October 07, 2011

The Sound of 'Citizen Kane'

You never should've married a newspaperman, they're worse than sailors.

Before making his first film, Orson Welles was already a name in theatre and radio, and was thus aware of the power of sound. While working on ‘Citizen Kane’ he employed all his experience to create the ‘right’ sound for the film. “If it sounds right, it’s gotta look right” – he believed. And the sound of this movie turned out to be a great achievement on its own. Here are a few examples of his innovations and imagination.

To complement his Deep Focus photography, he created ‘deep focus sound’ by carefully regulating his sound levels so that voices in the depth of the image sound farther away than voices in the foreground of the image. ‘Hear’ carefully the Colorado scene to appreciate that. Also note that in the shot that ends this scene, Kane’s sled becomes increasingly covered with snow, and the whistle of a train can be heard from a distance. It is so subtle you might miss it the first time around. But once you discover that, the image of the snow-covered sled becomes even more poignant.

Welles made his characters interrupt each other’s lines resulting in the overlapping of dialogue. He considered it more realistic than the tradition of characters not stepping on each other's sentences. Then there are scenes, like one between Kane and Susan in a tent, where apart from the characters talking, we can also hear the voices of characters around them who are not really seen (people outside the tent in this case). Welles also pioneered the J-cut, the technique of putting the audio ahead of the visual in scene transitions.

The efficient use of texture of voices is another remarkable achievement of this film. Susan’s voice is soft and warm when she first meets Kane, only to turn into high-pitched screams later. The palace of Xanadu appears even more alienating because of the reverberating echoes whenever Kane and Susan shout at each other from across the room. Also compare the might expressed through Kane’s voice during the political rally speech with the sterile flatness when he threatens Gettys.

Another brilliant innovation by Welles was the ‘Lightening Mix’. One sentence started by a person at the end of a scene is completed in the next and this new scene is at least a few years ahead in time. So, by using sound bridges, Welles devised an interesting way to signify passing of time. The best example is the Breakfast Montage where Kane and his first wife talk over the dining table and more than a decade of story time is compressed in two minutes of screen time. This scene amazes you every time you watch it.

The musical score of the film by Bernard Herrmann was also a landmark. Instead of the traditional practice of using non-stop music, Herrmann used musical cues lasting between five and fifteen seconds to bridge the action or suggest a different emotional response. This is superbly done in the Breakfast Montage. Also notice the score simulating the ticking of a clock during the bored life Susan and Kane are leading at Xanadu. Herrmann went on to become one of the prominent musicians for Hollywood, working in films like 'Vertigo', 'Psycho', and 'Taxi Driver'. But even he believes that he was at his best when he worked on this movie. If ‘Citizen Kane’ was a technical watershed, and it definitely was, its sound had as much to contribute as its cinematography.


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