The 1941 film Citizen Kane is considered a classic masterpiece and is the most famous and highly rated film due to its cinematic and narrative techniques (Frost). Citizen Kane is thought of as an attempt by Orson Welles to create a new style of filmmaking by studying various aspects of film and combining them together (Wikipedia). “Citizen Kane redefined the look of modern American cinema and changed forever the way in which American audiences and film historians talk about the movies” (Lewis, 156). Several aspects that contributed to the films’ innovations and dramatic mise-en-scène include the cinematography, editing, lighting, non-linear story structure, special effects, makeup, sound, and music.
Orson Welles worked with cinematographer Gregg Toland on Citizen Kane. Toland had worked on John Ford’s Stagecoach which Welles watched forty times in preparation for filming. Welles even ended up sharing his title card with Toland in the opening credits of the film (Frost). Clearly, Welles felt that Toland had an equal share in the credit for the mise-en-scène and technical triumphs of Citizen Kane and regarded him as a brilliant cinematographer.
Toland’s innovative method of deep focus photography, in which everything seen in the frame is in sharp focus, is illustrated in nearly every scene in Citizen Kane (Wikipedia). The deep focus cinematography achieved a theatrical effect and gave the impression of real living spaces (Lewis, 159). The deep focus is more like actual human vision and emphasizes the realistic mise-en-scène (Frost). Together these effects of deep focus help to draw the viewer into the story and make it more believable.
Another unique camera technique was the use of low angle shots which revealed ceilings (Dirks). This was very unorthodox since movies were usually shot on sound stages. It is believed that a muslin cloth was draped above the set in some scenes to give the impression of a real room (Wikipedia). This technique helped to emphasize the unique mise-en-scène and drama of the story because many of the characters, especially Kane himself, appear to be larger than life when they fill up so much of the frame. Psychologically they seem very important and powerful since the audience is looking up at them.
Very elaborate camera moves were employed by Welles in his film, which took the viewer through different locations. The sweeping camera movements were consistent with the film’s two goals; mimicking a theatrical look and creating a realistic visual experience (Lewis, 160). Citizen Kane’s uninterrupted shots were achieved by lengthy takes. Welles planned it this way in order to stay away from cutting during chief dramatic scenes (Frost). At the time of filming, Welles was only twenty five years old and he claimed that his choices weren’t governed by the practical or seemingly possible options since he had such little knowledge of cutting and lighting (Lewis, 160). This suggests that the brilliance of the film and its distinctive mise-en-scène was partially a happy accident. Welles amateur status helped him be free in his creative choices and apply unorthodox filmmaking methods to achieve his goals.
Transitionary dissolves or curtain wipes were frequently used in the film (Dirks). Lingering lap dissolves were used for most of the narrative transitions, while straight cuts were saved by Welles for shock effect (Frost). Citizen Kane employs a sparse use of revealing facial close-ups (Dirks). Even the choices made in the editing process were innovative and assisted the dramatic effect and mise-en-scène of the finished product of the film.
The unconventional lighting styles used in the film include Chiaroscuro, backlighting and high-contrast lighting, which are alike the darkness and low-key lighting used in future Film Noirs (Dirks). These expressive lighting styles that Welles used are evocative of the German Expressionism style, particularly the inventive use of shadows. In the scene in which the newspaper journalists finish watching a newsreel about Kane’s life and speculate as to the meaning of “Rosebud,” an extreme low-key lighting is used. This lighting technique emphasizes the sameness of all of the reporters as the viewer is never able to see their individual faces clearly (Frost). The unusual lighting style in Citizen Kane emphasizes the film’s dark mise-en-scène, and also adds interest to the dynamic images onscreen.
Welles’ utilization of non-linear storytelling uses flashbacks and flash forwards in time as the movie unfolds (Dirks). The technique of telling the story using various points of view from multiple narrators was, at the time, unheard of in Hollywood. During Citizen Kane each narrator, many of whom were Kane’s aged friends, recounts a different part of Kane’s life (Wikipedia). This method of story telling keeps the audience wondering about Kane’s true character and the mystery behind “Rosebud”. Since Kane himself is not the one telling the story there are pieces of his life missing which make the factuality of the other character’s recounts of Kane’s life easy to question. In a sense, the viewer becomes part of the actual story of the film as an investigator of Kane’s life and identity.
Flashbacks were used in the film since Welles wanted the narrative to flow poetically from image to image in order to feel like an actual human memory (Frost). This technique again emphasizes the realistic feel of the film and involves the viewer in the story. Montage sequences were also used in Citizen Kane to help condense the story as time passes. A perfect example is the breakfast montage in which Kane has several breakfasts with his first wife that occur over the span of sixteen years, but they only take up two minutes of screen time to show (Wikipedia). This condensed method of storytelling keeps the film from dragging and effectively enhances the mise-en-scène and dramatic nature of the ups and downs of Kane’s life.
Since the film was cheaply shot for a budget under $686,000, and only one camera was used, Welles had to pioneer special effects such as using miniatures and existing sets that were converted for Citizen Kane. This gave the impression that it was a much more expensive film (Wikipedia, Frost). It also illustrates Welles cleverness and inventive thinking in regards to story telling and mise-en-scène, which helped and inspired future filmmakers to follow in his footsteps.
Maurice Seiderman was set with the task of aging a cast of characters throughout the film (Dirks). To transform Welles into an old man, Seiderman created a red plastic compound which allowed his wrinkles to move naturally. Kane’s mustache was made from several hair tufts, and Welles transformation into old man Kane took six to seven hours to complete (Wikipedia). This attention to the detail helps the film’s authenticity of the mise-en-scène which draws the viewer in and keeps them from questioning the characters ages. It is truly incredible that Seiderman’s work on Citizen Kane has proved to be on par with makeup techniques used in today’s films.
“Welles brought his experience with sound from radio along to filmmaking, producing a layered and complex soundtrack” (Wikipedia). The sound mix in the film includes live and dubbed music, sound effects, and competing lines of dialogue (Lewis, 161). The sound reproduced for Citizen Kane is alike actual human hearing capabilities (Frost).
Welles pioneered a new aural technique called the “lightning mix” in which the sound provides the continuity for a montage sequence. This sequence shows a rapid succession of rough cuts that are joined together smoothly by related sounds (Wikipedia, Frost). Overlapping dialogue was considered by Welles to be more realistic than the film and theater norm in which characters would not talk over one another (Wikipedia). Welles instinctual decisions worked to his advantage for Citizen Kane by making the film’s mise-en-scène seem as close to reality as possible. This in turn helps the viewer to perceive the film as sensible and effective. The “lightning mix” is a great example of carrying and connecting the storyline through several clips of important imagery. Whereas the overlapping dialogue used creates tension and anxiety that the viewer experiences right along with the characters.
Bernard Herrmann, who would go on to compose for many of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, was chosen to provide the film score for Citizen Kane. Herrmann’s score was as significant as any of the films other pioneering aspects, and established him as an important film composer (Wikipedia). Strange combinations of instruments were used to achieve essential tonal colors. Low pitched instruments produced the anticipation of death in the opening scene of the film (Timm, 144). Herrmann was clearly the right choice for such a dark and dramatic film.
Leitmotifs (recurring musical themes) were not regularly used in Herrmann’s scores, but they were necessary because of the film being told in a series of flashbacks. The Rosebud motive is disguised throughout the film, but offers hints to its identity along the way. Another musical motive, the Power theme, symbolizes Kane’s unquenchable thirst for power and success regardless of the consequences (Timm, 143).
Herrmann scored Citizen Kane reel by reel as it was being shot and cut and numerous scenes were adapted to correspond with the music (Timm, 143). Welles choreographed the last sequence of scenes for the film, in which the identity of Rosebud is revealed as it is being destroyed, while hearing Herrmann's cue playing on the set (Wikipedia).
In order to reveal Kane's protégé Susan Alexander for the amateur she was, Herrmann composed Aria from Salammbô, a quasi-romantic scene for the operatic sequence in the film (Wikipedia). The soprano part was pitched too high and the orchestral accompaniment was heavily orchestrated in order to obscure her voice and portray her as a feeble singer straining her voice to be heard (Timm, 144). Music adds emotionality and drama to mise-en-scène and the action taking place onscreen, and Herrmann’s score is full of intentional, conscious decisions to evoke specific feelings from the viewer. “Shortly before his death in 1985, Welles told director Henry Jaglom that the score was fifty percent responsible for the film's artistic success,” (Wikipedia).
In 1939, Orson Welles was brought to Hollywood for a six picture contract with RKO. Even though he was young, Welles’ talent was recognized and he was given complete control over his film. The experimental innovations of Citizen Kane span across all aspects of filmmaking but are especially relevant to cinematography and sound. Although the film received unanimous critical praise at release, it wasn’t a huge commercial success, yet it now holds AFI’s number one spot on the list of one hundred movies, one hundred years, an honor well deserved (Frost).
“Citizen Kane.” Wikipedia. Web. 29 Nov. 2010.
Dirks, Tim. “Citizen Kane (1941).” AMC filmsite. Web. 29 Nov. 2010.
Frost, Jaquline. “Orson Welles.” Cal State University Fullerton. 3 Nov. 2010. Lecture.
Lewis, Jon. American Film A History. Ed. Peter Simon, Marian Johnson, and Kim Yi. New York: W.W. North & Company, 2008. Print.
Timm, Larry M. The Soul of Cinema. New Jersey: Pearson Custom Publishing, 2009. Print.