Lighting in a film is a very important element of its mise-en-scene as it is not only responsible for the actors and settings to be illuminated so they they can be photographed and seen in the finished film, but also because lighting is a critical element in setting the mood of the film (What is the Role of Lighting in Cinematography, 2015). The film clip that will be used for this analysis is the opening sequence of Citizen Kane, directed by Orson Welles which may be seen at: https://youtu.be/-r0b_XeRkG4
The scene starts from a black screen. There is a fade in to a darkly-lit No Trespassing sign. The camera tilts upwards revealing a fence with an indistinct image behind it in low key lighting. The fencing types change as the camera continues to tilt upwards. Then it stops with the top of a gate on the left and a “castle” on a hill in the distance on the right side. The lighting remains low key. The gate on the left dissolves into an ornate wrought iron cage with two monkeys in it, still in the same low key lighting. In the castle in the distance on the hill there is one bright spot. The shot of the caged monkeys and the castle dissolves to what looks like two ornate boats on the water. The lighting is still low key. This scene dissolves into another view of the castle on the hill, nearer now, with some unclear images in the foreground. The lighting is still low key. There are two slow dissolves to two different scenes near the castle in the background, still in low key lighting. There is another slow dissolve to another, closer view of the castle. The lighting is still low key, but there is a window in the top floor of the castle with light streaming out of it. The light from the window is bright in contrast to the low key lighting of the foreground and most of the scene. There is a slow dissolve to a closer view of the window, the very low key lighting in the foreground and surrounding the window contrasts sharply with the light in the room inside the window. The light goes out, and the room is suddenly black. There is another slow dissolve to the window again, in which through the window there is light, but otherwise the rest of the scene surrounding it is still in dark low key lighting. There is a dissolve to a scene more brightly lit of what looks like snow falling. Dissolve to a snow-covered cabin which, when the camera zooms back, is revealed to be inside a glass globe and the low key lighting barely reveals a hand holding it. There is a cut to a close up of the lips of a man with a mustache, in medium light, not low key. There is a cut to someone’s arm with the hand holding the miniature snow-globe in the lower half of the screen, in medium lighting. The hand lets the globe go, and it rolls down a couple of steps, and smashes at the bottom. Cut to a door opening in a medium shot with medium lighting. Cut to a long shot apparently looking at a mirror with the door and a nurse coming through it in medium lighting. Cut to a shot of the lower part of the nurse’s body as she folds the hands on the chest of what looks in silhouette to be a dead person in low key lighting. She covers the face of the dead man with a sheet, still in low key lighting. Quick fade to black, then up from black to reveal the window again in the center of the screen surrounded by darkness. The light comes up in the room, then slowly fades to black.
The lighting throughout this three minute opening sequence is shot entirely in varying degrees of low key lighting, with the shots in the room in the castle being brighter than the rest of the shots in the sequence, but not high key lighting. The effect of this low key lighting, which sometimes only barely illuminates the scene being shown is to create a mood of foreboding, mystery, and suspense. The purpose of the opening of this film is to create a mystery in the mind of the viewer, “Who was ‘Citizen Kane’ of the title”? The low key lighting throughout this opening sequence adds to the feeling of mystery and foreboding about the character. In the sequence some one apparently died, dropping a glass globe when he died. Who was it that died? Another mystery. Why did he die? Another mystery. Thus, the low key lighting at the start of the film creates a mood which encourages the audience’s curiosity, their sense that there is some mystery to be revealed, and that the mystery seems in some way foreboding and related to a man who died. High key lighting could not have accomplished these objectives, but low key lighting created the mood very effectively. “From this first scene we can clearly understand that every stylistic choice of Welles is [particularly the lighting] established by the reaction that he wants from the audience who is hooked from the first scene to eagerly want to discover what is going on and the meaning behind all that” (Colacurcio, 2015).
The genre of this film, a fictionalized biography of a very powerful man, is intended to communicate the idea that he was dangerous and the mysterious low key lighting of the opening of the film communicates and establishes this mood very effectively. Thus, this is not a biography intended to communicate to the audience that he was a happy, friendly person (for which high key lighting would have been suited), but to present a biography of a “dark,” dangerous, powerful man. Alternatively, this opening could not have communicated the same feelings of mystery and foreboding if it has been filmed in bright, high key lighting. With bright, high key lighting, it would have had an altogether different effect, and therefore change the way that the audience expects the film to be.
The low key lighting in the opening sequence of Citizen Kane very effectively did not brightly illuminate the settings, but was used for the purpose of creating a mood of mystery and foreboding in the mind of the audience, preparing them for a biography of a dangerous and “dark” personality.
It is claimed by some film critics that the low key lighting of Citizen Kane “created” the genre that came later in the decade of film noir: “The influence and impact of lighting in ‘Citizen Kane’ is not limited to expressive use of shadows and light, one can even argue that ‘Citizen Kane’ is the movie that set the conventions of every film noir movie that followed” (Khairy, 2009).
Colacurcio, C. (2015). Citizen Kane opening scene. Academia.edu. Retrieved from:
Khairy, W. (2009). Strokes of light and shadow: The impact of Citizen Kane. The Cinefile Fix.com. Retrieved from:
What is the role of lighting in cinematography? (2015). Wisegeek.com. Retrieved from: