Nowadays, it became a commonplace practice among the movie-critics to refer to Orson Welles’s 1941 film Citizen Kane as the greatest American movie of all times (Lamb 1985, p. 267). This, however, does not mean that Citizen Kane has always been popular with the viewing audiences.
In fact, after having been initially released to the American movie theaters, Welles’s masterpiece has even failed to recoup its production’s costs. I believe that this can be explained by the fact that there are strong auteuristic overtones to Welles’s movie, clearly visible in the manner of how Citizen Kane was edited and supplied with contextually appropriate musical themes. In this paper, I will aim to explore the validity of an above statement at length, while focusing on the specifics of film’s sound-editing.
Even the watching of movie’s opening part leaves very few doubt as to the fact that in Citizen Kane, Wells had utilized a number of clearly formalist methods of scenes’ editing. For example, for duration of three minutes, after movie’s beginning, the viewers continue being exposed to the shots of Kane’s residence, which prior to them having been introduced to Charles Kane, establish movie’s main character as a someone strongly associated with the values of capitalistic industriousness/greed.
In its turn, this can be explained by the fact that Wells succeeded in choosing the contextually appropriate background-music to these shots, which ensures their semiotic continuity.
By listening to the ‘dark’ opening theme, viewers become endowed with a proper perceptional mood, which in turn makes it easier for them to engage with consequential scenes’ semantic content. As it was noted by Gianetti (2010): “Beginning with the opening credits, music can serve as a kind of overture to suggest the mood or spirit of the film as a whole” (p. 222).
Welles’s utilization of this particular musical theme also provided a spatial and cognitive continuity to the otherwise unrelated shots of ‘no trespassing’ sign and of illuminated windows in Kane’s residence. Moreover, this theme also serves as the foresight into movie’s ultimate conclusion, which is the reason why it can also be also heard at the very end of Citizen Kane.
Another interesting aspect of how Welles went about incorporating musical themes in this particular movie is that, on many occasions, these themes’ pitch, tone and timbre are being suggestive of the direction of plot’s unraveling. The validity of this suggestion can be well illustrated in regards to the consequential scenes in which Kane talks to his first wife Emily (00.51.59 – 00.53.55).
Whereas, the first few conversations between Kane and Emily are being supplemented with an emotionally soothing musical theme, played in the background, as their marital relationship continues to deteriorate – hence, causing Kane to refer to Emily with ill-hidden anger, this musical theme continues to gain an essentially dissonant sounding, with the last few movements being unmistakably ominous.
In Citizen Kane, however, Welles did not only prove himself a master of sound-editing, in a respect of how he was able to exploit variations in musical themes’ sounding to emphasize the qualitative essence of plot’s unraveling, but also in a respect of how he was able to utilize nothing short of musical cacophony for essentially the same purpose.
For example, the sequence of clearly formalist shots of Susan Alexander operatic performances and of Kane’s newspapers, with front-page coverage of these performances (01.34.49 – 01.35.25), which was meant to symbolize the process of Kane’s life growing increasingly absurd, features an aesthetically unpleasing cacophony of unrelated musical sounds (marching music, Emily’s singing) being played in the background.
This once again points out to the fact that in Citizen Kane, Welles never skipped the opportunity to utilize a formalist approach to sound editing. After all, it is namely due to the earlier mentioned shots being supplemented with a dissonantly sounding but utterly symbolic musical theme, that the inclusion of these shots’ sequence appears contextually appropriate.
And, as movie critics are being well aware of, the symbolic significance of music in the works of cinematography, reflects the extent of these works’ association with an auteur-genre. This is exactly the reason why the metaphysical importance of a ‘rosebud’-theme, explored throughout film’s entirety, cannot be discussed outside of what appears to be an affiliated musical context.
According to Currie (1975): “At the close of the film the music ‘freezes’ as, transmuted into glistening spheres, then to vanish, the emblematic ‘Rosebud’ is consumed in the pyre, an image bringing to mind the mystic transmutation in roseate flame at the center of the fiery cross” (p. 28). Apparently, without the inclusion of highly symbolic musical themes, which emphasize the qualitative aspects of plot’s unrevealing, Welles’s Citizen Kane would not be able to attain a ‘cult movie’ status.
The fact that, throughout film’s entirety, Welles strived to apply the essentially formalist methodology to sound-editing, whenever it proved possible, can also be illustrated in regards to how director approached the task of designing verbal dialogues between the characters.
After all, these dialogues’ foremost feature is that characters’ speeches often tend to overlap. For example, while being exposed to the scene where journalists discuss the significance of Kane’s legacy (00.12.35 – 00.14.23), viewers are experiencing a particularly hard time, while trying to establish links between the characters, seen on the screen, and their voices. The fact that, throughout the course of this scene, most journalists remain in the shade makes this task even more challengeable.
Apparently, the seeming ‘unintelligibleness’ of many dialogues, featured in Citizen Kane, created objective preconditions for this film to fall out of favor with the broader audiences. As it was noted by Carringer (1975): “Given Welles’s fondness for narrating and dubbing speaking parts in a sonorous mumble, and his tendency to allude to traits or motives rather than convincingly dramatizing them, it is not hard to see why this film (Citizen Cane) has reached such small audiences” (p. 40).
This, however, does not lessen the cinematographic value of Welles’s movie, in auteuristic sense of this word. The reason for this is simple – while deliberately endowing characters’ dialogues with often clearly defined ‘unintelligibleness’, Welles succeeded in increasing the overall authenticity of film’s themes and motifs.
Welles’s strive to ensure film’s authenticity can also be shown in regards to another specific of sound-editing methodology, utilized in Citizen Kane – namely, director’s willingness to ensure the ‘naturalism’ of featured dialogues between the characters. There is a memorable scene in the movie, when the group of dancing women greets Kane and his associates, with particularly loud marching music being played in the background.
Nevertheless, contrary to the conventions of classical sound-editing, Welles did not reduce music’s loudness, in order for the viewers to be able to get a better hearing of the simultaneous conversations that were taking place between the characters. For example, due to music’s loudness, Leland’s remark: “These men who are now with the Inquirer… who were with the Chronicle until now… weren’t they just as devoted to the Chronicle policy?” (00.44.29) cannot even be properly heard.
This again points out to the undeniable aura of ‘auteurism’ about Citizen Kane. Apparently, while working on this particular movie, Welles was primarily driven by considerations related to ensuring the integrity of his personal director’s stance, rather than by considerations solely related to ensuring movie’s commercial success with the viewers.
The fact that Citizen Kane may indeed be discussed within the conceptual framework of auteur genre can also be exemplified in regards to another striking feature of director’s approach to sound-editing – the fact that in this film, Welles had made a point in rapid switching between thematically incompatible musical motifs.
For example, the scene in which nurse covers Kane’s body with a bed-sheet features an ominously sounding organ-theme. This theme lasts right up until the moment when the following scene of an opening newsreel exposes readers to the sounds of particularly cheerful marching-music (00.03.16). Apparently, by doing it, the director was aiming to mark the dividing lines between plot’s time-shifts and to keep viewers in the state of a continuous suspense.
In its turn, this can be partially explained by the fact that, prior to entering the world of cinema, Welles used to be strongly affiliated with radio. Given the fact that in radio-shows, sound serves as the only informational medium, it does not come as a particular surprise that in Citizen Kane, Welles tended to treat sounds as ‘things in themselves’ and not as merely visuals’ supplements.
Unlike what it was the case with many of his directing contemporaries, Welles never ceased being aware of sounds’ ability to set people’s cognitive modes in one or another direction.
This is exactly the reason why Citizen Kane features a number of so-called ‘mood establishing’ sounds, even though that on many occasions these sounds do not correspond with the action, seen on the screen. For example, the sheer importance of a number of cables (sent out by Kane to his business-associates), is being emphasized by the sounds of a sheering crowd, even though that Welles does not provide visuals of such a crowd.
The same can be said about the scene that features Kane’s servants discussing what accounts for the value of their deceased master’s personal effects (01.52.25). In that particular scene, the utilized perceptual shot does not allow viewers to identify individuals who come up with degrading remarks about Kane’s ‘worthless junk’.
This, however, was exactly the point Welles wanted to make – by accentuating the spirit of ‘verbal anonymity’ in this scene, the director strived to emphasize the fact that, despite having been an enormously wealthy individual and despite his tendency to indulge in close and personal socialization with his friends, Kane never ceased being an utterly lonely man.
I believe that the provided earlier line of argumentation, in defense of a suggestion that the particulars of Welles film’s sound-editing point out to this film’s affiliation with the auteur cinematographic genre, is being fully consistent with paper’s initial thesis. In my opinion, this explains why even today, Welles’s Citizen Kane continues to represent an unwavering cinematographic value – apparently, the watching of this movie does in fact help the members of viewing audiences to expand their intellectual horizons.
Carringer, R. (1975). Citizen Kane. Journal of Aesthetic Education, 9 (2), 32-49.
Currie, H. (1975). Ufa monograph N.I: Abstract cinema: Citizen Kane. Journal of the University Film Association, 27(1), 1-28.
Giannetti, L. (2010). Understanding movies (12th edition). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Lamb, R. (1985). “Citizen Kane” and the quest for kingship. Journal of American Studies, 19 (2), 267-270.
Welles, O. (Producer), & Welles, O. (Director). (1941). Citizen Kane [Motion picture]. United States: RKO Pictures.