Citizen Kane is a 1941 drama film directed by Orson Welles and praised for its innovative sound and editing methods. Experimenting with creative story-telling techniques and non-linear plot construction, the director treated the time parameter sensitively, replacing time continuity of real scene by a subjective continuity.
Developing specific editing techniques, Orson Welles constructed the plot from separate fragments and several voices, affecting the spectators’ perception of the plot and emphasizing the impossibility of portraying another personality.
Jigsaw puzzle is one of the central motifs and techniques used by Orson Welles in his editing experiments. Implementing the principle of psychological associations, Orson develops editing techniques which emphasize the complexity of human personality which can be seen differently by various story-tellers from their specific perspectives.
Thus, involving several storytellers in the process of portraying the characters, the author allows the audience to collect separate fragments and scattered facts which are helpful for understanding the fractured personalities of the main characters. Some of the fragments are intentionally made contradict each other for the purpose of producing the impression of controversial and biased depiction of individuals by storytellers.
As opposed to traditional editing schemes, the technique chosen by Welles involves spectators into the process of solving the jigsaw puzzle, making them active participants of the investigation process. Not completely reliable and controversial evidence provided by friends and associates of the deceased man requires critical evaluation and analysis. Telling a story of the spiritually failed man from several equally not trustworthy perspectives, the author makes Kane’s portrait enigmatic and non-sequential.
Instead of telling the story in a chronological manner, Welles combines it from separate flashbacks which represent overlapping segments of the puzzle. Allowing each narrator to express personal opinion and interpretations of the situation, the director intentionally sacrifices the accuracy of their evidence, giving rise to spectators’ doubts concerning the reliability of the narrators’ memories. Rosebud is considered to be the last word uttered by the main character before his death is one of the most significant segments of this puzzle.
One of the narrators Thompson exclaims: “I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life. No, I guess Rosebud is just a piece in a jigsaw puzzle—a missing piece” (Citizen Kane). Making his film a collection of scattered evidence of several storytellers, Welles offers his spectators to solve a jigsaw puzzle, gathering the segments of the characters’ portrayals one by one.
The montage of quick succession of the narrators’ voices produces the impression that the whole town is speaking simultaneously. However, the same technique was also used by Welles for producing different effects, such as showing the growing tension between Kane and his wife through editing the quick succession of the episodes from their breakfast quarrels.
As opposed to the traditional mode according to which one character completes an utterance before the following one starts his/her remark, Welles does not allow the characters of Citizen Kane to express their thoughts till the end, interrupting then with the remarks or questions of the following speaker.
This editing technique when the remarks of different narrators are overlapping and one speaker starts the idea while his follower continues it demonstrates the integrity of the plot and all its elements. The innovative technique of combining flashbacks and contradicting pieces into a whole demonstrates Welles’ editing art. It was his aesthetic sense, professional skills and talent that allowed mixing the contradicting segments for producing a particular effect on the audience and achieving certain goals.
The film under consideration demonstrates that editing and other filmmaking techniques can be even more significant than the main actors’ play. Kuleshov and his followers believed that with the advances in the sphere of editing techniques, the importance of traditional acting skills had decreased significantly (Giannetti, 2010).
The storytelling techniques which were used in Citizen Kane put the main emphasis upon editing of separate episodes into a whole, combining flashbacks for the purpose of producing the desired effect upon spectators and enhancing their understanding of the authors’ messages which have been encoded not only in the development of the plot lines but also the manner of presentation of the material.
Thus, the montage of unfinished remarks of different speakers or the episodes at the same location is used for not only tell a story of Kane’s spiritual degradation but also demonstrate the audience how complex and controversial depiction of one individual can be.
The original techniques of collecting the jigsaw puzzle from the evidence given by different narrators, combination of flashbacks and quick succession of utterances of different speakers were implemented for creating a more realistic feeling in the scenes of the film. On the one hand, narrators are shown with all their human weaknesses, including bias and subjective interpretation of particular events.
By the way, most Kane’s associates telling his story are elderly and forgetful. Thus, working in the realistic key, Welles allows his narrators to age and this circumstance adds special appeal to their narration. On the other hand, the combination of overlapping and frequently contradicting segments and flashbacks shows spectators how multi-sided and controversial the depiction of an individual can be.
These techniques involve the audience into the process of investigating the case, requiring their critical analysis of the information retrieved from unreliable sources. To give his spectators food for thought and make them active participants of the development of the plot lines, Welles used innovative editing techniques, violating the chronological principle and altering traditional dialogue and storytelling patterns. At the same time, the support of the director in decoding his messages cannot be underestimated.
For instance, the meaning of the rosebud which was the main enigma of the whole story has been disclosed till the end of the film. Surprisingly, the rosebud appeared to be the name of the sled from Kane’s childhood, the only period in his life when he was truly happy. The film Citizen Kane tells a story of ups and downs of the main character.
Thus, creating the links between the words of a dying man and his memories of careless childhood, the author conveys raises a philosophical issue of the meaning of human happiness. Electrifying the audience during the development of the plot lines, Welles provides them with more questions than answers and preserves the enigmatic atmosphere till the end of the story.
Orson Welles used innovative editing techniques in his Citizen Kane, ignoring the chronological parameter of the narration and altering the traditional dialogue and shots techniques. The jigsaw puzzle portrayal of the main characters and the quick succession of different voices create a more realistic feeling of the scenes and affect the spectators’ perception of the movie.
Giannetti, L. (2010). Understanding movies. New York, NY: Allyn & Bacon.
Welles, O. (Producer and Director). (1941). Citizen Kane. [Motion picture]. United States: RKO Pictures.