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Citizen Kane: ‘Classical’, but not Hollywood

August 9, 2013

After taking a close look at Citizen Kane’s early scenes, a salient feature of the film’s narrative strategy becomes evident: the permanent play with Hollywood conventions.

By June Bhattacharyya

The following paragraphs do not intend to make friendship with those who dismiss Hollywood as “none-of-an-intellectual’s-business” in sublime, sophisticated tones. They strive to unearth an acceptable analysis of Citizen Kane in the light of the film’s complex combination of classical Hollywood conventions and innovative deviations. Whether this masterpiece by Orson Welles can be christened the greatest movie ever made, would be debated for ages to come.

Citizen Kane

Critics consider Citizen Kane a major landmark in the art of filmmaking

But apart from its claim to perpetual glory, critics consider Citizen Kane a major landmark in the art of film making, due to its use of established conventional techniques, as well as narrative strategies that bestow on them their earlier richness through unorthodox measures. At the time of its release in 1942, the film lacked critical acclaim. Over the decades, it has come to be recognized as a revolutionary work and an outstanding example of mainstream American film making. This essay is an attempt to recapture the vintage essence of Citizen Kane.

The usual Hollywood practice is to foreground the narration in a film’s opening passages and to present it as moderately self-conscious, oscillating between the duty to facilitate viewers with relevant details and the liberty of suppressing knowledge in parts. The initial sequence of Citizen Kane catches attention by quiet, and rather unobtrusive hints, toward its status as a filmic product. The Camera constantly moves forward lending a surreal edge to the night around the mysterious castle, tantamount to a ‘restless ghostly observer’. Neither the “No Trespassing” sign nor the wire fence can hinder the camera’s intrusiveness. It becomes the spectator’s vicarious voyeuristic eye, opening for him vistas that he wouldn’t be able to experience otherwise.

Orson Welles' first film was Citizen Kane (1941), which he co-wrote, produced, directed, and starred in as Charles Foster Kane.

Orson Welles’ first film was Citizen Kane (1941), which he co-wrote, produced, directed, and starred in as Charles Foster Kane.

The sequence however, intends to provide an exposition rather than baffle the viewer. After having literally ‘climbed over’ the fence by a series of vertical crane shots, the camera churns out blurred, dreamy images of the castle’s surroundings. Instead of a spatial orientation, the merging shots, smoothly linked by lap dissolves, result in a profound feeling of dislocation for the spectator, who can hardly draw a floor-map from the visible bits and pieces of Kane’s private grounds. The only fixed point in the background of each shot is a lighted window, located high in one of the castle’s gothic towers, which appears to guide the camera on its way towards the house.

During a close shot, the light suddenly disappears with simultaneous interruption of the soundtrack. By the time both reappear, the camera has changed its position almost unnoticed, facing the window from within. But hopes of having glimpses at the castle’s interiors never fructify. The depicted visuals remain a set of surreal images. The snow from within a glass globe, actually seems to fill the room in which, a man utters the intriguing phrase ‘Rosebud’, in an extremely hushed tone. The glass globe drops from his hand, with one of the broken convex fragments distorting the reflection of an approaching nurse.

The initial sequence frustrates the viewer. His knowledge, courtesy the camera’s obtrusive subjectivity, is limited to the fact that Kane died, and the last words that he uttered held the key either to his life, or to the circumstances behind his death. The uncanny beginning to the film is startlingly close to the classical mystery story build-up. Without realising it consciously, the audience gets introduced to Citizen Kane’s moot objective, which is to force entry into the public and private worlds of man, by trespassing the boundaries erected by them and revealing the concealed enigmas and mysteries.

Narration Unfolds 
The second segment launches with explosive music and a shouting voiceover announcing “News On The March”. Not only does the overall tone of the filmic presentation change drastically, but the narrative mode sharply transforms from creation of imagery to crisp documentation. The viewer, eager to come across more facts explaining the covert introduction, settles into the new narrative style that promises to comply. Once again, without conscious realisation on part of the viewer, the film, in the imitated typical ‘news digest short’ provides self-referential hint with regards about its actual structure. The stills of Xanadu and the headlines referring to Kane’s death relate to the early exposition, with the current documentary throwing light on those phases of Kane’s life that would be discussed later.

Time and Space 
Despite its undisputed objectivity, the focussed newsreel offering cut and dry snippets about Kane’s life (moving back and across different time periods in deliberate violation of the chronological order) does not meet the audience’s demand for explanation of the film’s enigmatic beginning.

The narrative’s shift from ” too subjective and too close up forward to too objective and usually from too far away”, retains the veil of mystery surrounding Kane.

Instead, viewers are treated to multiple collisions of viewpoints, through judgement that portray the contradictions between Kane and his life. Thatcher’s statement that “Kane was nothing more or less than a communist” is in sharp contrast to the trade unionist, who calls Kane a fascist. Both the views are indicative of the film’s general strategy of evoking counterparts to all that it displays.


Unable to figure out the Xanadu estate from the early hazy visuals, the viewer is unwillingly provided a map for the film’s investigation of Kane’s life, which becomes obvious in retrospect. The voyeuristic inclinations resurface through the newsreel’s most touching scenes that depict Kane at the end of his life; a hand held camera reveals some ‘stolen’ private glimpses of Kane’s voluntary isolation at Xanadu.

Expressionist Influence 
The journalist’s inquisitive techniques are more blunt and indiscrete compared to the camera’s silent and unobtrusive demeanour in the opening scenes. The third segment begins with an abrupt end to the newsreel’s final fanfare. The audience is transported to the projection room, dimly lit by the tardy backlight sneaking in through the windows and a desk lamp on the left.

The room is seen to house a shadowy group of journalists discussing the just screened newsreel. Rawston Thompson (the journalist’s superior) is convinced about the lack of focus of the presentation and its unnecessary stress on objectivity. He finds an appropriate clue in Kane’s dying words: “Rosebud”.

The above scenes are a thinly disguised takeoff on Hollywood screenings and story conferences. The insistence on a simple-minded story resembles the typical premises of a Hollywood producer, ” whose stock-in trade was a marketable, sugar-coated explanation of complex human problems.”


After taking a close look at Citizen Kane’s early scenes, a salient feature of the film’s narrative strategy becomes evident: the permanent play with Hollywood conventions.

The film’s preliminary exposition serves as a ‘fixed baseline against which later information is judged’, and triggers off a chain of casual motivations for facilitating the viewer’s gap filling process, thus living up to the tradition of continuity of impression, upon which Hollywood prides itself.

Orson Welles adheres to this classical tradition, enlarging its scope by including subtle, self-referential hints that point to the media’s inherent tendency of being reduced to potentially deceptive, myth-making qualities. The fact that the viewer is as dissatisfied with the newsreel’s objective and superficial presentation as the journalists, proves, that the initial survival segment has fulfilled its function.

Since “Rosebud” had no mention in the newsreel at all, the viewer’s expectations continue to mount with respect to unraveling the initial mystery. Citizen Kane, serves as a narrative that flows smoothly, aided by the extensive use of dissolves, but retains the audience’s suspense and the cover of secrecy on several subjective viewpoints. It keeps provoking the viewer’s instincts long after it ends. That’s what makes it modern, irrespective of time and space.

Watch the pathbreaking use of deep focus in Citizen Kane
For several years, Citizen Kane was rated as the world’s best movie by the prestigious Sight and Sound survey

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