The classic masterpiece, Citizen Kane (1941), is probably the world’s mostfamous and highly rated film, with its many remarkable scenes, cinematic andnarrative techniques and innovations. The director, star, and producer were allthe same individual – Orson Welles (in his film debut at age 25), whocollaborated with Herman J. Mankiewicz on the script and with Gregg Toland ascinematographer. Within the maze of its own aesthetic, Citizen Kane develops twointeresting themes. The first concerns the debasement of the private personalityof the public figure, and the second deals with the crushing weight ofmaterialism.
Taken together, these two themes comprise the bitter irony of anAmerican success story that ends in futile nostalgia, loneliness, and death. Thefact that the personal theme is developed verbally through the characters whilethe materialistic theme is developed visually, creating a distinctive stylisticcounterpoint. It is against the counterpoint that the themes unfold within thestructure of a mystery story. Its theme is told from several perspectives byseveral different characters and is thought provoking. The tragic story is how amillionaire newspaperman, who idealistically made his reputation as the championof the underprivileged, becomes corrupted by a lust for wealth, power andimmortality.
Kane’s tragedy lies in his inability to experience any real emotionin his human relationships. The apparent intellectual superficiality of CitizenKane can be traced to the shallow quality of Kane himself. Even when Kane isseen as a crusading journalist battling for the lower classes, overtones ofself-idolatry mar his actions. His clever ironies are more those of theexhibitionist than the crusader. His second wife complains that Kane never gaveher anything that was part of him, only material possessions that he might givea dog. His best friend, Jedediah Leland, was a detached observer functioning asa sublimated conscience remarks to the reporter that Kane never gave anythingaway: “he left you a tip”. In each case, Kane’s character is describedin materialistic terms. What Kane wanted – love, emotional loyalty, theunspoiled world of his boyhood, symbolized by “rosebud”, he was unableto provide for those around him, or buy for himself. The intriguing opening isfilled with hypnotic dissolves from one sinister, mysterious image to the next,moving forward closer and closer. The film’s first sight is a “NoTrespassing” sign hanging on a giant gate in the night’s foggy mist,illuminated by the moonlight. The camera pans up the chain-link mesh gate, whichdissolves and changes into images of great iron flowers or oak leaves on theheavy gate. On the crest of the gate is a single, silhouetted, wrought iron”K” initial. The gate surrounds a distant, forbidding-looking castlewith towers. The fairy-tale castle is situated on a man-made mountain, obviouslythe estate of a wealthy man. The same shots are repeated in reverse at the veryend of the film. The initial and concluding clash of realism and expressionismsuggests in a subtle way, the theme of Citizen Kane. The intense materialreality of the fence dissolves into the fantastic unreality of the castle, andin the end, the mystic pretension of the castle dissolves into the mundanesubstance of the fence. Matter has come full circle from its original quality tothe grotesque baroque of its excess. As each flashback unfolds, the visualscenario of Citizen Kane orchestrates the dialogue. A universe of ceilingsdwarfs Kane’s personal stature. He becomes the prisoner of his possessions, theornament of his furnishings, and the fiscal instrument of his collections. Hisbooming voice is muffled by walls, carpets, furniture, hallways, stairs the vastrecesses of useless space. Gregg Toland’s camera set-ups are designed to framecharacters in the oblique angles of light and shadow created by their artificialenvironment. There are no luminous close-ups in which faces are detached fromtheir backgrounds. When characters move across rooms, the floors and ceilingsmove with them. This technique which is highly unusual, tends to dehumanizecharacters by reducing them to fixed ornaments in a shifting architecture. Thechoice of camera position was an important factor in getting across artistic andpsychological effects. To the photograph a person or object from below, distortsthat object. It tends to elongate a person, making him seem more important. Italso intimidates the audience, since it is in the inferior position of lookingup. The scene gives an added power to the person on the screen. Kane is indeedbloated and enlarged by his material possessions, and in comparison, theaudience feels very small. Yet it is precisely his excessiveness, which hasdistorted him and made him grotesque to our sensibilities. Kane is a selfish,greedy man, and his actions have distorted his life and appearance. The movie isa visual masterpiece, a kaleidoscope of daring angles and breathtaking imagesthat had never been attempted before. Toland perfected a deep-focus techniquethat allowed him to photograph backgrounds with as much clarity as foregrounds.
Such as the scene where Kane’s parents discuss his future while, as seen throughthe window, the child plays outside in the snow. There’s also an extremelyeffective low-angle shot late in the film where Kane trashes Susan’s room. Soundmontage is used extensively with the flashback scenes to denote the interval oftime within related scenes. A character will begin a sentence and complete itweeks, months, or years later in a different location. On occasion, onecharacter will begin the sentence and another will complete it in the samemanner. This sound thread results in a constriction of time and an eliminationof transitional periods of rest and calm. Aside from the aesthetic dividends ofpacing and high lighting, Citizen Kane’s sound montage reinforces the unnaturaltension of the central character’s driving, joyless ambition. One brilliant useof sound montage, is when Kane and his wife are arguing in a tent surrounded byhundreds of Kane’s guests. A shrill scream punctuates the argument with apersistent, sensual rhythm. It is clear that some sexual outrage is beingcommitted. When the parakeet screams at the appearance of Kane, the soundlinkage in tone but not in time, further dehumanizes Kane’s environment. In thebaroque world that he had created, Kane is isolated from even the most dubiousform of humanity. In all respects, the techniques used in Citizen Kane are areflection and projection of the inhuman quality of its protagonist. In the waythe techniques are used to distort and magnify the characters in the film, weunderstand what the film is trying to get across. Citizen Kane represents anintense vision of American life, a life in which materialistic elements aredistorted and magnified at the expense of human potentialities. The impliedabsence of free will in the development of Kane’s character is thematicallyconstant with the moral climate of his environment. As the techniques used havenot been limited in form, so too, Kane’s magnitude unchecked by limitingprinciples or rooted traditions, become the cause of spiritual.
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