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Film Analysis: Citizen Kane

Film Analysis: Citizen Kane

citizen-kaneAn Artistic and Cinematographic Dissection of Citizen Kane.

A fantastic piece of cinematography, even probably ahead of its time when filmed, is the movie “Citizen Kane.” It was a black and white film made in 1941, and directed by Orson Welles. It was written by Herman Mankiewicz and Orson Welles and also starred Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane. Citizen Kane was Orson Welles’ first feature film. Historically, the film is based upon newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst.

The plot of the film started with the death of a powerful and wealthy magnate named Charles Foster Kane. However, what was unorthodox about the film was that it did not parallel the conventional approach of today’s cinema concerning issues of death. I am referring to possible movie plots like the mystery behind his death etc. At least, that was what I thought. Instead, it focused on his life before death, how others felt about him and most importantly, the significance of the word “rosebud”- the last word he had mentioned before he died.

To simply analyze this movie chronologically, Kane is forced to leave his mother at a very young age, grows up and enters the newspaper business. He uses “yellow journalism” to gain prominence and power, and eventually takes over the newspaper. He marries Emily, and within due course starts an affair with woman named Susan. While running for governor of New York, his political opponent and wife uncovers the affair, resulting in the crumbling of Kane’s marriage. He marries his mistress, who eventually leaves him as well. His life crumbles and several years later, he dies while holding a snow globe in his hands. He realizes that despite being wealthy and powerful, the only true happiness he had, was during his youth while playing in the snow with his sled. Following his death, a media frenzy occurs and a reporter tries to interpret the meaning behind his last word- Rosebud. The reporter suggests that rosebud could be a woman or something he lost. (When Kane picked up the snow globe, I knew rosebud had some connection to his past as a youth. The Snow globe was used as a symbol to depict the snow he played in while young. It was until the end I realized rosebud was his sled.)

However, apart from my simple chronological explanation, it should be duly noted that this brilliant film did not unfold that way. This cinematographic marvel unfolded in a non-linear sequence employing the use of the flashback technique (LOST anyone?). The film actually starts off with his death and through the flashbacks of various characters being questioned by the reporter; we understand who Kane is and the characters’ relationships to Kane.

Depth of field was significant in this film. Many deep focus shots – shots where everything within the frame was clearly focused on – were used throughout the film. One example that I loved was the scene where the people were talking in the house while a young Kane was seen playing in the snow through a window. A noteworthy observation is that film opened with a shallow depth of field shot and ended with that same shot – the fence and the “No Trespassing Sign”. The fence and the sign were sharply focused on while ignoring the background (what was behind the fence).

Unreliable narrator is a technique where several storytellers with different points-of-view are used to narrate a film. Since there are several views and opinions and the audience wouldn’t necessarily know who to believe, the narrative is said to be “unreliable”. In the film, this is evident through the narrative of the characters whose flashbacks are shown. Each of them has their own opinion of Kane. Is he a genius, scoundrel, saint? Who should we believe?

Overlapping dialogue occurs when characters talk over each other, and one scene where this is noticeable, is when a young Kane was talking outside of the house while his mother was talking to the others inside of the house.

The way light was used in this film was phenomenal and UBER-FANTASTIC. As seen in the newsroom and the bank vault, the faces of certain characters were obscured by the manipulation to light provoking an air of mystery and slight suspense. Other techniques also used in this film were low angle shots and superimposition of shots.

The setting of the film was truly remarkable. In the film, Kane is a connoisseur of fine art from Europe. His specially made home, Xanadu was depicted as Baroque architecture,  a reflection of his European art taste. Art is a part of the background in many scenes. The influence of Baroque style painting in Citizen Kane is impossible to ignore. Many scenes seem to imitate Caravaggio’s style and use of chiaroscuro – using violent contrasts of light and dark, a dominating feature of painting called tenebrism. This contrast is inexplicably obvious giving Citizen Kane  validation as “American baroque cinema”.

Because of my tremendous fascination with current mainstream entertainment, and to some extent naïve-ness, I was totally oblivious that such techniques in cinema were possible, even existent, in those days. As a result, I end with the same words I started with: A fantastic piece of cinematography.


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