Citizen Kane’s prying lens

By Aristophanes


The following post contains spoilers for the film Citizen Kane. Reader discretion is advised.


Often listed amongst the greatest films of all time, the iconic Citizen Kane (1941) follows the story of 20th-century newspaper tycoon Charles Foster Kane, a man bearing uncanny resemblance to real-life newsman William Randolph Hearst. The movie may not break new ground from a screenwriting perspective — the same rise-and-fall archetype has existed since the Book of Genesis, after all — but it most certainly revolutionized the film industry in a technical, cinematographic sense.

Shots employed by Citizen Kane are ahead of their time, exemplified in the scene following Kane’s first and only campaign loss. There, the camera remains situated on the ground, looking up at the characters as they speak. This immobile voyeurism gives the set-up a curious, inquisitorial feel.

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It is these creative calls, made by the young, first-time director Orson Welles, that lend the film its trademark sheen. The camera, in a sense, becomes a character itself as we privately pry on the lives of others. For example, we feel as if we truly stand before Kane and company as they converse at campaign headquarters following the reveal of the film’s great scandal. Unbeknownst to the characters, we’re there, transfixed and unseen.

Other shots portray a certain psychological feel of the lens, as well. When the journalists are first watching the newsreel of Kane at the film’s beginning, nearly all of their faces are covered in shadow. The screen, alone, is illuminated, even after the reel has stopped. It alludes to the film’s focus on Kane, his decisions, his follies and the legacy he leaves behind.

If this direction isn’t obvious at the outset, it becomes all the more apparent as the tale progresses. During the entire length of the film, we never once see the face of our protagonist: the journalist investigating Kane’s enigmatic last uttering, “rosebud.”

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Citizen Kane succeeds more by the merits of its finesse and feel than by the quality of its screenplay. The film has flaws, aplenty. How do we know Kane’s death-word, in the first place? Why is the elderly Leland so unlike his younger counterpart — and played by an entirely different actor, to boot? Can a man’s personality really change so severely and without explanation?

These problems, however, are only minor detractions. The story of the ascent and tumble of Charles Foster Kane is still a meticulously crafted epic, one that not only entertains but engages its audience on a uniquely human level.

Does Citizen Kane deserve its claim as Hollywood’s greatest production? Not quite. But a bare miss of the mark is mighty praise in itself.


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