Friday, December 05, 2008
Movie Review: Citizen Kane
More ink has been spilled about Citizen Kane than any other film, so I won't try to top what has already been written. Orson Welles' masterpiece succeeds because it, in typically American fashion, synthesizes a variety of genres and cinematic styles together. All of the disparate forms in lighting, set design, audio recording, plot development, and almost every imaginable component which had come before it are skillfully combined. The final result deeply influenced the creation of film noir and a Hollywood fascination with mysteries for years afterward. Though William Randolph Hearst (upon whom the character of Kane is largely based) used his esteemable powers to keep the film from being widely shown, thus rendering it a box office disappointment, the end product was deeply influential to later filmmakers and then, fifteen years after its first run, hailed by critics and public alike as one of the greatest movies ever made.
Citizen Kane was shot with a relatively modest budget, and these days would have likely been brought to the attention of an audience as an independent film. Major studio films of the period were frequently lavish affairs full of expensive elements and eye candy, often at the expense of the narrative. The limitation of Kane are scarcely recognizably since Welles creative eye is so sharp that he uses every special effect available in the period to counter budget shortfalls. Not enough money to pay for thousands of extras to fill a Kane political rally? Welles uses a drawing still to serve the same effect. Not satisfied with the authenticity of the newsreel footage that introduces the audience to Charles Foster Kane? Welles has the sequence deliberately scuffed up by dragging it across a concrete floor. Unable to shoot a sequences in one exhaustive take? Welles shoots the film in two separate sections, then skillfully combines the two in the lab.
What I find particularly interesting are the camera techniques and lighting. Utilizing deep focus shots and extended takes required a judicious use of lighting. Unorthodox camera angles were used as well, sometimes shooting downward at the actors and actresses from a raised position, sometimes shooting upwards at the cast by a camera positioned on the floor. These unusual angles and lighting were deeply influenced by German Expressionism and the film that comes to mind is F.W. Murnau's Sunrise. Movies before had never created a metanarrative within themselves. Citizen Kane is one part detective story, one part cautionary fable, and two parts inventive narrative. Character development is not as refined as it would have been had the action not jumped back and forth between time. Almost all the screen time is devoted towards flashbacks from the point of view of the major characters, and that in itself was unheard of for the time. In large part due to Welles' background as a radio star, Citizen Kane is a radio play brought to life. Indeed, if the visuals were deliberately removed and only the audio were to remain, one could still easily follow the plot.
The film retains a kind of freshness that even today can be appreciated. Staid old Hollywood had been releasing one grandiose Technicolor epic and a million cookie-cutter genre pictures by the time of its release in 1941. Though its effects were not immediately felt upon the American film industry, it did influence many filmmakers to follow, and was often cited as evidence of the auteur theory of direction. Ironically, the results destroyed both Hearst and Welles. Hearst's waning influence weakened ever more fully, since the campaign to destroy Citizen Kane ultimately backfired in the end. Hearst's long-time mistress, actress Marion Davies, found herself unwittingly savaged as a talentless hack through her character in the film, Susan Alexander, which undeservedly destroyed her critical and commercial reputation in the process. For Welles, Citizen Kane was such a commercial failure that he was never able to create another film without massive studio interference.