June 06, 2011

Citizen Kane: A Film Review and Analysis

The 24-year-old film director, Orson Welles playing the role of Charles Foster Kane, a flamboyant sarcastic narcissist entrepreneur, the protagonist in the film Citizen Kane, is just one facet of this award-winning film where camera angles, sound and set nuances invoke implicit imagery and illusions during a time in the 1941 making of this movie when innovation and experimentation were limited in the coming-of-age film industry. Welles was given free reign to produce Citizen Kane, a first for any director in Hollywood.

Welles’ depiction of Kane is a split between two personas executed into one role. On one hand, the gentle giant businessman appeals in such a way to purport a dutiful obligation to help the less fortunate, yet the moral and social ineptness he obliges by defeats that purpose. One of the glaring themes in Citizen Kane is ambition. Possession of any sort seems to be a key element of Kane’s ambition. As reckless as Kane is in his selfish quest for worldly possessions, he also haphazardly neglects his responsibility as publisher of two prestigious newspapers while flying absentmindedly around the world to accumulate artistic statuettes for the mere purpose of just having them.  Kane had an insatiable appetite. Greed is a secondary theme in Citizen Kane.
What cause and effect from Kane’s childhood manifests in the man? Kane never fully comes to terms with his past hurts. His childhood separation from his parents relegates him to mourn rebelliously. Walter Parks Thatcher, the banker, taking on the responsibility to raise Kane, is despised for his good-heartedness. One of the underlying themes in Citizen Kane is grief. Kane’s grief manifests into selfish pride and indignant ambition.

What issues prompt Kane to use unsavory mischievous business practices and place unscrupulous demands on others? Kane’s goal was never money, property and prestige, in contrast, he cared little about any of it as evidenced by the way he treated his possessions with little or no respect. He treated people like his possessions. He had no inclination to run a newspaper business ethically. The notion of him being a political savior was shortsighted. Just as Kane thought it “would be fun” to run a newspaper, wishful thinking of the power of a political figure was attractive to him.

The mostly character driven plot in Citizen Kane is revealed through one of the antagonists, the second wife, Susan Alexander, whom Kane prods to choose a career with no merit as seen through Jedediah Leland’s perspective, an employee and colleague of Kane who wrote terribly truthful reviews of Alexander’s singing debuts that eventually incites Kane to fire him. Alexander’s own perspective is one of bitterness and loneliness. The irony in that is Kane spent his last days as such. The political opponent, Jim Gettys, whom Kane smeared, established a significant turning point in the film by making good on what Kane thought was a bluff. All of these characters, including Mr. Bernstein, Kane’s right hand man at the newspaper and Thatcher all depict their relationships with Kane via the flashback story-telling narration strung together in small connected episodes.

Theirs’ and other omniscient narration make up the entire structure of the story. The nondiegetic sound elements: the heavy-laden background music and sound effects, such as the distinct click sound heard from the newspaper journalist’s camera bulb are effectively realistic and are woven into the diegetic components of the film through the story’s narration. Having no real experience with using sound in a film, Welles only familiarity was his experience with theater radio where he honed his skills at RKO Radio pictures. The ambiance of sound in Citizen Kane added another of layer of clarity. Every scene had a purpose. The characters’ articulation of words carried a greater depth of sound than what was usually seen in film in that era. It can be likened to watching live theater where sound is expounded with emphasis on expressions via the characters. The audibleness and closed shot framing created deeper characterization with the overlapping dialogue and the medium close up shots as seen through much of the back story narration using the locus of the characters perspectives vividly. Unlike omniscient point of view where filmmakers and cinematographers frame shots wider and away from most of the action, Citizen Kane is filmed subjectively from the POV of the characters.

Working with a limited amount of space to begin with, it’s innovative as well as visionary that Welles uses the set and sound in such a way that it makes the characters personable. One such scene where the framing works well in relation to background sound is evidenced in the first half of the movie at the eye-level desk shot of Thatcher, who is completely out of the shot except for his hands holding the newspaper in a close up shot of the front page framing the bold headlines in a closed shot. Within that same scene another shot pushes to Thatcher in a medium close up with about ¼ of his body turned towards the camera looking dead on while sitting at a desk. The expression on his face speaks volumes without an utterance from him while in the foreground the hustle and bustle of the newspaper business bellows out on the screen.

Another scene demonstrates the use of the set in a two shot of Thatcher and Kane in the newsroom. It begins with a medium over-the-shoulder shot of Thatcher framed from the waist up with his backside to the camera and slightly off screen as he hovers over Kane in a medium close up shot seated at a desk. This frame of Thatcher remains static until the cut moves to a two shot of both at the desk seated catty-corner from each other. It’s a good open framed shot of them and the auditory levels add depth to the shot along with the intensity of their conversation, Thatcher being straight-forward and Kane matter-of-factly. Film historian and critic David Thomson adds some credence to the use of sound and setting in Citizen Kane, or lack there of as he comments in a film discussion titled Moguls, Millionaires & Movie Stars: Hollywood Between the Wars “Citizen Kane in Retrospect” that aired on FORA Television [www.FORA.tv.com], he stated, “Welles made up for a lack of setting through sound.”

It’s also not coincidental that the camera angles give the look of a low ceiling structure hovering over the newsroom. This alludes that the working environment in a newsroom is confining. Its purpose is two-fold. The newsroom ceiling shots are also metaphorically befitting to the picturesque limitations of the news room in that it makes Kane look bigger-than-life, a semblance of power.

These long to medium shots of the newsroom ceiling gives an illusion of what a print media conglomerate feels and looks like: cramped with a slew of papers and typewriters coupled with an aura of pressure that signifies the inevitable tight deadlines that are all too prevalent in a newsroom environment. 

Citizen Kane is a great film. What makes it particularly so is the film's development through limited technical mechanisms that are now common in the film industry. There is also a semblance of true-to-life characters that the audience connects with. Some film critics think that Welles told bits and pieces of his own life in this film, while others stated newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst was the premise for this film. As a journalist, I delved inside the film hoping to see components of good journalism. Unfortunately, Citizen Kane makes a mockery of professional journalism. I will say though, with each viewing of the film, I glean a different perspective of the mise-en-scène elements working together in telling the story.


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