Citizen Kane (1941)

Citizen Kane (1941) is not considered to be an example of film noir and yet there would barely be one reel of classic film noir at all were it not for this American drama film directed by, produced by, and starring Orson Welles.

Also starring Joseph Cotten and the players of the Mercury Theatre Citizen Kane appears right at the start of the great film noir years, and was released in same year as The Maltese Falcon, High Sierra and I Wake Up Screaming — all of which are full fat noir, proving the style was already underway.

At the same time, there's a case to be made for the fact that Citizen Kane is the archetypal, primal, principal and inceptive American film noir production.

Citizen Kane is not a crime film and does not feature any murder, femmes fatales, post-war anxiety, paranoia or otherwise any saps, heels, mooks, cops, roscoes, police procedural brutality or wandering palookas astray in an alienating urban environment.

That said, in the way it tells its story, Citizen Kane does contain many of the elements which we now employ to define film noir, not in the least around the various visual idioms it employs. Further, Citizen Kane does use the idea of a journalist taking up the role of an investigating detective, and in its quest for meaning and identity, Citizen Kane is constructed like a mystery.

Citizen Kane is a landmark and a way and away more than the sum of its cinematic parts, and of all the many things which this picture is, it is relevant to the formation of what was soon to be known as noir, film noir, classic film noir of all things, the darkest and most beautiful expressions of the greatest artform there was to ever be and in that artform's greatest ever period.

The entirely splintered structure of Citizen Kane is the most obvious surface effect which gives the movie its film noir bearing. The narrative labyrinth of a classic film noir production is here rendered in this expression of time and tale-telling composed within fragments of light and shadow, and as far as the full effect of German Expressionism goes, Citizen Kane may well have been the first American film to be fully steeped in this look. 

German Expressionist films rejected cinematic realism and used visual distortions and hyper-expressive performances to reflect inner conflicts. The extreme anti-realism of Expressionism was short-lived, but the techniques and themes of Expressionism were integrated into later films of the 1920s and 1930s, resulting in a specific artistic look concerning the placement of scenery and light, to enhance the mood of a film. This dark, moody school of film making was brought to the United States when the Nazis gained power and many German film makers emigrated to Hollywood. 

As these styles were integrated into the mainstream, something close to a film noir was created. Stories of betrayal, insanity and psychology were the mainstay of the Expressionistic movement as it was birthed, and so its styles became wholly integrated into the drama of noir.

Another key mannerism in the look of Citizen Kane is the claustrophobic feel, which once again became an important aspect of the noir story, and the noir repertoire. What Hollywood did so well, and Welles too, was to avoid the extremities of the styles which it borrowed from. This was more down to the studio heads who tended to have ideas about how to turn a profit, and so the edges may be taken off German Expressionism — but it's still there.

However, the exceptionally low camera angles and low ceilings which contributed to the claustrophobic look, and the fact that actors were then placed fairly meticulously within these scene-settings. So while not fully immersed in the German style, Citizen Kane is still a lot more stylised than the American films of the same period. That can't be a criticism of any of these films however — this is the most beautiful, creative and celebrated period in all of cinema's history.

Although film noir may have been born and was in its exciting infancy, it had certainly not achieved any realisation, and was not in any sense a recognised style in 1941. Still however, Orson Welles did later made films that were clearly in the film noir mode, most obviously The Lady from Shanghai (1947), Touch of Evil (1958) and Mr Arkadin (1955), which is a conscious film noir, and even an attempt at a film noir epic.

In fact, Welles used a noir style for nearly everything he worked on. Even his versions of The Trial (1963), and of Macbeth (1948) and Othello (1952), have the feel of film noir in their calculated imagery of nightmare and entrapment, their delirious angles, their bizarre settings and circumambient shadows.

Citizen Kane is likely the film it is because of its ambition. As an example of journalism and media film noir it has much to say — largely about the controlling power of the media and its attraction to men with political and other hubristic ambitions. It's worth noting that the power and wealth that Kane has, he does not gain from his newspaper business — his money is made appropriately enough from gold mining and the journalism serves a social and political end.

Lurking beneath that is a discussion about the connection between art and mass entertainment, something that was both on the minds of Orson Welles — and the Hollywood establishment itself to be fair, ever since the era immediately after World War I — and William Randolph Hearst, upon whom the figure of Kane is based. 

When in 1919 Hearst, who like Kane was a publisher and an art collector, partnered with Adolph Zukor to open a film studio, Cosmopolitan Productions, Hearst told Zukor that he had ‘‘an ambition to make the best pictures that you distribute,’’ and he placed the European painter and architect, Joseph Urban, ‘‘in complete artistic charge’’ of production. 

Urban's goal for Cosmopolitan Productions was as he stated: ‘‘to make pictures that are moving compositions in the same sense that a great painting is an immobile composition.’’ The idea here is clearly that film was not intended as a trivial object of mass entertainment, but that it was also going to double as high art.

The difficulty is of course that film differed then and differs to this day from all other exemplars of high art — such as sculpture, painting, the novel and even opera, which out of these it most resembles. In fact for some thinkers such as Walter Benjamin, film went as far as to shatter the idea of art altogether. in his writing, such as in The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility.  It's an idea that creates more issues than it solves, because if as Benjamin and others believed, film could not be annexed to art, then what was going to be claszsed as, and how could it be discussed. Orson Welles himself seemed to agree with this and in 1966 criticised the ‘‘static cinema’’ of directors who had committed the error of ‘‘desperately trying to make Art.’’ (quoted from Focus on Citizen Kane, by Ronald Gottesman).

It's interesting then that Kane has an interest in both mass media and high art, and at the same time, how often the newspaper is used as a storytelling medium in film noir, and other Golden Age productions. It was incredibly common, developing out of the silent era, and never failing to appear throughout the 30s and 40s.

A popular promotional image for Citizen Kane showed a smartly dressed Orson Welles standing on top of stacks and stacks of newspapers, seen from on high. The image is not recreated in the movie, though we do see the stack. The stacks are the hidden aspect of newspaper publication because they evoke mass production and distribution, as opposed to the one newspaper in your hand.

However, their destiny is the same sort of stack, as lifeless heaps of rubbish. Indeed, ‘‘a dying daily’’ is what the newsreel calls the Inquirer before Kane revives it, and at the same time, dying daily is the fate of all daily papers, brought into near-immediate obsolescence. 

Although it is not to be thought of as a film noir, Citizen Kane displays many hallmarks of the style, and is not just an embodiment of noir technique, but anticipates and even influences film noir as it developed in the years to follow.

Citizen Kane has so many characteristics which were to become common in classic film noir from voice-over narration, to multiple flashbacks, a questing investigator, and above all, moral ambiguity.

Add to that the creative camera work and stylised sets and the picture is complete.The absolutely ground-breaking “News on the March” opening was much imitated, but included the famous noir chiaroscuro lighting, hard-boiled dialogue and atmosphere, followed by the initiation of an investigation into a mystery followed by a non-linear narrative.

Citizen Kane also leans hard upon German Expressionism, one of the great influences on film noir, and for this we can see the establishing shot of Xanadu, Kane’s home, a gothic and grotesque house which is expressionistic to the core, and more reminiscent of something like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) than it is of any American film. 

Citizen Kane (1941) hoves into view

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