The Influences of Citizen Kane on Cinematic History

†††††††† Although many may argue that Citizen Kane (1941) is simply a frustrating life story of a selfish, aloof man, it was in fact a very influential film in regards to its cinematic effects. Orson Welles, the director, with the assistance of his cinematographer, Gregg Toland, was extremely innovative in his use of the unconventional camera shots, angles, and lighting. In addition to the variation in camera work, Welles arranged the narrative elements in this film in a creative way, telling a story of one person through the eyes of many. Overall, Citizen Kane opened cinematic doors for progressive film narration and interesting new film techniques.

†††††††† One of the most influential aspects of Citizen Kane is the integration of various original camera shots. The crane shot was one such camera technique that added a unique and atmospheric quality to the film. This effect was used in the scene in which the camera pans from the rooftop of Susanís nightclub, down through the skylight to the table at which she sat, as well as in the final scene when the camera passes over the huge piles of artifacts that Kane collected. Another effective cinematic effect that was used in this film was the use of the exceptionally low camera angles. This technique was used to create a dramatic tension between characters, with the sense that their interaction is dominating and threatening. For example, the camera was placed low to the floor scene in which Jed Leland (Joseph Cotten) confronts Kane about his egotistical ways. This creates a serious tone between the two characters and literally heightens their manner of conflict. This low camera angle was also employed in the initial scene of Kaneís death, in which the snow globe rolled to the floor. Here, the camera was actually placed into the floor to produce a dramatic effect in which the audienceís view is channeled at a steep incline towards Kaneís bedside (Cook 331, 332, 332).

†††††††† Welles also held a strong awareness for depth of focus that allowed him to show the actions of several characters simultaneously in a single frame. He developed a strong awareness of depth by recognizing the distinction between foreground, middle ground, background, and deep background. This is most strongly evident in the beginning scene in which Kaneís mother (Agnes Morehead) is discussing his future with Mr. Thatcher (George Couloris). Here, Kaneís mother is shown quite clearly in the foreground, with Mr. Thatcher close behind in middle ground. Beyond him, Kaneís father (Harry Shannon) is shown pacing back and forth, worrying about their decision. Even further back than this however, is Charlie Kane (Buddy Swan), shown through the window playing in the snow (Cook 331, 330). This outstanding depth of focus was innovative for the time, allowing the actions of several characters to be shown at once, without having to devote separate scenes to each.

†††††††† This depth of focus was also effectively established through Wellesís utilization of sound. Due to his work in radio, Welles had a keen understanding of creating an atmosphere through the layering and filtering of sound effects. His unique montage of various noises helped to clarify the distinction between foreground and background. For example, the scene in which Kane is depicted completing Jedís review of Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comigore), the incorporation of the typewriter keys and footsteps helps distinguish the difference in depth of the scene. On one hand, the typewriter keys are the most audible feature in the scene. Behind Kane, Jedís footsteps are softer, upholding the believability of the spatial relationship between the two. As Jed approaches Kane, the sound of his footsteps grow louder, again coinciding with the difference in the charactersí depth and placement within the scene (Cook 330, 331).

†††††††† Yet another stunning formal attribute that Citizen Kane gave to cinematic history, was its innovative employment of lighting. Welles used theatrical chiaroscuro to exaggerate the dramatic mood of the film and to heighten the intensity of character interaction. He used extreme backlighting, as well as very centralized, almost funneling lighting in order to capture these effects. This use of dramatic lighting was employed in tense scenes in which only one character is generally portrayed. For instance, in the scene in which Kane is shown after destroying Susanís room, intense backlighting is used to cast a deep shadow over the top half of Kaneís face, while exposing his expression in a dramatic way (Cook 329, 331).

†††††††† In addition to the innovative use of camera shots, angles, and lighting, Citizen Kane was also very influential in its presentation of a narrative. Citizen Kane was very unlike previous films, which often told narrative stories sequentially, from present view, and generally from the perspective of a single character. In contrast to this, Citizen Kane was a compilation of many flashbacks, each told by various characters that were associated with Kane. This film broke the idea of having to tell a story from one continuous point of view, with overlapping flashbacks and a variance in perspective (Cook 332). This is evident in the fact that the opening scene is in fact of Kaneís death, rather than the obvious narrative beginning of birth or childhood. Not only did these effects make the film more mysterious, further emphasizing the ambiguity of Kaneís dying words, but they also helped to make the film more dynamic and more realistic.

Work Cited

Cook, David A. A History of Narrative Film. 4th ed. New York: Norton, 2004

Jenny Meier

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