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CLASSIC SPOTLIGHT: CITIZEN KANE

Posted by Aaron West, 3/8/04

Citizen Kane
Directed by Orson Welles
Starring Orson Welles, Dorothy Comingore, Joseph Cotten
Running Time: 119 minutes

Citizen Kane is widely considered to be one of the greatest films of all time. It is praised for many reasons, such as the groundbreaking camera techniques, the narrative devices, and the inspiration it had on other films. In this essay I will discuss a few different directorial styles used in the film, and will explain why they were effective and how they contributed to the film's legendary status. Techniques such as single source lighting, creative use of shadows and light, door and window framing, and deep focus photography made the film more interesting visually, but also contributed to the narrative and many of the themes.

The most defining stylistic element of Citizen Kane is the lighting. Welles meant for it to be a dark picture, unlike anything that had been filmed up to that time, so he used single source lighting. The object was to make the lighting seem less artificial, but also to use simple lighting devices in order to give the scene a certain ambience, and in some instances to further develop the characters with the use of shadows.

One example of single source lighting is when Thompson is reading Mr. Thatcher's memoirs. The single light source says a great deal about the scene as well as the characters. First of all, it creates a sense of isolation, which seems to accentuate Thompson's lonely quest. The way it lights the room also says a great deal about Thatcher's personality, especially by how it lights the large portrait of him, hanging on the wall. Most importantly, the single light source highlights Thompson's seclusion as he searches for clues.

Perhaps the most memorable use of a single light source is the first scene following the News of the March, where the reporters debate how they will add to the story. There is a single, bright light source that comes from the window, but is so miniscule that it covers most of the room in shadow. As a result, the characters are indistinct, at best a silhouette. This scene is effective because it sets the stage for the rest of the film by establishing Welles' and Toland's unconventional style. It also says a great deal about the reporters themselves. They are not primary characters. Even Thompson -- who through his pursuit of Rosebud is the catalyst for the rest film -- is not important enough to light adequately. This is restated by his not being photographed directly throughout the rest of the film, until the very end when he essentially gives up on his pursuit of Rosebud. The way this scene is lit also says something about the filmmaker's view on members of the media. In many ways, the film is a condemnation of the media, with Hearst being its primary target. By casting all of the reporters in shadow, Welles diminishes their overall importance, not just as characters, but also as an institution.

The reporter scene also happens to be the strongest use of shadows and light, which is a more prevalent technique, used throughout the film that says more about character intentions and motivations. Shadow is used to express the ethical value of a character; they cast doubt on a character's integrity, or by the absence of shadow, display a character's innocence or good intentions. As opposed to the lighting of a scene, the use of shadow is more effective on a character level rather than on a thematic level.

One of the most poignant uses of shadow is during the scene where Kane reads the Inquirer's "declaration of principles". He is cast in shadow only as he reads the declaration aloud, and once he has finished reading he is cast back into light. This scene says two things about Kane: regardless of whether his idealism is genuine, Kane does not have a strong enough character to persist with such principles. The shadow also foreshadows how Kane and the Inquirer will become the antithesis to this declaration.

Shadows are used to great effect during the confrontation between Boss Gettys at Susan's apartment. There is one scene in particular where Susan Alexander is standing between Gettys and Kane. In this scene both men are cast completely in shadow, whereas she is cast completely in light. This signifies that both men are shady, maybe even evil, with suspect motives. Susan, on the other hand, is the innocent party in this quarrel. She is the victim of both men's ambition, which has forced her between them.

Shadows are used later in the film in order to display Kane's superiority over Susan. This takes place when she finally loses control and lashes out at Kane after being lambasted by Leland in the Enquirer. She tells Kane that she wishes to quit, but he demands that she continue singing. He stands above her and momentarily she is covered by his shadow, suggesting his dominance over her. He intimidates her, and she does continue with her career.

Welles also uses doors and windows to frame his characters. Not only does this make many of the shots more interesting to watch, but it also directs the viewer's eye, and places emphasis on the character, or the element most crucial to the scene. A good example of this is when Kane is finishing Leland's editorial. Kane is covered in shadow, typing the article on the left part of the screen, while Leland is looking over his shoulder on the right part of the screen. They are both evenly divided by a framing of Mr. Bernstein in the background. This shot is one of the most spectacular in the film. By framing Mr. Bernstein, the scene is practically divided into three frames.

Another example of door framing is when Kane is playing in the snow while Thatcher is inside negotiating the young boy's future. We see Kane naturally at play outside in the snow, oblivious to the events inside that will dictate how the rest of his life will take place. His joy is a perfect contrast to the tedious discussions inside, exactly the sort of discussions that Kane will endure the rest of his life.

There are two other noteworthy instances of door framing towards the end of the film, both of which contribute to the film's theme. First, Susan Alexander walks through several doors when she finally departs Kane. She walks resolutely through each door, without looking back, as Kane watches from behind. This shot emphasizes the significance of her leaving, as well as the emotional impact it has on him as he watches her go. Second, there is the shot of Kane as an old man, not long after Susan has left him. An ornate doorway frames him and is reflected in a mirror. The mirror causes the image to repeat infinitely. Deep focus is used to enhance the repetition, which adds to Kane's loneliness as an old man and to his isolation.

Deep focus was a cinematography technique used often in Citizen Kane that showed every element of a particular shot in perfect detail. Deep focus allowed the filmmakers to place more details in a given scene and it also served as a vehicle to allow them to be more experimental with shots. The shot of Kane leaving and being reflected in the mirror is a perfect example of how deep focus could impact a shot.

Another example of this is the shot after Susan Alexander has already attempted suicide. When the shot begins, we immediately know the situation. We see the empty bottle of medicine, the glass, and the spoon, with Susan in bed covered in shadow. We then see Kane break down the door, exasperated, and we see that he recognizes the situation immediately as well. Deep focus is also used during the scene when Kane returns from Europe and is presented a trophy cup. It is a technical marvel that we are able to read the trophy cup, and still have every other element of the shot viewable in perfect detail.

Another example of this is the shot after Susan Alexander has already attempted suicide. When the shot begins, we immediately know the situation. We see the empty bottle of medicine, the glass, and the spoon, with Susan in bed covered in shadow. We then see Kane break down the door, exasperated, and we see that he recognizes the situation immediately as well. Deep focus is also used during the scene when Kane returns from Europe and is presented a trophy cup. It is a technical marvel that we are able to read the trophy cup, and still have every other element of the shot viewable in perfect detail.

Citizen Kane is still respected and admired because of the groundbreaking cinematic techniques that are just as inspirational to filmmakers today as they were fifty years ago. Single source lighting and creative use of shadows and light inspired an entire genre of films called noir. Framing with doors, windows, or other set elements is a common directorial style today. Deep focus is seldom used in film these days, because it was primarily a device for black and white film, but Toland's work still has plenty of influence on modern cinematography. The technical and stylistic innovations of Citizen Kane changed films forever.