Citizen Kane Essay, Research Paper
Analysis of Citizen Kane
Citizen Kane was released in 1941 under the direction of Orson Welles, an American director originally from Kenosha, Wisconsin. Welles was a sensation of both the stage and radio when he was invited to bring his Mercury Theatre group to Hollywood to direct any movie he chose. He was 24 when he signed with RKO to direct Citizen Kane. Unlike directors such as Hitchcock and Chaplin whose reputations rest on a great number of films, critical respect for Welles rests primarily on Citizen Kane. It is widely considered to be the greatest sound film ever made. The film won the American Film Institute top 100 and the Sight and Sound top 10. Welles also directed such films as Macbeth (1948) and A Touch of Evil (1958), which could never reach the acclaim that Kane did.
Citizen Kane is the story of Charles Foster Kane, a wealthy newspaper publisher who gets caught up in the idea that whatever he doesn’t have he can buy. This is seen in the film as he tries to win over the love of the people as he runs for political office, and even when he tries to buy the love of his second wife when he builds her a theatre.
What makes Citizen Kane a great movie is the film’s technical brilliance. Welles uses a strange visual style that is primarily a triumph of the camerawork of Gregg Toland (cinematographer) and the mise-en-sc ne. The mise-en-sc ne is basically the use of
space within a frame. It includes placement of actors and props, the relationship of the camera to the space in front of it, camera movement, lighting, and the size of the screen frame (Kolker CD-ROM). Welles also uses long shots and deep focus shots, moving the actors and the camera from one composition to another within the same shot, instead of cutting from setup to setup (Mast and Kawin 267). An excellent example of the long and deep focus shot can be found in the first few scenes of the movie. In the boarding house scene, Kane is a young child being taken away from his parents. His mother is shown signing over the deed to the house to the wealthy Mr. Thatcher. The entire scene is one shot, about two minutes long, compared to the average nine-second shot typical of today’s movies. Throughout the entire shot, Kane is clearly seen in the background playing in the snow. His playful voice can be heard through the window into the room where his mother is signing him away to Thatcher. The shot ends with his mother closing the window, signaling both an ends to his childhood and life with his parents.
Another trademark of Welles is the use of montage, or editing, to tell a story. One striking sequence “reveals the widening emotional gulf between Kane and his first wife” (Mast and Kawin 266). The sequence begins with the two eating breakfast at the dining table, sitting close and chatting happily. Welles then begins a series of montages, “quick cutting” forward through time, with each cut showing the two moving farther apart physically. The sequence ends with the two sitting at opposite ends of a long table, not talking at all, and she is reading a competing newspaper – the supreme insult to a newspaper publisher. This series of quick cuts lasts only about a minute.
The cinematic structure of Citizen Kane is basically set in the first sequence. The camera starts at the gate of Kane’s mansion, Xanadu, and steadily moves closer inward until it comes to rest on the man himself. The whole film is shot like this, beginning on the outside and moving inward, seeking the man’s core. There are six sequences in the film that convey a vision of Kane. Each one is told by one of his acquaintences, and helps to tell the story of a poor boy turned rich but lonely man. Since the camera is showing Kane’s life from the point-of-view of his friends and enemies, the stories are somewhat distorted by the storytellers’ prejudices. Also, the sequences are not in chronological order, so the story of Kane’s life is revealed slowly, keeping the attention of the viewers.
The film is tied together with the idea of Rosebud, Kane’s last word. A reporter tries to figure out why a wealthy man like Kane would want his last word on earth to be Rosebud, and whether or not the word would give a clue into the man’s life. No person in the film finds out what the word means, but rather the camera gives the viewer the answer in the last sequence of the film. Again, the dream of finding out what Rosebud means keeps the viewer tuned in to the film.
When Citizen Kane was released, it both shocked and confused its audience. Instead of Hollywood’s flat gloss, the film was rather somber. There were no last-minute changes of heart, no romantic reconciliations. Citizen Kane followed its tragic premises to their logical, gloomy end. Today it is regarded as the greatest film of its time. Its series of montages, mise-en-sc ne, and use of deep focus and long shots to expand space make the movie seem very realistic and believable.
Kawin, Bruce F., and Gerald Mast. A Short History of the Movies. 7th ed. Boston:
Allyn and Bacon, 2000.
Kolker, Robert. Film, Form, and Culture. CD-ROM. McGraw-Hill College.