Citizen Kane (1941)

Five Cinematic Technique's Orson Welles' 'Citizen Kane' Elevated

By: Domonique Cox-Salberg

Citizen Kane is a film that powered cinema into the future and is often regarded and revered as one of the best films ever made. Nonetheless, this article is not here to argue that, but instead, show that its reverence is earned by discussing the film’s elevated visual moments that have and will always be valuable to the craft of filmmaking. These include the cinematic techniques: flashback, deep focus, montage, inventive transitions, and unusual camera angles.

Flashbacks

Immediately, the film’s first frame is of intelligent visual depth and narrative contemplation. That being of an eerie single lite window from an upper room of its Xanadu fortress—is one of an abundance of brilliantly cinematic shots that make up Citizen Kane. So, following a plot that deals with unearthing the media tycoon Charles Forster Kane’s memories, it is only fitting that flashbacks were heavily used. Kane’s death happens in the first act and functions as the catalyst for the film and his last word, “Rosebud.” In doing so, the plot and use of flashbacks formed a suspenseful and alluring story for viewers, all while seeking to answer the “Rosebud” mystery.

The opening scene of Xanadu.
Leland talking about Kane's marriage.

Essentially, and in another way, it was used to replicate the detachment Kane begins feeling from early childhood and throughout his life after that. They were also cleverly planned, as when Joseph Cotton’s Jed Leland reminisces about Kane’s marriage, already positioned camera left, to allow the next scene to dissolve in, while Leland is still talking about it. Brilliant.

Deep Focus

Furthermore, Citizen Kane enabled the audience to view every detail in several scenes by keeping all elements in the frame, which required innovative combinations of camera lenses, lighting, and composition to achieve. His use of deep focus was most impressive in its ability to function gracefully and his creation of rich mise-en-scène within a single shot. It enabled the film to tell the story dynamically and never feel unnecessary.

Therefore, an excellent scene that showcased the efficacy of the film’s deep focus is when Thatcher tells Kane’s parents that he would adopt the young Charles Kane. As young Charles Kane is playing in the snow, visible through the window, the characters’ facial expressions can all be appreciated by the audience and the situation’s somberness.

Montage

Then there are the visually stimulating montages used to introduce the audience to the Citizen Kane narrative. A montage—a series of shots shown to make a brief and concise point—is memorably applied after the death scene of Charles Kane, where we are informed of the significance of his death through a montage of newspapers headlining it through seamless, effective editing.

And another way, employed to portray the characters’ relationships over time and show how they once were for perspective. As with Kane and his wife Emily’s deteriorating marriage, their relationship’s depth is fully appreciated because of the montage.

Confirmed by the final wide shot of two dispassionate partners, sat apart and sharing a table but little else.

Inventive Transitions

One of many inventive transitions in the film, it is my personal favorite: the staff photo. It starts when adult Kane, now a newspaper publisher, admires the photo of staff from a rival paper, The Chronicle, followed by the camera moving in on the line-up. Kane then tells us that he brought every member up to work for his Inquirer paper six years later. The shot ends with Kane walking into the shot to reveal that they are now posing in exactly the same position, but this time for his own photo.

Optical Illusions: Camera Angles and Scale

Nevertheless, unlike the shots discussed before, these next techniques show why Citizen Kane is often referenced as one of the most innovative and best films of all time. These would be the strange, optical illusions Welles achieves through his instinct for spatial composition, inventiveness, and blocking of his performers. One example of this is when Kane’s political rival Jim Geddes reveals his mistress to Susan. The inventive spatial framing and blocking of their competing glances and eye lines work further to heighten the complicated web of emotions at play.

Another optical illusion Welles cleverly implements is during Kane’s political rally at Madison Square Garden. Ordinarily, it would demand a huge number of extras to give a sense of the event’s scale. Instead, they used matte drawings of the arena, with small holes cut to allow light to shine through, giving impression of audience members and movement.

Madison Square Garden scene.
Kane's post-election defeat scene.

And lastly, the film’s regular use of low angles required the innovative use of ceilinged sets—best for suggesting limits to its protagonists’ rise to power. Kane’s post-election defeat sequence shot in the film’s lowest angle demonstrates this best. An incredibly well-made film, Citizen Kane is a must-see for movie fans and an essential study for aspiring storytellers. 

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