In May of 1941, a twenty-six year old, first-time director released a film that would go on to top the British Film Institute’s list of “Greatest Films” for the next 40 years (1). This accomplishment has been echoed repeatedly, with Citizen Kane making the top of many such lists published by both cinema societies and critics alike. Yet this feat also begs the question: how did Orson Welles, with no real experience in motion pictures, create what many critics have dubbed “the greatest film ever made”?
Many of these film critics attribute the camera work in Citizen Kane as paramount to its success and with good reason. The use of deep-focus photography and the attention Welles paid to mise-en-scène are both at the root of the praise Citizen Kane has garnered; these two aspects are fundamentally tied together. Some film scholars seem to automatically assume that cinematographer Gregg Toland had most of the control over the camera work on the film, but this is simply not the case. Welles sought Toland’s advice on technical issues, but it is well known that he retained creative control of his film. Though Toland was known to use deep-focus shots in his other works, especially for William Wyler, he did not combine this technique with mise-en-scène or special lighting in his other films. For example, Louis Giannetti points out that, “… the deep-focus in Citizen Kane is more flamboyant than Wyler’s use of this technique.” (2) What Giannetti, and indeed many critics, mistake as Wellesian flamboyance is, in actuality, the work of a mind steeped not in the cinematic traditions of his time, but the painterly traditions of eras past. Certainly Toland was a magnificent photographer, but the factor that makes Citizen Kane the masterwork it has come to be known as is Orson Welles, and Welles was not yet a filmmaker when he began Citizen Kane.
Many of Welles’ critics and biographers have attempted to explain the quality and fortitude of Citizen Kane, though seldom directly, by pointing out Welles’ background in the theater. Biographers like Charles Highman devote pages upon pages to Welles’ early theatrical career, even going back to the director’s schoolboy days. Beginning in 1926, Welles attended the Todd School for Boys in Woodstock, Illinois. While in attendance, Welles developed his theatrical skills, and this is well documented, but most of his biographers gloss over Welles’ passion for the visual arts. While Highman devotes several pages to Welles’ theatrical experiences in the five years he attended Todd, he states only briefly, “…he painted excellently (his chief ambition was to be a painter), and he sketched and caricatured with great style.” (3) Highman’s colleagues similarly ignore Welles’ early passion for painting, often excluding mention of it entirely.
At a private school like Todd, any instruction in painting would have been accompanied by, at the very least, a survey of classical artworks. These would include the works of Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Mary Cassatt, and others, and we can see the clear influence of these works in Citizen Kane. The term chiaroscuro is often applied to Welles’ lighting design on Citizen Kane in a reference to art, yet this seems to occur only as a means to somehow legitimise film as one of the fine arts. It is doubtful that Welles himself had any compunction about the status of cinema as an art form or not when he made Citizen Kane, but his use of the technique is unmistakable, and film historians are wise to point it out. Indeed, the chiaroscuro in Citizen Kane is so pronounced that it actually falls under another painterly term entirely: tenebrism. Art historian Marilyn Stokstad defines tenebrism as, “The use of chiaroscuro and artificially illuminated areas to create a dramatic contrast of light and dark in a painting.” (4) This technique is used to great affect in Citizen Kane in several scenes that mimic the work of Caravaggio and other tenebrist painters.
Chief among these scenes is the moment immediately following the opening newsreel. As newspapermen sit around a darkened room contemplating the life of Charles Foster Kane, the audience is drawn into the mystery of Kane’s life in much the same way they would be by religious artwork. The use of shadow and light allows Welles to invoke Jusepe de Ribera’s Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew. As the news editor demands that his reporters tear apart Kane’s life in order to discover the meaning of his last words, audiences see an echo of the saint, supplicating himself before god just before he is flayed alive. This will not be the last time Welles mimics the work of painters he was no doubt familiar with, but it is certainly one of the more obscure works he chooses. Still, we can see a clear similarity in both lighting and composition in the two works. In Ribera’s painting, we see the saint lit from slightly above and in front as he beseeches god for his one true desire; to ascend to a heavenly paradise. In Welles’ work we see the same lighting scheme in front of the news editor whose arms are held wide in a similar manner as the saint’s. Before him stands the news reporter, shown in profile, who we will soon see peel back the layers of Kane’s life, just as the saint’s murderer, also shown in profile, is about to flay the flesh from Bartholomew’s body.
Scholars have certainly taken notice of Citizen Kane’s other artistic influences, so why have they ignored painting? Commenting on architectural techniques within the film, Plinio Perrilli quotes Welles as saying, “In the movies, as in any other profession, it takes you four days to learn the technique. The mystery is how to use it so that it becomes art.” (5) Indeed, Perrilli goes on to state that Citizen Kane’s architectural style may be, “…described as Baroque, visionary, abstruse, and initiatory.” (6) What Perrilli touches on, however, is true for the entire film, not just the architecture presented therein.
As Perrilli has noticed, Welles presents this Baroque style visually throughout Citizen Kane. For example, we see the influence of Caravaggio in several scenes. In the sequence where Kane’s mother signs guardianship of her son over to William Thatcher, we see a composition eerily similar to Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus. The main figures sit in the painting’s foreground, demanding our attention. Central to the work is the figure of Christ who is there to promise a brighter future to those sitting abreast of him, as the man closest to the viewer seems as though he cannot believe what he is seeing. Caravaggio catches this last man in mid-action, but Welles places the audience in this position. As Mrs. Kane signs over her child to Thatcher, whom she believes can provide a sort of salvation for her son; Welles shoots the scene from a closer point of view than Caravaggio’s painting. This places the audience members, who are essentially witnessing the audacious sale of a child, in the place of the disbeliever. Many of the other elements of the painting remain the same in Welles’ shot. The table settings are mirrored and the angles of the persons on either side of the central figure remain as Caravaggio presented them. Having pioneered the use of tenebrism in such Baroque paintings, Caravaggio’s work, like Welles’, would go on to inspire generations to follow. Welles breaks with Caravaggio in one important aspect, however, in that he maintained the use of Greg Toland’s deep focus lens. Unlike the Caravaggio painting, Welles allows us to see what is occurring behind the figures, opening up a space Caravaggio left as a blank wall.
This utilization of deep focus is held in high regard by one of Welles’ most staunch critics, André Bazin. In his book, What is Cinema?, Bazin discusses how Orson Welles restored a sort of democracy to the audience by utilizing deep-focus shots, allowing the viewers’ eyes to determine where they wanted to look. On the subject Bazin writes, “Thanks to the depth of focus of the lens, Orson Welles restored to reality its visible continuity.” (7) In fact, Bazin likened Welles’ style to filmed theater and, as Peter Wollen points out, “Bazin always laid great stress on the theatricality of Orson Welles.” (8) Bazin is well within reason to note the use of deep focus photography as theatrical, but it is also painterly. What Bazin seems to ignore is that Welles doesn’t solely rely on Greg Toland’s depth of focus, but couples it with lighting and mise-en-scène to achieve compositions akin to those created by paint and brush upon a canvass.
Probably the most famous Baroque painter Welles invokes is Rembrandt van Rijn. In the scene where Kane returns from Europe to find that his news staff is celebrating a major success, Welles lines up his characters as if for a portrait. In an environment Welles shows to be predominantly male, there is a lone female in the foreground. She looks to be among the men, yet still off to the side, as though she is slightly out of place. Lit from the front, we see these men standing around Kane and the man he has left in charge of his paper, Mr. Bernstein. This scene of a captain and his lieutenant nearly comes to a freeze as the captain, Kane, looks off into the distance and his men look to him, seemingly seeking a word of leadership. In Rembrandt’s composition we see a similar arrangement of people, with Captain Frans Banning Cocq in the center and his lieutenant at his side. Like Welles, Rembrandt adopts a tenebrist style, hiding many of the onlookers in shadows in the wings. Rembrandt’s composition similarly contains a lone female figure that stays astride of the central figures, seemingly out of place. The key difference in Welles’ composition, however, is that Cocq’s lieutenant wears white rather than the captain. Noting all the other similarities, we can surmise that Welles does this to tell us that Kane is no longer the one in charge at this juncture. Bernstein has taken control of the paper for him, allowing Kane to pursue other ventures, as we will soon discover. Rembrandt’s Night Watch, as Stockstad describes it, is, “… showing a company forming for a parade in an Amsterdam street.” (9). Welles’ scene is precisely the opposite of this, showing men winding down from a similar celebratory cacophony, as though Welles would like us to examine these images as mirrors of one another.
Adapting works from one art form into one’s own discipline as a means to create a new masterpiece has long been a tradition in arts and literature, and does not cheapen the source works. Bazin makes a case for adapting masterworks of literature and drama by citing that, “Shakespeare took the stories of some of his very good plays from certain very good old Italian tales and the plots of the Greek classical drama were also derived from older epics.” (10) Indeed, Welles himself would later go on to adapt several Shakespearian plays to the screen. Welles’ own style is quite evident, in fact, in his adaptations of Macbeth (1948) and Othello (1952), fueling the argument from auteurists that a director’s personal vision and style could be identified by recurring themes. The early subscribers to the auteur theory named Orson Welles as one of the first who met the standards of what defined an auteur, which Ellis and Wexman describe as, “…the consistency with which a unique point of view was expressed through recurring themes, characters, situations, [and] imagery.” (11)
The art of capturing an image mechanically was developed over one hundred years before Welles would film Citizen Kane, and in that time it was common for these early photographers to emulate painterly motifs in their work. Marilyn Stokstad writes that these early photographers were, “… soon attempting to create photographic equivalents of the painted and engraved moral allegories so popular in Britain since the time of Hogarth.”(12) Welles also mimics Hogarth’s Marriage a la Mode series, at least in theme, in the montage featuring Kane and his wife Emily at the breakfast table over a sequence of years. The idea that the very rich and newly married soon fall out of favor with one another is not a new one. As the art of photography would develop, so too would some painters’ opinions of it. The Impressionist movement would develop in France as a sort of response to the ability of the photograph to capture images as they were in life. These painters wished to get away from the version of realism presented by the photograph in favor of allowing the viewers mind to fill in the blanks where precise details were missing.
It is with some irony, then, that Welles diverged from his trend with Baroque art, by also borrowing from the Impressionists. Perhaps most pronounced when examining Mary Cassatt’s Woman in a Loge, Welles is able to capture the opulence of her 19th century opera spectator and transfer it to the character of Emily Kane. The open-neck dress, accented by a subtle necklace, as well as the slight smile, mirror one another as does the rested positioning of the women’s arms. The scenes are also both lit from the front and slightly to the left, giving both women a sense of vibrancy and vitality.
As already noted, however, Welles utilized many deep-focus shots in Citizen Kane, there are still allusions to Monet. Take, for instance, the establishing shots of Kane’s home, Xanadu. Obscured by shadow and fog and reflected in pools of water, the massive manse sits atop a hill and gives us a sense of dread and foreboding before we even meet Charles Foster Kane and witness his death. These images clearly allow the viewers’ minds to assume an emotional posture of anxiety and give the impression of bygone luxury, much as Monet’s House of Parliament series allows us to take away the sense of waning prominence and forlorn majesty we might have viewing the seat of British Government from the River Thames in 1905. This parallel is not created mistakenly. Welles wants us to feel the same sense of doom as his titular character before we meet Kane on his deathbed.
Film scholar Peter Cowie rightly notes that, “…Welles’ own screen is filled with to abundance with a rich selection of characters, clowns mingling with kings and villains with innocent men.” (13) While Cowie is, of course, alluding again to Welles’ well-documented stage career, we could easily replace “screen” with “canvass” and the statement would still be true. Though no occurrence is documented to tell us what exactly caused Orson Welles to take up theater as his calling over painting, we can see that both had a ready influence on his filmmaking. In fact, we could say that Welles never gave up painting at all. He may have thrown out the brush and palette, the canvass and paint, but he instead picked up a camera and learned to paint upon the screen with shadow and light.
- “BFI | Sight & Sound | Top Ten Poll 2002 – Critics Top Ten 2002.” BFI. 5 Sept. 2005. British Film Institute. 2 Dec. 2006.
- Louis Giannetti. Understanding Movies. 7th ed. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Simon & Schuster, 1996. p. 471
- Charles Highman. Orson Welles: the Rise and Fall of an American Genius. New York: St. Martins Press, 1985. p. 49
- Marilyn Stokstad. Art History. 2nd ed. Vol. 2. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 2005. Glossary p. 13.
- Plinio Perrilli. “Orson Welles: the Concealed Camera in the Newsreel.” L’Architettura 48. July (2002): p. 557
- Perrilli, p. 558
- André Bazin. What is Cinema? Rev. ed. Vol. 2. Berkley: University of California Press, 2004. p. 28.
- Peter Wollen, in John Hill and Pamela C. Gibson, Eds. Film Studies. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. 24-27.
- Stokstad, p. 768
- Bazin, p. 269
- Jack C. Ellis, and Virginia W. Wexman, Eds. A History of Film. 5th ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2002. p. 221
- Stokstad, p. 996
- Peter Cowie. The Cinema of Orson Welles. New York: Da Capo Press, 1989. p. 219.