I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School: A Formalist Essay on ‘Citizen Kane’


Welcome to I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, my weekly article to prove that I have it in me to go from movie buff to film critic.  With each column I try to better understand the art of filmmaking.  As these can be longish discussions, spoilers follow.  For more from me, check out the rest of Defeating Boredom or follow me on Twitter, @Rob_Samuelson.

Formalist analysis is not something I have spent much time doing on this website.  I understand a large portion of it and I often care more about story, theme, and character.  I’ve often looked down on the nuts and bolts of filmmaking, probably to my own detriment.  Due this past Monday in my film class was a formalist analysis of a scene of my choice from Citizen Kane.  I knew I could do it and it would not have been a taxing thing on me, but I didn’t think doing so would expand my appreciation of the film to such a degree that I would now list it among a favorite — as opposed to simply being on the “greatest films I’ve ever seen” list.  Going shot by shot through this sequence opened my eyes, and I had a blast doing it.  In the future, I want to integrate more of this style in my posts.

SEQUENCE TAKEN FROM CITIZEN KANE (Welles, 1941.  USA)

 This sequence, which lasts three minutes and four seconds over 19 shots, covers the time in Charles Foster Kane’s life when he runs for governor of New York.  This is a time of immense optimism, which will be shattered by Kane’s own hubris and womanizing.  It largely focuses on a rousing speech given by Kane to a crowd of supporters.  Shot durations are listed in parentheses after each shot description.

Shot 1  There is a long shot of man speaking on ramshackle podium clearly built in haste.  He is elevated above the crowd, the focus of their attention.  The crowd members, many of whom appear to be of the blue-collar variety in plain jackets and hats, all look up at him, hanging on his every word.  A street light burns bright next to the speaker, a Kane supporter, which can be an indication that Kane is the bright hope for the state.  “Kane For Governor” signs are pasted all over the walls of what appear to be an alley where this rally is taking place; this indicates the Kane campaign is willing to go anywhere and everywhere to get their message to the people.  The camera, which is on a crane, mimics the feeling of a dolly-in on the speaker as he talks about Kane being a “fighting liberal,” among other things.

(16 seconds)

Shot 2  There is a cut from the middle of the speaker’s speech to a long shot of a huge poster of Kane’s face and Kane’s voice continues the sentiments of the street speaker.  The camera does a slight pan left and tilts downward to show Kane at a podium giving a fiery speech.  Various men in nice suits sit behind him in a slight arc, staring at him; he is clearly the most important man in the room and perhaps the world.

(11 seconds)

Shot 3  Cut to an extreme long shot of a matte shot to imply Kane is speaking to a massive gathered crowd in an auditorium.  This kind of shot would become a favorite of Stanley Kubrick in later years, as it is one-point perspective.  That is, the stage is perfectly centered in the shot, and it performs as the sole vanishing point.  This further enhances the sense that Kane is the only person who matters.  The camera pushes in as we…

(4 seconds)

Shot 4  Dissolve to a long shot of Kane, again directly centered, continuing his speech.  CAM pushes in as Kane gestures grandly, his hands spread wide.  The camera continues its dolly-in and eventually approaches from a slightly left-of-center (perhaps in relation to Kane being the “fighting liberal”?) perspective; as it gets closer, it tilts up, again displaying Kane’s power and importance.

(22 seconds)

Shot 5  Cut to Kane’s son and wife, Emily, in a tight medium shot.  His son is standing, excitedly watching his father.  Emily appears both nervous and blasé about what’s happening before her eyes; she couldn’t care less about the speech, but she doesn’t want her son to be an embarrassment.  Emily tells the boy to sit, and he dutifully does, but his eyes remain wide with pride in his father.  In the background are a few visible bodies to imply Kane’s family is among a huge crowd, when in fact this is a small set.  Behind those headless bodies is emptiness, not more people; a trick of scale Welles uses multiple times through the rest of the sequence.

(6 seconds)

Shot 6  Cut to low angle of Kane, this time from the right-hand side of the stage.

(4 seconds)

Shot 7  Cut to a medium shot of Kane from the same side of the stage, but this time in a straight-on-to-slightly-high angle.  He gives a cocky but gregarious vibe, the type of politician that usually wins (Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama).

(8 seconds)

Shot 8  Cut to high-angle shot of Emily and their son.  She looks on with dead eyes while he waves excitedly.

(2 seconds)

Shot 9  Cut to Kane sending a quick salute to his son (a faulty eyeline match because Kane should salute to the other side of the stage).

(4 seconds)

Shot 10  Cut to Jedediah, Kane’s business partner, lit brighter than the extras next to him (he is important and they are not) looking on at his friend quietly.

(7 seconds)

Shot 11  Cut to that same highish, to-the-right angle of Kane at the podium.  He walks to the side of the podium and the camera pans right to follow him.

(11 seconds)

Shot 12  Cut to Mr. Bernstein, another Kane friend and business partner, in the crowd (again with more light hitting him than the extras, and placed in the center to draw the viewer’s attention) clapping his appreciation and support for his boss and friend.  Again, like the shots of Kane’s wife and son and the one with Jedediah, there are actually few people in the shot, but with enough cutting and sound amplification of the audience’s applause, the speech appears to be happening in a much larger space than it really is: A Hollywood soundstage.

(3 seconds)

Shot 13  Cut to Kane’s son and Emily, again in a medium shot, and a much more straight-on angle than before, sitting and watching.  The boy asks if his “pop [is] governor yet,” and his mother reassures him, “not yet,” in a way that implies he will be.

(5 seconds)

Shot 14  Cut to Kane again at the podium.  His joke, “I would make my promises now if I weren’t too busy arranging to keep them,” makes the audience burst into confident laughter.

(9 seconds)

Shot 15  Cut to Jedediah clapping and laughing at the joke.

(4 seconds)

Shot 16  Cut to high-angle shot of Kane at the podium in a long shot and oriented to the right.  The pulling away of the camera implies Kane is being watched carefully while making threats to Boss Jim Gettys, his chief political foe.  The camera zooms on Kane as he promises to convict Gettys of his political crimes.

(23 seconds)

Shot 17  Cut to a man in trench coat watching from a faraway balcony at a matte shot of the crowd cheering Kane onstage, foreshadowing that Kane’s promises will not be kept.  The man puts on his hat and walks away while Kane’s speech ends and music begins to play amid loud cheers and applause from the crowd.

(8 seconds)

Shot 18  Low angle from the left of Kane shaking hands with his supporters.  They are clearly important, upper crust men, as shown by their top hats and tails.  The camera dollies left as Kane moves across the stage, shaking more hands as he goes.  The camera dollies back slightly as he descends the stairs from the stage to meet the press, and a flashbulb goes off.

(15 seconds)

Shot 19  Dissolve to a straight shot of Kane again in the center, walking toward the camera, which does a reverse dolly track through a crowded hall of supporters and well wishers.  His son rushes toward him and Kane takes him in his arms.  Emily meets the two of them as the camera stops tracking and another flashbulb goes off.

(17 seconds)

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