100 mins, 1941
Directed by Orson Welles
Cinematography by Gregg Toland
Citizen Kane is widely considered by critical consensus to be the greatest film of all time. This is a massive legacy to fill, that unfortunately no film can live up. “Why Citizen Kane?”, a lot of people ask. To put it simply, Citizen Kane makes the grade due its technical achievements and because it is so well crafted that it is near perfect as a visual experience. Yet there are other films that can give you a greaer emotional experience. A good modern example would be Requiem For a Dream (2000). This is a film that once seen cannot be unseen. Requiem for a Dream is the kind of film that stays with you whether you like it or not. Requiem for a Dream can leave you devastated by witnessing the fragility of the human condition and understanding that everyone is susceptible to addiction, or the film can leave you uplifted in the knowledge that your life is better than the characters of the film. Either way the film is going to have an affect on the viewer.
Citizen Kane however, is a film that works as a technical achievement but not neccessarily as an emotional experience. This is perhaps why some consider Citizen Kane to be boring or not worthy of its place in cinema history. What makes this film so technically perfect you may ask….. Well, it mostly comes down to two concepts… Deep focus and perspective.
For the entirety of the film everything in the frame is completely in focus from the foreground all the way into the background. A good example of this is early in the film where we see young Kane outside the window playing with his sled. Closest to the camera is the mother signing the adoption papers, next to her is Kane’s adopted father and to the left Kane’s biological father wrestling with the decision to give up his child. Kane is trapped in the middle between two opposing forces.
This style of film making had never been achieved before. While these techiniques were possible and had been used in landscapes. Deep Focus had never been used as a narrative tool. Later in the film this scene is paralleled when Kane between his business partners. What is interesting about this scene is the use of perspective. As an audience we do not know how large the windows in the background are until Kane walks in. at this point we see how big the room truly is. This also demonstrates how small Kane feels. Once again the deep focus shows a character uncomfortably close to the camera and Kane is so small and insignificant that perspectively it looks as if the man in the foreground is looking down on Kane.
Throughout this scene, Kane gradually moves closer to the foreground. As we see Kane moving towards the foreground (always in focus) the status shifts between these characters, from this point onwards Kane is on the rise until his inevitable fall from grace. Thus every shot tells a story and there are almost no stagnating scenes of talking heads and exposition.
As can be seen. The film is impeccably well photographed by Gregg Toland and directed by Welles. In fact the cinematography was so important that Welles shared his title card with his cinematographer. This film is a technical achievement that has a natural flow, the beautiful craftsmanship of this film also detracts somewhat from the tragedy of the character. This is by no means a reason to dismiss the film but the emotional charge that one gets from other films is not to be found in Citizen Kane. As Roger Ebert reminded us in the Blu Ray commentary of the Pauline Kael quote “Citizen Kane is a masterpiece, but it’s a shallow masterpiece”.