Orson Welles perhaps left a red herring in the form of his oft-cited claim that he prepared for directing Citizen Kane by John Ford’s Stagecoach forty times. ‘Even allowing for the hyperbole of the forty times,’ asks Pauline Kael, ‘why should Orson Welles have studied Stagecoach and come up with a film that looked more like The Cabinet of Dr Cagliari?’ Cook concedes that
Even though Welles claimed that he was largely unfamiliar with Expressionism when he started film-making, Kane is unmistakably an Expressionist film. And, according to film critic and Welles scholar Jonathan Rosenbaum, of all the German Expressionist films, it is perhaps most closely comparable to Fritz Lang’s 1931 thriller, M:
Kane and M clearly open themselves up to comparison to one another. This discussion will specifically examine, compare and contrast the ways in which they both exploit particular elements of Expressionist mise-en-sc�ne - staging, framing and lighting. Finally, it will analyse the means by which both films engage shifting points-of-view and the broader ideological implications of doing so.
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The custom in early cinema was the that the individual shots from which the film was built – visually - were uninflected. Meaning was derived either from the content of the shot, as in Griffith, or in the juxtaposition of one shot against another, as in Eisenstein. What Expressionism did, taking its cue from Expressionist painting and theatre, was to make the shot itself subjective. The visual construction of the image reflected the inner states and emotions of the characters, their status, their relationships with one another. Beckert, Lorre’s character in M, for example, is frequently filmed by himself, surrounded by empty space on otherwise busy sidewalks – emphasising, literally and Expressionistically, his isolation through the mise-en-sc�ne. After his failed attempt to abduct a little girl in front of the silverware shop, all Beckert wants to do is escape and hide. This, again, is made visually concrete by his sitting behind the foliage at the caf�, hidden from the audience. Likewise, at the lowest ebb in the marriage between Kane and Susan, there’s the shot in which they carry on a cold, distant conversation with one another, separated by the dark, gaping maw of the fireplace.
Comparing Kane to another masterpiece of German Expressionism,
Kane remains a revolutionary film because it not only rejects the Classical Hollywood ethos of making style and continuity as invisible and seamless as possible, but also because it reinforces this emphasis on realism through the use of long takes, in which extensive dialogue and action play out during a (usually) static camera shot. The long takes of which Kane is composed are especially notable for the way in which they use depth, proximity and proportion expressively. Kael writes:
An obvious example in M of the use of depth is the scene in which the burglar confesses to Lohmann that he and his cronies had captured Beckert in the office building. Lohmann, his back to the burglar, his face to us, lets the cigar drop from his mouth in astonishment, unknown to the burglar. M also illustrates, for example, discrepancies in power by the placement of characters – such as the little old man who is towered over by the giant workman who accuses him of being the child-murderer – usually on a single plane of the image: it is their relative size to one another that achieves the effect. The of deep-focus for Kane, enabled a fusing of these techniques of on-screen depth and size, and offering a evolved Expressionist palette. One of the most effective uses of deep-focus and depth staging in the mise-en-sc�ne is the shot in which Mrs Kane signs her son over to Mr Thatcher while young Charlie unknowingly plays outside, glimpsed in the far background through the window, his marginalisation visually literalised. In a shot like this, writes Cook, ‘Welles is able to communicate a large amount of narrative and thematic information which would require many shots in a conventionally edited scene’ (396).
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The majority of black-and-white films really deserve to be called ‘grey’ when compared to films like Kane and M, which paint the screen with high-contrast light and shadow. The use of chiaroscuro, along with all of metaphoric implications of the colours black and white, helps to create the distinctive look of both films, using the Expressionistic trademarks of stark shadows. Actually, this is something of an exaggeration, for both films begin fairly brightly lit:
The lighting scheme of M is similar. The majority of the scenes in the first half of the film are set during the day. The further that M progresses into darker thematic territory, the more the shadow overwhelms. The second half is almost exclusively set at night, and the denouement is literally set underground.
The lighting of the characters is constantly used in expressive ways. The first the audience sees of Beckert is the menacing shadow of his head cast across the word ‘murderer’ on a wanted poster. Likewise, one of the first glimpses we get of Kane is the silhouette of his face as the nurse pulls a sheet over it. These initial impressions not only create mystery surrounding the characters, but also hint at the darkness inherent in them.
The scene in which Kane writes down his Declaration of Principles is particularly striking in its use of lighting for dramatic and Expressionistic purposes. Kane, Leland and Bernstein are initially all well lit. Kane fiddles with the gas lamp burning on the wall and says ‘I've got to make the New York Enquirer as important to New York as the gas in this light.’ He then goes over to the desk at the front-centre of the frame, is immediately plunged into shadow, and begins to write down the Declaration, saying the Principles as he goes. He finishes, walks away from the desk, and enters the light again, while Leland says he believes the piece of paper on which the Declaration is written will become very important one day. The use of lighting acts, perhaps, as both a foreshadowing of the eventual fate of Kane’s principles as well as his with Leland.
It is a tactic of both films to conceal the identity of characters using lighting. The reporter, Thompson, in Kane, is never seen JUSTIFY-on, properly lit, he is always a shadowy figure at the corner of the frame, a substitute for the audience. Kane’s script cautions:
Beckert, like Thompson, is similarly disguised for the first half of the film. The audience sees him as a shadow, in shadow, from behind, distorting his own face, emphasising his facelessness, his mutability.
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Kane in particular shatters the unities of time or space, beginning with the death of a man and cycling through five accounts of his life given by those who knew him - there is no objective, truthful point-of-view. M, too, is built from short vignettes, favouring no particular voice, with
Unlike Griffith’s camera, which provided an objective glimpse through the fourth wall of the proscenium, the objectivity of the camera in Kane or M is sullied by the Expressionism: if the image mirrors the characters’ internal states, how can we trust it? Sometimes, as in M, it adopts a particular character’s optical point-of-view (such as the aforementioned example of the altercation between the little old man and the workman.) At other times, it implicates the audience as voyeurs by forcing them to view the characters at their most painful moments; Beckert’s desperate pleading to the lynch mob, Kane’s destruction of Susan’s bedroom. And at other times, it becomes completely omniscient, unfettered by the laws of gravity or physics, free to rove wherever it pleases. Bordwell identifies the shots in Kane where the camera prowls freely as being a ‘pattern of our penetration into the space of a scene’ where it ‘moves toward things that might reveal the secrets of Kane’s character’ (361). There are several instances of these ‘virtuoso moving camera shots’ (Cook 396), one being the shot in which the camera passes through the El Rancho sign, through the skylight and into the nightclub where Susan is sitting. M also features a long mobile shot which pans past the beggars, their cigars, cards, their food, up past a wall, through a window and into an office. The effect of these  is to mimic a person’s optical point-of-view, moving towards something interesting, glancing at relevant details.
The effect of using of all of these camera techniques to indicate point-of-view is to reject the Manichean worldview of The Birth of a Nation in which what you see is what you get. The multiplicity of points-of-view in Kane and M raises the question in the minds of the audience: The truth about Kane and Beckert is ambiguous. Can it be known?
Like Kurosawa’s Rashomon ten years later, the germ of Kane originated, according to Welles, from
Kane is built around Thompson’s quest to discover the meaning of Kane’s dying word, ‘Rosebud’ in the hope that it will somehow act as the key to explaining Kane’s life and personality. The five different accounts of Kane’s life reveal that Kane was conflicted, enigmatic capable of extremes of emotion, and certainly not explicable by a single word, no matter how much mystical significance is invested in it. As Thompson ultimately concludes,
M similarly examines the danger in trying to judge or synopsise an individual; ‘Child-Murderer’ is to Beckert as ‘Rosebud’ is to Kane, a label which divests him of his humanity and personality. As in Kane, the constantly shifting point-of-view reveals the fallacy of this logic, which is ultimately clinched by Lorre’s wrenching scene in which he
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The media, by practice and necessity, subscribes
to this reductionism of boiling down personalities and events to simple traits and
explanations. This may account for the prominent of the
media in both films, even while both profoundly reject it. It is the
way that both films treat point-of-view as being subjective, and human personality as
being inexplicable which lend them their power and longevity – which made them so
modern at the time of their release, and which make them seem so ‘classic’
nowadays. And, ultimately, that is why Expressionism, with its rejection of objectivity
and emphasis on making subjective states visible, is such an apt aesthetic form for these
films to take.