Orson Welles' Film Citizen Kane (1941) on Expression in Film; the Film Industry; and on the Theory of Director as "Auteur"
The expressive meaning of the cinematic masterpiece Citizen Kane, directed by Orson Welles in 1941, cannot be summed up succinctly. Within Citizen Kane, everything is significant; not a single frame is wasted or extraneous. Each separate portion of the film contributes to its overall impact as one of the greatest cinematic achievements, if not the greatest, ever. The film is, quite simply, a tour de force of film directing; cinematography; mise-en-scene; editing; sound (it is considered the best sound film ever made (Mast and Kawin; Giannetti); acting; "aesthetic realism" (Bazin, p. 43) and an amazing (even to this day) synthesis of all these elements and more. Therefore, analyzing one line, or one key scene, or even a long series of scenes from Citizen Kane and declaring any of these somehow emblematic or symbolic, of the film as a whole, is insufficient. I will analyze, first, how Citizen Kane's impact on the film industry was immediate in Europe (especially France) grudging and slow in the United States due to Hollywood's dislike of Welles himself but eventually encyclopedic worldwide; second, how Orson Welles's role as director, combined with his overall vision for, and impact on the film, gave new credence to the auteur (director as "author" of the film) theory; and third, how Citizen Kane's success, especially in Europe in the 1940's helped further popularize the dark, often gloomy cinematic sub-genre of film noir.
Most good films stand out for something or other: directing; film editing; acting; costumes, etc., but Citizen Kane stands out in every way. Over the long-term, even if not immediately in the year it was produced, Citizen Kane revolutionized the American film industry, particularly in terms of giving much more artistic power to directors, and therefore, (eventually) new credence to the "auteur theory" (the French theory of film director as author). Likely, the film's impact on the American film industry would have been more immediate had Orson Welles, then an irreverent young upstart in his mid-twenties (Giannetti) not been extremely unpopular in Hollywood at the time. When Citizen Kane was first released, the film received rave reviews. According to Giannetti, the New York Times called it: "One of the greatest (if not the greatest) films in history" (p. 478). As Giannetti also notes, however:
It received nine Academy Award nominations, but at the ceremonies, Welles was booed whenever his name was mentioned. Significantly, the only Oscar that the movie won was for its screenplay. Pauline Kael suggested that this was intended as a gesture of support for [Herman] Mankiewicz, the Hollywood
regular, and as a rebuke to Welles, the upstart, who lost out on the acting, directing, and best picture awards. (pp. 479-480)
Surprisingly, especially given its classic film status today, Citizen Kane did not do well at the American box office in 1941 (Mast & Kawin; Giannetti), perhaps because it was so much different from other films Americans were used to at the time. However, the impact of Citizen Kane, and Welles as a director, on European film, and French film in particular, was immediate, profound, and long-lasting, and eventually spread to the United States. It seems that, likely because of his Hollywood unpopularity, Welles was perhaps not the best messenger, in his own country, of his cinematically brilliant ideas. However, according to Giannetti:
Welles was always a favorite with critics, especially in France. Welles was an idolized source of inspiration for the critics at Cashiers du cinema, who spear-headed the New Wave [emphasis not added].
Within France, Welles's work on Citizen Kane exemplified the auteur (director as author) theory in operation. American filmmakers like John Ford, Howard Hawks, Billy Wilder and others reaped the benefits of being called "auteurs" in the style that Welles had established himself, although this probably would not have happened, at least not when it did, except for Welles and Citizen Kane.
Citizen Kane also helped to increase the popularity and versatility of "film noir" as a cinematic sub-genre. Film noir first rose to popularity in the late 1930's both during and after World War II, reflecting an international aftermath of anxiety, depression, and suspicion, brought on by the war…