Citizen Kane” certainly is not a classic film noir, many would stay it does not even suit the style of noir. There are no hard-boiled private detectives or femme-fatales, and the central mystery is about the memories of an old man and his childhood sled. Citizen Kane is a noir in a sense of style and tone, featuring storytelling devices and camera techniques that would heavily influence the genre and set the direction it was going in.
Citizen Kane was made in 1941, during the World War 2 and during the time that all the main Noir films such as Double Indemnity, Maltese Falcone and Lauran were made. To do prove that Citizen Kane is a film noir, I will firstly investigate the main protagonist of the film and compare him with the typical noir anti-hero. Secondly, I will analyse the tropes and conventions of this film, seeing how they compare to those of noir. Thirdly, I will investigate the context of the film and how it was made, alongside other noir films of the time.
Word count: 178
Table of content:
Main Protagonist as a noir anti-hero. 5
Tropes and Conventions of film noir in Citizen Kane. 7
“Citizen Kane” is believed to be based around a true story of a wealthy newspaper publisher – William Randolph Hearst, who used to be a newspaper monopolist in the early 1920s. However, Mr. Hearst strongly disliked the idea of being a prototype of the protagonist in the motion picture. As a result, he would not publish any articles in his newspaper regarding “Citizen Kane”. (IMDB, 2015). Besides that, he was planning on purchasing all the negatives of the film for them to be disposed of.
However, Welles wanted to draw the attention to the idea of a financial take over and spiritual falling of the person which begins his career as the defender of simple people, but quickly becomes the worst representative of idealistic elite, which reminds us of the literal downfall of the main anti-hero, so common in noir. In effect, Kane is the “Anti-batman” and the “Anti-superman”. The newspaper magnate who has betrayed readers, he is the anti-hero that fits within the category of noir and the late modernist context of the world at war. (PBS, 2009)
Main Protagonist as a noir anti-hero
The history of Charles Kane begins with the fact that at a very young age he is given to the care of the bank. One day his mother becomes extremely wealthy. And so that her husband cannot lay hands on this wealth, she leaves it for her son and passes all of her possessions to him. The bank is interested in Charles’s wellbeing and education solely because of his huge wealth. In a sense, Kane, like Wells once, remains alone with life. It turns out that Kane is not an ordinary man, like our common noir characters: at the age of 25, finally having the opportunity of controlling his fortune, he spits on the future of a dozen subordinate enterprises and starts following his passion – the newspaper. In the first year, it brings him a loss of $1 million, but he is not bothered by this and he gives himself up completely to his own passion. The newspaper is growing stronger, and Kane, like Hirst, has now become the forefather of the “yellow press”. This newspaper portrays the personality of Kane in his essence. He is shy, but self-confident and desperate, trying to grasp the happiness, which is intended for him: kind of like our classical noir anti-heroes that only want happiness and love in their lives. For his own benefit, he is ready to do anything, even the unleashing of the two world wars does not seem to be too much for him. The story of Kane seems to be very familiar to everyone who hears it, as it just another interpretation of the search for happiness by a man burdened with intelligence and wealth. With predictable ups and downs, as well as the resulting finale, which the audience have seen more than once. That predictable outcome also goes with the context of the time, as most Noir endings had predictable outcomes.
Kane came from an underprivileged household but built himself up through his inherited fortune. He lived the American dream of starting from little and gaining mass fortune and popularity, something that every American desired at the time and could relate to, as well as relating to our anti-hero. He had the guts to go for what he wanted and did not let other hindrances (love, money, relationships) stop him, even though love and relationships are what the classical noir anti-heroes focus on, however they do ignore them in some circumstances, like Walter Neff did not care about the money in Double Indemnity, all he cared about was being with Phyllis.
Charles Foster Kane was egotistical selfish and self-centred. He cared little for the people around him, evidenced by the treatment of his two wives. He used his money as influence, thinking that in being rich, he was always right.
When it comes to heroism, Charles Kane’s character leans more towards the traits of a tragic hero due to his flaws that cause a downward spiral towards the end of his life, similar to the tragic downfall of the classic anti-hero in classical noirs, however all happening under different circumstances. As the movie progresses, we learn that Kane has trouble loving anyone. The loss of his childhood is represented by “rosebud” and expresses a hole in his heart that can never be filled. He has become a hero for the society, his success made him a hero to others even though he was really just a man yearning for something that he wasn’t able to obtain, which is exactly what makes him the tragic anti-hero that can be easily spotted amongst many other characters.
Although Kane is a man of destiny, he is often placed within the frame in such a way that suggests that he is trapped – even though there is no femme-fatale to trap him, as in classic noir, he is trapped by himself, the society and his inability to love other people. (Hirsch, F., 2008. ) Low angle shots, which enlarge his physical stature, also contain ceilings, which seem to be lower, preventing Kane from looking completely dominant. They provide an ironic counterpoint to the personality of Kane, as he is quite a dominant figure. Welles’ careful placement of all his actors within the frame restricts their freedom; they seem to move only at the director’s bidding, and the orchestration, together with the pervasive images of visual entrapment, gives the film the claustrophobic quality of the noir thrillers that follow.
Film noir has always been one of the most debated film genre for its ability to combine other elements from various genres. Despite that, Film Noir has a very specific style: lighting that establishes a specific temperament could be drawn to early German expressionist movies of the twenties and the thirties. The majority of the films lay under the category of horror films such as: “Nosferatu” and “The Cabinet of DR. Caligary”
Wells used the features of Noir in “Citizen Kane” not only because the film was shot in black and white film, but primarily because he wanted to show the dark side of the human nature of the protagonist. Voice-over narration: In films noir directors use narrator to tell the film’s story. Kane isn’t the first film to use voice overs — it was a popular technique — but Welles uses it more broadly than others, and he uses not one, but multiple narrators.
Central mystery: Most films noir offer a mystery at the beginning of the film that isn’t solved until the final reel. For example, Why is Brigid O’Shaugnessy so desperate to get her hands on the Maltese falcon? Citizen Kane, of course, has Kane’s final words, Rosebud . No one seems to know the meaning of this phrase, and the audience doesn’t find out until the end. This type of mysteries without answer helps us to fully understand nature of film noir.
Lights: The role of light in “Citizen Kane” is extremely important, the appearance and disappearance of which obeys the strict logic of the narrative. With the death of Kane in the first frames, the light in his room goes out, unambiguously indicating the end of life. Journalists, preparing a story about him, try to shed light on the history of his life, the metaphor is embodied on the screen by a light stream that cuts through the darkness of the room. The same stream of light falls on the open memoirs of Thatcher in the library hall. Kane’s strong position towards his wife Susan is also underlined by the light: she is literally in his shadow, and only before breaking off with her husband, begins to cast her own shadow.
Mirrors: Many films noir used the technique of filming through a mirror to enhance the visual style of a movie. Toland and Welles did this on a grand scale in Citizen Kane with a shot of the aging billionaire walking through the corridor, while being reflected in mirrors. Mirrors became a common device in films noir with Philip Marlowe was only seen through mirrors in ‘Lady in the Lake’ (1947). Welles himself arrange the famous hall of mirrors arrangement in ‘The Lady from Shanghai’ (1948).
Camera Angles: In contrast to the symmetric compositional nature of classical Hollywood, noir used unusual camera angles, the predominance of vertical and oblique lines in the frame, unnatural compositions of interiors with oblique, oppressive ceilings and shifted proportions, which gave the effect of disorientation in space. Toland and Welles use them in Citizen Kane, for example, to show the disaffection between Kane and his wife and son. Carol Reed used so many Dutch angles in The Third Man (1950) that the crew jokingly presented the director with a level. Shooting with the camera located at the very low level was another rather unusual technique practised in this film. Moreover, in some scenes camera was positioned bellow the floor level. Film sets were constructed high above the pavilion’s floor, which made it possible to fit the camera in between of the real floor and the one viewers see on the screen. This has allowed showing Kane as a powerful person, since the audience in most episodes is looking at Kane from bellow. This method of camera placement introduced another aspect of realism. In the majority of films, that have been produced during the 1940’s the camera would mostly be placed much higher than the floor level, filming actors from the top. In “Citizen Kane” the camera was placed in such way that viewer’s perspective was more realistic. However, this method has been known to Hollywood long time ago, but it was rarely used due to the fact, that studio sets usually would have had no ceilings. Low angle shots, which magnify Kane’s physical stature also contain ceilings which seem to weigh down on the character and to decline him. Cutting him down to size, the low ceilings provide an ironic contradiction to Kane’s dominant personality.
To be able too see the similarities between the classic film noir and “Citizen Kane” the basic conventions of this genre have to be rediscovered.
Having applied those convention to “Citizen Kane” it come apparent that Mr Welles has invented an entire new genre, which had a strong influence on a number of noir films.
The key element of any noir story is an investigation of some sort. However, in Case of Citizen Kane the reporters are presented as the investigators, and instead of investigating a murderer or any other crime they focus on the last pronounced word by the lead character: “Rosebud”.
Additional convention in relation of plot is that of narration. Once again, the news sequence included in ‘Citizen Kane’ helps as the narration to the story, which is about to be uncovered. Film noir movies also tend to have specific characters like a flawed hero, a housewife of sorts, and the dangerous female that will break the main character’s heart (Hirsch, 32). All these are present in ‘Citizen Kane’ from Charles Foster Kane as the flawed hero, to Emily Kane as the typical American housewife, and of course Suzan Alexander as the woman who breaks his heart. In terms of visual style ‘Citizen Kane’ features probably every element seen in film noirs of the 40’s and 50’s (Altman, 71). The constant use of mirrors, low-key lighting, reflections and strange camera angles are all intentionally present in Welles’ movie to establish his desired atmosphere, an atmosphere that would be dominant within the genre. Other conventions such as urban setting and corruption within a city can be found in ‘Citizen Kane’ as well. It wasn’t till 1946 that the term “film noir” was coined by French movie critic, Nino Frank, yet Orson Welles’ influence on filmmakers and detective movies from the 40’s and 50’s particularly Humphrey Bogart movies came five years before the genre became an official one (Cohen, 13). So while ‘Citizen Kane’ and both its meaningful and atmospheric lighting is often overlooked, one can see how the movies’ status grew due to Welles’ recognition of what light or rather the absence of light can do to affect the overall appearance of a movie, key scenes and their meaning and an entire genre now known as film noir.