The Film That Shakes The World: Citizen Kane

1256 words - 5 pages

The film, Citizen Kane is recognized as a significant historical event that forever changed the face of film history. A primary reason for this is its pioneering use of mise-en-scene, which refers to the manipulation of what appears in the frame to both guide our attention and enhance dramatic effects. (Mcgraw, 112) There are a number of ways in which mise-en-scene can be used, but for this essay I chose to go into great detail about just two of its most prominent applications featured in Citizen Kane. Delving into the film’s manipulation of lighting and framing, I reveal why exactly this film is so highly revered.
Through the exploitation of single-source lighting, Orson Welles’ inventively enhanced the meaning of his film, Citizen Kane. At the time, this was a revolutionary idea because major Hollywood films typically strived to be very well lit in order to ensure the visibility of the entire frame. (Desjardins, 24) However, by purposefully leaving certain areas in the frame unlit, Welles disposed of this convention to add a layer of depth to the meaning of the film. A perfect example of this expressive use of lighting can be seen at the beginning of the film when the camera shifts to the reporters behind a newsreel proclaiming the death of Charles Foster Kane (shown in the image directly below this paragraph). There are a number of ways in which these reporters could have been filmed to deliver the same surface meaning, but Welles chose to use a very strong backlight in order to reveal only their silhouettes. In doing so, Welles essentially told the audience not to focus on these people and who they are. Rather, the focus stayed on Kane. (Ovie, 2) Emphasizing that the identity of these characters is unimportant, this manipulation of light directed the audience to the idea that it is what they seek that truly matters. Welles’ novel application of this mise-en-scene element shed a new light on how to affect a viewer’s interpretation of a film.

Exploiting light and shadow was revolutionary at the time, but its recognition as a powerful film technique did not come until years later. Robin Wood, a well-known journalist and film critic, explains that it was about 5 years after the release of Citizen Kane when the manipulation of light was formally accepted in the film industry. This primarily resulted from its successful application in Frank Capra’s, It’s a Wonderful Life. In his film, Capra chose to consistently display one town in broad daylight and another at night in order to convey the atmospheric effect of good vs. evil. (Wood) This expressive use of shadows and light eventually became commonplace in many other films as well. It is even argued that Citizen Kane is the direct precursor of noir, a genre of film that portrays a dark, dramatic atmosphere to enhance the mysterious dealings that occur. While some film historians mark noir’s inception to have occurred the previous year with the release of Strangers on the Third Floor, it wasn’t...

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