Citizen Kane has been voted the greatest American film to be ever made in poll after poll. And this assessment comes from critics, directors and fans alike. There are several reasons why this achievement is possible. When it was released in 1941, the film revolutionized and revitalized the art of filmmaking in Hollywood, which was languishing at the time in its own aura of complacency. The precocious genius of Orson Welles is stamped in all aspects of filmmaking – the direction, screenplay, storyline, camerawork, editing, casting, and even in the political messages contained therein. It is an anomaly though, that, though the film was nominated for 9 Oscar categories, it only won in one. (Jackson & Merlock, 2006) The only plausible rationale for this discrepancy between its legendary status and lack of formal recognition by the Academy is that the film was way ahead of its time. The film pioneered and engendered so many facets of the filmmaking process that it took several years for members of the Academy to warm up to its accomplishments. This essay will focus on the cinematography of the film and highlight how it contributes to and enhances the overall cinematic excellence.
The opening sequence of the film shows the funeral of the iconic American media baron Charles Foster Kane in his isolated residence in the monumental Xanadu. What follows is a10 minute obituary in the form of a newsreel that encompasses all the key moments in the life of the great man. Beginning with his childhood in the rural American wilderness, the newsreel traces how much wealth and power Kane was able to acquire during his peak. This newsreel sequence is one of the most original and brilliant in the history of cinema. The serious yet authoritative voice of the newsreel narrator ebb and flow in-tune with the events of Charles Kane’s life. The intonation, irony and subtle humour of this voiceover is executed to perfection. Matching this aural perfection is the visuals, which are some of the best montages ever assembled. The pace of the montage arrangement is brisk and the shots are short and crisp. The sequencing of these shots adheres to a musical rhythm, which is again in tune with the rhythmic oration in the voiceover. What is striking about this montage is its visual display of power – either political or economic. The shots of elephants and horses airlifted to the private zoo in Xanadu are forever etched in the mind. It is difficult to lose the symbolism of power in air-lifting one of the biggest mammals in the planet. Likewise, the bird’s eye view of the sprawling Xanadu is a visual illustration of Kane’s wealth. When the voiceover narrates how politically influential Kane was, his image is embedded into a standard German propaganda shot of Hitler waving to a crowd. This is one of the earlier implementation of morphing and overlapping two discrete visuals into one shot. In the context of the film, not only was it humorous but also serves to illustrate the kind of political influence that Charles Kane wielded in his pomp. One of the most referenced scenes in the movie, illustrating Welles’ and cinematographer Gregg Toland’s use of deep-focus photography is the one about the childhood of young Charles Foster Kane. So much has been its impact that,
“After Citizen Kane Deep focus photography became widespread, especially in the so-called film noir films of the following decade. Welles’ audaciously effective idea of combining miniatures with full scale settings in sweeping camera moves harkens back to 1930’s The Bat Whispers, photographed by Ray June, ASC for Roland West. The Kane visuals also have much in common with those of Mad Love (1935). It is evident that Toland originated some of the ideas that Welles utilized so perfectly, and that Walker and Dunn also influenced Welles. The collaboration of unit art director Perry Ferguson was even stronger than is usual between director, cinematographer and designer. Ferguson worked closely throughout with Welles in making hundreds of idea sketches to fit the evolving concepts of the film.” (Turner, 1991)
Perspective is another device through which Welles conveys power equations in the film. One masterly use of perspective is Kane’s campaign for governor of New York. The hall in which he gives his public address is so grand in scale that people seated on stage look miniscule. The audience look even smaller and are shown in mere abstraction. There is a huge larger-than-life photograph of Kane placed in the background, implying the grandeur of his political ambition. This juxtaposition of the vastness of the auditorium and the miniature of the audience reinforces the high stakes of the political campaign. Perspective is likewise used in another scene where Mr. Thompson, the reporter looking for the story behind the enigmatic last words ‘rosebud’, interview Kane’s close associate Mr. Bernstein. Mr. Bernstein is by then the Chairman of the business empire left behind by Kane and jokingly tells the reporter that he’s got all the time in the world for this interview. The mise-en-scene for this scene is elaborate and precise. The chair in which Bernstein sits is too big for his size. But this is no error of oversight. It symbolizes a throne just as high shining black-hats represent the capitalist millionaire. The way the shot is framed, we see a high open window through which the towering skyscrapers of New York City are visible, further accentuating the position of power in which Mr. Bernstein is located. Citizen Kane and some other films by Welles have been noted for their dealing of visual space. In an illuminating essay, film critic Hector Currie has pointed “to a tension or duality in the film between containment and release”. (Jaffe, 1979) The film encompasses a wide assortment of places and journeys, but it distinctly returns to “spatial dilemmas and movements too fundamental for the hero of the film or the viewer to ignore.” (Jaffe, 1979) This duality of containment and release in Citizen Kane
“persists in the succession of shots we encounter once we are within the mansion. The presiding significance of the window mediating that duality also continues. Inside we are confronted not only by the bed we began to discern from outside the window but also by the vague shape of a figure prone in the bed. In three shots we will see that the figure is Kane dying. The access we have gained is to a rather special room, the chamber of his death. Furthermore, in the dissolve from the exterior shot of the window to the interior shot, the ledge of the window has come to coincide with the lower horizontal line of the bed. The window has conducted us, then, directly to Kane’s deathbed. Yet more important is that the coincidence of window ledge and bed implies that Kane is dying on the threshold between open and closed space.” (Jaffe, 1979)
In their palatial abode in Xanadu, the slowly declining relationship of Charles Kane and his ever estranging wife Susan Alexander is shown with great visual effect. The use of space is exploited very well by cinematographer Gregg Toland. The palatial mansion in which they live a secluded life separates the couple more than offering them privacy. Even the words they speak give out echoes due to the acoustics of the hall, thereby creating an artificiality and lack of intimacy in their communication. There is one poignant scene in this sequence, where Susan will be solving a jigsaw puzzle by the fireside. The size of the fireside is unusually big and it creates the illusion of an unassuming victim sitting beside a Chinese fire dragon which is about to swallow the former. It is scenes like these will underscore the visual brilliance of Citizen Kane. Its visual symbolisms, perspectives, lighting and framing are so brilliant that even watching the film in mute is a pleasurable experience. Indeed watching it thus opens up a new dimension in the appreciation of the film. The interplay of the visual and aural mediums into producing a synchronous whole is even comparable to that of an opera. For example,