Film Noir became popular in the post-world war era because of its unique and narrative style with a focus on the female antagonist, the femme fatale. The story often features a male protagonist with a secret past who is trying to move on but is forced to return to his post because of the occurrences of an event or a character, often the femme fatale, with whom the protagonist shared a past. Most noir films are hard-boiled crime thrillers that follow a flash-back narrative style.
“The noir world can be external or internal. The external world is usually the dark, mean streets of the big city, often Los Angeles with its beaches, apartments, and palm-line streets. The internal world is the violence/trauma/nightmares in the hero’s mind” (Dumont). Also, film noir relies heavily on the use of shadows and dimmed lights as part of the mise-en-scene to create an image that gives the audience a sense of fear and paranoia.
Often the frame of the shot is very distinguished between light and shadows, the outlines are bold. Released in 1941, Citizen Kane appears at the head of the noir cycle. Welles and his cinematographer Gregg Toland broke the boundaries and convention of Hollywood when they made the decision to invest a considerable amount of time in exploring new film techniques for Citizen Kane. In the way it tells its story, as well as in its visual idiom, the film contains many of the crucial elements that were to define noir technique.
“With its journalist assuming the role of the investigating detective, and its quest for the meaning of Rosebud substituting for the who do it motif of the traditional murder thriller, Citizen Kane is constructed like a mystery” (Toland). Charles Kane’s life is told through flashbacks of his second wife, Susan Alexander, his colleagues, Jed Leland and Mr. Bernstein, and a short excerpt from Mr. Thatcher’s diary. Each person recounts a few events they shared with Mr. Kane. Orson’s unique narrative style with the use of flashbacks was a pioneering breakthrough in scriptwriting; noir films frequently use flashbacks as a way of explaining the protagonist and feminine fatal’s past. However, it is important to note that there is one main difference between a noir film and Citizen Kane, a lack of a female antagonist.
In noir films, the femme fatale would use her sex appeal to manipulate men to work in her favor, but in Citizen Kane, the two main female characters are tortured by Kane’s inability to love. He cared too much for the people around him he seemed to forget the people closest to him. Kane’s first marriage ended in a disaster. On the other hand, Kane’s second wife was trapped within Kane’s grasp because she is all Kane had left, a reminder of the glory days. Neither female character had a strong enough presence on Kane that make them the famine Fatale, but rather they were subject for Kane’s own presence. However, besides this one contradiction, Citizen Kane embodies aspects of film noir through the way the movie is filmed. An example of the innovative cinematic style that Welle used is Kane’s rise to fame throughout the movie. Kane’s rise to fame is contrasted by bright lighting to highlight his success while the dark lighting and shadows isolate Kane within the shot, through the depth of field.
The change in brightness hints at the progression of Kane’s character over time, during the celebration dinner scene, Kane is highlighted in the dance number in front of the camera with a dimmed light and very crowded background filled with dancers. In a later scene, Kane is seen sitting in his skybox observing Susan’s horrendous opera debut, hiding in the shadow is a man ashamed by his actions. He was a man who thrives under the spotlight, but a false move and he turned to a spectator in the dark who no longer held a voice of his in this world. This scene, it fits noir very well because it uses different lighting and shadows to make the viewer understand how Kane feels in that moment. Another good example of this would be the scene just after the news on the march segment of the movie. We see a dark newsroom with light only coming from the small windows on the wall of the room. All the faces are covered by shadows, forcing the viewer to focus on Kane. The dark, foggy newsroom gives the idea that the newspaper is a terrible place to work at.
Especially in contrast with the scene before where bright lighting is used to build up the newspaper industry in the march segment. In terms of film noir, it’s using low-key lighting and dark interiors that are prevalent in noir movies. By using these it is telling about the environment and surroundings without specifically saying it, making the viewer have to pay more attention to the mise-en-scene. Also, when examining the lighting in Citizen Kane, one can explore the film noir aesthetics that the film contains, using the scene in which reporter Thompson is assigned to uncover the meaning behind rosebud, in which Thompson is frequently shot in a half-light or framed from behind. “This technique, known specifically as high-contrast lighting, prefigured the darkness and low-key lighting of future film noirs” (Dirks). Furthermore, using a wide depth of field was well outside the comfortable realm of filmmaking in the 40s, and Toland should be credited for devising the techniques needed to give this film the look that they had envisioned.
Welles and Toland decided that they wanted to replicate a look comparable to what the human eye sees, not the narrow depth of field look, complete with a fuzzed-out background that Hollywood accepted as tradition. “Using advance camera techniques such as decreasing the amount of light taken into a lens by stopping down, shooting on to a high-speed film, using specially coated lenses and cutting edge lighting methods, Welles and Toland were able to create a very wide depth of field, unlike anything ever achieved before” (Kael). Furthermore, Welles and Toland’s use of deep-focus photography was used to heighten the depth of the characters, specifically by allowing the viewer to witness a number of points of interest at the same time. A good example of this would be the scene where young Kane is outside throwing snowballs and his parent are inside speaking with Mr. Thatcher. Several cinematography techniques are used in this scene.
They include specific positioning of characters, certain lighting, and focusing shot techniques. First, the positioning of the characters is very specific and planned. Young Kane is outside away from the other characters. This shows that he has no power over what is going on, and it also represents the fact he is the center of attention inside the house It also represents the looming loss of his childhood. Inside, his mother and Mr. Thatcher are sitting together at a table. They are positioned at the same height because they are the one in control over the situation and are called the shots. The father is positioned to the side to show he is opposed to whatever the mother feels is right because he is standing and she is sitting. Furthermore, the lighting in the scene embodies noir. There are obvious shadows over the father’s face. This also represents his uncertainty and opposition to the mother’s decision. The shadows make the audience question who he really is and why he is so opposed to the mother’s decision because shadows provoke a sense of uncertainty when used correctly.
Also, by utilizing deep focus, even though Kane is not near everyone else, you can still see everyone clearly. This shows that Kane has the least control in the situation. Furthermore, he is surrounded by white snow compared to the dark house, showing his innocence at the time. “It is important to note that even though some stylistic methods were not created by Welles, and were introduced prior to Citizen Kane , it his ability to combine all these different elements to tell his story that makes Citizen Kane”(Cowie). Also, the way this scene used noir style of filming and lighting was important because it set the tone for the rest of the movie. It showed the philosophical approach the movie was taking from the very beginning. The reason Kane strives for power is based on the Freudian idea that incessant memories are repressed, so his aim for power is due to the helplessness he felt as a boy when his mother decides to send him away. Similarly, this also brings up the Freudian idea of the Oedipus complex, where there is a strong connection to the parent of the opposite sex, and if this connection is broken, it will continue to haunt the child’s ability for love.
This was established throughout the movie by using noir-style lighting techniques of using shadows and different focuses to show how Kane is feeling throughout the movie. Another contradictory element is the Declaration of Principles, that are ignored when it is expedient to do so. These principles speak of a young idealist, but are then contradicted by the disregard for them as his hunger for power is enhanced. Kane’s view towards his audience of the Inquirer are said in the breakfast montage scene when Kane says, “People will think what I tell them to think”. There is no thought for society’s own interpretation of the man, he is an authoritarian figure. “The path towards riches and a fulfilled life is being well-liked. He serves to please others. He strives for attention. Kane’s passion for honesty in his newspaper fades. He hires from his competitors, makes up dramatic headlines, and betrays his friend” (Bartleby).
He constantly wants to be well-liked and make people happy but his own selfish agenda causes him to push everyone away. As a result, being well-liked became unattainable and he died alone among all his possessions because those are the only things that he could buy with money. This is also a good example of how noir worlds can be external or internal. The movie shows two different takes on external and internal noir worlds that we can look at. When Kane was a child, in terms of the external, he was living in the middle of nowhere with little money. The lighting of the interior of the house shows how old and run-down the place is. However, in terms of internal, he was happy to just be with his parents. Even though he was by himself playing in the snow, he was genuinely happy. On the other hand, after Kane is sent away and becomes wealthy, it is the complete opposite. On the outside, you see his lavish lifestyle with his different businesses and his house in Xanadu.
However, in in terms of the internal, we see the struggle he has making a real connection with the women that he meets because of his relationship with his mom. This manifests into him constantly looking to buy things to fill his void and ending up alone. Not only does the film have a philosophical specificity but it also has a historical specificity. “Citizen Kane was being produced exactly when the isolationist vs. interventionist debate was at its height in America: the film was released six months before Pearl Harbor” (Street). One side is where people either wanted to stay out of World War II and let everyone else deal with that, which would be isolationist. On the other side, people wanted to help out the allies because the rest of the world was at stake, which would be interventionist. Welles was a big proponent of America intervening in the Second World War. To illustrate his point, Welles portrayed Kane as obsessed and isolated, surrounded in Xanadu by all these different objects he collected from Europe. Kane represents American Isolationists that love European culture but do not want to get politically involved and help in the war.
The idea was that how could you take from so many different aspects of Europe and not care what happens to them. Also, in Citizen Kane, it gives the idea that the American Dream is not something to be sought after and that money cannot buy you happiness. Similarly, film noir lamented the American Dream’s failure. Film noir depicted the contrarian underbelly of American popular culture’s heroic image of itself. This ties back to a time where the US was coming out from the Great Depression and World War II. Kane is his happiest when he is still living in the boarding house with his parents. Even though he has no other friends to play with and his family is poor, he is still happy because he is with the people he loves. However, when he is given all the money and things he could ever wish for, it does not make him happy. As an adult, he uses his money and power to buy love or make people as sad as him. In the end, he ends up alone in Xanadu, surrounded by his possessions.
This is such a strong message because this was during a time where the United States was coming out of the Great Depression so many people still did not have a lot of money. It showed that you can be happy even if you don’t have money as long as you are surrounded by people you love. This builds off the idea in film noir it doesn’t have the happy Hollywood ending people are used to. In general, most film noirs focus on a reflected sense of emptiness, dislocation, and loss. In terms of looking at different analyses and researching more about Citizen Kane and its impact on film noir as a whole, I found that a lot of people thought the same way did. Even though Citizen Kane does not fit every aspect of a film noir-like having a femme fatale.
It encompassed the visual style of film noir: “the hard/undiffused look of the tabloid newspaper with cluttered/claustrophobic/dark interiors framed or restricted by the camera frame, off-angle and deep focus camera shots, stark chiaroscuro, low-key lighting, bleak/fatalistic overtones of despair and madness, and ‘heightened’ expressionistic scenes with elements distorted /nightmarish /grotesque /exaggerated” (umont). However, there were some aspects that I disagreed with. There was one analysis that said that noir films dialogues between the protagonist and the femme fatale are rarely lengthy conversations. The main issue I have with his is that I don’t think film noir is characterized by short conversations. In many movies that we have seen in class, there has been a lot of conversation between the protagonist and the femme fatale. Also, another thing I don’t agree with is the idea that Kane fell in love with any women. Like I mentioned earlier, his swift and sudden departure from his home caused him to hate his mom.
This in term caused him to never truly love another women or be intimate with one because he associates with women with this bad memory. In conclusion, I think Citizen Kane is a film worth writing about in the context about this course because stylistically, it includes a lot of different techniques throughout the movie that are prevalent in film noir. For example, there is the use of deep focus, the use of lighting to set the scene or invoke a type of feeling in the viewer. Also, it matches film noir stylistically through voice-over narration, flashbacks, central mystery, mirrors, and tilted camera angles. It also addresses the historic aspect in terms of World War II and the Great Depression and it also gives philosophical insight in terms of money not equaling happiness. With all these different aspects, it is a good example of what film noir embodies.