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Citizen Kane is often called the greatest film ever made

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After hearing that the film ‘Citizen Kane’ was considered the greatest film ever made, I had very high expectations. Especially when most of the films in my era have had millions of pounds spent on them to create special effects and to make them look and feel real, like ‘Titanic’. But this film; a story of a rich and successful American who could probably have had whatever he wanted, although his life was never quite complete, was a big change from other films of its era. The realism of the film was something no one had ever seen at the time of its making, and it became the basis of many films to come.

The use of the deep-focus lens allowing background as well as foreground and the use of ceilings on sets were all new to the film industry at the time, which added to the reasons why it became so highly rated. No one had ever seen the different uses of lighting to express the mood, or the flashbacks to tell a story. The use of montage managed to get over the problem of covering such a long time. These were not the only things new to film making. Distance shots to emphasise size, flickered shots to make it look old and authentic, and unusual narrative techniques to tell the story of Kane’s life were also new.

This film has become a historical landmark in the making of motion pictures, and modern directors still look back at it in awe. One interesting feature was the way that the film starts at the end. It lets the audience know the story, so it then does not know where the film is going or what is going to happen. This is a characteristic of the film I admire because many films make it predictable and we can guess what’s going to happen at the end. But ‘Citizen Kane’ started with confusion. I did not know where this film was going. There seemed no cause and effect. However, it does not just read his life off a sheet of paper.

It is told through a newsreel which makes us think that it is real. It is basically applying radio technique to film. It also uses the name ‘News on the March’ which is a parody of the newsreel at the time, ‘March of Time’. It uses montage with newspaper headlines from many countries, as a way of getting across an important message. For example when his affair with his second wife to be, Susan Alexander, was uncovered. The headline read, ‘Kane caught in love nest with “singer”‘. At the start of the newsreel, it also has a montage of newspaper headlines to announce his death from all over the world, showing his importance and his popularity.

We see Arabic and Chinese headlines as well as European headlines which shows he is world famous. Realism played a big part in the directing of ‘Citizen Kane’. In just the opening scenes, there are several examples. The newsreel itself gives a sense of realism, because people see newsreels every day in life so when we see one in a film, it feels authentic. Some of the shots of Kane in his later days are done with a hand held camera from behind a fence which shows that he did not want the newspapers annoying him, almost as if they are real newspapers.

In certain parts of the newsreel, the film has been scratched almost as if it is an aged film. It shows clips of his weddings, and of his public speeches, which look as if they are real and were filmed many years before. There is one in particular where he is standing next to Hitler on a balcony before making a speech. The audience would know that Hitler is not an actor and therefore it puts a doubt in their minds whether it is a film or if it’s for real. Some of the cuts are jerky and this is a deliberate effect to add to the authenticity of the film shots.

The scratches on the picture and jerks are done by just literally rubbing the film with sandpaper or something with a reasonably rough surface. The overlapping speech also gives the sense of a real argument because when people argue they do not want to hear the other persons point of view. Another feature that helped add to the realism was that the actors were nearly all unknown. When we see well-known actors, every time we see them in a film, we are aware of them playing a part, but with unknown actors we’re never thinking about who they are.

We only think of them in the part they are playing, so that is why it seems real. We, as the audience and the people at the time of release knew that it was indirectly linked to the life of William Randolph Hearst. So when we see ‘Citizen Kane’, we see traits of Hearst in him and we see the link between Hearst’s palace ‘San Simeon’ and Kane’s ‘Xanadu’. Hearst was hugely liked and disliked just like Kane and they both came into money through small newspapers. Kane’s life story is more or less the same as Hearst’s and this adds to the realism.

Deep focus was the result of the creation of the new wide-angle lens, which allowed the camera to not only see foreground but background as well. It was a very new idea to the world of film and was not possible before the creation of this lens. It helped emphasise relationships between people as if the further they were away on screen, the further they were away from the other person, in the film. One of the best examples of this is the childhood scene when Mr and Mrs Kane and Walter Thatcher are at the front of the shot and Kane is outside playing in the snow, which we can see clearly through a small window in the centre of the screen.

Kane does not have a care in the world at that point and he is just outside enjoying himself and we can hear him shouting over the tops of the voices in the foreground. But in the foreground it is very serious, discussing Kane’s future without him even knowing it. The distance between the parents and Kane on screen is symbolic of the distance between them in their relationships. At that point, Kane is about to be taken away to live with Thatcher and does not see his parents again. We also see deep focus when Thompson is in Susan Alexander’s dancing bar, and he is ringing back to the news writers to tell them what he has found.

Thompson is in the phone booth in the foreground in darkness, whereas Susan is sitting at a table through the doors behind. It is a deliberate effect to show that she is still involved in the scene, even though she is not talking herself. The wide-angle lens also allows for ceilings to be part of the shots, which had not been seen before. It means that camera angles could be from almost anywhere and not have to account for the lack of a roof. This helped to emphasise the power or weakness of a character, and the mood of a scene. This can be seen when Kane is opening up his presents at his first Christmas living with Thatcher.

The shots of Kane are taken from up high where Thatcher was looking down on him, and the shots of Thatcher are taken from Kane looking up at him from the ground. A sense of threat and power are clearly emphasised by this camera angle technique. When Welles was trying to put across a particular message, he would use a number of short, sharp shots to grab our attention. This is known as montage and was very effective in this film. The fact that the film covered Kane’s whole life, meant it needed to go through years of his life in a short period of time, and the use of montage made this possible.

It showed the importance of something, or told us part of the story line by giving out information through snapshots, which, when linked, speak volumes. In the newsreel, there is a montage of newspaper telling us of his death. We see papers from all over the world, showing how famous he actually is. We also see this again when the newspapers are telling of Kane’s affair with Susan Alexander. This tells part of the story line but also shows the importance in just one shot. There is also use of montage when the newsreel is showing ‘Xanadu’ which is Kane’s hugely outrageous palace of a home.

The shots just wipe off one after another and every shot is different so we can only imagine the actual size of the place. We see shots of the different world leaders he met, like Hitler, shots of newspapers rolling upwards as they are being printed with headlines to do with him, and shots of some of the parts of his estate being closed down. All of these are important factors in his life story but are only glanced over in terms of how long the film shows them for. However the audience knows it important and all goes to build up a complete picture.

I believe atmosphere and setting are crucial to this film in that it helps to create the mood of a scene. The film begins with a dark, gloomy and unclear scene. There is a mist in the air as the camera is filming parts of ‘Xanadu’ in darkness. It is very confusing, almost like Kane’s life and it shows a mental weakness, that he has to buy all these outrageous things to give meaning to his life. The huge ‘K’ on the gate and the ‘No Trespassers’ sign represent the loneliness of Kane and it is just a forefront of his power to cover up his weaknesses. Then the camera slowly creeps up towards one window that has a single light on.

The music is slow and threatening which signifies that something is about to happen. The light suddenly goes out and then comes back on seconds later. It is at this point when Kane dies, but we could almost tell something bad was going to happen, by the mood of the scene. I think the music on the newsreel is the most important part about creating the right atmosphere as it jolts us out of the first scene. The music is lively and upbeat when the newsreader is talking about the high points of Kane’s life, and it is a more low and threatening tone when it talks about bad points of his life such as his affair.

After the newsreel, it moves to the newsroom where reporters are discussing what they think ‘Rosebud’ might be and how to find out what it is. They are in complete darkness apart from three beams of light, which means that all we can see is shadows. They are literally in the dark as well as being in the dark about ‘Rosebud’. When Thompson is on the phone in Susan Alexander’s dancing bar, he also is in the dark and when he is reading Walter Thatcher’s manuscript, there is just one beam of light on the desk and he is hoping he will find something that will bring them out of the dark.

This expressionistic use of lighting is a key feature of this film. I also think that the snow links to the fact that he is a cold and lonely person, and that the one true love of his life is a snow sledge. The snow adds to the atmosphere when he finds out that his mum and dad are letting him go to live with Thatcher. It is a cold-hearted thing to do especially to there own son and this is probably why he is so cold hearted himself. The sledge is his only memory of the good times before his parents rejected him. It tells us something about the man that his life was so incomplete, his deepest affections were for a childhood toy.

Some of the other techniques I picked up on, were the unusual camera angles and the use of triangular shapes in some scenes. When we see Kane’s death at the start, we see the maid come into the room through the reflection of a mirror. This was a completely new concept because no one had ever thought to film through mirrors or windows. We also see the camera rolling up over the bar where Susan dances so it tells you what has happened to her and then it goes in through the glass roof and down into where Thompson is talking to Susan. It is unusual but it is a clever way of letting us know her fate, without even seeing her.

In the library where Thompson is reading Thatcher’s manuscript, the camera rolls along the line he is reading which has a year at the end of it. The film then goes into a flashback of what he has just read, and so we understand what is happening without any explanation. We see a triangle set up of the characters in some of the shots, which help to show, who is more important in that scene. We see this in the childhood scene when Mrs Kane is the one at the front who is calling the shots, Thatcher slightly to the left and behind who is just listening to her and Mr Kane who is far behind who almost has no say in the matter.

This happens once again when they get outside to tell Kane, although he is in the centre of the picture so we can see his reaction to what is happening. This spatial awareness shows a lot about the characters, which added to the dialogue, helps the audience understand. After examining the significant features and techniques of the opening scenes, I am given just an insight into why this film is so highly regarded.

Taking a lot of these things for granted now, many young people would probably disagree and go for a recent film as their favourite with lots of special effects and stunts in it. When we consider the fairly standard formula of most Hollywood films of the time, we need to realise what a risk taker Welles was. Many of the innovative techniques seen in this film can be seen repeated and built upon over the years. Perhaps that is why it is film directors, as well as film audiences, which continue to vote this film as the number one film of all time.

Read also:

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