Movies have long been known to create a portal through which its viewers can transcend through their own realities and experience the unimaginable. The visual, sounds, and narrative of great movies immediately attract the focus of its audience as they move into a trance for those 1-2 hours of screen time. While many great movies introduce their audiences to varying experiences that heighten their senses and grasp their focus, some measure of relatability is necessary to connect with audiences. Such concepts of implementing elements of realism into the various facets of a film help establish a relevant connection, through which audiences can relate.
However during the Hollywood Classical era, introducing such techniques of intensifying realism in movies was often unconventional and not an achievable goal for directors and cinematographers. The techniques required to implement such elements were either not well known or plausible. There were some movies during this era that did defy such tendencies and broke barriers in terms of delivering a movie that differentiated through such concepts like realism. Two famous films that have utilized certain techniques in creating an intensified form of realism in their own ways are Citizen Kane, by Orson Welles, and Double Indemnity, by Billy Wilder.
The story of Citizen Kane and its main character Charles Foster Kane is actually loosely based of the real-life media mogul William Randolph Hearst, and Chicago tycoons Samuel Insull and Harold McCormick. Considering that the movie is based loosely off the lives of famous individuals already brings in a strong sense of realism within the film that audiences can understand. Yet just because Charles Foster Kane is somewhat based on these figures does not immediately equate it to an intensified form of realism. In fact, what really separates Citizen Kane from many other films, in aspects of compounding realism, are its use of unconventional cinematographic techniques. In an article from American Cinematographer in February 1941, Gregg Toland, the cinematographer for Citizen Kane, emphasizes that the movie’s “keynote is realism.” Two important techniques that were used by Toland and Welles in making the movie into more of a reality were the mis-en-scene and visual flow of the picture.
The mis-en-scene and sets developed for Citizen Kane were crucial in establishing certain aspects of reality with the audience. One important feature that Toland and Welles made sure of during their shootings was that scenes in rooms actually had ceilings. As silly as it may sound now, conventionally shots taken inside a room on set rarely used to have ceilings. Even if they did have ceilings, viewers could only see them during Extreme long shots. In the case of Citizen Kane however, Toland and Welles realized that in reality, the audience would consciously realize anytime they are in a room that a ceiling exists. Thus it would make sense to bring such practicality into the scenes of the movie. In fact, this technique is employed multiple times through out the movie like when Kane, Leland, and Bernstein are in the office of the Inquirer and Kane comes up with the Declaration of Principles. During this sequence, the ceiling is within the frame of the lens for almost all the shots.
Another sequence in which the ceiling is clearly visible is right after Kane loses the election and has a quasi-argument with Leland about his ideologies. In this sequence the camera is placed at such a low angle that almost every shot is a long shot where the audience can clearly see the whole figures of the characters and the ceiling. Such a technique of ensuring not only the construction of a ceiling on set, but also its presence on shots through out the movie intensifies the notion of realism. The audience is not just watching characters on a set in some studio, but they are actually seeing characters in a normal room. Another great thing about the mis-en-scene and set production of Citizen Kane is that it actually helped in delivering smooth visual flows, thus promoting notions of realism.
Welles’ concept for the film was to make it as real as possible and executing that concept through the details of shooting the film. Welles and Toland came upon the agreement of avoiding straight cuts as much as possible as it was unnatural. Instead they focused more on developing a depth of field and pan/track shots. For instance, during the beginning of the movie, there is a scene during which Kane’s mother and father agree to sign over their son to Thatcher to be educated. During this sequence the shot starts with Kane playing outside in the snow. The camera then tracks out through the window of the house and all the way back into the dining room where Kane’s mother signs the papers provided by Thatcher. Through out this single shot, the depth of field ranges from young Kane playing outside all the way into the dining room. Conventionally, such a shot would have probably been broken up but Welles and Toland insisted on delivering long shots through the film to preserve its form of realism. Contrasting to Citizen Kane, the crime/thriller film Double Indemnity brings upon different technical aspects that intensify its notion of realism.
As a film noir and crime thriller, Double Indemnity focuses on the fatal romance between a smart insurance salesman, Walter Neff, and a greedy housewife, Phyllis Dietrichson. Double Indemnity is glorified as one of the classic film noirs with its peculiar style such as an affinity for the night and rain, romantic narration, and presence of a femme fatale. However in addition to depicting a classic film noir, Double Indemnity utilizes certain effects to heighten its sense of realism and produce a stronger connection with its audience. One unique feature within this film is its predominant use of on-screen narration, depicting what the protagonist Walter thinks. A lot of times during the film, the on-screen narration will appear during moments of high tension or scenes exhibiting the restricted narrative. It also comes on when Walter starts to think to himself why he is committing to the idea and execution of murder and how he does not care if it is wrong because he is infatuated with Phyllis.
For instance, in the beginning of the film, after Walter leaves Phyllis’ home, realizing she may want to purchase accident insurance for the “wrong reasons,” the on-screen narration comes on depicting his thoughts at his apartment. The audience hears Walter’s thoughts and how he feels completely out of it and cannot stop thinking about Phyllis. Such thoughts of infatuation and confusion are feelings the audience can relate to and put into perspective in their own lives, which intensifies the realism effect. Another technique utilized in Double Indemnity is the lighting effect on-screen. Coinciding with the style of a film noir is the use of low-key lighting in significant portions of the film. Many shots through out the movie, such as in Phyllis’ home, Walter’s apartment, and the car ride to the train station when Phyllis’ husband is murdered all use low-key lighting. The usage of the effect itself does not immediately signify a sense of realism but the fact that the lighting technique is used during moments of tension and suspense adheres to the mood and emotions of the movie.
This combination is essentially what is picked up by viewers and again builds upon the idea of creating a relatable connection through which viewers can watch the film. Another combination that is prominent in the film is the crafted amalgamation of the non-diegetic soundtrack and the tension built up in certain scenes. A perfect example is during the car ride to the station when Walter murders Phyllis’ husband, the music slowly builds up in speed and volume as the scene gets closer to the time of the murder. During the action of the murder, the music is blaring with eerie music. Another interesting point is that instead of focusing on the murder, the shot is focused on Phyllis’ face and her glaring eyes lit by the low-key lighting. This combination of the various elements of lighting, sound, and camerawork culminate together to create a very real and thrilling scene. In might even seem contradictory to say these “added” elements intensify the form of realism evident in the film, but as mentioned earlier, to deliver realism, a connection needs to be established with the audience.
The connection created in Double Indemnity is based on tone and the mood set through the elements mentioned above. The notion of incorporating a form of realism within a film is beyond creating a narrative that would seem feasible in the real world. Actors and Actresses can also do their best in mimicking the habits of society in their performances but at the end, a movie will be just a movie in the eyes of the audience. However through the usage of distinct cinematic elements, a relatable connection can be created between the film and the audience.
Such a connection allows for the concept of realism to be achieved considering the concept itself falls in the perception of the viewers. From the analysis provided above, both films Citizen Kane and Double Indemnity employ special techniques that aim to intensify the form of realism evident in their narratives. In doing so, each film delivers, in their own unique way, a screenplay that objectifies a truth held in the general values of our society. For Citizen Kane, it could be the power and destruction caused by greed, and for Double Indemnity, the possibility that lust stains even the good. Regardless of the “truth,” or message sent, the techniques used by both movies allow for viewers to perceive the story in their own fashion.
Courtney from Study Moose
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