Citizen Kane was released during a time of immense change and social conflict. It was also a time when film technologies, methods, and the overall popularity of the medium were reaching peaks. The film was also released during an era of history that was socially elitist and darwinistic. The rich white male elitist climate of the early twentieth century influenced the story and structure of Citizen Kane, which incorporates a varied body of new and adapted cinematic techniques to convey the story and its message of a defeated ego.
The film embodies cinematic tools and technologies that had long been adapting since the films of D.W. Griffith and the early Hollywood masters. Citizen Kane uses grandiose set designs with high scaling pans and crane shots, such as in Xanadu and during Susan’s opera performance. The use of omnipresent camera angles and pans and impressive set designs were innovated by Griffith’s film Intolerance in scenes such as the ones at the gates of Babylon. The pan up to the two workers looking down on Susan with disgust and the intimidating proportions of the fire place at Xanadu both parallel the methods of Griffith.
The film also has a superior use of editing. The editing technologies at this time had become more refined and more useful to the progress of a story thanks to Soviet Montage. The use of montage moves the story of Citizen Kane forward. After we see the audience’s disgust with Susan’s failed premiere, we see her humiliation dragged out for as long as possible through a montage of Inquirer magazines filled with positive reviews which we know are not true. The story is progressing and we are engulfed in her embarrassment even though it is not told in a traditional narrative, similar to how the films Battleship Potemkin or October progressed while being less reliant on character interaction and more reliant on the movement of the story as a whole, and it does so by focusing on editing and post production.
These tools and technologies are used to convey the subversive message against the social darwinism and yellow journalism of the time. Charles Foster Kane’s life (or rather that of William Randolph Hearst’s) was the epitome of both concepts. Kane demonstrated his pro rich white male dominance when he unofficially declared war with Spain while dancing with chorus girls singing his name. Kane demonstrates throughout the movie he is not shy from exploiting sensationalist news to gain readers and to make profits. Both of these factors are presented through a compact use of montage and editing and through the foundational camera work of the film. In early scenes Kane is shot at low angles to present him as a dominant and intimidating figure looking down on everyone such as Bernstein or the old editor of the Inquirer. In later scenes, such as the ones in Xanadu, the high scale crane shots show Kane as a squat and hobbled old man lost in the darkness and shadows. The camera work helps to present Kane’s rise and fall because of a life of exploitation and self selling.
Citizen Kane is a film that embodies the several potentials of cinema. It embodies and modernizes the use of several cinematic techniques and technologies all to convey its message. It was both an innovative and an innovated film, and it is essential to film history.