As listed by Paul Schrader in the Film Noir Reader (pg 54-5), the film era categorized by film noir was the direct product of the post-war cynicism combined with post war-realism as there grew less need for the people to have their spirits lifted and more willing to see on-screen the grittier side of America that they had been experiencing for the past 10 years. Because Citizen Kane (Welles, RKO, 1941) was produced on the cusp of both movements, it combines elements of both. It is emotion driven like film noir, and shot with low lighting and low-key effects, but is also based on a “can-do” story of a boy who rose from poverty to notoriety.
The irony of Orson Wells making a film about someone who became one of the richest men in America is because he struggled with its budget in the small and financially unstable RKO during production (Carringer, Robert L. Orson Welles and Gregg Toland. Pg 6). Because of the budget, Wells essentially tricked the board at RKO into allowing him to shoot at the beginning by saying that the time he spent recording in the studio was to run tests. Charles Kane’s life is also well-suited to being shot in shadows, so to speak, as his rise to fame relied on exploiting scandal. Citizen Kane (is a different kind of crime film, in which a man takes advantage of the love of a nation to further his own interests.
The scene in which Leland and Kane speak after Kane loses the gubernatorial election parallels the tone of post-Depression, American life in the early 40s and late 30s. America of the 1920s had seemed invincible; the proverbial runaway train of affluence described in period media such as the book The Great Gatsby, became, after the stock market crash, an image of disarray akin to the inside of the Inquirer’s office where this scene takes place. As this scene is the start of a new chapter in Kane’s life, so was this movie a pioneer; Welles and his partner Gregg Toland developed the techniques (extremely low light shooting, wide angle shooting to maintain consistency in the clarity of foreground and background (deep focus), and uses of a crane to move the camera) here that would later become their trademarks. (Carringer, pg 656-8)
There is a slow pan upward as the camera shows the discarded newspaper headlining Kane’s loss at the polls, and then freezes in a stationary shot with quiet, almost whimsical nondiegetic music. A man is sweeping tickertape from the ground in front of Kane’s gubernatorial campaign office (The New York Inquirer office) and pauses as a Leland, Kane’s college friend and colleague at the paper enters the shot from the right. Light enters the shot from the left, such that a nearby garbage cart throws its shadow upon both figures. Leland throws the smouldering end of his cigar into the cart, turns abruptly and enters the office, brushing away the curtain of paper strands hanging above the front door. The sweeper continues sweeping and the scene fades out to the inside of the office.
The camera angle here is noteworthy because it is rarely used in the movie; for the entirety of the scene, the camera is positioned at an extremely low angle so as to appear to be looking up at the actors. Inside the office, the reporters are leaving for the night. As they all put on their jackets and exit, Kane comes out through his office door at the left and exchanges words with Mr. Bernstein who is the last to leave. The room appears moderately dark, causing the white paper of the propaganda and slogans to glow faintly against the walls. As the camera follows Kane to the middle of the room, its low angle serves to both show the mess of shredded paper identical to that outside and make Kane look unnaturally tall. He comes to rest underneath a skylight (the light in the room must be implied to be natural light form the ceiling because no other light sources are visible) and Leland enters from a diagonal on the far right.
Though both men are roughly the same height, Kane dominates the foreground, his neck appearing bent as he shuffles past to avoid touching the roof. Leland approaches Kane, stopping a certain distance away to avoid marring the other man’s illusion of being “larger than life”. Kane circles the perimeter of the room as they talk. When he reaches the area directly across form Leland, the two appear the same height again, but because the pattern on the ceiling and the poles in the middle of the room serve to compartmentalize it, Kane still appears to be the larger figure. His back is turned to present a larger area, as Leland turns his profile to the camera to watch Kane pass, and Leland’s clothes are closer to the shade of the walls, causing his body to appear slightly smaller. The size of the shot allows for a large area to fit into the frame, the full bodies of Kane and Leland as well as the mess on the floor and the banners on the ceiling. The banners and pattern on the ceilings help frame the shots, while showing the paper Kane kicks through as he walks; long strands are reminiscent of thin chains trying to bind him in place.
Even when Kane stands in the foreground and Leland’s entire body is visible, Kane’s legs are bigger still, as though, even while defeated, threatening to crush his friend with his hubris.
There are no close ups. Kane and Leland’s friendship becomes strained in this scene, so there is no false sense of intimacy added by focusing directly on either of heir faces. Nor are there any cutaways during the dialogue.
The angle gives the impression of a man who is downtrodden by his own ego. His aspirations are growing too big to be contained though he has a tentative control on his present situation; it foreshadows that his empire will spiral out of control. Yellow journalism was the means by which he became one of the richest and most infamous men in America, so it is appropriate that a situation shrouded in scandal will result in his loss of credibility.