Released in 1941, the film Citizen Kane, often hailed as “the greatest movie of all time” was groundbreaking for its time. The film was directed by Orson Welles, and because of the controversy it caused, it both made him a star and effectively blacklisted him in Hollywood. Citizen Kane undoubtedly laid the groundwork for many films to come, with its brilliant understanding of the elements of design, as well as of the concept of mise-en-scène, which is a French term that is roughly translated as “what is put into the scene.” Welles clearly understood that the way a scene is set up – the placement of props, the use of lighting and shadows, the movements of the camera, and the positioning of the actors within the frame – can reach out to the audience in a way that dialog alone cannot. Citizen Kane is a fantastic film to use as a template in the exploration of the crucial aspects of filmmaking that go beyond what is explicitly said on screen.
Mise-en-scène, as previously defined, is arguably the most powerful force that is employed by Citizen Kane to convey messages to the viewer. The movie’s title character, Charles Foster Kane, is an idealistic but deeply flawed newspaper mogul. In one particular scene, Kane, played by Welles himself, is reading his “declaration of principles” to two of his colleagues. Kane is shot from a low angle, giving him the appearance of a powerful figure, but as he is reading, his face is shrouded in shadows, leading the viewer to believe that there is something uncertain about the character, and something foreboding about what he is undertaking. Another scene shows the audience the small metropolis that Kane built as a monument to himself. As the camera pans across the property, the viewer sees a neglected zoo where monkeys roam free, a golf course that lay in shambles, and his castle, which for the exception of one light that shines near the top, is cloaked in darkness. In these scenes, the use of mise-en-scène conveys to the viewer that Kane was a man who bit off more than he could chew, enjoyed success, but let his flaws get the best of him. With little emphasis on dialog in one of these scenes, and non whatsoever in the other, the audience is told that the character has fallen from the height of his inscrutable power, and now lives a lonely and miserable life.
Travelling back to an early scene in the film, and to an earlier time in Kane’s life, the viewer is treated to Welles’ masterful use of composition and framing to tell a story by superseding dialog. The scene features Kane as a young boy, seen through the window of his family’s Colorado home, playing in the snow. As he romps joyfully outside, his parents are involved with a banker who is offering them a substantial sum of money to be paid annually for their land. The money will eventually go to Kane when he is grown, but it comes with the condition that he be brought to Chicago to start a new life. His mother is seen sitting with the banker in the foreground, while his father is placed on the left, standing up, protesting the transaction. Charles is placed centrally in the shot, through the window, completely unaware of how drastically his life was about to change. His mother and the banker are clearly in charge, essentially ignoring the father’s objections, while he feels powerless and emasculated, emotions that are demonstrated to the viewer by his positioning in relation to the other characters on screen, his impotent complaining, and his body language.
The kinetic power of Citizen Kane exhibits a balance between moving shots and those that are still, and each plays a specific role in the film. When the camera pans up the fence surrounding Kane’s property, and then across the various areas of his estate, or down through the skylight to catch a glimpse of Susan Alexander, Kane’s ex-wife who he essentially forced into a life of indentured servitude as a stage singer, the camera movements represent change. Since the movie spans almost the entirety of Kane’s life from childhood to his death, the camera’s movements can be seen as a metaphor for the passing of that time. Conversely, Welles stages many still shots throughout the film, such as the one in which a post-drug overdose Susan is seen lying in bed, looking drained and miserable, while the shadow from the bedroom window cast a figurative grid of prison bars over her. In a scene such as this, Welles fully intended on keeping the camera focused on an object to make the audience notice, at least subconsciously, messages that require no spoken words.
For its time, Citizen Kane was a brilliantly shot movie, as it was clear that Orson Welles delicately planned every scene that ended up on screen. Through the carefully considered placement of actors and objects within the frame, and through movement of the camera (or lack thereof), the film speaks volumes to the audience without relying on dialog as its main method of communicatoin. Citizen Kane demonstrates the importance of the use of mise-en-scène when it comes to presenting ideas within a complete cinematic experience to the viewer, and created a worthy foundation for all cinematographers to build upon in their work forevermore.