With it’s use of deep focus, strange shot angles, and impossible crane shots, the cinematography of Citizen Kane is justly famous and has been hugely influential. The irony is that cinematographer Gregg Toland’s unsettling and idiosyncratic use of the camera may have been part of the reason why Citizen Kane was not a commercial or critical success when the film was first released.
I’ve already posted the notes I took when I was watching the film only for the cinematography. Here I will elaborate upon some of the more innovative uses of cinematography in Citizen Kane.
1. Snow globe reflection shot (2:40 – 2:46). Coming near the beginning of the film, this is one of the more striking shots in the film. Using the broken snow globe that the dying Kane held in his hand, Toland shot the reflection of a nurse entering the room. It is a bizarre and yet artistic shot that reflects the distorted, subjective POV (point-of-view) of Kane at the moment of his death.
2. Mock newsreel cinematography (3:12 – 12:27). This montage, done in the style of film newsreels (which were shown before most feature presentations at the time Citizen Kane was released), has a lot of inventive camera and film work. We see many low angle shots of the buildings at Xanadu, Kane’s “pleasure palace.”
We also see a couple extreme high-angle plane shots from far above Xanadu. Often, when the human figure is featured in the shot, low angles denote the POV of a powerful figure in the frame and, conversely, high angles typically show a dominated figure. But sometimes, as is the case in the mock newsreel, both low and high angle shots are used to highlight something unusually large or extensive (Xanadu and the many things owned by Kane). Both are used to communicate power. Note also the grainy look of the older film excerpts. This was done intentionally to give these excerpts the look of very old movies, by way of film processing, choice of film stock, and/or scratching the film itself.
3. Crane shot introducing Susan Alexander (14:25 – 14:58). I discussed this shot in class. Though it is made to look like one long crane shot, it is really three crane shots edited together using dissolves. The famous crane shot in Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil is actually just one take, which makes it more impressive than three crane shots edited together (and shows the advance of camera technology). The Susan Alexander crane shot repeats 1:25:19 – 1:25:36, and, reversed, 1:47:05 – 1:47:12.
4. The relationship of Kane and Thatcher (23:08, 24:48 – 27:15). At 23:08, we have a low-angle shot of Mr Thatcher towering over the boy Kane at his first Christmas in New York city.
We then have a montage of different newspaper headlines and the older Thatcher’s response to them; in the final instance of this, there is a dissolve that takes the viewer to a shot of Kane and Thatcher at Kane’s Inquirer office. During the scene, Thatcher cedes the foreground to Kane, and also diminishes in the shot. He begins, once again, by towering over Kane, but by the end of the scene Kane is decidedly taller. I wrote about figure placement and power dynamics in Giant. Similar dynamics are in play in this scene in Citizen Kane.
5. Deep focus shot at Kane’s party (40:08 – 45:11). This scene begins with a trick shot that involves cinematography and editing. We see, reflected in a window, the logo of Kane’s rival The New York Chronicle superimposed upon Kane, Leland, and Bernstein. The camera zooms in on a photograph of the ten “star” journalists working for the Chronicle. Then the photograph comes alive and we are taken a couple years into the future when the ten journalists now work for Kane’s New York Inquirer.
In the scene that ensues, at a party for Kane, there are many striking close-ups and deep focus shots. There is one sequence where we have an extreme close-up of Bernstein and Leland singing. Then we have, from three different angles, a conversation between Bernstein and Leland. Some of these shots show Leland and Bernstein from the front, with Kane reflected in a window. As is often the case with deep focus shots, particularly in Citizen Kane, the figures in the foreground discuss the figure in the background (in this case, Leland and Bernstein are in the foreground discussing Kane in the background). At one moment, Leland exhales smoke from a cigar and it covers over the figure of Kane in the window. Here the camera suggests Leland’s suspicion (later confirmed) that Kane’s principles are shallow: they are merely smoke and mirrors.
6. Susan at the opera (1:17:26 – 1:17:31; 1:29:42 – 1:30:32). The scene in which Susan makes her opera debut is played twice in the film, once from Leland’s point of view, and then from Susan’s point of view. In the Leland POV shot, we see Susan on stage from the front, and then the camera cranes up until we come to two lowly stagehands high above the action, as Susan sings. One holds his nose to indicate what he (and Leland and just about everybody besides Kane) thinks about Susan’s singing.
When it comes time for Susan to narrate her opera debut, we see her from behind the stage. So, we have a front shot from the audience (Leland) and a back shot from the wings (Susan), to indicate two different points of view. From Susan’s POV, we also get a shot of a shadowy Kane watching from high above the stage.
This shows Kane’s dominance of Susan (from her POV). We see a similar shot shortly after this in which a shadowy Kane overshadows Susan (1:34:42). Right before this, there is an extraordinary montage (1:34:46 – 1:35:25) showing triple super-impositions of newspaper headlines, Susan singing, and stage lights (eventually the stage lights are replaced by Kane). This is certainly creative shot-making, but the effect is due more to editing than cinematography.
7. The reporters come to Xanadu (1:51:18 – 1:56:35). Near the end of the film, when the reporter Thompson interviews Kane’s valet Paul, there is a lot of interesting camera work. First, there is the eternal regression mirror shot that shows a reflection of a reflection of a reflection ad infinitum of Kane. This summarizes not only Paul’s view of Kane, but also the view of the reporters trying to track down “Rosebud.” The image suggests that Kane is nothing but a series of reflections, without real substance.
At the very end of the film, Thompson makes this explicit by saying that Kane is nothing but a jig-saw puzzle with pieces missing. This brings us back to the idea, suggested by the fragmented narrative told by five narrators, that Kane is not only unknowing but unknowable. Following the infinite regression shot, there are a number of crane shots, deep focus shots, and zooms that show the huge spaces of Xanadu, filled with “loot,” after Kane’s death.
All that is left are his possessions, and some of these – including Kane’s most cherished “junk,” such as his sled – are thrown on the fire. This suggests the transience of things, which will pass away in time. And when they are gone, the owner will be lost to memory.
Though the word Xanadu comes from the poetry of the British Romantic Samuel Taylor Coleridge, another poem by another Romantic poet, Percy Shelley, epitomizes Kane at the end of his life:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away’ (“Ozymandias”).
University of Maryland