Citizen Kane


Week 9

View Citizen Kane (Welles 1940).  While viewing, consider why this film is considered so important to film history.  Likely, you won’t believe it is “the best film ever made” as film critics suggest, but look for reasons why this film is so influential--especially in regards to cinematography and narrative structure.

Technical & Mise-en-Scene

I’m grouping these two criteria together because the technical aspects of the film truly influence the mise-en-scene of Citizen Kane.    This film is most famous for its “deep focus” photography.  Notice that rather than framing shots panoramically (camera following action from left to right, or vice-versa), Orson Welles and his cinematographer Gregg Toland frame many shots in the film from foreground to background, emphasizing the depth of the frame.  This becomes tricky, technically, because much like the human eye, a camera can’t focus on something very close as well as very far away.  Besides advancements in lenses, Toland also cheated the shots by using matte photography (layering multiple shots) and shooting into mirrors, which reflect the depth onto a 2-dimensional surface.  The frames to the right showcase some of the deep focus shots within the film--did you notice these on your first viewing? 

To enhance the depth, Welles often composes the shot in a triple-plane structure:  something in the foreground, middleground, and background simultaneously. 

There are several visual motifs that emphasize the “larger-than-life” stature of the main character.  There are oversized sets and set pieces, including Xanadu, Thatcher’s office, the large bridge, and the cavernous library.  Kane’s image is reflected multiple times in mirrors as he learns his marriage is ending.  Also, in the news office, he is often shot from an extremely low angle.  Welles famously ordered a hole dug in the floor of the studio to get the necessary angle to empower the characters of Kane and Leland. 

The lighting in the film is very chiaroscuro, and a forerunner of the noir films that followed in the next two decades.  Notice how faces are not important early in film and are often kept in shadow, specifically the news reporters in the projection room.  Another noteworthy shot that beautifully showcases lighting techniques is the ray of the light beaming onto the table in Thatcher’s library. 

The opening montage of Xanadu is a marvel of composition and utilizes a graphic match from shot to shot.  Notice that the window remarkably remains in the same position on the screen as it dissolves from shot to shot, as we come in closer to the death bed scene. 


This criterion is fully explored in your reading this week.  Please review “Style in Citizen Kane” within Chapter 3 of your text.


Orson Welles made this film, his first, at the astonishing age of 26.  His love of magic and stagecraft is evident in the simple yet effective special effects in the film - especially the campaign speech and the mobility of the 1940 film camera, which was ahead of its time.  Keep in mind, The Bicycle Thief was made eight years later, but looks much older than this film.  Welle’s auteurism is evident in how many roles he tackled in this production - Director, lead actor, and co-writer, despite this being his first film.  Here is his mini-biography written by Ed Stephan, from

His father was a well-to-do inventor, his mother a beautiful concert pianist; Orson Welles was gifted in many arts (magic, piano, painting) as a child. When his mother died (he was seven) he traveled the world with his father. When his father died (he was fifteen) he became the ward of Chicago's Dr. Maurice Bernstein. In 1931 he graduated from the Todd School in Woodstock, Illinois; he turned down college offers for a sketching tour of Ireland. He tried unsuccessfully to enter the London and Broadway stages, traveling some more in Morocco and Spain (where he fought in the bullring). Recommendations by Thornton Wilder and Alexander Woollcott got him into Katherine Cornell's road company, with which he made his New York debut as Tybalt in 1934. The same year he married, directed his first short, and appeared on radio for the first time. He began working with John Houseman and formed the Mercury Theatre with him in 1937. In 1938 they produced "The Mercury Theatre on the Air", famous for its broadcast version of "The War of the Worlds" (intended as a Halloween prank). His first film to be seen by the public was Citizen Kane (1941), a commercial failure losing RKO $150,000, but regarded by many as the best film ever made. Many of his next films were commercial failures and he exiled himself to Europe in 1948. In 1956 he directed Touch of Evil (1958); it failed in the U.S. but won a prize at the 1958 Brussels World's Fair. In 1975, in spite of all his box-office failures, he received the American Film Institute's Lifetime Achievement Award, and in 1984 the Directors Guild of America awarded him its highest honor, the D.W. Griffith Award. His reputation as a film maker has climbed steadily ever since.

History & Society

This film is rich in historical parallels, and the source of much of its controversy when the film was released.  The life of Kane is a direct satire of the life of William Randolph Hearst.  The personal life, the castle, the media empire, and political aspirations were all based on Hearst’s story and in turn, Hearst tried to halt the production and when that was unsuccessful, he refused to promote the film in his papers when it was released.  An Oscar-winning documentary was made about this tension called The Battle over Citizen Kane, which was then dramatized in the HBO film RKO 281 (which was the secretive working title of the film). 

As for film history, it is most important in its influence in films to follow.  Besides innovations in cinematography, it is also cutting edge in the narrative structure, and went against the traditional Classical Hollywood Narrative. 

Perhaps why this film is considered one of the greatest American films of all time is perhaps its criticism on American society.  One of the major themes of the film is the power of capitalism, and how wealth equals power.  But without the simple human family connections, money and power are ultimately useless.  There are many media moguls today who can be compared to Charles Foster Kane.  Post in the forum if you can relate this story to contemporary personalities. 

Genre & Movement

The most interesting aspect of this film within this criterion is the idea that this film straddles many genres.  It is a biopic, epic storytelling, a mystery, drama, and satire all in one.  It predates postmodernism (we will discuss this later), but hints at this future trend in storytelling.