Citizen Kane: A Review of the Classic Film

Orson Welles gave his best performance and was astounding in his directorial film debut of Citizen Kane, now considered one of the best movies of all time.  Why is the storyline so significant?  When a child suffers trauma this can set the stage for a lifetime of loneliness and disillusionment.  We find such a story in Citizen Kane, whereby a man who found great wealth, power, and prestige was but a shell of a man.  How coincidental that what transpired on the Hollywood screen decades ago seems to have made its way into our lives today via television, the internet, and social media.  The same power plays and thirst for control are apparent in the political arena and business world we are subjected to on a daily basis.  This type of man is charismatic and knows how to appeal to the crowds.  We want to eat up his story, his words, and his emotion.  But what he wants in return is far greater.  He needs fuel to keep the fire burning.  Who knows what attributes to a person’s constant need for attention and sensationalism, but we can guess that the root of this begins when a person has lost their morality and learns to survive in whatever way will amount to success, even though underlying heartbreak or despair is hidden in the folds of the soul and is tucked away from the prying eyes of the world.

            Considering the political turmoil, big money being thrown around, and secrets being disclosed for the nation to uncover at the present time as well as over the last few years, it is no wonder that such a movie as Citizen Kane hits home with its scandals and messages for the audience to decipher.  Orson Welles was brilliant to have onboard Gregg Toland, a rare cinematography genius who was noted for his unique style of filming and helped Welles to propel this visionary tale of a young boy who was torn from his family at a young age, raised among the elite, achieved insurmountable wealth, acquired a publishing empire, and lost almost everything due to corruption, power control, and the need to find love that had been lost and resulted in a lonely existence.

Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) atop the fruits of his empire.

            What makes Citizen Kane such a monumental film is that Welles did not hold back with his ideas and creativity.  This enabled him to continue experimenting since he had free reign over the filmmaking process.  Working with Toland, the lighting and shadows created an integral part of the film since it set the tone during the entire movie.  The lenses used to create the deep focus aspects of the film were imaginative.  An example of this in Citizen Kane is when Kane is walking through his home, and the audience sees his reflection going from one mirror, to another mirror, to another mirror at the same time.  Kane was in the foreground, and each mirror behind one another was farther from the viewer to the extreme distance.  However, what was incredible is that all of it was in focus.  The scenes in the beginning of the film faded in and out; and the scenes also changed by moving vertically, horizontally, and also had distorted lines in the movie to look like film from a newsreel.  The positioning of the cameras and subsequent filming were ahead of its time, especially the overhead shots of Kane on stage at the political convention and the camera moving forward from the back of the audience to finally focusing on Kane, the overhead shots of Suzie on stage at the opera house as she accepts her bouquets amid the applause of the audience, and the filming angle from floor level as the camera moves slowly from the character’s feet looking upwards.  Toland’s filming of Suzie’s sweat beading on her face as she is ill in bed had much detail and had extremely sharp focus.  The shadowing in each room with the rays of light coming through the windows with dust mites in the lighting was filmed perfectly.  The shadows on the actors’ faces as well as arm movements showing shadows behind them while remaining in focus were remarkable.  Particular scenes really stood out in the cinematography in regard to reflections.  In one scene, an actor was sitting at a desk; and his reflection on the glass top of the desk was filmed in sync and in focus the entire time.  Also, during one of the party scenes, the reflection of the guests in the windows was brought to the audience’s attention.  Splitting frames was also integral in Citizen Kane, such as when Kane returned from Europe and enters the newspaper room.  He is shown in the upper, left corner frame while the focus of the scene is on Leland and all.  None of the frame was out of focus.  Another split frame was when Kane was typing the conclusion to Leland’s derogatory art review of the operatic performance of Kane’s wife on the left side of the frame while Leland is on the right side of the frame as he awoke from a drunken stupor and is surprised that his review is missing from his typewriter.  Buildings, desks, tables, art frames, etc. were filmed so that the angles were prominent in the scenes.  The main, purposely filmed, out-of-focus scene appeared to be when the reporter went to the retirement home to talk to Leland.  The actors in the background are out of focus, which made the focus on Leland so critical.  All in all, Toland was a wizard with the camera and used his experience to bolster the great storyline and directing.  Toland had been recognized previously for his work behind the camera in Wuthering Heights (1939) which predated Citizen Kane.

Using mirrors to reflect many copies of Kane.

            Another interesting point to note is the use of nonlinear narrative. The story is told out of chronological order but is key in having the audience understand certain events and how they affected the main character, Charles Foster Kane.  Newscasters begin the film with their newsreels, but it is mainly narrated by Jerry Thompson, a reporter covering Kane’s life and trying to determine the meaning behind Kane’s last, dying words.  This use of nonlinear narrative was also crucial in the way that Wuthering Heights (narrated by Nelly Dean, a lifelong servant) was told.  Decades later, The English Patient (narrated by multiple narrators, not in chronological order, gave their viewpoints on what happened to the main characters), and Cloud Atlas (the main character from each segment explains his/her view in reverse chronological order while making the viewer understand how each person and moment in the film sets everything in motion from his moment in time and how this affects the future) used nonlinear narrative as a continuation of the success of Citizen Kane setting the standard for the use of nonlinear narrative.

            The makeup effects were astounding on all the main characters but particularly on Orson Welles as he changes back and forth throughout the film as a young adult, forward in time to his death scene, back to his middle-aged years, and so forth.  Welles was actually a young man when he directed Citizen Kane, and the transformations on him were realistic and appropriate for the film.  Joseph Cotton’s (Jedediah Leland) extreme aging from his younger years as Kane’s friend and reporter to his ending shots in the retirement home really helped the viewer to see how his relationship with Kane during the years had greatly affected him even though he seemed nonchalant about it when talking with the reporter.

            The use of sound to garner attention was another aspect of Citizen Kane.  Songs were written for different scenes instead of a long film score or background score being used for the entire film.  The attention on Kane and his revelry of a marching band, majorettes, and all with singing accolades about Kane were reminiscent of Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street made over seventy years later.  Apparently, Scorsese realized the importance of Citizen Kane’s use of musical, comical relief while the main character gathers the source of attention (Orson Welles’ Charles Foster Kane versus Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort).  Kane’s voice in a cavernous room in his palace had its echo being very pronounced; and his quiet, dying words were caught so convincingly that the viewer could imagine being in the same room as Kane’s life departed.

            It is important to note that Kane’s life followed the politics and course of history during his existence, and the concentration of history depicted was during the Spanish-American War, the construction and debate of the Panama Canal, and especially the Great Depression of 1929 and the after effects which collapsed the economy.  His role as a powerful tycoon whose publishing conglomerate reigned over competitors due to the push for risqué and sensational stories propelled him to the top.  Along the way, his thirst for control, interest in politics, obsession over his paramour, building a palatial expanse–complete with elephants, other animals, and flora–to compensate for his constant fixation on buying artwork, antiquities, and other lavish pieces led to his downfall.

            Welles also played with fire for not always following the provisions of Hollywood’s Production Code, also known as the Hays Code.  While not actually defying the Code, he was able to work around certain aspects of it.  For example, Kane was not afraid to have articles published which attacked the U.S. president.  In the toothache scene when Kane followed Suzie up to her home so that she could offer hot water to him in order to clean his muddied clothing, there was much innuendo involved because the audience could perceive this invitation as being something less than respectable.  Even though it was entirely innocent, Kane also sits on the same bed as Suzie, which might have been another suggestive move on Welles’ part.  Finally, Kane’s final declaration about his intentions of staying at Suzie’s home when his wife and political opponent appear most likely lost him some credibility points according to The Production Code because of the ideas of a mistress and the scandal involved.  Welles’ determination in creating a matchless film upon which other films would be based was very risky, yet it showed his resolve was much like his Kane character in that he wanted to push forward with his ideas.

            Finally, the overall theme of the story is something the audience can sympathize with and appreciate since Kane wanted to appeal to the average, working-class people.  Modern-day viewers can see the similarities between a young Charles Foster Kane being torn away from the love of his mother as compared to Anakin Skywalker also having to leave his mother at a young age in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.  No matter the grandeur and opulence of Kane’s possessions, the people in his life, and his need for power and control, his Xanadu palace reflected the loneliness in his soul.  Skywalker’s and Kane’s loneliness were also portrayed in the way in which they had to deal with life, their persistent need for power and control, and their lifetime of disillusionment being reflected in everything.  The love lost as a child was never recovered, and this loneliness lasted until the end.  The audience feels this loss and understands the meaning behind the snow globe and the sled.

Jacqui Mak

Jacqui Mak has been working towards her associate degree while attending Harper College in Palatine, Illinois on her way towards a degree in education.  She and her eighteen-year-old daughter, husband, and canine companion also live in Palatine.  Jacqui’s hobbies include all forms of dance, and she loves to play and coach softball.  A big shout out goes to Professor Brian Shelton for encouraging Jacqui with her film reviews.

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