrative has developed from a young innocent child, to an idealistic young man, to a friendless recluse. Although throughout the entirety of this period, we feel like we never really know the main protagonist because he is always kept at an arm’s length from us.

2. kane1                   3. citize9

 4. Citizen Kane - 2

Camera angling is also used to change our perception of Kane so we never know whether to fear him, respect him, or admire him. As shown in Screenshot 5.

5. charles-foster-kane-after-losing-election

The domineering nature of this omniscient character is optimised with Welles’ choice of low-angled camera shots, literately cutting a hole in the floor of the set, in order to position the camera in the right place to achieve the correct feel and to give the audience the complete effect of being towered over by this fascinating yet inaccessible character. Welles’ unique ability to create new and interesting point of views with the camera, is paralleled within the narrative itself. The entire film is told from other people points of view, with our perceptions of Kane always being seen through someone else’s eyes. Whether it be his business ventures (SS. 2.), his relationship issues (SS. 3.), or his political ambitions (SS. 4.) we always see Kane as though he is distant figure that we can never fully understand. This character ambiguity is created through the cinematic style of Welles and Toland and I believe that it is this mystery that is what makes people still regard the film so highly today. As no matter how many times the picture is reviewed we can never fully get to grips with Charles Foster Kane. This is reinforced by Andre Bazin who states within ‘The Evolution of the Language of Cinema’, – ‘Depth of focus reintroduces ambiguity into the structure of the image…In Citizen Kane, the uncertainty in which we find ourselves as to the spiritual key of the film is built into the very design of the image.Thus seventy years later the film still carries the same wonder and amazement that hit audiences in 1942 and so its greatness is consistent and timeless.

The films narrative form is another factor which explains why the picture is still so highly regarded today. It also links with this sense of ambiguity that is created with the cinematic style. I touched on the fact that the entire film is told from other peoples points of view in the previous paragraph, however what draws them all together is the search by the news reporter Jerry Thompson for the meaning of – “rosebud” Kane’s final words. This was Orson Welles’ and co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz’s idea for giving motivation to the narrative’s flashbacks and it is the quest for the meaning, rather than the conclusion that creates the films importance. At the time of the film’s release this approach was completely innovative and was considered ground-breaking cinema, as Francois Truffaut states – “Everything that matters in cinema since 1940 has been influenced by Citizen Kane”. This is corroborated with the way that modern filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino in the 1994 film – Pulp Fiction are still harking back to Welles’s original disjointed narrative that was such a game changer in how film narratives develop. The fact that Directors today are still looking back to this defining film for inspiration shows just how much this picture taught and is still teaching the world, and shows just how highly regarded the film is today. Danny Peary reaffirms this point with his views on Citizen Kane – “Citizen Kane taught other directors how to tell a story through film and also taught moviegoers how to watch a film…. Welles’ film must be seen repeatedly viewed by those who want to learn the language of film, and to learn its potential as a storytelling medium and as an outlet for personal and artistic expression.

In 1942 Orson Welles presented the world with a new wave of cinema, within a story about a man who was so complex that there was an aspect of the character that would be of interest to everyone and anyone, however at the same time, keeping him at arm’s length. Thus never fully developing the main protagonist and so leaving us at the end of every viewing with a different sense of ambiguity towards Charles Foster Kane. Entwined within this fascinating narrative, the plot touches on many different themes and emotions from a gothic horror style opening sequence, to the dramatic confrontations of a gritty political thriller – All culminating to the decline of Kane and his fall from grace. This is almost parodying the Shakespearian rules of tragedy; the death of the tragic hero. Welles is pushing new boundaries of cinematic style, exploring new presentations of narrative form, leaving directors and audience members with equal amounts to learn about the magic of cinema. However despite covering nearly 75 years of a man’s life, from childhood to death, the true core of Kane is never uncovered, one will never discover the true origin of rosebud, and it is the mystery and wonder of the tale, which keeps audiences, year in, year out, coming back for more. The final line that sight and sound magazine use to conclude their review on Citizen Kane summarises this didactic film perfectly, they state that any film to go after the true dark heart of the American dream, from The Godfather (1972) to There will be blood (2007), owes Citizen Kane a debt.


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