Film Review: Citizen Kane

By: Meng Say

Citizen Kane, a film revered as being one of the best ever made. I’ve only got around to watching it recently and its actually become one of my favorite films. I felt like every aspect of the film had something interesting going on. But the one thing I wanted to look further into was the lighting and how it interacts with characters. And not only that, I’ll be talking about how this might have actually influenced a Hitchcock film released around the same time.

By darkening the characters, director Orson Welles is trying to suggest that these characters are in the dark, meaning quite obviously that they don’t know anything about Kane’s life and thus compels them to investigate further. At the end of the film, as reporters leave Xanadu, they are still obscured. One of the reporters gives out some monologue about how Rosebud probably meant nothing and how it doesn’t really matter anymore. So even at the end of the film we can see how the reporters still haven’t found what Rosebud means and that this is suggested by the lighting. So in summary, Welles used this lighting technique to convey his character’s awareness to overall plot and in this case, by obscuring his characters it is meant to symbolize their ignorance.

Now let’s check out how Hitchcock might have took this technique and used it in his own way. At the time, Welles was one of the first people to use this obscuring technique. Citizen Kane was released on September 5th 1941. Hitchcock made a film, Suspicion, that was released a couple months later on November 14th 1941. In Suspicion, there is a scene near the very end of film where Cary Grant is slowly walking up some stairs with a glass of milk. His face is obscured just like reporters in Citizen Kane. Coincidence? I think not. The milk is supposedly poisoned and it is implied that he is going to kill his wife with it. It is pretty much the same technique Welles used but it is used to convey a different message. Up until this point, Cary Grant’s character in Suspicion has never attempted to kill his wife or even think about it. His character has always been loving and charming to her. What I think Hitchcock is trying to say here is that the audience does not know this character anymore because it suggested that this character has crossed a line. And so we can see how two directors can use the same exact technique but have two different meanings behind it.

I wonder if Welles and Hitchcock talked back then and shared ideas with each other. That’s probably not likely since in an interview by Welles many years later, it appears that he thought Hitchcock was overrated and he hated some of his films. What I imagine realistically happening is that Hitchcock watched Citizen Kane and thought “Hmm… that lighting looks interesting” and used that technique in a way to say something about his audience as he always does.


References: Citizen Kane. Directed by Orson Welles. Performances by Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Comingore. Mercury Productions, 1941.

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