Orson Welles’ film Citizen Kane, for what it’s worth, is widely regarded as the greatest American film. Orson Welles, the films writer, director, and star, came from a theatre and radio background. Since many of Welles’ radio sensibilities are present in the soundtrack, I was curious to know if the story of reluctant millionaire Charles Foster Kane could be adequately shown solely through the film’s ground-breaking visuals. Having seen this film in conventional circumstances upwards of forty times, I came into this assignment sceptical that I might find something new and exciting to take away from the experience… I am happy to say I was wrong! If anything, viewing Citizen Kane divorced of its soundtrack only strengthened my love for this film, for its story, performances and for its technical genius. Citizen Kane is visual storytelling at its finest, and with the help of the odd intertitle, could easily work as a silent film.
The entire life of Charles Foster Kane is summed up in a newsreel obituary in the first few minutes of the film. The viewer is then invited to accompany a newspaper journalist as he interviews various characters who were part of Kane’s life. Through these interviews, the viewer pieces together an intimate portrait of Kane, a man who, while exceedingly wealthy, experienced great amounts of loss throughout his life. These instances of loss are depicted brilliantly throughout the film through the use of innovative filming techniques and are not diminished when viewed without the accompanying soundtrack.
Certain mises en scene are recurrent throughout the film; the first of which is a scene where Mary Kane, Charles’ mother, learns of a great inheritance and signs Charles away into the custody of a ward of the state, thus ensuring his future education and wealth. This is Kane’s first experience with loss – that of his family and of his childhood innocence.
In this scene, a young Charles Kane plays in the snow in the background, blissfully unaware of the life changing conversation that is happening in the foreground. This blocking of characters is common throughout the film, where those who are in control of Kane’s livelihood are placed in the foreground while Kane himself seems to float helplessly in the middle of the frame.
This mise en scene is mirrored in a future scene where Kane is faced with having to sign away control of his company and assets after years of frivolous spending and mismanagement.
Here, Kane is again in the centre of the frame. At the beginning of the scene, he looms large over the two men at the table, but paces hopelessly into the background, this time painfully aware, as the men discuss bankruptcy and the seizure of his assets. There is a kind of optical illusion to the scene as when Kane wanders into the background he seems to shrink in size, revealing the windows on the rear wall to be over six feet off the ground. Kane’s center blocking and shrinking effect symbolize that he is diminished in his power and is no longer fully in control of his destiny. Without audio to hear the conversations in these scenes, the composition is still effective in conveying the somber mood and feeling of loss.
Kane was also unlucky in his love life. He married and divorced twice. The gradual dissolution of his first marriage is portrayed in a brilliant yet heart breaking scene.
Here we see Kane with his first wife enjoying small talk over breakfast. Through a series of cross cuts, representing the passage of time, we see the characters’ expressions slowly change from playful and inquisitive to stern and defiant. The final shot pulls out to reveal the couple now sitting in resentful silence at opposite ends of the table. The couple began the scene sitting side by side, and have both emotionally and literally drifted apart.
The entire breakfast scene can be viewed here:
After the tumultuous end of his second marriage and a subsequent emotional breakdown, Kane wanders somberly through a long corridor in his mansion. He passes through a hall of mirrors symbolizing his many lives and losses.
There are many instances of loss in this film. I have chosen to feature only those scenes that are most proficient in conveying a sense of loss without the aid of the soundtrack. The film as a whole functions very well as a silent film. The symbolism and the plot remain apparent without dialogue.
This post barely begins to scratch the surface of the symbolic and technical genius of this film. It was innovative in many ways, from its mock-documentary structure to its pioneering use of camera optics and special effects. I hope that if you, the reader have not yet seen it, you’ll immediately search it out (legally!) online. For those of you who have seen it, I hope you might find it as infinitely re-watchable as I have and continue to do.
Note: In an effort to keep this blog post as spoiler-free as possible; I’ve been intentionally vague on the plot of the film.
Welles, Orson. (1941) Citizen Kane 70th Anniversary Edition.
Ross, B. (1999) RKO 281: The Battle Over Citizen Kane.
Lebo, H. (2016). Citizen Kane: A filmmaker’s journey. New York: Thomas Dunne Books.
Welles, O., Bogdanovich, P., & Rosenbaum, J. (1992). This is Orson Welles. New York, NY: HarperCollins.