Noir Style in Citizen Kane

Glancing through our readings the last few weeks, ruminating on the many concepts we’ve discussed in search of a topic, it occurred to me that although Citizen Kane doesn’t follow a quintessential noir theme, it almost-perfectly coincides with the seven noir stylistics outlined by Paul Shrader in his Notes on Film Noir.

He names seven definining stylistic elements, providing a perfect structure for our blog post.


“The majority of scenes are lit for night.”

Although the journalist’s investigation in Citizen Kane takes place over the course of a week, and the flashbacks cover the course of many decades, the overall look of the film is dark, and many scenes take place in the dark for no narrative reason. For example, think of the picnic that Kane forces Susan Alexander to go on. We have two brief shots of all the cars driving out during the daylight, but then we cut to the night when we see the actual events of the picnic (a cut that goes along with the amusingly appropriate lyrics, “It can’t be love”).

The scenes in the newspaper offices (both “past” and “present,” Kane’s and his investigators’) are often similarly dark, as are Susan Alexander’s opera performances, and the little restaurant in which the journalist meets with her.


Here, for example, we see Kane in his opera box after the end of one of Susan Alexander’s performances. Although the house lights have gone up and everyone is clapping, the shadows are stern as if the pervasive darkness present during her performance hasn’t left yet. It all contributes to a feeling that “if the lights were all suddenly flipped on, the characters would shriek and shrink from the scene like Count Dracula at sunrise.”


“As in German expressionism, oblique and vertical lines are preferred to horizontal.”

The lighting in Citizen Kane is very expressionist in general– just consider the scenes in which the “present” journalists talk amongst themselves, an image that is among the most defining of the movie.

citizen_kane_5However, the expressionism also also, quite evidently, tied to a preference for oblique lines. However, although lighting is sometimes used to create these lines, it is more common for the architecture of the set to do so. Consider the two images below; the first is from Citizen Kane, the second from Chinatown.



The light crisscrosses Kane in much the same way as it does J.J. Gittes in Chinatown, but the similarity in feel stems, in my opinion, primarily from the oblique lines of the ceiling in the first, which mirror the oblique lines of light in the second. Although the movie as a whole does not give the impression of “windows… cut out with a penknife,” we still get a strong feeling of unreality and oppression from the composition of the space, as can be seen in all of the following shots.

Kane 3

Annex - Welles, Orson (Citizen Kane)_01



“The actors and setting are often given equal lighting emphasis.”

citizen_kane_6More importantly, “[an actor’s] face is often blacked out by shadow as he speaks.” We never see clearly the faces of any of the journalists who investigate Kane’s story after his death. None of them! They are thus often featured in the most fantastically-lit and expressionist scenes, such as the one to the left (note the oblique lines again, this time created with light as is typical.) However, even in less extraordinary scenes, such as the final scene, in which the whole journalistic team wanders through Kane’s warehouse of antiques, the light and the camera conspire to conceal their faces from us.

Due to the difference in subject matter, this doesn’t give so much of an impression that the characters are insignificant compared to the ciy and that “there is nothing the protagonists can do; the city will outlast and negate even their best efforts;” however, it does contribute to the impression that the journalists’ search is futile and that Kane’s “true” identity and story will never be known to them, and in fact that such a thing is impossible to define in the first place. They are indistinguishable, not from the dark city that is the typical theme of noir, but of the lack of identity that is the particular theme of Citizen Kane.


“Compositional tension is often preferred to physical action.”

This is the stylistic element that first got me thinking of Citizen Kane in terms of noir. Throughout the movie, composition is used to show interpersonal relationships, often as the only means of doing so. For example, consider Kane at the breakfast table with his first wife. At the beginning of their marriage, they are close:


But after their marriage has deteriorated, they are distant from each other, and the newspaper has come between them:

marriage2(Notice, also, the increased effect of the oblique lighting and architecture, and the way that they are given equal lighting emphasis as their surroundings.)

Most emblematic of this element, to me, is the scene in which Kane insists that Susan Alexander will continue to sing opera. Susan is sitting on the ground, surrounded by newspapers, while Kane is standing. In the shot/reverse-shot sequence, Susan is always shot with the camera above, looking down, and Kane is shot with the camera below, looking up. When Susan begins to insist that she is done singing, she rises to her knees, claiming a little more space and height in the shot. At the moment when Kane shouts that she will continue to sing, he moves closer to the camera, growing larger in his frame. When we cut back to Susan Alexander, his shadow moves to cover her entirely, and she cowers and becomes smaller. The scene ends and the narrative moves on, the argument resolved by nothing but a change in composition.

(Watch from 1:15 to 2:10 to see the sequence discussed.)


“There seems to be an almost Freudian attachment to water.”

Of the connections between Citizen Kane and noir style, this is one of the weakest. Water and rain are certainly present in the film, but they don’t have the pervasiveness and importance that they find in more traditional noir. As such, for the most part, there is little to say here. However, I will posit that the following scene, in which we meet “present-day” Susan Alexander for the first time, could out-noir almost anything:


“There is a love of romantic narration.”

The story of Kane’s life is told through the flashbacks of those who knew him, making far more use than usual of voiceover narration. Jedediah Leland, in particular, tended to editorialize the stories he told, trying to explain why Kane did the things he did, but in a way that conveyed “an irretrievable past, a predetermined fate, and an all-enveloping hopelessness.”

Consider the video cited for stylistic #4; it begins with Leland, an old man, talking to the journalist. Immediately before we watch Kane bully his wife into continuing to sing against her wishes, Leland tells us, “He was always trying to prove something. That whole thing about Susie being an opera singer, that was trying to prove something. You know what the headline was the day before the election? Candidate Kane found in love nest with quote, “singer,” un-quote. He was gonna take the quotes off the singer.” When the next scene begins, then, we already know how it’s going to end and why it’s going to unfold that way.

Or, consider this earlier scene, in which Leland begins narrating before the image of Kane and his wife Emily has fully finished fading away.

The camera pulls away from Kane and Emily, revealing the distance between them, and the journalist asks, “Wasn’t he ever in love with her?” Leland answers, “He married for love. Love. That’s why he did everything.” Only then does the image of Kane and his wife fully fade away, as Leland continues to narrate: “That’s why he went into politics. It seems we weren’t enough; he wanted all them voters to love him, too. That’s all he really wanted out of life, was love. That’s Charlie’s story: how he lost it.”

Leland, like the others, directly tells us Charles Kane’s story, and it’s a story whose sad ending is already known. Even if the narrative of the story is not the most noir of plots, the narration is most definitely noir.


“A complex chronological order is frequently used to reinforce the feelings of hopelessness and lost time.”

When a film begins with the death of its titular character, you’re almost guaranteed a complex chronological order and a feeling of hopelessness, in the sense that nothing can change the ending of the story. Citizen Kane comes back to certain events, such as the day he lost the election, or the night Susan Alexander left him, again and again, revealing more of the hopelessness of the situation each time. The significance of the snowglobe, for example, seen at the beginning of the movie (which is the end of his life) is explained all out of order– we don’t see him pick it up until near the end of the movie, when Kane’s butler tells the story of the night Susan Alexander left (which is, incidentally, not even the first time we hear that particular story).

It’s difficult to cite examples when describing the overall structure of a film, so instead I will cite Shrader: doesn’t this sound exactly like Citizen Kane? It “use[s] a convoluted time sequence to immerse the viewer in a time-disoriented but highly stylized world.” That, to me, is Kane in a nutshell.


Overall, I expect that people can poke holes in the idea of Citizen Kane as a noir. However, even if Citizen Kane is not a noir film, I feel it is safe to say that Orson Welles is a noir director. Kane is only his first film, and 1941 is early for the noir genre, and yet it already demonstrates a strong preference for noir style. As film noir and Welles himself become more established, he creates much more typically noir films, such as The Stranger (1946), The Lady from Shanghai (1947), and Touch of Evil (1958). It is no surprise, then, so see so much of the style of the noir present in Citizen Kane.


3 Responses to Noir Style in Citizen Kane

  1. Shilpi Kumar says:

    You seem to produce outstanding blog entries for every assignment! I am really impressed with how thoroughly you outlined Citizen Kane in accordance with the Schrader’s guidelines for film noir. The videoclips you posted along with your descriptions of the noir elements provided ample explanations for your claims and I really appreciated having the evidence on hand as opposed to trying to remember from the screening in class. Good job!

  2. Joy Ogunmuyiwa says:

    This by far has to be one the best blogs I’ve read in this class. Not only does it translate perfectly the seven noir stylistics outlined by Paul Shrader in his Notes on Film Noir, it incorporates the corresponding video clips and pictures to illustrate it too. This evidence you provided in each segment strongly supported his theory of style for a film noir. Keep up the good work!

  3. Don Tucker says:

    I really enjoyed this post. I thought your detailed analysis of Citizen Kane’s noir elements was both interesting and eye-opening. I think it shows that there is in fact more to the idea of a noir film than these 7 guidelines, because I agree with you that Citizen Kane doesn’t possess a “quintessential noir theme.”

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