Citizen Kane (1941)
Produced, co-written, and directed by Orson Welles
119 min.; U.S.A.; Black and White; Mono
Lately I've been focusing on films about World War II made during the 1940s. However, at this point in our story I'd like to pause and take notice of Citizen Kane (1941), directed by Orson Welles, because it is so unusual among its contemporary Hollywood releases, and significant for the ways it breaks with traditional Hollywood narrative and photographic conventions. We'll get back to the war films next time.
Based on a screenplay by Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz, Citizen Kane is a mystery/newspaper drama with a straightforward plot. An editor (Phillip Van Zandt) needs a unique angle to complete a newsreel about the life of recently deceased newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) and dispatches reporter Jerry Thompson (William Alland) to uncover the meaning behind Kane's mysterious final spoken word, "rosebud," in hopes of revealing something of the man's character. As the story unfolds Thompson interviews the people who were closest to Kane. His friends, business associates, ex-wife, and the memoir of his guardian relate some of the significant moments in Kane's life. Afterwards, the audience is privileged with an answer to rosebud, but Thompson himself is no closer to solving the mystery of rosebud or understanding the equally enigmatic Kane. The cast, largely composed of cinema newcomers from Welles' Mercury Theater, is excellent, but the story isn't exactly revolutionary. Thompson's attempt to define Kane through one particular clue proves problematic, but he learns that power, outside influences and a flawed character corrupted the man.
|Charles Foster Kane stands next to the dictator he "supported then denounced" in the News of the March newsreel from Citizen Kane.|
Much more interesting than the story of Citizen Kane is the innovative photographic and storytelling approaches perfected by Welles and his team. Among the novel storytelling techniques is a complete newsreel, a March of Time satire titled News on the March, that relates Kane's factual history. Watching the segment I'm reminded of Anatole Litvak's creative use of March of Time-ish docudrama techniques just two years earlier in Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939). However, Welles inserts the newsreel whole into the framework of Kane while Litvak incorporates newsreel-style segments throughout his film. The News on the March newsreel not only provides the reason for Thompson's quest, but the information found in it supplies context for the various moments from Kane's past that Thompson uncovers later. Of course, back in the day shorts and newsreels, including the March of Time, would have accompanied a screening of Citizen Kane. For example, Citizen Kane was accompanied by the March of Time episode "Peace--by Adolf Hitler" when it played in October 1941 at the Gramercy Park Cinema in New York. It's fun to imagine how the News on the March segment worked for audiences who viewed an episode of the actual docudrama newsreel only moments before.
Another unexpected approach is the series of elliptical flashbacks and flashforwards alluded to above that stem from Thompson's interviews with Kane's friends. These temporally disconnected scenes reveal the more intimate details of Kane's life. By inserting the aforementioned newsreel into the movie Welles is free to make great leaps in time without fear of losing the audience because we're already aware of Kane's life story. The film begins with Kane's death and a gumshoe unravels his life story through flashbacks...gotta admit, watching this I'm getting anxious for the advent of film noir.
Let's move on to the remarkable presentation. It's well known that the key visual innovation of Citizen Kane is the deep focus cinematographer Gregg Toland and his crew employ to realize Welles' vision for the film. According to Robert L. Carringer, Welles confided that Toland's contribution to Kane was nearly as important as his own. Though working in black and white, Toland and his camera crew utilized the greater illuminating power of carbon arc lamps (as opposed to incandescent lights) necessary for Technicolor films in order to decrease the aperture on extremely wide angle lenses coated to reduced glare thereby achieving an image that kept sharp focus on objects between the extreme foreground and the distant background.1
|Leland and Bernstein worry while Kane celebrates in a deep focus shot from Citizen Kane.|
Immediately after I saw the deep focus shots in this movie I thought about the Lumière Brother's film that I wrote about a looong way back, The Pyramids (1897). Thanks to the extreme illuminating power of sunlight that film maintains focus on the distant Great Pyramid, the somewhat closer Sphinx, and a group of nearby men riding camels. According to the The Oxford History of World Cinema deep focus continued to develop during the silent period until changes in film stock and the switch to quieter, softer incandescent lights necessary for sound films changed the way most studio films looked. Toland and Welles brought deep focus back in order to increase realism. However, if you stand in the center of a room and hold your hand out at arms length, palm facing you, and then try to focus on both your hand and the wall behind it at the same time you'll notice that either the hand or the wall is in focus, but not both at once. Therefore, Welles and Toland's deep focus techniques don't increase the representation of reality but actually distort reality as we see it. Since everything in the shot is in focus (rather than the actors closest to the camera are in focus and everything behind slightly out of focus look of the standard studio film of the 1930s) we get to choose between various locations on the screen to focus our attention.
In the example above right (from my favorite scene in the movie), Welles and Toland's in-depth composition combines with creative sound composition (music, wild sound and overlapping dialogue) in a way that allows the audience to choose where to focus our attention--on the conversation between Kane's associates, Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotten) and Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane), about the corrupting influence Kane's newly hired scandal sheet writers might have on him, on Kane's excitement over the prospect of the country declaring war on Spain (thanks in-part to the war-mongering of his paper), or the song and dance routine of a bevy of chorus girls.
|Thompson consults a manuscript provided by the overprotective staff of the Thatcher Memorial Library--don't you just love that angled shower of light?|
The screengrab above illustrates both deep focus and Welles' penchant for using expressive chiaroscuro and silhouette techniques. It's strongly reminiscent of the 1920s German Expressionist cinema I spent two weeks looking at last year. In fact, one of the criticisms other filmmakers leveled at Kane around the time of its release was the notion that it was too artsy, too UFA-style. According to Robert L. Carringer, "traditional film history has it that UFA-style expressionism survived in a kind of underground existence in the Hollywood horror film until it was revitalized once again by Welles in Citizen Kane." Carringer then goes on to argue that Toland's experiments in expressionism in John Ford's The Long Voyage Home are a missing link in that version of film history. I'd add that expressionistic compositions in Alfred Hitchcock's Sabotage (1936) mark it as another so-called missing link in that version of film history.
|Kane's myriad possessions look like pieces from a giant jigsaw puzzle in the long overhead dolly shot.|
Another of Kane's well remembered shots is the overhead dolly near the end of the picture (image above). After his death, Kane's belongings are cataloged and crated up in his cavernous home. The fallacy of trying to understand a man's life from just one of his belongings is driven home with a slow overhead dolly that encompasses the tens of thousands of items Kane collected during his lifetime. I've read that this shot influenced a similar one appearing near the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). I recall that both shots were preceded on film by G.W. Bitzer's groundbreaking overhead dolly shot (with some help from an overhead crane) in the Westinghouse Works series (1904). Click here to see one of Bitzer's Westinghouse films.
Not all of Welles and Toland's experiments work so well. Ever notice the weird jump cut in Citizen Kane? I noticed it when I saw the film years ago and it stood out when I watched the movie again today. I should add that Welles, Toland and others have noted that they were intentionally breaking standard studio filmmaking rules so the strange-looking cut probably is intentional, but it looks like a bad edit on the screen. Let me try to break it down...
In the photo above left, Jedediah (light suit on the left) and Kane (dark suit on the right) enter the New York Inquirer. The shot is composed at a low angle allowing us to see a ceiling--something very unusual in a studio picture, it was made of muslin and concealed microphones. A pole stands in the middle of the shot and the room. As Kane continues into the room, Jedediah notices the pole, stops and places his left hand on it (photo above right).
In the screengrab above left Jedediah uses the pole to swing himself around from the left side of the screen to the right side. Then comes the jump cut (photo above right). Crossing the stage line, the camera suddenly sees Jedediah on the left side of the screen complete his swing while Kane is now on the right. Since the pole isn't in the same place in the second shot the edit doesn't even match (imagine the tough task Robert Wise faced editing this picture) and the sudden jump of the actors is out-of-place. I remember writing about Mervyn LeRoy successfully crossing the stage line in Gold Diggers of 1933, but it makes for an awkward experiment in this film.
Despite glowing reviews and a controversy over Kane's similarity to William Randolph Hearst, this remarkable picture fared poorly at the box office in 1941 (RKO lost $160,000 on Citizen Kane and $620, 000 on Welles' follow-up, The Magnificent Ambersons).2 Various reasons have been attributed to the weak showing including the machinations of a vengeful Hearst (detailed in the documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane (1996)) and the disdain some in Hollywood felt for Welles and his unprecedented deal with RKO, the limited market appeal of Welles' celebrity status as an artist and filmmaker, the lack of any genuine movie stars to promote the movie and drive public interest, the cynical story and unsympathetic central character, the creative storytelling and unusual photographic approach. In my opinion, the answer is a combination of all of these factors because they contributed to a cinema experience so very different from the conventions movie-goers expected of Hollywood product.
As we know, the critical and public opinion of this picture has reached a point where it's been labeled the best film ever made. Frankly, I don't know if I believe such a distinction is really possible. There's no criteria by which to rate all the different types of films ever made against one another and no one has ever seen every single film ever made anyway--which seems like a necessary prerequisite to determining which is the best of them all. In any case, I'm with those who feel that Kane is an outstanding picture particularly because of the creative ways that it tells a story. In my mind, Citizen Kane is a stepchild of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) because it carries on Caligari's tradition of a commercial release that incorporates developments in theatre, art, and experimental and narrative filmmaking. Maybe these seemingly disparate filmmaking approaches--experimental filmmaking and narrative filmmaking--don't have to be so different after all but rather, are linked together in a broader understanding of cinema. The question that now arises for the chronological exploration of cinema history (and history) on this blog is: given the artistic success but commercial failure of Citizen Kane will I see it influence the look and style of other films as I progress through the 1940s?
That's all for now. I'll be out-of-touch with the blogosphere next week, but please don't let that prevent you from discussing Citizen Kane in the comments section here. Two weeks from now I'll return to pick up the ongoing exploration of World War II-era films with a studio feature (and more) from 1941.
1. A history of Welles' collaboration with Toland is found in Robert L. Carringer, "Orson Welles and Gregg Toland: Their Collaboration on Citizen Kane," Critical Inquiry 8.4 (Summer 1982), 651-674.
2. RKO revenue information from Richard B. Jewell, "RKO Film Grosses, 1929-1951: the C.J. Tevlin ledger," Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 14.1 (1994) 45.