Great Scene: “Citizen Kane”

March 13th, 2009 by

A common screenwriting form nowadays is what is usually called a “series of scenes.” Sometimes referred to as a montage, a series of scenes can be an effective way to signify a transition of time in compressed fashion. An effective series of scenes involves at least two key elements:

* Each scene has to tell its own little compelling story
* There should be an overarching narrative to the entire series of scenes

One of the greatest examples is from the movie Citizen Kane, written by Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles. The series of scenes tells the story of Charles Foster Kane’s (Welles) marriage to his first wife Emily Monroe Kane (Ruth Warwick). If you look at any of the available versions of the movie’s script, this sequence is nowhere to be found in writing. However this review by Tim Dirks does an excellent job breaking down each of the six scenes and providing the accompanying dialogue:

Thompson asks Leland about his understanding of “Rosebud,” Charlie’s dying words. Leland recalls having read about it in the Inquirer and offers his opinion: “I never believed in anything I saw in the Inquirer.” Then, Leland recalls Emily Kane, Kane’s first wife, as a “very nice girl” who he knew in dancing school. Leland comments on their disintegrating marriage after a short honeymoon period: “Well, after the first couple of months, she and Charlie didn’t see much of each other except at breakfast. It was a marriage just like any other marriage.”

Leland’s thoughts are pictured in one of the most talked-about, virtuoso sequences in the film – the breakfast table montage comprised of 32 shots over two minutes and 11 seconds. Succinctly portrayed, Kane’s rapidly deteriorating and failing marriage to Emily is visually captured – from their adoring, talkative, newly-wed days to their stony silence as an irreconciliable couple nine years later. The flashback is introduced with a slow dissolve from a medium shot of Leland.

The passage of time and Kane’s first dissolving marriage over the course of nine years is vividly conveyed within six perfectly-crafted scenes by the technique of quick, swish pans, wipes or jump cuts. Each one marks the passage of time through each of the six progressive intervals. Changes in time are also reflected in differences in lighting (soft vs. harsh), changes in their positioning (they are gradually seated further apart or opposite from each other at the table), the special effects outside the window, the food, their hairstyles (including the appearance of Charles’ mustache) and their wardrobes. Each transition is also accompanied by waltz music on the soundtrack that progressively becomes more dissonant as the marriage disintegrates.

Six Scenes in Breakfast Montage:

1. (With lilting, romantic music in the background)
Very much in love at the start of their marriage, Emily and Charles (who calls his new bride “beautiful”) are still dressed in fancy evening clothes after having just returned from a whirlwind night of six parties. They are sitting close to each other at their breakfast room table for an early morning meal in the dawn’s light. Charles is ‘waiting’ on Emily – signified by the dish-towel hanging over his arm. The fast life is new to Emily, and she is worried about what the servants will think – since they have stayed up all night (and the time can be interpreted as either ‘early’ or ‘late’). Emily complains to Charles about the professional demands of the Inquirer on his (and their) personal time:

Emily: I don’t see why you have to go straight out to the newspaper.
Charles: You never should have married a newspaperman. They’re worse than sailors. I absolutely adore you.
Emily: (suggestively) Oh Charles, even newspapermen have to sleep.
Charles: (ready to comply) I’ll call Mr. Bernstein, I’ll have him put off my appointments until noon.

2. Again, Emily (in a dressing gown) reproachfully complains to Charles (now with a mustache) about his obsessive work schedule. She is separated from him by a bouquet of flowers (in the foreground), and they sit at opposite sides of the table:

Emily: Do you know how long you kept me waiting last night while you went to the newspaper for ten minutes? What do you do in a newspaper in the middle of the night?
Charles: Emily, my dear, your only correspondent is the Inquirer.

3. Emily is bothered by Kane’s criticism of the Presidential office in public, an office she considers a sacred cow institution:

Emily: Sometimes, I think I’d prefer a rival of flesh-and-blood.
Charles: Oh Emily, I don’t spend that much time on the newspaper.
Emily: It isn’t just the time. It’s what you print – attacking the President.
Charles: You mean Uncle John.
Emily: I mean the President of the United States.
Charles: He’s still Uncle John, and he’s still a well-meaning fathead who’s letting a pack of high-pressure crooks run his administration. This whole oil scandal…
Emily: He happens to be the President, Charles, not you.
Charles: That’s a mistake that will be corrected one of these days.

4. In the sixth year of their marriage, they disagree over a gift that a matronly Emily states – “Your Mr. Bernstein” gave to their infant son (Junior). Emily, a true blue-blood, calls the gift: “the most incredible atrocity.” [Although unidentified, was the gift a Jewish Menorah or Star of David, thereby providing commentary on anti-Semitism?] More objects appear on the table to separate them. They argue over whether the gift should be in the nursery at all:

Emily: I simply can’t have it in the nursery.
Charles: Mr. Bernstein is apt to pay a visit to the nursery now and then.
Emily: Does he have to?
Charles: (sternly) Yes!
Emily: Really, Charles!

5. Now, the couple appears to be in a formal dining room. They are also stiff and sharp toward each other. Charles angrily displays his oppressive egotism:

Emily: People will think…
Charles: (cutting in antagonistically and angrily) …what I tell them to think!
(He accentuates his last word by clinking down his coffee cup.)

6. In the last scenario, in their ninth year of a now-disunified marriage, there is no verbal dialogue or exchange between them – only sinister-sounding music on the soundtrack. In the last panoramic view as the camera tracks backwards, they unhappily read rival newspapers at breakfast: Emily disloyally reads the competitive Chronicle in silent protest, while Kane (smoking a pipe) reads his own Inquirer. Each of them has become icy to each other, and more and more distant (both physically and emotionally) at opposite ends of a long table.

The scene dissolves back to a medium view of Leland during his interview with Thompson on the roof garden of the hospital.

This Epinions review provides a nice analysis of the series of scenes’ narrative arc:

Kane’s first marriage was impulsive and power related. Emily Monroe Norton (Ruth Warrick) was the niece of the President of the United States who he presumably met during a tour of Europe. In an important and well executed montage, Welles shows the couple in a series of breakfast shots which suggest a period of several years. It starts with an intimate two shot of the newlyweds then continues rather rapidly with a series of medium shots and close-ups separated by flash-pans as the physical distance increases punctuated by increasingly more terse comments between the two. It ends with a medium long shot of the pair noticeably separated at the opposite ends of an unusually long breakfast table. In a matter of a minute or so Welles effectively compresses years of growing separation and the disintegration of marriage as though it is the opening of a flower in stop action time lapse.

As you watch the series of scenes, notice how all the details — dialogue, camera shots, body language, set dressing, soundtrack music — underscore the downward trajectory of this marriage — all in a little over 2 minutes. Truly a great series of scenes.

For more of the Great Scene series, go here.

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