Shooting a film is one of the technological ways of storytelling; in terms of oral story, it is essential to have understandable conversations and powerful sound effects to attract the viewers’ attention. “If we take the human body as a basis, then, literally speaking, ‘to show’ means to make visible to the eye and ‘to tell’ means to convey by words” (Jackson, 2009). Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941) is probably the most famous masterpiece in film world with its amazing photography, acting, editing, writing, and sound.
After watching the film, one can be impressed by any of these features, however, to me, the sound was the most effective feature because I can still hear the voice of Susan Alexander calling Kane “Charlie, Charlie”. Therefore, in this paper, I will attempt to analyze, explain, and criticize the sound and its effects in Citizen Kane film; moreover, how sound designed to create an illusion, to add power, and to convey the viewer about actors emotional situation in the scenes.
The Citizen Kane film is a biopic of William Randolph Hearst showing how a millionaire journalist, who was the role model and champion of the underprivileged, becomes also dishonored to desire for power, and wealth. In film, it is expressed that even though his second wife and his best friend describe Kane’s character in materialistic terms, Kane only wants love and emotional loyalty, his innocent boyhood as symbolized by ‘Rosebud’. However, one can see throughout the movie that no one is able to give his childhood back even himself.
Orson Welles is from one of the directors of the gap separating 1920s and 1930s. It is the transition period from silent to the enriched sound film (Gray, 2005). Welles, his cinematographer Gregg Toland, and his composer Bernard Herrmann developed and used so many techniques to show the dramatic actions’ expanding on multiple planes of vision and sound.
According to Orson Welles, the viewer did not follow the use of soundtrack. He thinks that they cannot follow because it is a particular trick to capture them as they watch an orchestra playing magnificent music without showing them musical tricks (Bogdanovich, 1998). Welles and Herrmann created a complex soundtrack which is combination of various dialogues, sometimes spoken simultaneously, or only a music into a comprehensible conversation. Sound is just as innovative as the charming photography in Citizen Kane. Welles started his career in radio; therefore, there cannot be anyone else but only him to describe the importance of the sound in his film. In general, soundtracks significantly precede the visual image to prepare the viewers for what they are about to see (Nelmes, 2003). There are many signs that one can easily notice from just listening the sound in this film. Even though the sound can be sometimes nonsensical and confounding to the viewer, it is to convey the feeling of sound transitions that inextricably bind one sequence to another. In film, the viewer can observe that the sound was used to create an illusion of people who are not actually on screen. For example, the public meeting scene is one of these scenes which is created an illusion. Kane gives a speech as candidate for presidency in a huge and crowded convention center. In reality, there is no huge center or crowded people but the viewers can hear the sounds of clapping just as after the meeting, when Kane goes out, they can also hear the sound of marching band without seeing any of them. Rather than paying extra for expensive special effects of crowded people, or street band, Welles filled the scene paying less with sound effects to create these illusions.
Even though most of the dialogue was recorded live, “Welles familiarized himself with post-synchronization techniques, which allowed him to create a soundscape by adding elements in post-production” (Berthome & Thomas, 2008). He sometimes used a single sound to add color to a scene, or he would graft a number of different sounds on to the dialogue or music simply to punctuate a line or fill the pause between two sentences. Throughout the entire film, all the sounds are in perfect harmony. Another original usage of sound was to add power and depth to a scene. This power and depth is most obvious in the scenes of Xanadu palace. When there is a dialogue between Kane and his wife Susan, as if exploded, their voices fill the palace. While the viewer feels the echo of characters’ voices, actually, there is no echo. However, if the viewer thinks the size of the space in these scenes which are gigantic, there should be echo, but Welles expand the sound to give imaginative and powerful quality. For instance, when the journalist Thompson speaks to the servant after Kane’s death, the viewer can feel the voices as if the characters speak in the grave.
Moreover, sound is also used to express the emotional situations of a character in the actions. For example, after Susan Alexander leaves Kane, he destroys her room, and the viewer can see a parrot flapping its wings and screeching as if the voice of screaming Kane with wounded heart. Also, the other example is in during the Kane picnic. When both character are arguing in the tent, Kane suddenly slaps Susan. At the same time, the viewer can hear the screaming voice of a women from background as if substitute of Susan’s inner voice. It is sometimes possible to hear a whispering soundtrack to explain or to express the emotion or the inner voices of characters. Like, when Susan attempts suicide because of suffering as humiliated opera singer, the viewer can hear a pale soundtrack that indicates the humiliated feelings of Susan Alexander.
The music usage and the original sounds make Citizen Kane more realistic. Orson Welles uses a lot of juxtaposed dialogues throughout the film that make it hard to follow and to understand the scenes at the same time. For instance, when everyone in a comical scene talks at once, one can feel the reality of the scene with these close-up sounds. When a scene change from one location or period to other, one can feel a sudden shocking sound transition that makes him or her to follow the scenes easily. For example, in a low angle shot, when Kane is in Susan house at first time, Susan plays piano and sings. Suddenly the mise en scene change and the viewer see Susan sings the same song in the same place but with different clothes. Because the film is black-white, first it is hard to observe these sound montages however, the characters, the sounds, and the changed mise en scene make it easier to follow up the scenes. Sound montage in Citizen Kane emphasizes the abnormal and stressful lives of the characters with realistic soundtracks.
In several major scenes, one can hear the musical tunes that enrich both the object or the character and the whole scene. For example, when “Rosebud” which is the symbol of Charles Foster’s missing childhood is screened in the opening scene, different types of musical tunes are played to underscore the different emotions of characters while they talk. The Rosebud object takes place its most melodic form with Kane last dramatic word just before his death. While narrating the shots of the sledge, Kane emphasizes its importance with an emotional soundtrack. Also, the sledge’s hidden label by snow and the various appearances of snowballs or glass balls linked to the memories of Kane’s mother. During these scenes, the viewer can hear the same soundtrack that is like a symbol of Kane’s hidden side (Berthome & Thomas, 2008).
Orson Welles was specifically interested in musical scenes, because he was concern about defining the sequences differently like it has never done before. Therefore, Welles, and Hermann arranged every detailed instruction to show the music arising from the scenes. For example, during the opera scene, the curtain rises and Susan Alexander sings a soprano, the Salammbo’s Aria, and she continues over the entire action. However, the trick part is at the end that she ends her singing after the curtain falls. Whatever music or sound Welles chose for Citizen Kane, he wanted them to be as visible as original, rare, and identifiable.
In conclusion, because the most of the dialogues recorded live, one can notice how the composer Herrmann did a magnificent work in Citizen Kane. After editing and shortening the scenes, they require revision of music or voices to be harmonized with the actions. Because almost every cues were edited, and some scenes were cut to their basic form, Herrmann had to ensure that the music is compatible with the actions and make sense to the viewer. However, I think, the form of telling the story as in the Citizen Kane film is not the desired one which is showing the death of a person at the beginning and setting up the story depend on this. This type of story telling should take place in novels but not in a screened story. Nevertheless, Citizen Kane film proves that in dramatic or mysterious films, one can observe the magnificent mise en scene assisting with rhythmic sound effects or soundtracks.