Regie's Take on the History of Cinema

October 25, 2010

Film Analysis: Citizen Kane

by regiesh

“Tenebrism: a style of painting where chiaroscuro, or using violent contrasts of light and dark, becomes a dominating feature.”

This definition is no stranger to the fine art world but for this essay, tenebrism is a defining factor for another form of media all together; film. It is not well known that Orson Welles first and foremost wanted to be a painter* though it is known that Welles contributed to the theatre and film throughout his life. How could tenebrism possibly relate to film? If one has ever viewed “Citizen Kane” (Welles, RKO, 1941) ,arguably Welle’s greatest contribution to cinema, it is plain to see why. “Citizen Kane” is even known as “American Baroque”. Many scenes within the film are reminiscent of baroque style painting. One that stands out and may remind an art enthusiast of Caravaggio especially, is the scene after Kane takes over the Inquirer. The use of Tenebrism is apparent as well as other aspects of Caravaggio’s paintings.

Baroque style painting is special in that it was meant to create visceral response in it’s viewers often to help bring individuals back to the catholic church after the Protestant reformation. Baroque painting was often dramatic, theatrical and lit with very distinct light and dark contrast. Caravaggio, one of the most famous Baroque painters of the 16th century was known for this heavy light and dark contrast, better known as chiaroscuro. Citizen Kane also uses chiaroscuro. There is a sharp contrast between light and dark to the degree that it’s impossible to ignore within the film.
After Kane takes over the Inquirer, a newspaper company, he instantly begins to have his team pump out gossip and news that will gain readers and loyal followers of his paper. In this scene, Charles Kane is seated at his desk as his partner Leeland enters with a cartoon for an upcoming article. Carter, the previous owner of the Newspaper company, stands vulnerable and livid as the entire company is revised before his eyes as he is allowed no say. Kane goes on to explain a story about a woman missing and how he can create drama in the news if his paper states that the woman “Mrs.Harry Silverstone” has been murdered even though it hasn’t been proven. This is all interesting but the dialogue is not the focus of the paper. An art enthusiast with an understanding of Baroque painting may instantly pick up on the lighting in this particular scene.
It may also specifically remind them of Caravaggio’s “Calling of Saint Matthew”, filled with distinct light source. At the beginning of the scene there are two small light sources; a lamp behind Kane and a lamp behind Carter. These light sources, like a Caravaggio painting, do not light the entire room and create a sharp contrast between where the light directly hits and where it ends. The camera pans over so that Mr.Bernstein, an assistant of Kane’s comes into the foreground and the sources disappear though the light is still visible and obviously coming from specific areas of the room. The room is filled with shadows and dark contrasts. Carter goes on a rant about how the news shouldn’t be filled with unproven gossip but is interrupted by Kane exclaiming “Mr.Carter!”. The camera angle completely changes , now with a desk lamp and Charles Kane at the foreground. This is also reminiscent of Baroque style. There is one distinct light source and looming shadow over Carter’s head. The contrast between the shadow and the light are so distinct that it makes one believe that Welle’s must have been aware of tenebrism. The dramatic feel of the light aids in dramatic effect in this scene and throughout “Citizen Kane”.

The influence of Baroque style painting on “Citizen Kane” is impossible to ignore. Many scenes seem to conjure Caravaggio’s style and use of chiaroscuro. This contrast is so apparent that Citizen Kane was and still is considered “American baroque cinema”. This is quite an honor.

*Orson Welles: The Rise and Fall of an American Genius By Charles Higham (P.54)

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9 Responses to “Film Analysis: Citizen Kane”

  1.   Beatrice Pana Says:

    Hey Regie,

    Wow. I love this! I was reading it and thought to myself, “Wow she really knew what she was talking about”. I believe the elevated level of vocabulary in this analysis makes your argument stronger. Before I read your analysis, I never even knew what tenebrism was so thank you. Haha. I think you did a good job on explaining the scene but not focusing on the plot too much, as that is a very difficult thing to do when writing this type of analysis. Oh and the incorporation of the painting makes your argument easier to be understood and gives it more credibility. Good job!

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