In this article film critic Bosley Crowther questions the notion that Citizen Kane is “the greatest film ever made”, a declaration made by many after its premiere at the Palace theatre on May 1, 1941. The film, says Bosley was “riding the crest of perhaps the most provocative publicity wave to ever float a motion picture” after Welles now notoriously wrote, produced, directed, and starred in the RKO picture. Hype over the film was further amplified when people heard that the story of Kane bore close resemblance to the life of newspaper publishing tycoon William R. Hearst, who famously tried to prevent the film’s release. Thus, Crowther writes that regardless of what the film showed on screen, the publicity it received before its release influenced audience opinion from the very beginning and dictated peoples perception of the film before it was even seen. Crowther argues that although the film does not outright label Kane as a corrupt and ruthless tycoon, this is the image that most viewers come away with as a result of prior notions about the film. Thus Crowther believes that Kane’s characterization is based entirely upon personal preconceptions and for this reason, Welles is deceiving the public. Despite this inconsistency Crowther praises Citizen Kane and believes that all aspects of the film, technically speaking, are utterly “magnificent”. Crowther makes note of Kane’s cinematic feat and Welles’ ability to use the camera not only to record, but also to provide commentary by presenting visual contrasts and images from rare shots and angles. Performed by an incredible cast and accompanied by a powerful musical score from Bernard Herrmann, Kane is a true cinematic accomplishment. Yet, Crowther believes that Welles’s novice may have worked against him, citing the film’s ambiguous ending as evidence, and concludes that while Citizen Kane is an enviable film on many accounts, it is not ‘truly great’.
This article relates to my thesis because it is one of the first to explore the some alternative reasons behind Citizen Kane’s label as ‘one of the greatest films of all time’ while at the same time systematically refuting that notion. Interestingly enough Crowther in many ways, approaches his investigation of Kane’s cinematic status from a psychological standpoint. Traditionally the film is venerated for is narrative and technical cinematic accomplishments, which are cited as the reasons behind its acclaimed status. While Crowther acknowledges these accomplishments, he also addresses the controversy surrounding the film and publicity leading up to its release, and maintains that Kane’s status is contingent upon one’s own personal preconceptions of the film. While Crowther makes some valid points, the fact that Citizen Kane is still hailed today as one of, if not, the greatest films of all time proves that its cinematic accomplishments outweigh the films initial hype and any prior notions. Moreover, this article was written just 3 days after the films premiere and refers to the inital hype surrounding the film citing that as one reason to dismiss Kane as ‘truly great’. Yet we know now that the film was not a blockbuster and its popularity actually waned at first, thus the fact that it still carries an enormous legacy makes its label as one of the greatest motion pictures of all time even more valid.
Carlson, Shear and Carringer. "Citizen Kane." PMLA, Vol. 91, No. 5 (Oct., 1976), pp. 918-920
In his letter to the editor of PALMA, Jerry W. Carlson asserts that Robert L. Carringer's article “Rosebud, Dead or Alive: Narrative and Symbolic Structure in Citizen Kane” fails to account for the important rhetorical function of Rosebud in both the opening and closing shots of the film. Carlson argues that the complexity of the film’s ending is implicit throughout the film’s narrative and while the closing scene may appear excessive and stylized, it reiterates many themes that are set up in the opening sequence. Moreover, Carlson writes that Rosebud’s revelation in the final scene does not only reiterate previously established motifs, but also works in conjunction with beginning shots to provide the film with a sense of closure, without undermining its deliberate ambiguity. When viewed rhetorically Carlson believes Citizen Kane’s ending is much more complex then what Carringer’s analysis suggests.
This article relates to my thesis in that it addresses Citizen Kane’s narrative complexities, which simultaneously provides both closure and ambiguity. Throughout the film we follow Thompson as meets with 5 people who were close to Kane. Throughout each interview Thompson, like the viewer expects to learn more about the newspaper tycoon, but with each succeeding flashback, Kane’s depiction becomes more and more elusive. Thus, Welles subverts viewer expectation by suggesting a conclusion about Kane will be reached through access to the past, preserving both the film and Kane’s ambiguity. Similarly, the beginning and opening sequences frame the film in such a way—relating the snow globe and Kane’s last words in the beginning sequence to the burning sled in the last shot— to suggest closure, yet at the same time ultimately providing an ambiguous image. The narrative complexities behind Citizen Kane are just one of the many reasons it is hailed as on of the greatest films of all time.
Street, Sarah. Citizen Kane. History Today 1996 Mar; 46 (3): 48-52.
In this article Sarah Street discusses Citizen Kane with respect to its iconic status, making note of the importance of Welles’ politics in understanding both its contemporary context, as well as publisher William R. Hearst’s reaction against the film. Street highlights the similarities between Hearst and Kane, and feels that Welles uses Kane to criticize Hearst, citing Welles’s opposing political ideology as evidence. Street makes note of film’s role in the late 1930s which was beginning to exert a great deal of influence on public opinion, and suggests that Welles uses Citizen Kane to make a larger statement about the status of newspapers and journalism of the time. Despite the Hearst controversy surrounding the film, the author goes on to acknowledge Kane’s cinematic achievements, many of which were achieved through the use of special effects. Street concludes her article by acknowledging Welles as the clear visionary behind Kane, and notes that the film uncovers “universal truths” which will make its legacy long lasting.
This article relates to my thesis in that it demonstrates the influence and impact of Citizen Kane and to a larger extent the power of film in general. Despite the political and social controversy surrounding the film and Hearst’s initial attempts to stop its release, Citizen Kane’s legacy proves that a great film will always be recognized and acknowledged as a great film. Moreover, Street recognizes Kane’s cinematic achievements and cites the films formal and stylistic cinematic aspects as reason behind the film’s venerable status, rather then its narrative that may or may not allude the life of Hearst.
Carringer, Robert L. "Citizen Kane." Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 9, No. 2, Special Issue: Film IV: Eight Study Guides (Apr., 1975), pp. 32-49
In his essay on Citizen Kane Robert Carringer describes the history behind Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, both of which have been labeled by prominent film critics as the greatest of their kind. While he made about a dozen films, Citizen Kane is regarded as Welles’s one undisputed masterpiece. According to Carringer, Welles’s approach to film was innovative and resembled that of experimental filmmakers as his primary objective was always to find new ways to work within the cinematic medium. Welles often starred in his own films and his narratives typically portray the downfall of a powerful figure. Moreover, Carringer writes of how Welles eschewed the traditional Hollywood style of editing and cinematography in favor of more obtrusive camera and editing devices that draw attention to the medium. Welles’s background in theater earned him a reputation that granted him entry into Hollywood and allowed him to sign an unprecedented contract with RKO that granted him full control over Citizen Kane. Carringer notes that Kane was an extremely collaborative project and that its cinematic achievements are in large part due to the screenwriter, musical score composer, and cinematographer who were some of Hollywood’s best talents. Moreover, Carringer asserts that while Citizen Kane is revolutionary, this is largely due to its fusion of previously established techniques and materials that when combined, produce a film that is completely unique. After Kane, Welles worked on a number of films that achieved little to modest success and thus Citizen Kane remains Welles’s greatest cinematic achievement.
This article pertains to my thesis as it addresses the innovative cinematic techniques used in Citizen Kane, and specifically Welles’s extensive use of deep focus shots. Such shots were rare at the time due to limited technology and their effects proved to be extremely dramatic. These shots require a small camera opening and thus necessitate an enormous amount of light. In order to achieve this Welles had to use special lights, lenses, and superfast film stock. The results however, constituted an innovation in filmmaking as deep focus shots eliminated the reliance upon editing to break down a dramatic space, as was standard practice before Kane. With extreme depth of field, all objects appear in sharp focus and thus allowing the dramatic center to shift within a continuous shot. The deep focus shots used throughout Kane are not only innovative, but also serve many different functions. Consider for example the flashback sequence when Walter Thatcher officially becomes Kane’s financial and personal guardian. The sequence begins with a young Kane playing in the snow. Mrs. Kane is placed in the foreground signing Charles away, while Mr. Thatcher and Charles’s father occupy the middle ground, and Kane remains in the background playing in the snow. Not only is the shot beautifully composed, but the depth of focus allows the viewer to attend to all aspects of the shot, which foreshadows Kane’s loss of innocence. The deep focus shots used throughout Citizen Kane are an aspect of the film that is highly regarded one of the reasons this film often labeled as the greatest of all time.
Johnson, William. Orson Wells: Of Time and Loss. "Film Quarterly" Vol. 21, No. 1 (1967) pp. 13-24
In this article William Johnson refutes the notion that all of Orson Welles’ films are inferior to Citizen Kane. Johnson begins by discussing the characteristic features of Welles’s films, which share common stylistic and thematic elements. He then goes on to note Kane’s cinematic achievements are due to its stylistic innovations—wide angle perspective, unusually long takes, abrupt cuts—and notes that Kane actually appears more modern then many films of 1967. He then goes on to note that while Welles films are often showy, this is only one aspect of them and that some of the most powerful scenes in Kane are void of special effects. Moreover, Johnson concludes by noting the risk that Welles has taken in all of his films which all carry Kane’s central theme of lost innocence.
This article is relevant to my thesis in that Johnson uses Citizen Kane as a model to which he compares Welles’s other films against. While other critics usually do this in order to highlight the deficiencies in Welles’s films following Kane, Johnson does this in order to point out stylistic and thematic elements that are common throughout Welles’s films. In effect Johnson systematically bolsters both Kane’s status while at the same time giving merit to many of Welles’s films that are often seen as inferior. Moreover, Johnson addresses the extreme passing and jumps in time throughout Citizen Kane, an aspect of the film that Welles addresses on multiple levels. Through his brilliant use of mise-en-scene and editing, Welles juxtaposes images that not only feature Kane at different ages, but also those who know him, giving time a tangible quality. The extreme lapse and jump in time is an integral and innovative part of Kane’s narrative which as previously stated, hinges upon the use of flashbacks to provide insight into Kane’s life and discover the meaning behind his dying words.
Monahan, Mark. "Music that makes a man a killer" The Daily Telegraph 1 July 2006. 1 December 2008.
In this article Mark Monahan pays homage to Bernard Herrmann, without whose contributions Monahan feels cinema would be unimaginable. Born in New York to Russian Jewish Immigrants, Herrmann studied at NYU and made his conducting debut on Broadway at only 20 years old. In 1934 he began composing and conducting for CBS radio where he met Orson Welles who helped launch his career as a musical score artist in 1941 with Citizen Kane. Hermann has a wide range of film credits including The Magnificent Ambersons, Cape Fear, Jason and the Argonauts. After working on Kane, Herrmann worked on Hangover Square (1941), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), and On Dangerous Ground (1952), before teaming up with Alfred Hitchcock, creating what Monahan calls “one of the most fruitful collaborations in the history of cinema”. One of Herrmann’s most famous musical scores is the one he created for Psycho, where employed a strings-only orchestra and solidified his legacy with the powerful and unforgettable musical shrieks of the shower scene. In 1966 Herrmann and Hitchcock parted ways after a disagreeing over the musical score for Hitchock’s next project, and their collaboration ended. After that Herrmann worked in both the French and American new waves, and ended his career in 1976 with Martin Scorsase’s Taxi Driver (1976).
The musical score is an integral part of any film. Just as editing guides the viewer’s attention, the musical score sets the tone of a scene or sequence and gives the audience privileged access to the narrative based on the musical foreshadowing. In this article Monahan recognizes the power and brilliance behind Herrmann’s scores, as they not only complement the action but also are the action, and allow the viewer entry and insight into the inner lives of the characters. Herrmann’s scores permeate characters psyches and surroundings, and as Monahan points out, when combined with Kane’s images, the effect is nothing short of brilliant. The opening scene, which Monahan discusses, is perhaps where Herrmann’s score is most powerful, as it works in conjunction with Welles’s visuals and sets up the film’s themes of Rosebud (and loss of innocence) and ambition (Kane’s ultimate downfall). Herrmann uses these concepts and creates leitmotifs, which are heard throughout the film. In the opening sequence for example, as the camera ascends upon Xanadu, Kane’s estate, Herrmann uses low brass and woodwind to create an effect that is both eerie and ominous, giving insight into the private life behind Kane’s sacred fortress and setting up the film’s musical theme. Herrmann’s powerful score is one of the most psychologically defining aspects of the film and constitutes a powerful and lends support to its claim as one of the greatest films of all time.
Damico, James. News Marches in Place: Kane's Newsreal as a Cutting Critique. Cinema Journal, Vol. 16, No. 2 Spring 1977 pp51-58
In this article author James Damico argues that the newsreel in Citizen Kane serves a variety of functions, and when juxtaposed with the rest of the film, actually provides a critique on newsreels themselves. The News on the March sequence is often seen as demonstrating the inability of simple biographical facts to account for the entirety of a man’s life, and provides a counterpart to the rest of the film, which gives a more ambiguous and less reductive understanding of existence. This inability is actually what drives the narrative, as Thompson, the reporter, sets out to find truths about Kane that are unaddressed in the newsreel. Moreover, Damico asserts that the criticism of the newsreel not only exists on a narrative level, but also in many aspects of the film, and is especially evident in the film’s camerawork and editing. Moreover, the author goes on to suggest that the ubiquity of still photographs present throughout the News on the March and the rest of the film proper provides evidence to suggest Welles’s questioning of the general concept montage. Damico concludes that the concept of montage is completely at odds with Welles’s own concept of filmmaking, and that while he sometimes utilizes montage, his films consist more so of discrete and coherent sequences.
The newsreel in Citizen Kane speaks to the film’s innovative narrative structure and fits in with many of the films reoccurring motifs. The film begins with an end—the death of Charles Foster Kane—and the narrative that follows takes us through a retrospective investigation of his life. The film’s structure, like Thompson’s investigation and Kane’s life, is extremely fragmented. This is apparent not only through the films non-linear narration, but also through its stylistic fusion of multiple genres, which is clearly evident through the use of the newsreel. Moreover, the newsreel itself is fragmented and incomplete and presents the puzzle with a missing piece that is the reason behind the investigation that drives the narrative. Additionally, in noting that the newsreel is at odds with Welles’s traditional style of filmmaking, Domino highlights the fact that the newsreel is used deliberately to serve a larger function within the film. Thus, this article pertains to my thesis because it addresses Citizen Kane’s stylistic innovations and demonstrates how many aspects of the film operate on multiple levels—the newsreel in this case— creating the depiction of Kane as an elusive and contradictory persona.
Henderson, Brian. “Notes on Set Design and Cinema.” Film Quarterly, Vol. 42, No. 1 (Autumn, 1988), pp. 17-28
In this article Brian Henderson discusses trends in set design and art direction in both classic and modern filmmaking, using films like Bringing Up Baby (1938), The Rules of the Game (1938), Johnny Gituar (1954), and Citizen Kane (1941) to provide examples. Henderson begins by noting that distinctive creators among set designers and production directors have been recognized as auters in their own right, just as directors, writers, and cameramen before them. He discusses Donald Albrecht’s book Designing Dreams: Modern Architecture in the Movies with respect to his decision to include production still photographs rather then frame enlargements. Henderson asserts that production stills only provide us with a photograph of a set as it were designed and fail to depict a set as it were captured on film. Moreover, he goes on to say that a film set is extremely complex and cannot be captured by a still camera as no single vantage point can contain it in its entirety. Henderson says that such complex sets are often used in conjunction with special effects that create spatial illusions. Often miniature sets are constructed to replace sets, in part or whole, and built to scale or by devices that create composite images such as rear projection, glass shots, traveling mattes, the Shufftan process, or an optical printer. Henderson goes on to talk about the special effects used in Citizen Kane. An interview with Linwood Dunn, who did the optical printing for the film, speaks to the extensive alterations and photographic effect techniques that were utilized during post-production. Henderson also goes on to mention techniques used by Renior, and Hitchcock and concludes by questioning the state of modern set designs with respect to innovative cinematic techniques.
This article pertains to my thesis as it discusses the special effects and post production alterations that were made to Citizen Kane which contribute to the films stylistic innovation. As previously touched upon in Carringer’s article, Welles’s use of deep focus shots is an integral part of the film’s cinematic achievement, and this article details the techniques behind such shots. The interview with Linwood Dunn reveals that special techniques other than advanced hardware were used to achieve the deep-focus shots that Welles desired. For example, the deep focus shot of Susan Alexander’s suicide attempt is actually an in-camera matte shot, and the shot of Kane at the end of Xanadu’s long corridor is actually a composite of three individual photographed elements. By examining the formal cinematic techniques that underlay the films stylistic composition, Kane’s cinematic feat is evermore illuminated.
This article pertains to my thesis as it addresses the unique narrative structure of Citizen Kane and its implications. Thompson’s search for the meaning behind Kane’s last words takes him to five people, who knew Kane well, each of whom tell five different and biased stories. As Leff points out, the biased narration of each person is not only evident in the story they tell but also in the images that are provided in each flashback. What results is a fragmented and ambiguous narrative analogous to the viewers final impression of Kane, who in the end (even with the discovery of rosebud) appears ever more elusive. While the film is often criticized for its ambiguous ending, Kane is innovative in the sense that it represents a departure from traditional Hollywood conventions that insist upon narratives that end with neatly packed resolutions.