Of its time and ahead of its time
‘Citizen Kane’, which turns 80 next September, has often been imitated, but never duplicated. People who vote on such things have long lauded Orson Welles’ larger-than-life portrait of fictional yellow journalism magnate and William Randolph Hearst stand-in Charles Foster Kane as the “Best Film Ever Made”. The film is the subject of David Fincher’s new Netflix film Mank, which tells the story of ‘Citizen Kane’s’ writer Herman Mankiewicz and often employs many of ‘Citizen Kane’s’ stylistic techniques.
Critics praised ‘Kane’ upon its release for “its important new techniques in picture-making and story-telling” (TIME Magazine) and for its “exciting photography” (LIFE Magazine), most notably its use of deep focus photography. Watching ‘Kane’ nearly 80 years after its release may seem like doing homework, the filmic equivalent of eating one’s vegetables. But if it feels that way, it’s because ‘Kane’ laid the groundwork for film techniques modern audiences might take for granted.
Kane cinematographer Gregg Toland was reportedly excited to work with Welles because ‘Kane’ would be the young director’s first movie. Toland ended up implementing a little-used technique that cinematographers have deployed widely ever since: deep focus photography, where the whole frame is in focus all the time. Welles’ theater background helped with this, since the method relies on correct staging to guide the viewer on what to look at. This scene of a young Kane playing in the snow while his mother discusses his wardship is a great example:
That scene is also one of the earlier instances of a tracking shot that doesn’t break–except this was decades before Garrett Brown invented the Steadicam. Toland achieved this effect by moving props and furniture out of his way as he guided the camera.
‘Citizen Kane’ was not the first film to rely on a flashback narrative structure. That device had been around in the medium since at least 1901. But ‘Kane’’s fragmented narrative, structured like a detective story riddled with flashbacks that ended in the same spot it began, was revolutionary for screenplays at the time.
In a world where films like Memento, Rashomon, The Usual Suspects and Pulp Fiction exist, this feels quaint, but Kane’s screenplay was what set the stage for those narratives going mainstream. Mank employs a similar structure as homage to Kane.
The briefcase in ‘Pulp Fiction’. The Infinity Stones in ‘Avengers’. The necklace in ‘Titanic’. All are MacGuffins, meaningless objects that propel the story forward. ‘Citizen Kane’’s MacGuffin is “Rosebud,” the last word Kane speaks before he dies. The movie is, at its base, a mystery: Who, or what, is “Rosebud”?
That’s what one journalist is sent to find out, and his interviews with Kane’s associates are how the audience learns who Kane was. The audience is so wrapped up in watching Kane’s life that the question of rosebud is mostly forgotten–until the end, when we learn that Rosebud was the name of Kane’s childhood sled. Literally, it’s a sled; metaphorically, it represents Kane’s childhood; anecdotally, it’s Mankiewicz’s sly reference to a nickname for the genitalia of Hearst’s mistress.
However it’s interpreted, knowing the identity of “Rosebud” doesn’t hinder one from enjoying the full movie. This wasn’t a new device. Stories have used the MacGuffin technique long before it got that name from Alfred Hitchcock, who used the narrative device across the pond in ‘The 39 Steps’ and later in America with ‘Foreign Correspondent’. However, ‘Citizen Kane’ was the biggest American film to use the structure in this way.