Tom Jolliffe looks back at some of the groundbreaking films from throughout the history of cinema, starting with Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane…
Throughout cinema history, there have been a number of groundbreaking films. Films which broke the rules, forged new techniques, new levels of looking at film and have stood the test of time. In the earlier days of sound cinema, the studios and many directors had very distinct techniques that became the norm. This extended to many aspects of course, including acting methods on screen but certain films marked themselves as game changers in the history of cinema. One of those film was Citizen Kane.
Often voted high in the rankings of many critical Top 100 lists of all time, Citizen Kane was a film that was initially deemed something of a failure. A wilful experiment in indulgence for a cocky 25 year old auteur called Orson Welles. He’d previously been predominantly known for vocal work, particularly on radio, but completely against the Hollywood norm, this young upstart pushed for complete control on a major movie picture. Writing, directing and starring, Citizen Kane saw Welles play the titular Charles Foster Kane. In the film, Kane dies and his life story is recounted as everyone ponders the meaning of Kane’s final word, ‘Rosebud.’
When compared to many films of the era, there are many elements that stand out in comparison to expected norms. Not only is there the structural element of the films script, which breaks between present and past in a non-linear narrative, but in particular, Welles’ film is visually groundbreaking. With his photographer, Gregg Toland, they pushed many boundaries in what was expected from a Hollywood picture in terms of your camera set ups and lighting set ups. There was a tendency to have simple, often static set ups and harsh shadows were deemed obtrusive over the soft clear lighting expected to illuminate Hollywood stars and starlets.
With Welles, thinking outside of the box, and creating a vision that was distinct to him and not following Hollywood textbook, was essential. This is what made his vision unique, and why his film stands out to many. There weren’t many directors of the era pushing the boundaries that way, perhaps limited to some fellow trailblazers like Hitchcock and Elia Kazan. Welles had within him, a kind of roaring sense of technical adventure, the kind that was being seen in Europe, and would certainly be seen post war from the Japanese directors. Likewise, the control and techniques Welles broke through with, and the level of power he was able to command would see a director like Hitchcock become more prevalent. An experienced director with a swathe of films already under his belt, Hitchcock’s own techniques and groundbreaking wizardry did certainly seem to increase post Kane. Did that trailblazing bravado of Welles inspire him? Perhaps.
Welles and Toland pioneered the use of deep focus photography. They opened the depth of the frame and the scene in a way not often seen before, and it became a distinct and significant part of the film. It aided in some sequences of elaborating the scope and size of Kane’s cavernous rooms (or showing separations between inside a building and outside). More shallow focus was used in moments to counter with more intimacy. Additionally, they made great use of rear projection and perspective to provide almost indiscernible visual flourishes in opening up sets. Upper floors overlooking an array of lower floors, or the backdrop of Kane’s family home sees him playing in the snowy garden outside whilst his parents effectively sell him. So good was that shot in fact, that it passed me by as a visual effect entirely. Likewise, Welles had a very unique way of blocking scenes and having his actors move within the frame. It wasn’t particularly new but it was something he made great use off, offering a visceral quality to actions within the frame, something that Steven Spielberg certainly took inspiration from (either directly or indirectly from another of Welles fans).
I recall upon first seeing this, being quite taken with how modern it felt in film-making technique. How impressionistic and evocative some of the German inspired lighting was. What really impressed me though was a great tracking/crane shot that sees the camera pass up a building and in a one shot (with hidden cut of course) pass down into the skylight to an overhead of the actress below. It was a shot, and though an evident miniature, that made me sit up and pay attention. It’s a shot that evoked in me thoughts of The Crow or even The Matrix. It’s basically a VFX shot, made to blend in as reel. This wasn’t a giant ape. This wasn’t a monster in a B picture, it was the act of taking the viewer from an establisher of a building to the exterior within, without opting for the simplest method. In many senses Welles pioneered a blending of visual effect in ‘simple’ shots with what was shot practically, that has become eponymous in modern blockbusters, only now it’s a green wall, or a green studio.
Everything about the film suggested forethought, and a desire to break away from a regimented way of shooting a Hollywood picture. Of course the overriding response at first, was one of derision. Welles was in a constant butting of heads with the studio with a constant threat of being shut down or underhanded attempts to get him discredited. He had to fight and think outside the box in regards to keeping producers at bay too and keep them away from set as much as possible. In Hollywood circles it was deemed a bastardisation of cinema. The unrestrained experiment of a brutish young ne’er do well. Booed for every nomination it received during the Oscars. By that very inclusion it of course had fans. Members of the Hollywood elite who felt they were witnessing something ahead of its time. The film would end up being a box office disappointment, not really finding its audience until being re-released a decade later. By the time the Hollywood code was relaxed and European and Asian cinema was also beginning to thoroughly inspire a generation of adventurous directors (Scorsese et al), Citizen Kane was considered a masterpiece.
What are your thoughts on Citizen Kane? Lets us know in the comments or on our social channels @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due in 2020/21, including The Witches Of Amityville Academy (starring Emmy winner, Kira Reed Lorsch), Tooth Fairy: The Root of Evil and the star studded action film, Renegades. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/