25 Favorite Films: Citizen Kane (1941)

Listen, you clicked on this link so odds are you know what Citizen Kane is. Hell, you better know what it is considering it has been labeled by many, until very recently, as the greatest film of all time. You know who stars in it and you know what the plot is. Many of you, if not all, know the mystery of ‘Rosebud’ and how genius that final moment of the film is. So what more could possibly be said about a gem that is almost seventy-five years old? Well it probably has been discussed already but I want to focus more on how the film’s Cinematography help changed the landscape of filmmaking.

Before Citizen Kane filmmakers have definitely experimented with the medium. But that’s all they were: experiments or gimmicks that only tried to get people to sit their butts in the theater. I would label Citizen Kane as the first ‘passion project’ in cinema history. Clearly Orson Welles wanted this film to be perfect and we all know just how much he pushed the envelope to make this the most unique film people have ever seen. But while a lot of the film is from the mindset of Welles; it is the execution by Gregg Toland who makes this film work.

I would like to think Gregg Toland was the Emmanuel Lubezki of the past (or vice versa it. Either way it is a huge compliment to either man). You can immediately tell what film Toland worked on because he had his own technique from everyone else in the industry. Mostly we know of his work, and of this film because he perfected the ‘deep focus’. Or, to put it in layman’s terms, make every layer of the frame be in sharp focus. When we talk about this aspect of the film we always go to the scene where we see Charles Foster Kane leaves his family behind:

Most Hollywood films at this time would either just stay tight on the Mother or at the very least make only the central characters be in focus. But Gregg Toland had to make sure we can see that kid in the window the entire time clear as day. Maybe that doesn’t seem impressive now a days considering we see someone like Lubezki change the dynamics of ‘single take’ sequences ala Birdman. Moments like this or the night Charles celebrates his takeover of the newspaper shows how much craft Toland put into each frame. Again, most Directors of Photography were just glorified cameramen. But when you went into a Gregg Toland film you knew instantly it was going to be like no other picture out there.

Another technique perfected in this movie, which again seems pretty generic at first, is the low angle shot. It is quite easy to tell in the ‘Golden Age’ of Hollywood that most of the settings were just poor backdrops. You try to put that camera in any angle other than straight on and you are gonna notice a lot of stagehands in the sky. But Welles wanted to make this story feel real so every building has a ceiling and has these big spaces to them. It means there is a lot of ‘deep staging’ to these scenes and it continues to put emphasis on Toland to use deep focus as much as possible. Again, it is something you probably wouldn’t notice but this is stuff that no one was really trying with films at this point. (Although The Maltese Falcon would emphasis these aspects, and a few more, and be released a month later so John Huston and Arthur Edeson were onto something as well.)

If we go back to the comparison I made earlier; I would probably say Emmanuel Lubezki is a more impressive Cinematographer than Gregg Toland. But that is only because Lubezski has had the benefit of cinema changing so much in over seven decades and people improving over what came after Citizen Kane. This film is the benchmark for anyone who loves to experiment with film but also want to change how films are made. This entire article is not dismissing the craft by Orson Welles and how he was able to make a film that practically should have been unfilmable during his time. But there is more to movies than one man and Gregg Toland deserves a lot of the praise Welles has been getting for such a long time now.

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