The classic masterpiece, Citizen Kane (1941), is probably the world’s most famous and highly rated film, with its many remarkable scenes, cinematic and narrative techniques and innovations. The director, star, and producer were all the same individual – Orson Welles (in his film debut at age 25), who collaborated with Herman J. Mankiewicz on the script and with Gregg Toland as cinematographer. Within the maze of its own aesthetic, Citizen Kane develops two interesting themes. The first concerns the debasement of the private personality of the public figure, and the second deals with the crushing weight of materialism. Taken together, these two themes comprise the bitter irony of an American success story that ends in futile nostalgia, loneliness, and death. The fact that the personal theme is developed verbally through the characters while the materialistic theme is developed visually, creating a distinctive stylistic counterpoint. It is against the counterpoint that the themes unfold within the structure of a mystery story.
Its theme is told from several perspectives by several different characters and is thought provoking. The tragic story is how a millionaire newspaperman, who idealistically made his reputation as the champion of the underprivileged, becomes corrupted by a lust for wealth, power and immortality. Kane’s tragedy lies in his inability to experience any real emotion in his human relationships. The apparent intellectual superficiality of Citizen Kane can be traced to the shallow quality of Kane himself. Even when Kane is seen as a crusading journalist battling for the lower classes, overtones of self-idolatry mar his actions. His clever ironies are more those of the exhibitionist than the crusader. His second wife complains that Kane never gave her anything that was part of him, only material possessions that he might give a dog. His best friend, Jedediah Leland, was a detached observer functioning as a sublimated conscience remarks to the reporter that Kane never gave anything away: he left you a tip.
In each case, Kane’s character is described in materialistic terms. What Kane wanted – love, emotional loyalty, the unspoiled world of his boyhood, symbolized by rosebud, he was unable to provide for those around him, or buy for himself.
The intriguing opening is filled with hypnotic dissolves from one sinister, mysterious image to the next, moving forward closer and closer. The film’s first sight is a No Trespassing 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, which dissolves and changes into images of great iron flowers or oak leaves on the heavy gate. On the crest of the gate is a single, silhouetted, wrought iron K initial. The gate surrounds a distant, forbidding-looking castle with towers. The fairy-tale castle is situated on a man-made mountain, obviously the estate of a wealthy man. The same shots are repeated in reverse at the very end of the film. The initial and concluding clash of realism and expressionism suggests in a subtle way, the theme of Citizen Kane. The intense material reality of the fence dissolves into the fantastic unreality of the castle, and in the end, the mystic pretension of the castle dissolves into the mundane substance of the fence. Matter has come full circle from its original quality to the grotesque baroque of its excess.
As each flashback unfolds, the visual scenario of Citizen Kane orchestrates the dialogue. A universe of ceilings dwarfs Kane’s personal stature. He becomes the prisoner of his possessions, the ornament of his furnishings, and the fiscal instrument of his collections. His booming voice is muffled by walls, carpets, furniture, hallways, stairs the vast recesses of useless space.
Gregg Toland’s camera set-ups are designed to frame characters in the oblique angles of light and shadow created by their artificial environment. There are no luminous close-ups in which faces are detached from their backgrounds. When characters move across rooms, the floors and ceilings move with them. This technique which is highly unusual, tends to dehumanize characters by reducing them to fixed ornaments in a shifting architecture.
The choice of camera position was an important factor in getting across artistic and psychological effects. To the photograph a person or object from below, distorts that object. It tends to elongate a person, making him seem more important. It also intimidates the audience, since it is in the inferior position of looking up. The scene gives an added power to the person on the screen. Kane is indeed bloated and enlarged by his material possessions, and in comparison, the audience feels very small. Yet it is precisely his excessiveness, which has distorted 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 is a visual masterpiece, a kaleidoscope of daring angles and breathtaking images that had never been attempted before. Toland perfected a deep-focus technique that 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 through the window, the child plays outside in the snow. There’s also an extremely effective low-angle shot late in the film where Kane trashes Susan’s room.
Sound montage is used extensively with the flashback scenes to denote the interval of time within related scenes. A character will begin a sentence and complete it weeks, months, or years later in a different location. On occasion, one character will begin the sentence and another will complete it in the same manner. This sound thread results in a constriction of time and an elimination of transitional periods of rest and calm. Aside from the aesthetic dividends of pacing and high lighting, Citizen Kane’s sound montage reinforces the unnatural tension of the central character’s driving, joyless ambition.
One brilliant use of sound montage, is when Kane and his wife are arguing in a tent surrounded by hundreds of Kane’s guests. A shrill scream punctuates the argument with a persistent, sensual rhythm. It is clear that some sexual outrage is being committed. When the parakeet screams at the appearance of Kane, the sound linkage in tone but not in time, further dehumanizes Kane’s environment. In the baroque world that he had created, Kane is isolated from even the most dubious form of humanity.
In all respects, the techniques used in Citizen Kane are a reflection and projection of the inhuman quality of its protagonist. In the way the techniques are used to distort and magnify the characters in the film, we understand what the film is trying to get across. Citizen Kane represents an intense vision of American life, a life in which materialistic elements are distorted and magnified at the expense of human potentialities. The implied absence of free will in the development of Kane’s character is thematically constant with the moral climate of his environment. As the techniques used have not been limited in form, so too, Kane’s magnitude unchecked by limiting principles or rooted traditions, become the cause of spiritual.