Strokes of Light and Shadow: The Impact of Citizen Kane


Broad Daylight. The Key Scene. No Shadows Needed. Viewer's Full Attention Required.

When one thinks back to the turning points of film history, the first few events that come to mind are the first edited fiction film, ‘Jazz Singer’ and the transition to sound or the first feature film in color. Some even mention the extensive use of deep focus in ‘Citizen Kane’ and while all these events are clearly revolutionary in terms of the development of film as a medium, the use of lighting creatively is often overlooked. Exploiting light and shadow inventively to express meaning and establish a desired atmosphere made Orson Welles’ ‘Citizen Kane’ a significant historical event that impacted both audiences and film genre in many ways. In order to clearly understand this statement and acknowledge Orson Welles with changing the face of film history once and for all, one has to go back in time to the first use of light in the medium. It all started with the inventor Thomas Edison and his invention of the electric light. Edison understood the importance of light but failed to see the potential of how light can be used to affect the quality of films. In 1893, Edison’s first step towards focusing on film as his future can be seen with the creation of the first film studio, ‘The Black Maria’; the studio was built to rotate with an open roof in order to emit natural light when shooting films. (Wanamaker, 12) The key word here is “natural” light for this proves that Edison used light as a requirement rather than a tool to express. As films grew in numbers, they had one aspect in common; they were very well lit in order to show the audience what was filmed rather than what they want them to see. It wasn’t till ‘Citizen Kane’ was released that audiences began to see how light and shadow can impact the meaning of certain scenes.

            Orson Welles used light and shadow not as a necessity but to give scenes a certain meaning and atmosphere. He used lighting expressively to inject viewers with desired emotions. Prior to that moment movies and their messages were transmitted from the screen to the audience through the content of the film rather than the way it was shot. (Alton, 87) In other words, ‘Citizen Kane’ can be seen as the first time ever for a filmmaker to use the technicality of filmmaking in conjunction with the content to deliver to the audience what the filmmaker what trying to communicate. A perfect example of a scene where the use of lighting to convey meaning can be seen is at the beginning of ‘Citizen Kane’. After witnessing a news reel about the death of the fictional character Charles Foster Kane, the camera suddenly moves to the people behind that newsreel. They discuss how the newsreel has no originality and has nothing new to offer to the curious public. A scene like this can be shot in numerous ways and still have the same meaning but Welles chose to use light and shadow to specifically tell the audience what to focus on. (Mulvey, 52) By using a very strong backlight, Welles put these characters in shadow. All we could see was their silhouettes and the outline of the hands moving. Painting with light helped Welles tell the audience not  to focus on these reporters and who they are. The focus here did not change from Charles Foster Kane to the reporters with the end of the newsreel but stayed on Kane. (Anton, 112) It was as if Orson Welles was keeping the audience interested in the main character by putting the rest in shadow, it was like saying that who these characters are is not important, it’s what they seek that matters.

            Another similar key scene in ‘Citizen Kane’ that is visually striking the same way is after his wife performs terribly in the opera. Kane then stands up and claps his hands. Again the use of shadow is very significant. At first he claps his hands like everyone else out of respect to the performer but when he stands up and continues clapping, he’s alone and lurking in a shadow and all we see is his silhouette. The use of shadow here is very expressive in that it shows that Kane’s standing ovation does not matter for he is alone when it comes to his opinion. Welles saw the potential of what could be achieved with light and how light can affect the viewers take on what he or she just witnessed. (Mulvey, 101) exploiting light and shadow this way was revolutionary at that time and people were confused rather than impressed. It wasn’t till years later that people looked back, appreciated, and used lighting to affect viewers the same way ‘Citizen Kane’ did. Robin Wood, a well known journalist and film critic, recognized this influence and wrote about the influence of the movie on filmmakers to come from Capra to Hitchcock. In one of his essays he explains a similar use of light and shadow to have a different impact on viewers in Frank Capra’s ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’. Capra displayed all the scenes in Bedford Falls are displayed in broad daylight and all the scenes in Pottersville are displayed at night to have an atmospheric effect on the viewer as in good vs. evil. (Wood, 292) The influence and impact of lighting in ‘Citizen Kane’ is not limited to expressive use of shadows and light, one can even argue that ‘Citizen Kane’ is the movie that set the conventions of every film noir movie that followed.

Film noir is one of the most discussed genres within the medium for it combines many elements from various genres yet has a very precise style and mise-en-scene (Hirsch, 7). Careful lighting to establish a certain mood and atmosphere can be traced back to early German expressionistic movies of the 20’s and 30’s. Most of these movies were horror movies like ‘Nosferatu’, ‘M’, and ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligary’ (Worland, 16). While these movies predated ‘Citizen Kane’ in terms of using shadows to have a certain atmospheric effect on the viewers, Citizen Kane was the first to use mise-en-scene in the same expressionistic way in a movie that has nothing to do with creatures, murderers or movie monsters (Naremore, 32). The fact that Orson Welles adapted this style and enhanced into a genre movie helped in it becoming one of the most original and influential movies ever made. It had a particular effective influence on film noir and can be credited with setting the basic conventions of future film noirs. Most film historians consider ‘Strangers on the Third Floor’ to be the first film noir; however, it wasn’t till a year later that RKO released ‘Citizen Kane’ which created conventions that are now present in almost every film noir movie in the classic period (Altman, 103). In order to see the similarities between ‘Citizen Kane’ and every film noir movie that followed one has to rediscover the basic conventions found within the genre.

James Stewart as George Bailey

By applying these conventions on ‘Citizen Kane’ viewers will clearly see that Orson Welles created a genre movie that triggered a decade of film noir pictures. Most film noir plots revolve around an investigation of sorts, in this case the investigators are reporters and instead of investigating a murder or missing treasure, they investigate Kane’s last word, “Rosebud”. Another convention in terms of plot is that of narration. Again, the opening news reel featured in ‘Citizen Kane’ serves as that narration to the story that is about to be exposed. Film noir movies also tend to have specific characters like a flawed hero, a housewife of sorts, and the dangerous female that will break the main character’s heart (Hirsch, 32). All these are present in ‘Citizen Kane’ from Charles Foster Kane as the flawed hero, to Emily Kane as the typical American housewife, and of course Suzan Alexander as the woman who breaks his heart. In terms of visual style ‘Citizen Kane’ features probably every element seen in film noirs of the 40’s and 50’s (Altman, 71). The constant use of mirrors, low-key lighting, reflections and strange camera angles are all intentionally present in Welles’ movie to establish his desired atmosphere, an atmosphere that would be dominant within the genre. Other conventions such as urban setting and corruption within a city can be found in ‘Citizen Kane’ as well. It wasn’t till 1946 that the term “film noir” was coined by French movie critic, Nino Frank, yet Orson Welles’ influence on filmmakers and detective movies from the 40’s and 50’s particularly Humphrey Bogart movies came five years before the genre became an official one (Cohen, 13). So while ‘Citizen Kane’ and both its meaningful and atmospheric lighting is often overlooked, one can see how the movies’ status grew due to Welles’ recognition of what light or rather the absence of light can do to affect the overall appearance of a movie, key scenes and their meaning and an entire genre now known as film noir.

The historical significance of the use of light and shadow creatively in Citizen Kane opened the eyes of filmmakers to the potential of lighting, and various ways to use cinematography to help the content of the picture. Prior to that transition from using light as a necessity to using it expressively to convey meaning and establish atmosphere should be given as much recognition in terms of the process of developing film both as an industry and an art form. ‘Citizen Kane’ clearly helped in doing so and the reason for that being is because Orson Welles was given complete creative control over the movie by RKO studios (Altman, 7). This helped him take motion pictures to the next level by opening the doors to possibilities. In the late nineteenth century Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, and in 1941, Orson Welles used this artificial light combined with natural light to explore what light could do to enhance the medium that took much advancement to reach its current status. These advancements include editing shots to form a narrative, using synchronized sound, transferring to color are just a few major steps that helped develop film as medium. However, there are other elements that are overlooked, yet deserve as much recognition since the sudden progress in lighting that was achieved in ‘Citizen Kane’ helped make film an original medium distinct from theater and many other arts.

Work Cited:

Altman, Rick. Film/Genre. 3rd. United Kingdom: British Film Institute, (87,12). 1999. Print.

Alton, John (1995). Painting with Light. Los Angeles, California: University of California Press; (112) 4th Edition.

Cohen , Marshall. Film Theory and Criticism. Seventh. Los Angeles, California: Oxford

University Press, USA, 2009. Print.

Hirsch, Foster (2008). The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir. Los Angeles, California: Da Capo Press; 2nd Edition.

Josephson , Matthew (1992). Edison: A Biography. New Jersey: Wiley; 1 Edition.

Mulvey, Laura (2008). Citizen Kane. (52-53) London: BFI Classics.

Naremore, James. Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane: A Casebook. 2nd. New York: Oxford

University Press, 2004. Print.

Wanamaker, Mark. “The Film Studios.” Silent Majority: On-Line Journal of Silent Film 1, (12-13). Web.20 Jul 2009. <>

Wood, Robin. Hitchcock Films Revisited. 4th. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989. Print.

Worland, Rick. The Horror Film: An Introduction. 1st. New York: Wiley-Blackwell , 2006. Print.


29 thoughts on “Strokes of Light and Shadow: The Impact of Citizen Kane

  1. Great article. I think Welles used shadow to even greater effect in The Magnificent Ambersons, but, unfortunately, the original ending screened badly, so the movie studio changed it while Welles was on vacation. Touch of Evil (and, indeed, most of Welles’s films) are easily recognizable for their use of light and shadow. He also was great at capturing “odd-angled shots,” which affected one’s reactions to the scene. Certain scenes in Touch of Evil, for instance (like the dead man and his bulging eyeballs, or the weird “rape” scene), make me certain that he was aware of German Expressionism and of its capabilities in films that, as you wrote, “had nothing to do with creatures, murderers, or movie monsters.”

    Oh, and I comment in Ebert’s blog under my real name (hint: I said I would gladly snoop on your blog :-)).


    1. The Magnificent Ambersons ! Another film I should include on my list 🙂 I agree with everything you said. Welles understood German Expressionism and knew how to use that influence. That’s what always distinguished him from other directors out there. It’s a shame certain talented directors like Tim Burton have the capability to create an expressionistic film yet don’t seem to understand that its purpose wasn’t necessarily to create a “weird” world but have a purpose as well. Edward Scissorhands, in my opinion had all the technicalities of German Expressionism but lacked the depth.

      Thank you for snooping 🙂 You’ll see of me a lot at the Ebert blog. His blog is one hell of a discovery for me 🙂


      1. Thanks for snooping. 🙂

        Although I loved writing stories in school, I haven’t written many proper short stories, and only one that I was proud of, until I realized that it needed more work. 🙂 Plays are an even later addition to my repertoire, as I only started writing them in college, and haven’t written any since (though I write down most of my story ideas, whether they be plays, novels, short stories, essay collections, story collections, etc.). Here’s the basic breakdown: poetry is what I do for fun, novels are what I do for a challenge, short stories are what I do for practice, and plays are what I do when I need a visual medium in order to tell my story properly. Someday, I might even write screenplays.


      2. You should really consider writing novels and so on. I read a couple of your works and let me tell you, your storytelling style is very smooth and I know the type. You’re they type were I read one sentence to check it out and end up reading pages and pages. You’re a page turner if there ever was one. I really mean it 🙂


      3. I’m flattered. Thank you. 🙂 Since I have a bit of a breather this week, I’ll be working on my novel as much as I can. It’s already taken many years out of my life, so it shouldn’t need to take too many more. 🙂


  2. “Citizen Kane” grows on me every time I watch. In 1995, I reacted to its story while watching on video, and, in 2003 and 2006, I reacted to its techniques while watching on DVD. This interesting post will help another viewing a lot, I think. Thank you very much.

    In case of “The Magnificent Ambersons”, I have not seen it yet. I heard it is overrated due to its lost potentials. Is It still great to watch? Sadly, this movie did not receive proper DVD treatment yet.


    1. Very well said, Seongyong Cho, Citizen Kane is one of those movies where everytime I watch it I discover something new. It may have an entire different effect on me every time I watch it..only one thing is for sure, that effect will always be a positive one. Just the other day I rewatched it and noticed something very new to me at least…Rosebud is the object that makes him relate to the time when he lost his mother. The only two times he utters these words is when he loses his wife and finally when he loses his life.


    2. Even with the altered ending, The Magnificent Ambersons is still one of Orson Welles’s greatest movies, and worth seeking out. I saw it on Turner Classic Movies, so if you have a similar TV station in Korea, perhaps you can find it there.


  3. Nice piece. The role Gregg Toland played in Kane’s brilliance should not be ignored. It’s my understanding that Toland actually approached Welles about being his cinematographer. Toland had already experimented with various lighting techniques under John Ford (see ‘The Long Voyage Home’). Legend has it that Toland’s desire to work with Welles had much to do with him being a first-time director. There’s a quote, and this isn’t verbatim, “the great thing about first-time directors is that they don’t yet know what they can’t do.”

    As much as I am a fan of Welles and admirer of his work, I don’t believe Kane would have been nearly as profound with any other cinematographer. Welles’ inclusion of Toland on the final title card speaks volumes to how much of a role he played in that film.


    1. I agree. I mean the best thing about Kane is in my opinion, the cinematography. That goes without saying. I will say though that Welles’ complete freedom with this project gave them both the ability to experience with what they could achieve and boy did they achieve something. I mean the movie is still beautiful to look at and I constantly find myself asking..”How did they do that?” For a movie this old and still discussed heavily, it brought a new meaning to the sentence “ahead of its time”. Was Toland the cinematographer in The Magnificent Ambersons as well? I’m just curious.


      1. No, that was Stanley Cortez, who later did a magnificent job (no pun intended) on Night of the Hunter. In fact, there’s even more use of shadow in The Magnificent Ambersons than there is in Citizen Kane.


  4. I really like a lot of what you had to say, but I highly suggest going through your articles with a fine tooth comb to work out any grammar kinks. You clearly know what you’re doing and are looking to be professional as possible. Even to the point of giving a damn about your references, which is struggle I prefer to avoid unless mandated. Keep up the good work, and thank you for your article.

    – Z


    1. Thank you for the compliments. I’ll proofread the piece for any mistakes I may have missed the first time around. I’m glad you enjoyed the piece and calling anyone a “professional” is always great so thank you.


  5. Another great article! I’ve been an admirer of Orson Welles for a long time and if you’d like to learn more about him read both of Simon callow’s fantastic book on him.


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