One Hour Mark: Citizen Kane

Learn from the best, they say. Or, in this case, steal from the best. I’m ripping off an idea from two of my favorite film bloggers, Stacie Ponder of Final Girl and Nathaniel Rogers of The Film Experience, and taking screenshots from one chronological point in different movies – specifically, 1:00:00. (To see where I got it from, see Final Girl’s “23:45” and The Film Experience’s “20:07” and “Halfway House”.) I think it’s a fabulous concept, and I want to employ it to 1) force myself to think about a wide variety of movies, including ones I haven’t watched in a while, and 2) go back to what should always be our starting point when analyzing films – i.e., the text itself. I just get a thrill out of close viewing, and drawing my conclusions out of how the images are constructed. Hopefully this series can be an easy & accessible way for me to do just that.

That said, our first image comes from Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), which is always a good jumping-off point for projects like this. The general consensus “greatest film of all time” since the early ’60s, it’s a bombshell of modernist filmmaking that launched several careers and countless critical debates while announcing the arrival of Welles as a major force in Hollywood. (That announcement would be silenced by William Randolph Hearst’s immediate campaign of repression, as well as the wartime failure of Welles’ masterpiece #2, The Magnificent Ambersons.) With that broader context in place, let’s see what this single frame has to say about Kane‘s greatness.

This is Charles Foster Kane’s happenstance first tryst with “singer” Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore), at least according to Jed Leland’s memory. It starts with a meet-cute (mud splashed on his clothes, she has a toothache) and rapidly becomes more intimate, largely due to Welles’ performance, which can shift in an instant from boyish charm to world-weariness. Kane has just asked Susan to sing for him, after they had this little exchange:

Susan: …I wanted to be a singer, I guess. That is, I didn’t. My mother did for me.

Kane: What happened to singing?

Susan: Well, mother always thought, she always talked about grand opera for me. Imagine. But my voice isn’t that kind. It’s just, well, you know what mothers are like.

Kane: Yes, I know… have you got a piano?

Kane leans back, pipe in mouth, as Susan sings/plays the aria “Una voce poco fa” (“A voice just now”) from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. This scene is at once reminiscent of Kane’s past, and his future. The comfort with which he reclines while watching Susan recalls his initial bliss with his wife Emily, and a dissolve shortly thereafter to a different angle recalls the famous breakfast scene illustrating their marriage’s collapse. This is Kane precariously located in the heights of infatuation; cynically, we can say that he’s just scoping out another project to feed his ambitions. The main difference, after all, between this scene and the earlier ones with Emily, is that Kane is now older and more authoritative. His boyishness is no longer his essence, but an attribute to be demonstrated and then set aside.

Instead, his affection for Susan is tainted by his implicit power over her, soon to be manifested in their day-to-day lives. The fact that this scene ends with Kane’s applause for Susan and segues into a crowd’s applause for Kane’s gubernatorial campaign further shows that their relationship is far from egalitarian, even in its innocent beginnings, and that Kane is fundamentally interested in giving her “love on his own terms” – the same offer he extends to the voters. By default, the complications of class, age, and gender trouble the balance of power between them. The cute domesticity of this scene is especially tragic, since this aria will soon be reprised during a tortuous singing lesson, as Kane’s domination leads Susan to hate him and herself. In that tiny verbal twist – “That is, I didn’t [want to be a singer]. My mother did for me,” – which Kane totally ignores, the couple plant the seeds of their eventual misery.

Visually, the scene is an overcrowded delight and an example of cinematographer Gregg Toland working subtly but brilliantly. All the light appears to flow from the three on-screen lamps, positioned to illuminate Kane and Susan’s faces in contrast with the rest of the room. Susan’s room is full of knickknacks, from pictures and statues to a snow globe visible in an earlier shot, and they give the room a feeling of depth and of homeliness. The warmth of Susan’s apartment, with its few clocks and figurines, will be ironically echoed in the cavernous expanse of Xanadu. Every time I watch Kane, I marvel at how tightly structured it is. Even in a shot that contains no action beyond singing, Welles is quietly paving the way for Kane’s downfall.

A quick note about the specific aria: I don’t want to read too deeply into this, but the purpose of “Una voce poco fa” within The Barber of Seville strikes me as having some nice parallels with Kane. Rosina sings about her desire for Lindoro, whom she has just met, and who is in fact the wealthy Count Almaviva in disguise. Susan sings the line, “Yes, Lindoro shall be mine, I swear it, I shall win.” Meanwhile, she’s singing to a newspaper tycoon, ignorant of his power and money, and will soon become his second wife. At the very least, it feels appropriate, and Kane is so cleverly put-together that it wouldn’t surprise me if this was a conscious decision.

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