Undoubtedly, the secret behind any good film lies within the director’s use of stimulating cinematic techniques. The following critical appraisal of the ‘Susan Alexander Kane’ sequence from the 1941 film Citizen Kane, explains how director Orson Welles makes use of apt cinematic techniques to set the scene at nightclub ‘El Rancho’, and to bring about Miss Alexander’s predicament in this particular sequence. The sequence immediately opens with a single flash of white lightning on the portrait of the scene’s protagonist, showgirl Susan Alexander Kane. Through suitable sound effects, the viewer is made aware that the scene begins outdoors, with heavy downpour and thunderous conditions in deep focus on screen. The portrait depicts the showgirl as happy, glamorous and attractive, which can be considered as dramatic irony here, as we are about to discover.
The portrait vanishes and the director uses a sudden blackout before exercising the technique of tracking to approach the facade of ‘El Rancho’. Tracking is efficient here as it eases the viewer into the scene whilst effectively building suspense and anticipation. The use of a continuous flash of lightning proves a very effective lighting technique as it allows for the viewer to anticipate conflict and establishes an ambivalent atmosphere from the moment the adverse weather is captured. The harsh sounding thunder that accompanies the flashing lightning is particularly poignant as it allows for the roughness of both the weather and the scene to be conveyed.
In this way it is through the cinematic technique of pathetic fallacy that the scene is set, whereby the mood of nature agrees with the mood of the scene. Using an effective crane shot and through startling, prying camera movement, the director succeeds in highlighting the setting of the scene. The blinding lightning repeatedly illuminates the rusty neon ‘El Rancho’ sign outside of the nightclub. The prevailing non-diegetic background music captures an unnerving atmosphere, with its haunting high-pitched chords played loudly on brass and stringed instruments, arousing distress in the viewer. The subjective camera bursts through the neon ‘El Rancho’ sign (almost as if the sign is sliced into two) and zooms through broken skylight to quickly travel down through the sunroof of the nightclub, using a continuity cut to distinguish outdoors and in, and to focus on the table indoors, where at showgirl Susan Alexander Kane sits with her head bowed drunkenly on her arms resting on the table before her.
To accompany the continuity cut, the director uses a suitable fade-in to affirm its transition from outdoors to indoors. As the camera draws into focus, the viewer is also drawn in as a first-person witness of events. The movement of the camera is particularly smooth in order to ensure visual clarity. A close-up is offered and captures our scene’s protagonist as a lone, hopeless figure, drinking heavily and very irresponsive to those who try to approach her.
The camera comes to a still at the sight of her in order to effectively capture her current state, coughing and spluttering one can only assume that she is inebriated. The waiter of the bar (John) enters and introduces Mr. Thompson. Deep focus is extensively used not only in this particular scene, but throughout the entire film, whereby the foreground, background and everything in between are equally in sharp focus, however a lamp does shine somewhat on Miss Alexander, drawing our attention away from the shadowy figures of John and Mr.
Thompson, whose back is turned to the camera. As Mr. Thompson first approaches Miss Alexander in order to investigate her about Mr. Kane, his shadow is cast on her face.
Dark and domineering, it completely shields half of her front, helping to create the right balance to highlight eyes, clothing detail and hair definition. As Mr. Thompson sits, the shadow is withdrawn and the showgirl’s face is revealed in its entirety once again. It is significant to note that we only see Mr. Thompson in shadow or with his back turned to the camera in Citizen Kane, perhaps the director does this in order to characterise him as mysterious or incomplete.
The mise-en-scene is significant. The room behind Miss Alexander is densely furnished, yet the camera frames an enclosed space, perhaps the director establishes this dichotomy in order to convey her suffocation. Miss Alexander refuses to be investigated concerning Mr. Kane’s death and demands to be left alone.
We are aware that there is no other background noise other than the lingering brassy music that began at the scenes opening, which for the first time can be considered diegetic, as it becomes a part of the story-world, whereby there is a chance that the characters in the club can hear it. The camera can be referred to as omniscient as it captures all of the events taking place in the room. An attractive triangular composition between the three characters is utilised, making it easier to comprehend events in a straightforward, A-B-C fashion. Citizen Kane eschews the traditional linear, chronological narrative and tells Kane’s story entirely in flashback using different points of view. If the scene as a whole is presented through anyone’s point of view, it would be through Mr.
Thompsons, however, his back is turned on the camera, so one might believe that the scene isn’t given through a particular characters point of view, but is open to interpretation by the omniscient viewer. Mr. Thompson attempts to interview Miss Alexander, but instead of answering the curious reporter, she shouts hysterically at him, ordering him to “Get out of here. Get out! ” Once again, a shadow is cast on Miss Alexander as Mr. Thompson apologises and raises from his seat, but this time the shadow shields her entire face as she draws her eyes to the ground beside her forlornly. The darkness cast on her character conveniently reflects her melancholy mood.
This technique is particularly commendable because not only does it reflect Miss Alexander’s misery and Mr. Thompson’s fruitless efforts in investigating the truth about Mr. Kane’s dying words, It allows for the protagonist of the scene to be taken out of focus efficiently, without confusion and for the focus to be put elsewhere. The camera then tilts upward away from shadowed Miss Alexander and focuses on the waiter standing behind her, who nods at Mr.
Thompson, ushering him to let her be. The camera then pans to the right along with the movement of Mr. Thompson and the waiter, creating immediacy. When they come to a halt, a dim, shadowy scene is framed as Mr. Thomson leaves the club, casting darkness once again on those he leaves behind. The scene conforms to expressionism throughout, a movement which evolved in the 1920’s in fields such as architecture, painting and cinema.
Instead of depicting an ideal situation, whereby all characters get along and there is no tragedy, the director is concerned more with an unabashedly subjective experience of reality, not how others might see it. The expressionist director rejects tradition and deviates from accepted concepts of woman beauty in this particular scene because he desires self-knowledge and comprehension of the meaning of existence in its loneliness, horror, and threat of death. Miss Alexander, Kane’s second wife, is no longer the happy, dancing showgirl, but an alcoholic who so helplessly mourns the death of an enigmatic man who was “born poor and raised by a bank” (Welles). Events are depicted as they are, and not sugar-coated for the sake of appeasing an audience. Expressionism prevails throughout Citizen Kane in its entirety, making the film all the more original and riveting. In conclusion, it is through clever cinematic techniques such as shadowing, deep focus, tracking, composition, point of view, tilting, fading, cutting, blackout, flashback, omniscient camera, panning and the conformity to expressionism that director Orson Welles succeeds in making Citizen Kane a “uniquely American masterpiece of the 1940’s” (Marion Davies).
Citizen Kane. Dir. Orson Welles. Perfs. Orson Welles, Dorothy Comingore, William Alland.
RKO Radio Pictures, 1941. Film. Davies, Marion, The Times We Had: Life with William Randolph Hearst; foreword by Orson Welles, May 28, 1975. Indianapolis and New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc. , 1975.