The Innovations of Citizen Kane

There are many remarkable aspects of Citizen Kane.  Beyond the story of its creator and the troubles he had getting the film made, beyond the interesting characters and themes, there are a number of important technical innovations of Welles and his cinematographer Gregg Toland that have had a major impact on film language. 
For example, the beginning of the film is a series of images edited together to draw the audience into the film and into the mystery of Kane's last words (and his life).  Those first few minutes demonstate many of the innovative techniques of Welles and Toland: camera movement, multiple dissolves, continuity from one image to another, expressionistic lighting, and audience-eye camera work.

The film begins and ends with a parallet shot.  The camera moves from the
"No Trespassing"sign (and, of course, the whole film is about trespassing into a man's life) and tilts up the fence.

As we (and the camera) climb the fence, there are a series of dissolves from one image to another.  Each image shows up a portion of Kane's created-world Xanadu, with its oppulence and decay.  Notice that the lit window in the castle remains in the same place with each image.  It's the only light, and it's our destination.

We finally arrive at the window, looking it at the light.  It goes out, and suddenly we are looking at the same window, this time from inside the room, with the figure of Kane in the foreground.

The central mystery of the work -- "Rosebud" comes to the audience in a dream-like fashion.  We see inside the globe (we are literally inside at one point).

Then there is the famous closeup of Kane's lips as we hear "Rosebud."

With Kane dead, there is an abrupt (and loud) shift into the newsreel.

Newsreels were a common part of the movie-going experience in the day.  This newsreel  is an imitation of the "March of Time" series, and a number of the scenes in the newsreel were actual movies of San Simeon (William Randolph Hearst's actual estate).  This newsreel gives us the big picture of Kane's life; the interviews that Thompson conducts then fill in the details.  There are a couple of details in the newsreel that are easily missed, however.  For example, Kane's first wife and son were killed in a car crash after the divorce.   He identifies himself by saying, "I am, have been, and will always be one thing - an American."  The original working title for the film was "The American."

After the newsreel ends, we see a crowd of reporters and producers.  It's Rawlson the producer who explains that the newsreel is missing something.  "Maybe he told us all about himself on his deathbed."  He gives the reporter Thompson the mission of finding out what Rosebud means, which is already the focus of the film for the audience: "Rosebud, dead or alive ... it will probably turn out to be a very simple thing."

Welles used expressionistic lighting in Citizen Kane, and this scene is a good example.  Typically, a scene is lit so as to even the lighting throughout the scene so that everything in the scene can be seen.  Welles knew from his work on the stage, however, that lighting a stage unevenly can create a certain mood, can "express" a certain feeling.  Here the darkness of the screening room is cut with a couple of shafts of light (a favorite Welles effect on stage).  For most of the film, we don't even see the reporter's face (The actor William Alland used to joke that he had to turn around so that people could see the back of his head before they would believe he was in Citizen Kane).
His mission involves:
  • Trying unsuccessfully to talk to Susan Alexander
  • Looking over the memoirs of Walter Thatcher, Kane's guardian
  • Talking to Bernstein, Kane's business manager
  • Talking to Jed Leland, Kane's best friend
  • Talking to Susan Alexander
  • Traveling to Xanadu to talk to Raymond, Kane's butler
Each of these people knows something about Kane, but the full truth of his life remains out of reach
In reading through the Thatcher manuscript, Thompson learns about the circumstances that took Kane from his mother and brought him to fame and fortune and the guardianship of Walter Thatcher.  These scenes also illustrate a number of techniques used throughout the film.

Thompson's entrance into the library is another example of Welles' use of lighting.  The echoes of the dialogue in the cavernous interior of the room are also a nice touch.

The framing of this shot illustrates a technique used throughout the film.  In a typical photographic composition, the most important item in the shot is in the center.  Here that is Kane, playing outside, oblivious to the fact that the adults are deciding his future.  Interestingly, he is playing war (in this case, the American Civil War), and he is shouting, "Union Forever!" as his mother signs his life away.  Kane's mother is played by Agnes Moorhead, who had been with Welles since his Mercury Theater days in New York; she would later play Samantha's mother Endora on the TV show Bewitched.  This scene was done all in one take, starting from Kane outside to his mother at the window, moving in through the window and back across the room into this room.  Welles even rigged up the table in the foreground to swing up into the shot as the camera pulled back.

Another technique used here is deep focus.  Typically, when the items in the foreground are in focus, the items in the background are not (and vice versa).  Welles and Toland used various lenses, filters and lighting technques to make everything in the shot be in focus at the same time (hence the term "deep focus").  Recent restoration of the film for the DVD has shown how prevalent this is throughout the film.

The transition from Kane's childhood to his adult year is accomplished using a technique that Welles referred to as a lightning mix.  Sound and dialogue are used to move us forward in time.

As a child, Kane receives a sled (not Rosebud, left back at his mother's boarding house) from Thatcher, and Thatcher intones, "Merry Christmas, Charles."

He finishes his statement years later, as part of his letter to Kane for his 25th birthday.  "And a happy New Year" ...

Deep focus and the empty focal point can also be seen in the scene where Kane signs over control of his assets to Thatcher during the Great Depression.  As before, the whole scene is about Kane, even when he is offscreen.

He appears and then proceeds to walk back, away from the camera.   He even speaks as he walks away.

Notice how the windows seem to get larger and larger as Kane approaches them.  This sort of perspective shifting is used to create several interesting scenes that are almost optical illusions.

Another common technique used by Welles is to place the camera below the actors and shoot up at them, a technique known as low angle photography (the opposite technique is called high angle).  This, especially in the case of Kane, makes them seem larger than life (and a little ominous as well).  In fact, Welles went so far as to chop holes in the floor of the set to get his camera that low.  One side-effect of this are the ceilings in many shots.  Often, movies and TV shows shot on a soundstage do not have ceilings; they would just interfere with the lighting and the sound recording.  Many of the ceilings in Citizen Kane are actually fabric.

Welles also used a number of interesting dissolves in the film.  A dissolve is when one image fades out and is replaced by another.  Here the image in the foreground (Jed Leland) remains as the background of his hospital fades away to be replaced by the famous breakfast scene.  Then the foreground image of Jed dissolves as well.

The breakfast scene is one of the most famous scenes in the film.  The dissolution of Kane's marriage is shown through a series of breakfasts separated by a pan swish (pan - horizontal movement of the camera; swish - when the camera moves fast enough for the picture to blur).  The costumes, the props, and the blocking of the actors -- all of this combines with the performance of the actors to show the Kanes  tearing apart.  The actress playing Emily Norton Kane, Ruth Warrick, played Phoebe Wallingford on All My Children for many years.

This scene is from Kane's first meeting with Susan Alexander.  Notice how Kane towers over her (which he does in most of their scenes together until she decides to leave him).  Also, the snow globe from the beginning of the film is here on her dresser.  In a nice detail, Kane explains to Susan that he had been on his way to see the items from his mother's house, which had been in storage since her death.  Presumably, this includes the sled Rosebud.

The political rally is an often imitated scene, with its mix of real elements and matte paintings.

The cozy castle of Xanadu, with its echoes and huge fireplaces ...

Here Kane reaches for the globe after trashing Susan's room.  Welles actually pulls back his left hand, which had been badly gashed as he trashed the room, and reaches for the globe with his right hand.

At the end, it is only the audience who is privy to the mystery that had driven Thompson through the plot of the film.  In fact, he has given up at the end, saying, "Mister Kane was a man who got everything he wanted and then lost it.  Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn't get or something he lost.  Anyway, it wouldn't have explained anything.  I don't think any word can explain a man's life.  No, I guess Rosebud is just a piece in a jigsaw puzzle -- a missing piece."  This mirrors both what Bernstein had told him, "Maybe that was something he lost" as well as Susan's fascination with puzzles.