Another approach to the film has been to focus on it purely as a cinematic text. This has led to a good deal of work which considers the various technical innovations and manipulations of cinematic form which distinguish Citizen Kane. In the most reductive instances the film has almost been seen as a training manual for would-be directors, providing a catalogue of the differing effects of tone and atmosphere which cinema can achieve. In Richard Barsam’s Looking at Movies it is the use of sound which comes under scrutiny, particularly in the party sequence at the offices of the Inquirer (Barsam 2007: 306–11). For Robert Kolker, it is the highly distinctive deployment of deep-focus photography in the arrangement of shot compositions which calls for close examination (Kolker 2006: 70–4). Bordwell and Thompson’s now classic Film Art: An Introduction instead turns its attention to the narrative construction of Citizen Kane, systematically breaking this down into ‘segments’ to illustrate the complexities of its construction and the sophisticated handling of time transitions (Bordwell and Thompson 2004: 91–102).
It is certainly understandable that the film has been read as a technical tour de force. From the use of ceilinged sets and fly-away scenery, through the overlapping dialogue (which Welles had previously used as a director and actor with his Mercury Players theatre company), to the barrage of acute camera angles, swooping crane shots and startling lighting effects, the film offers a shot-by-shot repertoire of dazzling cinematic devices. This may account also for the often repeated claim that the film’s principle weakness lies in the emotional coldness which arises as a consequence of Welles’ fascination with surface effects. In contrast, it is precisely these qualities which account for the film’s continuing fascination according to Peter Wollen. For Wollen, all other interpretations are ultimately flawed and it is only for ‘its virtuosity, its variety of formal devices and technical innovations and inventions’ that it can be considered a film landmark. Wollen sees it almost as a work of cinematic abstraction, whose importance lies in its ‘elaboration of a formal poetic … a text which is a play with meaning rather than a vehicle for it’ (Wollen 1998: 29). Wollen is dismissive of evaluations which seek to place Citizen Kane in any wider social or cultural context. In retrospect, his essay is symptomatic of dominant theoretical trends in film studies during the 1970s and few would be likely to support his position today. It seems eminently sensible to suggest that the film might be seen as a product of the Hollywood studio system in the classical period. Even the technical qualities which Wollen celebrates are in part a consequence of the resources which RKO put at Welles’ disposal. Welles acknowledged this by giving his cinematographer, Gregg Toland, equal billing with himself on the film’s end credits.
Other film historians, including Kael, have chosen to examine Welles’ use of William Randolph Hearst as a source for the film’s content, or considered the attempts made by Hearst to suppress the film and have Welles ostracised by Hollywood. Such approaches acknowledge the complex relationship between Welles and the studio system which both furnished him with the opportunity to create Citizen Kane and then set about making sure that he would never be given such a free hand again.
What this short appraisal has hopefully made abundantly clear is the extraordinary breadth of theoretical approaches which have been applied to Citizen Kane. In addition to those already listed, there is barely space to acknowledge Andre Bazin’s immensely influential analysis of the film which held it up as an example of ‘total cinema’, its use of deep focus and sequence construction combining to produce what Bazin saw as a form of heightened realism.3 Perhaps what all of these viewpoints indicate is that the real reason for the continuing fascination of Citizen Kane is that, rather like the Charles Foster Kane himself, the film is all things to all people; its riches lie its ambiguities and contradictions.
1. See Sight and Sound, Vol. 22, No. 9 (September 2012) for full details of all the polls published to date.
2. See www.afi.com for the full list.
3. See Andre Bazin, Orson Welles: A Critical View, New York, Harper and Row, 1979.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: USA. Production Company: RKO Radio Productions. Director: Orson Welles. Screenwriters: Herman J. Mankiewicz and Welles. Cinematographer: Gregg Toland. Music: Bernard Herrmann. Editor: Robert Wise. Cast: Orson Welles (Charles Foster Kane), Joseph Cotton (Jedediah Leland), Everett Sloane (Bernstein), Dorothy Comingore (Susan Alexander Kane), Ray Collins (James W. Gettys), Agnes Moorehead (Mary Kane), Ruth Warrick (Emily Norton Kane), George Coulouris (Walter Parks Thatcher), Paul Stewart (Raymond).]
James Barsam, Looking at Movies: An Introduction to Film, New York, W.W. Norton, 2007.
David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, New York, McGraw-Hill, 2004.
Pauline Kael, Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles, The Citizen Kane Book, St Albans, Paladin, 1974.
Robert Kolker, Film, Form, and Culture, New York, McGraw-Hill, 2006.
Laura Mulvey, Citizen Kane, London, BFI, 1992.
James Naremore, ‘The Magician and the Mass Media’ in Jeffrey Geiger and R. L. Rutsky (eds) Film Analysis: A Norton Reader, New York, W.W. Norton, 2005, pp. 340–60.
John Russell Taylor, Orson Welles, London, Pavilion, 1999.
David Thomson, Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles, London, Abacus, 1997.
Peter Wollen, ‘Introduction to Citizen Kane’ in John Hill and Pamela Church Gibson (eds) The Oxford Guide to Film Studies, Oxford and New York, Oxford University Press, 1998. Originally published in Film Reader, No. 1, 1975, pp. 9–15.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.