Citizen Kane is an American film produced in 1941. It is directed, produced and co-written by Orson Wells, who also stars in the film as Kane. The film revolves around the life of Charles Foster Kane, a wealthy newspaper business magnate. As he dies in his palatial home, in Xanadu, Kane utters the word “Rosebud” which this triggers a search by a Newsreel reporter about his private life. The reporter, John Thompson, interviews Kane’s close friends and associates, making the story unfold as a series of flashbacks. Citizen Kane differs from most American movies of its era on several accounts; the film’s photography, movement, story and acting depart from the conventional styles used in movies of that era.
In terms of photography, Citizen Kane differs significantly from other movies of that era. Each shot, for instance, appears well thought out. For each shot, there is use of deep-focus and low-key lighting. As a result, no shot in the film appears taken lightly. In addition, there is use of rich textures and dynamic contrasts between the fore and background, thus, illustrating finer details that would not be clear in other films (Monaco, 2010). The directors of the movie also made sure that side lighting and steep angles were used to bring out epic long shots. This technique was also combined with the use of extreme close-ups and dizzying crane shots (Monaco, 2010). Although none of the techniques mentioned above was new, the excellent combination of the techniques in Citizen Kane makes the film stand out from the rest.
The manner in which photography is used in the film challenged the classical ideology of using transparent style of photography that does not draw attention to itself. Citizen Kane’s photography draws attention to itself and makes photography part of the show.
In addition, the use of lighting in the film is deliberately varied to reflect different emotions and periods. For example, the lighting used during Kane’s youthful day is mostly high key. This highlights Kane’s vibrancy as a young publisher. However, as Kane grows older, the lighting grows darker. This brings out the cynical and weary side of Kane during his sunset years. The use of dark and unwelcoming atmosphere that appears impenetrable brings out Kane’s unhappy lifestyle during his old age further (Booker, 2011). The lighting contrast is deliberate and is meant to magnify the subtle differences between Kane’s youth and old age.
Another aspect in which Citizen Kane’s photography differs from other movies of that era is through the use of spotlight. In Citizen Kane, spotlight is used in the close shots to bring out symbolic effects. For example, there are times when one side of Kane’s face appears well lit while the other side appears hidden in darkness. This is more vivid, for instance, as Kane converses with Bernstein and Leland. As Kane promises to champion the rights of people, his face is fully lit and brightly illuminated. However, as he leans forward to sign the proclamation, his face is plunged into darkness. This, perhaps, foreshadows Kane’s character later in life.
The use of deep-focus is also another area in which Citizen Kane differs from other films of that era. Instead of using focus to continue the storyline, Citizen Kane uses deep-focus to encourage the audience to be more creative in understanding the relationship between people and things in focus (Carringer, 1996). The use of deep focus exaggerates the distance between people while at the same time allowing many spatial planes to be captured in a single shot. This helps to maintain objectivity of the scene while at the same time encouraging creative imagination on the part of the audience.
The careful attention paid to the use of movement in Citizen Kane makes the film stand out from other contemporary films of that period. For example, when Kane was a young man, he was full of energy and energy in his steps suggests vitality and exuberance. However, as he grows old, his movement becomes calculated, groaning at every step. Again, in his old age, much of the film is filmed either sitting down or in a stationary position. This further signifies the careful use of movement to explicate the film’s theme. In other scenes, the film uses movement to magnify the background. For example, after Susan leaves Kane, use of violent movement magnifies the idea of confusion and fragmentation within the room.
In a break from tradition, Citizen Kane used the first time movie actors. Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton, Dorothy Comingore, Agnes Morehead and Everett Sloane were all appearing on film as actors for the first time. Despite being first time actors, they produced outstanding performances. For example, the performance of Welles as Kane received wide acclamation from movie pundits. In combination with the use of makeup artistry, Welles performs well as Kane, shuffling between the ages of 25 to 75.
Lastly, the delivery of the storyline in Citizen Kane is a sharp contrast from other films of that era. The film begins during Kane’s final moments in life. As he utters the word “Rosebud,” the viewers are left to piece together the flashbacks that follow in order to understand Charles Kane. The use of an epilogue at the beginning of the film is a break from tradition. Instead of developing the story from the beginning and building it to a crescendo, the film begins with the end so that viewers can connect the storyline from the ensuing scenes.
No one knows the meaning of the word “Rosebud” and this prompts a newspaper reporter to search for its meaning and in the process unravel Kane’s private life. The search for the meaning of the word shapes the film's narrative. As the reporter interviews Kane’s friends and associates, this allows for a flashback structure that leaps through time and space thus connecting the dots in Kane’s life (Carringer, 1996). The unique style of delivering the storyline cuts through various periods of time without, necessarily, sticking to a particular chronology of events. By introducing the main people and events in Kane’s life, the film allows the viewer to develop their own perception of Kane because the people have varying views about Kane.
In conclusion, Citizen Kane differs from other American movies of its time on several aspects; the photography, movement, acting and story delivery adopted in the film break from the norm. The photography, for example, calls attention to itself unlike the photography used in other films of that era that did not draw to itself. The film’s movement and acting also depart from tradition in that they form part of the show rather than being used as mere means of delivering the story. Lastly, the film’s story is structured around the search for the final utterance, allowing viewers to understand Kane’s private life through a series of flashbacks.
Booker, K. M. (2011). Historical dictionary of American cinema. Lanham, MD : Scarecrow
Carringer, R. L. (1996). The making of citizen kane. Berkeley Way, CA : University of
Monaco, P. (2010). A history of American movies: A film-by-film look at the art, craft, and
business of cinema. Lanham, MD : Scarecrow Press .