Citizen Kane

Gregg Toland, ASC

The choice of Gregg Toland's cinematography for Citizen Kane as the best in the first 45 years of motion pictures comes as no surprise. No other movie has been more praised, studied and written about — or more panned, damned and blacklisted. It became controversial even while it was in production, and once it was shown, it became the center of an argumentative maelstrom.

This was the first feature film produced and directed by the so-called "boy wonder" of stage and radio, Orson Welles. In 1939, at the age of 24, he was signed by RKO Radio to a producer-director-actor contract that gave him an advance of $150,000 and 25 percent of the gross receipts on each film. Resented by many in the industry, Welles was regularly attacked or ridiculed by trade publications and gossip columnists. After aborting two other projects, he made Citizen Kane, an original screenplay he had written with Herman J. Mankiewicz.

When word leaked out that the central character, Charles Foster Kane, was a thinly disguised William Randolph Hearst, the powerful Hearst newspapers refused to carry ads for the film. Time and Life magazines hacked away at Welles incessantly. Some theater chains refused to run the picture, and it initially played largely in independent theaters. Audiences in general were put off by the "arty" photography, overlapping dialogue, unusual cutting and Welles's penchant for injecting startling and often irritating sound effects. It was years before the "newness" of the Kane style wore off and gained widespread acceptance. By then, the picture's visual language had been absorbed into the mainstream, especially in mystery and suspense films.

Credit for the film's amazing visuals belongs mainly to Toland. Those who worked on the picture had no doubt that Welles was fully in charge, and that his ideas permeated every aspect of the picture. However, it is impossible to ignore the fact that the look of Kane is almost identical to that of Toland's previous picture, The Long Voyage Home (1940), which was directed by John Ford. Welles and Ford were miles apart in directorial style, yet Voyage also utilizes the ceilinged sets, wide-angle lenses, hard side-lighting, and extreme deep-focus shots so closely associated with Kane. Perhaps Welles was impressed by Voyage, and wanted a similar style for his film; the fact that he insisted on borrowing Toland from Samuel Goldwyn, instead of using one of the excellent cinematographers under contract at RKO, suggests strongly that this was the case. To get Toland, RKO also had to hire his regular crew and rent the equipment Toland had personally modified at Goldwyn.

Toland came aboard early and worked with Welles and art director Perry Ferguson on planning the overall design. He soon brought in camera operator Bert Shipman, assistant cameraman Eddie Garvin, gaffer W. J. McClellan and grip Ralph Hoge. With them came a Mitchell BNC which Toland had equipped with various accessories of his own design; eight f1.9-f2.5 Cooke and Astro lenses ranging from 24mm to six inches; various filters, diffusion screens, dimmers and flags; and other tools. Principal photography commenced quietly before the sets were even built, utilizing a studio projection room and some standing sets. Although Toland was in fragile health, he worked fast, like a man possessed. Welles later said that Toland quietly coached him in the intricacies of photographic techniques between shots, always in privacy so others on the set wouldn't notice.

The extremely sharp, deep-focus photography and shadowed faces of Kane had their roots in certain German expressionist films of the 1920s, such as Der Golem (1920, photographed by Karl Freund, ASC), and were further developed in occasional unusual American pictures such as Transatlantic (1931, James Wong Howe, ASC), Frankenstein (1931, Arthur Edeson, ASC) and two other Toland films, Wuthering Heights (1938) and The Grapes of Wrath (1940). In Kane, Toland was able to carry "pan focus" beyond what he and his predecessors had previously achieved by utilizing the recently introduced Eastman Super XX film, which was four times faster than Super X; new coated lenses which increased light transmission; and some gadgets of his own design. His use of Waterhouse stops with cine lenses made it practical to photograph directly into the light without creating lens ghosts.

The revolutionary photographic style of Citizen Kane was further enhanced by the optical camera effects of Linwood Dunn, ASC, who made possible some of the deepest deep-focus shots by compositing separate elements. Certain elaborate camera moves were also optically produced. Superior matte paintings by Mario Larrinaga provided some memorable visuals as well, such as the exterior of Kane's sprawling mansion, Xanadu.

Citizen Kane contains Toland's most celebrated work. He and Welles hoped to work together again, but never did. Kane received seven Academy nominations, including one for Toland, but the voters snubbed it. The cinematographer went on to shoot nine more features, including Ball of Fire, The Little Foxes, and The Best Years of Their Lives. He also served as a lieutenant during World War II in the U.S. Navy Field Photographic Branch of the O.S.S. He was just 44 years old when he died in 1948.

—George Turner

© 1999 ASC