Its release was highly controversial, because the argument had elements of the lives of public men, belonging to the mass media. It wasn’t a first for Orson Welles himself, who already struck public controversy, after causing panic as a result of his radio broadcast of the novel by Herbert G. Wells, The War of the Worlds. The film fell into oblivion, and was rescued the French, particularly Jean-Paul Sartre. Admired by most, but also despised by many, it has headed the list of the best movies ever for long and it is preserved in the Library of the US Congress in the National Film Registry for its historical, cultural and aesthetic significance.
It has been said that Citizen Kane is the best movie ever to be made. It may be not so, but its cinematic findings at the time were unprecedented. Citizen Kane tells the story of a newspaper mogul in the forties and how we look back at his life from his deathbed. It’s a great film for its content, but above all, for its form: the dramatic resources used, the characters, the filming and acting choices…
Linear and non-Linear Narrative
The movie uses mainly a circular structure through the use of flashbacks (jumps backwards in time originated from the memories of those who had met Kane) with multiple narrators that ends in the same point where we started. The character doesn’t evolve in the main time frame of the movie, it is rather the case of what the audience learns from him that makes the difference between beginning and end. Orson Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz (Oscar winners for best script) conceived the use of ellipsis in order to be able to compress time. For example, in different performances of Susan Alexander’s (second wife to Kane) opera, her shots have inserts of newspaper shots containing headlines that confirm every performance as a new disaster. With this sequence the movie advances a month’s worth professional career in just a few seconds and is a widely used technique all throughout the movie.
Flashbacks are narrated as parallel, independent, stories. Each one of them provides a linear narration of a short story, within a non-linear bigger structure that is the whole movie.
Deep Depth of Field
How the movie is shot is one of the main points for its popular admiration. Shots are mainly low-angled to infuse grandeur to the protagonist and his life. Welles even dug a whole in the ground to be able to place the camera below ground level. But it is the use of a big depth of field what better characterises the piece. The distance at which objects are at acceptable focus is very big, providing the opportunity to tell parallel stories or pieces of information at different levels of depth while compositing a frame. For instance, while the Kane’s are signing off George to Mr. Thatcher, he is seen playing with his sledge (important prop in the movie) in the background. He is as well focused as what’s going on in the foreground and thus the contrast between him at that time and his parents is magnified. Also, being framed within a frame, the window, and dark against the white snow (contrast and chiaroscuro techniques), are other cinematographic achievements of the movie in terms of framing and composition. Even though there isn’t much depth later when the three adults are talking to little George, there still exists this notion that the background is integrated within the foreground and characters break the foreground line, being able to intervene in the conversation even standing several feet behind.
Today, the use of deep focus is not as common. Directors and cinematographers prefer to guide the audience to the important part of the frame and have them see what they want them to see. Racking focus is a very common way to reveal new information, but Orson Welles decides to go with pans and tilts for this instead.
The leitmotif in Citizen Kane that brings the story forward is the word Rosebud. It symbolises a lost childhood and emotional deprivation that characterise the psychological profile of the protagonist. In general, the desire for something he had and lost, something he never really fought back. Two objects are in charge of providing the truth in this: the crystal ball with the house and snow, and the sledge.
Rober Ebert rightly says. “Rosebud is the emblem of security, hope and innocence of childhood a man can spend a lifetime to recover”, but Kane did not succeed, despite performing great feats and nurturing a prominent position in society. His life took a quantum leap from the peaceful and bucolic rural life to modernity, to the maelstrom of modern metropolis, and the only thing he regrets in his deathbed is his memories of not having a proper childhood.