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Reflection of the Historical Period in Welles’ “Citizen Kane” Essay

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Updated: Dec 20th, 2021

Citizen Kane, the first Orson Welles feature film, is the dated year 1941. Implementing all the main achievements of the cinematography of the period it may be regarded as a model of the American feature film of the early 1940s. The film soundtrack composition and experiments with the visual effects were innovative and influenced the further development of world cinematography. The period in which Citizen Kane was made is reflected in the techniques used and certain details of its plot.

Welles dispensed with the idea of traditional chronological narration and a single story-teller for his movie and preferred to use the technique of flashbacks, which was previously used in the films Wuthering Heights and The Power and the Glory of other directors. Investigating Kane’s case the reporter Thomson speaks to Kane’s friends and relatives to collect different segments of the puzzle and understand what kind of man the main character was. The witnesses’ stories sound contradictory and subjective, overlapping one another, but this was the director’s purpose.

One of the sources of information concerning Kane’s life was the parody on the News on the March – the newsreel series which were shown in the cinemas from 1935 to 1951, this parody reflects one more peculiarity of the portrayed period interpreting the mood of the time. The use of montage resulted in the collapsed time and space parameters in the film, though this technique could also economize the time and budget of the command. It looked as if the scenes had taken place at the same location but different periods. Choosing the innovative techniques of story-telling Welles developed his colleagues’ ideas and implemented the existing achievements of the cinematography in the movie.

Welles pioneered several visual effects and the film soundtrack composition. Citizen Kane is especially interesting for its experiments with the deep focus technique when the objects in the background and the foreground are focused sharply. This was achieved by experimenting with the lenses and lightning or through the in-camera effects. For example, in the famous scene, when Kane enters Susan Alexander’s room after she attempts suicide, Kane and another man were in the background while a bottle with medicine and a spoon were in the foreground, everything was in sharp focus, this effect was achieved through the in-camera matte shot.

Another innovation, which also can be regarded as the indicator of the period when the film was made, was low-angle shots, displaying the upward perspectives of the scenes. The fact is that before the Hollywood period, the movies were filmed on stages without a ceiling. The cloth of white muslin was used in several episodes by the crew to create the visual effect of a room with a regular ceiling. Welles’ crew experimented with the sound effects as well, using music not only for the creating of the mood and expressing the characters’ emotions but for providing the complex montage of the separate episodes.

This aural technique was named a lightning mix and helped to make the structure smoother. For example, about fifteen years passed during a separate phase of the song when Kane grew older within the two shots of the film. In some episodes the sound goes ahead of the video, producing the effect of a closing door when the observer will not know the continuation of the scene and just managed to catch the last words of the artists.

Combining the fragments of the sentences said by different voices into a dialogue produced the impression of the whole city speaking simultaneously. Thus, the innovative techniques used by the Welles’ crew in Citizen Kane were aimed not only at producing special visual or audio effects but were also predetermined by the state of the cinematography of the period when the film was made.

Being the masterpiece of the cinematography of the period, Citizen Kane inevitably reflected the views and the picture of the life of its director and his crew. Attempting to make the image of Kane more enigmatic, the authors decided to criticize him for being a communist and a fascist at the same time, as can be concluded from the newsreel. The spectators were puzzled by the contradictory statements, but the contemporary audience can make other conclusions from the episode as well. The fact, that the film was made in 1941, the year when Second World War began, changes the contemporary spectators’ perception of the theme of the inner struggle of communistic and fascist ideals in Kane.

On the other hand, the year of opening of the movie predetermined its destiny, as not raising the questions of heroism during the warfare, the film appeared to be not interesting for the audience and was appreciated much later. The motif of the future world conflict was not developed because of depicting the events of the past. The narration portrayed the period between the winter of 1871 and the winter of 1929, focusing on the life story of Kane, but it did not satisfy the requirements of wartime. Illuminating the events of the past, the authors touched upon the subject of the market crash of the late 1920s and seem to be nostalgic about the nineteenth century. Following the different periods of Kane’s life, the audience merges into the atmosphere of America of the late nineteenth and the first decades of the twentieth centuries.

The prototype of Charles Foster Kane is unknown and is one of the mysteries of the movie, Welles intentionally did not confirm who was the source for Kane’s character. Some researchers consider William Randolph Hearst to be a prototype of the main character, while others are assured that Welles endowed this character with some autobiographical traits. Notwithstanding the mystery of its origin, the generalized character of the media magnate of the period tells a lot about the situation in the sphere of cinematography to the contemporary audience and researchers. The seeming lack of historical accuracy may be explained by the genre of the film.

Another reason was the fact that the depiction of historical events was not the author’s concern, he was free to interpret them following the psychological and drama laws. Making Kane a generalized character of the media magnates of the period, Welles’ crew provided the broader views of the cinematography business than if the life of some concrete person were depicted.

Being aimed at evaluating not only the aesthetic but historical value of the film, a thoughtful spectator can learn much about the period when the film Citizen Kane was made, analyzing the innovative techniques used in the movie and several historically accurate events portrayed by Welles’ crew.


Citizen Kane. Dir. Orson Welles. Perfs. Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton. RKO Radio Pictures, 1941.

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IvyPanda. "Reflection of the Historical Period in Welles' "Citizen Kane"." December 20, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/reflection-of-the-historical-period-in-welles-citizen-kane/.


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