Noir Style in Citizen Kane

October 31, 2009

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.


Hitchcock and Feminist Theory in Suspicion and Rear Window

October 9, 2009

Identifying as a feminist, it seems, is really quite different from having a working familiarity with feminist film theory! I found myself fascinated by all the new analysis I encountered in  Tania Modeleski’s excerpt “The Master’s Dollhouse: Rear Window” (Google books link) from The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory (Amazon).


Rear Window shows us the story of a murder, as viewed from the apartment of a photojournalist temporarily using a wheelchair. L.B. Jeffries, injured getting photographs of a car race, passes his convalescence spying on his neighbours with binoculars and powerful camera lenses, with occasional company from Stella, his insurance company masseuse;  Doyle, a detective friend; and, most importantly, Lisa, his girlfriend.

Modeleski says the following of Rear Window:

Because of Hitchcock’s relentless insistence on the male gaze, even critics like Robin Wood, who are anxious to save the film for feminism, restrict themselves to discussing the film’s critique of the position of the hero and, by extension, of the male spectator whose “phantasy position the hero occupies.” But what happens, in the words of a recent relevant article by Linda Williams, “when the woman looks”? I shall argue, against the grain of critical consensus, that the film actually has something to say about this question. (Film Theory & Criticism, p. 723)

Modeleski’s argument completely convinced me. Although L.B. Jeffries is (usually) the one holding the camera or binoculars, “…it is Lisa’s interpretation, arrived at through identification, that is ultimately validated” (p. 731). It is important, first, because her interpretations are validated. This is true of her small comments and her key assertions. A popular neighbour isn’t “a queen bee with her pick of the drone’s,” she’s ” doing a woman’s hardest job– juggling wolves”; one of the men, who fails in his attempt to restrain her after a brief visit to the balcony, later assaults another neighbour. If a woman’s handbag is usually hung on her bedpost, it is her favourite handbag, and she would never leave it behind on a trip, nor would she leave her jewelry, and least of all her wedding ring; indeed, the woman has been murdered.

However, to me, it is even more important because these interpretations are “arrived at through identification.” The male gaze can see what is happening, but it takes a female gaze to see why. Because nearly all the crucial evidence in the case hinges upon Lisa’s knowledge of what a woman would or would not do, the viewer must identify with a woman in order to continue in the narrative, making the “gaze” of the movie as a whole far less straightforwardly “male”.

However, this is all just considering Rear Window; what happens when the majority of the film is centered around the “female look”? Earlier in the class, we also watched Hitchcock’s Suspicion, which unfolds entirely from the perspective of Lina McLaidlaw.


Lina is a Hollywood Homely young woman who falls for a charming man named Johnnie, and defies her parents to marry him. As soon as they are married, however, she begins to suspect that his charming exterior is hiding something; she returns from their honeymoon to discover that he is entirely bankrupt and unemployed. As the film progresses, she discovers lie after lie– he sold her antique chairs to gamble, he lost his job, he didn’t spend his whole out-of-town trip in London– and she is plagued by suspicion, and eventually fear that he plans to kill her. In the final scene, she attempts to leave him, and he convinces her that he was only researching poison in order to kill himself, not to harm her, as well as explaining away several other lies; the film ends with a typical “clinch” and they drive off into the sunset.

Throughout the film, our intense suspicion stems from the fact that we are only allowed to see what Lina sees. Johnnie’s reports on his off-screen action are increasingly proved to be unreliable, and we are constantly in doubt of his intentions. Our fear, as it mounts, is Lina’s fear, and it is also a typically female fear; domestic violence remains primarily an issue of men harming their wives, in 2005, 1,181 women were murdered by intimates, versus 329 men, even though far more men are victims of murder than women are; the threat to women comes disproportionately from the men they are supposed to trust.

Lina’s gaze, as the only guarantee that what seems true won’t be revealed later as false, becomes the authoritative gaze, and through it, we identify with Lina not just as a protagonist, but also was a woman bound by very specific societal restrictions and roles. (When it is revealed that Johnnie has no money, and doesn’t want to get a job, it’s never even suggested that Lina might work.)

suspicion.JPGNear the end of Suspiscion, Lina wakes in bed after an illness, where her author friend reveals that she has told Lina’s husband the recipe for an untraceable poison easy to find in every home; Lina asks if it is painless, and upon being reassured that it is, closes her eyes, as if resigned. That night, her husband brings her a glass of milk. As she watches it on the nightstand, we look at it with her look– wondering if it is poisoned, wondering if she should drink it anyway to end the endless fear, or ignore it, or perhaps empty it to pretend it has been drunk, or throw it against the wall…

rear_window_ringLina’s moment of greatest weakness reminds me of the moment in Rear Window, when Lisa, by putting on a murdered woman’s wedding ring in order to smuggle it out of an apartment as evidence, symbolically “marries” a wife-murderer. Modeleski says of the following of the incident:

A female spectator of Rear Window may…use her special knowledge of women and their position in patriarchy to see another kind of significance in the ring; to the woman identifying, like Lisa herself, with the female protagonist of the story [i.e., the murdered wife], the episode [in which Lisa wears the dead wife’s ring to smuggle it out of the apartment as evidence] may be read as pointing up the victimization of women by men. … But it is not only the female spectator who is bound to identify with Lisa… Jeff himself–and, by extension, the male film viewer–is forced to identify with the woman and to become aware of his own passivity and helplessness in relation to the events unfolding before his eyes. (p. 732)

Similarly, male and female spectators alike are bound to identify with Lina and her helplessness to determine the truth of how her husband behaves when he is invisible to hr gaze. We don’t know what Johnnie is thinking, but we know what Lina is thinking, because we are thinking it too. An earlier draft of the movie had Lina drink the milk intentionally to die; the version released has her ignore it and live. Both versions, to different degrees, ultimately validate the idea that anything not seen by Lina cannot be trusted.

I could never argue that the male gaze does not exist, or even that it is not often privileged; even if it is reduced in Suspicion, it is of great importance in Rear Window, and of course in untold thousands of other movies. However, I found it fascinating and noteworthy that, perhaps sometimes unnoticed, there is also a strong female gaze in both of these Hitchcock films, and once you begin to see what it sees, a great deal more is revealed.


Why I will now hate Polanski forever

October 2, 2009

Today, I was telling a friendly acquaintance that I was thinking about going to grad school in film, and getting into movies as a career.

Her first response? She asked, “Oh, have you heard about that Polanski thing?”

I said, “Yes. I think convicted criminals are supposed to get sentenced.”

She was relieved.

Polanski and his supporters are tainting the entire film industry with their approval of a convicted child rapist, to the extent that it’s almost embarrassing for me to admit that I want to join that industry, because people will assume that I agree. I have to reassure people that I don’t think good movies are some kind of get-out-of-justice-free card.

What the hell, people. What the hell.

I kissed a girl, and I liked it. Because I was dating her.

September 30, 2009

I have a post brewing on how I think Lady Gaga might be a lot cooler than I originally thought she was. (Short version: doesn’t the Paparazzi music video seem like a criticism of the sexualized violence against women?) I thought maybe I was being to harsh on other female pop singers, so I thought I’d give Katy Perry another look.

Darlings, I couldn’t stand it! Here are the lyrics to “I kissed a girl,” with all the lines that are positive about lesbianism in italics, and all the lines that say NO REALLY I’M STRAIGHT, DUDES, THIS IS JUST SO I LOOK HOTTER, NOT A LESBO, I SWEAR… those are in bold.

This was never the way I planned, not my intention
I got so brave, drink in hand, lost my discretion
It’s not what I’m used to, just wanna try you on
I’m curious for you caught my attention

I kissed a girl and I liked it
The taste of her cherry chapstick
I kissed a girl just to try it

I hope my boyfriend don’t mind it

It felt so wrong, it felt so right
Don’t mean I’m in love tonight
I kissed a girl and I liked it
I liked it

No, I don’t even know your name, it doesn’t matter
You’re my experimental game, just human nature
It’s not what good girls do, not how they should behave

My head gets so confused, hard to obey

I kissed a girl and I liked it
The taste of her cherry chapstick

I kissed a girl just to try it
I hope my boyfriend don’t mind it

It felt so wrong, it felt so right
Don’t mean I’m in love tonight
I kissed a girl and I liked it
I liked it

Us girls we are so magical
Soft skin, red lips, so kissable
Hard to resist, so touchable
Too good to deny it

It ain’t no big deal, it’s innocent

I kissed a girl and I liked it
The taste of her cherry chapstick

I kissed a girl just to try it
I hope my boyfriend don’t mind it

It felt so wrong, it felt so right
Don’t mean I’m in love tonight
I kissed a girl and I liked it
I liked it

So. There are 15 (and a half) lines frantically reaffirming her heterosexuality (seriously, “No, I don’t even know your name, it doesn’t matter/ You’re my experimental game” ?!), 9 that are just the chorus (positive towards the whole kissing-girls thing but really just one line over and over again), and 8 and a half that are saying nice things about ladies. (Plus the two that are “It’s not what good girls do, not how they should behave/ My head gets so confused, hard to obey” — it seems to play into her sexy-naughty schtick but it’s harder to classify.)

15 of 33 lines are about how she’s totally straight– that’s almost half the song. The chorus is exactly half and half. And the few bits that aren’t aggressively straight get immediately negated. I didn’t plan to, I have a boyfriend, I just wanted to try it… It ain’t no big deal, it’s innocent.

Yeah. If that’s what kissing girls is like for you, maybe you’re doing it wrong. Unless, of course, you’re only doing it to titillate.. in which case, the random lingerie pillowfight in the music video makes more sense now. (A video that, by the way, ends with her in bed with a dude, smiling at him!)

I think for songs about bisexuality and explorations thereof, I’m going to stick with Lady Gaga, and Poker Face.

Julie & Julia & food & love & bravery

September 25, 2009

Julie & Julia tells the stories of Julie Powell, a woman who decides to cook through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a year, and Julia Child, an woman in love with food who decides to write a French cookbook for servantless Americans. Contrary to our expectations, the two never meet, but their stories are intertwined, synchronizing the highs and lows of each endeavour to tell a cohesive story about women finding joy by following their love of food, and of the people around them.


The appeal of this light-hearted movie comes in two main forms: wonderful, genuine relationships between wonderful, genuine people… and food porn.

chocolate-cream-pieStarting with the food: this movie made me hungry! Even in scenes not revolving around either characters’ cooking endeavours, the camera lingers lovingly on plates of food, and the characters spend half their time talking with their mouths full. Often, people don’t eat in movies; they might deign to converse in front of plates of food, but we rarely see them putting bite after bite in their mouths. Neither Julie nor Julia would stand for such half-heartedness in eating, and it makes a refreshing change from the sometimes food-phobic atmosphere of Hollywood to hear a movie say (paraphrasing), “There’s no such thing as too much butter. Everything delicious you’ve ever eaten, the trick was butter!”

juliehubbyEven more fun, for me, was seeing the tiny moments between characters that revealed the depth and strength of their relationships. When Julie tells her coworker that she’s gotten a record-breaking number of comments, the two of them do a cheerful hand-clapping routine reminiscent of girls on the playground. When Julia and her sister “jinx” each other later in the movie, they have their own hand-game ritual as well. In both cases the moment takes a character with a tiny part, and makes the viewer feel as though she has an extensive backstory. It also increases our feeling of connection between our two aspiring chefs, which increases as the movie goes on.



Now, I don’t want to give the impression that this is an overwhelmingly joyful movie. Honestly, the “ups and downs” are probably more down than up. One of the most compelling tiny-moment scenes comes when Julia receives news of her sister’s pregnancy; she sits on the counter and cries, all while yelling, “It’s wonderful! I’m so happy for them!” The topic of children never comes up again, but it’s a valuable moment. However, the tender way that her husband holds her, while moving, isn’t exactly nice. Julie has a number of meltdowns and her marriage nearly falls apart from the stress. It’s not all chocolate cake and boef bourguinon! There are also aspics.

However, the message of the movie as a whole is essentially a joyful one. Both Julie and Julia are told to be courageous and embrace their strength, and, in the end, they do so, leaving us with one message: “Bon Appétit!” I would definitely recommend it for anyone looking for a pleasant way to spend a few hours.


Alan Turing

September 14, 2009

I only recently discovered that Alan Turing was gay (or, at least, slept with men.) I think I had about five minutes of elation, in which I mentally stood him next to Ada Lovelace in my pantheon of idols with whom I can identify, before I learned the second half of the story: mere years after being chemically castrated as punishment for his homosexuality ‘gross indecency’ Turing committed suicide. He hasn’t budged in my affections– I just relate to him now more personally and more painfully than would be necessary in a more perfect world.

It seems everything conspires to keep bringing him to my attention, though, so have two links, on his life and on the recent British apology for his mistreatment:

Orson Scott Card, meet Alan Turing, from Feminist SF.

For Alan Turing, a real apology for once, from Language Log.

Finally, I leave you with a poem by Matt Harvey, from the BBC Radio.

here’s a toast to Alan Turing
born in harsher, darker times
who thought outside the container
and loved outside the lines
and so the code-breaker was broken
and we’re sorry
yes now the s-word has been spoken
the official conscience woken
– very carefully scripted but at least it’s not encrypted – 
and the story does suggest
a part 2 to the Turing Test:
1. can machines behave like humans?
2. can we?

Two out of three isn’t bad!

September 11, 2009

So, I just got the cutest, most misguided troll comment ever:

you’reeee alllll gayyyyyyyy

Thanks, Aimee, for that fascinating insight! Unfortunately, this blog was “alllll gayyyyyyyy” when it was just Crowfoot and myself blogging here, but since the arrival of Jo, we’ve gone down to 66% gayyyyyyyy. However, I’m not sure what this has to do with Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Mr. Yunioshi, and good old-fashioned racism! Or why you think we’d object to a mostly-factual statement on our sexual orientations!

Regardless, I appreciate the laugh! Normally I consider three words to be not quite enough to add to the conversation, but this is too good not to share. Everyone, meet Aimee, also known as Aimeeeeeeee theeee trolllllllllll!