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Of Citizen Kane

Citizen Kane, directed by and starring a 24-year-old Orson Welles, is considered by many critics as the greatest film ever made. It is known for its unique narrative structure as well as its groundbreaking cinematography (by Gregg Toland, in close collaboration with Welles and the expert eye of editor Robert Wise, who later directed) and staging. Welles claims that he prepared for the endeavor by watching John Ford’s film Stagecoach 40 times but Citizen Kane also exhibits the influence of German Expressionism (which highly influenced the film noir), as well as other film movements such as French poetic realism (Cook 408).

Welles, a wonder kid who had made a name for himself with stage and radio productions (most famously the 1938 Mercury Theatre production of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, which many panicked listeners took for an actual Martian invasion of Earth), was offered the “golden key” to Hollywood by RKO, which allowed him full creative control of the picture—a unique and enviable arrangement, especially for a first-time film director. Welles was free to hire non-screen actors (all but one of Kane’s cast had never been in a film before, but instead were stage actors, many in Mercury), to choose his crew (the experienced DP Toland applied for the job and got it) and to have final cut rights.

Welles and Toland used such cinematic elements and techniques as chiarascuro, extreme depths of field and deep focus, unusual camera angles, natural dialogue, montage, non-linear storytelling (particularly through its flashbacks and flashforwards) and long, single-shot takes. They were pioneers of the long, deep shot where all three planes are in focus. This allows for the use of fewer cameras, and calls for the action/visual changes to take place through the movement of the actors, not by means of cuts. As André Bazin states in his 1967 book What is Cinema?, “Thanks to the depth of field, whole scenes are covered in one take, the camera remaining motionless…. Director and cameraman have converted the screen into a dramatic checkerboard, planned down to the last detail.” As Pauline Kael wrote, “The mechanics of movies are rarely as entertaining as they are in Citizen Kane, as cleverly designed to be the kind of fun that keeps one alert and conscious of the enjoyment of the artifices themselves.”

Citizen Kane, the story of the fictional Charles Foster Kane, was ostensibly about the real newspaper magnate and yellow journalism proponent William Randolph Hearst, with many of the narrative elements coming straight from Hearst’s biography with very few alterations (e.g., Hearst’s San Simeon castle in the hills of California became Kane’s Xanadu on the Florida coast, Hearst’s lover actress Marion Davies became Kane’s mistress-then-wife Susan Alexander). Some facts were skewed such as Susan Alexander’s simple-mindedness and drinking problem (particularly pronounced in the film in the scenes after she left Kane) and Kane’s bitter, alone ultimate end, pining for his beloved “Rosebud” (Hearst was actually apparently a fun-loving fellow to the end, and rarely alone). Hearst tried to block the release of the film and failing that, he offered RKO $800,000 (the production cost) to destroy the prints and negative. Ultimately, when it was released, he forbade any mention of it in Hearst newspapers. There remain many controversies about Welles’ portrayal of a real, living figure but Welles was always one to ride the line of truth and fiction and was comfortable pushing audiences (and subjects apparently) to their limits of their comfort. http://www.filmsite.org/citi.htm

The film was not a huge success at the time of its release but was nominated for nine Academy awards. Welles had made many enemies and this may be one reason that the film won only Best Original Screenplay, which Welles shared with Herman J. Mankiewicz. There had been significant controversy about this screenwriting credit: Mankiewicz claimed he was the sole author and had substantial evidence to support his contention but Welles had claimed authorship. After intervention of the Screen Writers Guild, Welles agreed to share the credit. This is especially interesting as Welles did something previously unheard of by sharing his title card (as Director/Producer) with Toland (as Director of Photography).

In the decades since, Citizen Kane has become a classic for both film lovers and aspiring filmmakers. French filmmaker François Truffaut said, “[Kane] has inspired more vocations to cinema throughout the world than any other.” No less a figure than Kael referred to it as being “perhaps the one American talking picture that seems as fresh now as the day it opened. It may seem even fresher. A great deal in the movie that was conventional and almost banal in 1941 is so far in the past as to have been forgotten and become new.”


About ageer370

I'm in my final semester as a grad student of media studies, I'm also 'Mom' to my 15-year-old autistic son. My interests are film history--its analysis and criticism; the art of rhetoric as well as cultural history from about the Edwardian period to the present.



  1. Pingback: Hall of Shame « Reel Librarians - October 7, 2011

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