The Art of Montage: Citizen Kane
To many, Citizen Kane is the greatest movie ever made. The film’s use of non-linear storytelling (for which it won the Oscar for Best Writing — its only Oscar win against nine nominations), as well as new techniques in cinematography and editing, made the film groundbreaking. Though not always given the top spot, it is often in the running on many greatest films lists.
In the film, reporter Jerry Thompson goes on a long, investigative journey to discover what Rosebud is, the last word uttered by famous newspaper mogul Charles Foster Kane. The entire film tells the story of Kane’s life, from childhood to death. Thompson interviews a variety of people who each shed light on a different aspect of Kane’s life from his hard childhood, to his success in the newspaper industry, to his run for President — all part of his quest to find Rosebud.
As Thompson is interviewing a multitude of people, he comes to Kane’s estranged best friend, Jedediah Leland, who recounts the early years of Kane’s marriage to Emily Norton, the niece of the President. What the audience sees next is one of the most well-known scenes from the film.
We get a glimpse into the marriage of Kane and Emily through the use of breakfast. Jedediah says that the two only ever saw each other during breakfast, commenting that they had a marriage “just like any other marriage.” We then see the newlyweds at the breakfast table, apparently after a long night of partying. Kane kisses Emily while commenting on her beauty as he sits at the quaint table made for two. Emily comments her disapproval of Kane having to rush off to work so late in the evening (or morning, depending on your viewpoint). Kane decides to put off his appointments until later in the day. They both then enjoy a happy late-night/early-morning breakfast in newlywed bliss.
Next is a series of short sequences. We notice that time has passed — indicated by a whip pan transition between each scene. The resulting scenes are all the same: Emily talking to Kane at one end of the breakfast table, Kane sitting at the other end of the breakfast table who then replies to Emily. With each “scene,” Emily expresses a thought, usually in disent of something Kane has done or allowed, and Kane becomes increasingly annoyed with Emily’s constant “pestering.” Their moods become increasingly less civil with the passing of time, until the culmination of the scene: they are each reading the newspaper over breakfast, not speaking to each other. The final shot of the montage is perhaps the most famous from the film: the camera dollies out from the medium close-up of Kane to reveal that the quaint breakfast table from the beginning of the montage is gone. It has been replaced with a long table fit for multiple guests. Kane and Emily sit on opposite ends of each other.
The beauty of this montage is how the editor, Robert Wise, and the director of photography, Greg Toland, (both of whom were nominated in their respective categories) worked together. Starting with the first flash forward, the blocking is exactly the same for each scene until the final reveal. This also shows how good the actors, Orson Welles and Ruth Warrick, portrayed their characters in the montage. Other than the change of wardrobe and the wip pan transitions, the only way we know that there has been a jump in time is that the mood of the characters has furthered soured. As previously stated, the blocking stays the same throughout the montage, so the editor had to rely on the performance of the actors to communicate to the audience that time had passed.
The montage beautiful illustrates not just the passing of time, but the deterioration of a once-beautiful marriage.
The montage beautiful illustrates not just the passing of time, but the deterioration of a once-beautiful marriage. It’s not necessarily the words said, but how they are said that communicates to the viewer that the couple is in trouble. With every new scene, the characters become more and more angry with each other, until their relationship has deteriorated into complete silence.
Also, the use of props reveals the passing of time and the deteriorating of the couple’s union. The way the montage is blocked, the viewer just naturally assumes that the couple has been sitting at the same breakfast table as when the montage began. The viewer has no reason to think otherwise. The use of silence and visuals at the end is powerful reveal that the couple has reached the point of no return. By seeing the distance between the two as they sit at each end of very long table, the audience knows that the couple isn’t going to make it.
Orson Welles was a visionary filmmaker. His genius was misunderstood by many at the time. Today, we have the privilege of looking back and seeing the impact he made on cinema. Many film critics and historians see Citizen Kane as his crowning achievement. One could argue that by being the crowning achievement of his crowning achievement, the breakfast montage in Citizen Kane is the pinnacle Welles’ career. Why I personally wouldn’t necessarily go that far, I firmly believe that not only is it one of the greatest montages of all time, it’s a crowning achievement in the history of cinema.
Matt is a 23-year-old producer, director, and writer from DFW, Texas, who holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Film, TV, and Digital Media from Texas Christian University and is now an apprentice at the Center for Creative Media. His ultimate goal is to bring glory to God as a showrunner on TV. He is fueled by laughter, music, and donuts. Lots and lots of donuts.