ENGL 1201

January 29, 2007

Thatcher’s Well-Lighted Memoir:

The Significance of a Single Frame from Citizen Kane


The 1941 Orson Welles film Citizen Kane is to many critics and scholars one of the greatest cinematic works of all time. The plot follows Jerry Thompson, a reporter in search of the meaning behind “Rosebud,” the dying word of Charles Foster Kane, wealthy owner of The Inquirer, a New York newspaper. Thompson’s second attempt at uncovering this meaning lands him in the memorial library of Mr. Walter Parks Thatcher, Kane’s childhood guardian. The frame at issue comes from the scene in the reading room that houses the vault that contains Thatcher’s memoirs. Though the scene itself centers on Thompson’s reading these memoirs, this single frame, above all else, illustrates the arrogance of the late Mr. Thatcher. The mise-en-scène centers on the memoirs, which the security guard is removing from their protective vault, and projects an atmosphere of exaggerated self-worth. The lighting, almost celestial in nature, draws the viewer’s eye to the guard carrying the memoirs, giving them a further degree of importance and again demonstrating how much Thatcher thought of himself. The camera then expands on this arrogance by focusing the viewer’s eyes on the memoirs, revealing again the lengths this man would go to in order to house what is, in the end, nothing more than the record of  his memories. In this frame, Welles uses the tools of filmmaking to illustrate the arrogance of the late Mr. Thatcher.

          The frame’s mise-en-scène demonstrates Thatcher’s arrogance by showing us an enormous room built and maintained, apparently, for the sole purpose of housing these all-important documents. Unlike many of the sets in Citizen Kane, this one has no visible ceiling: the memoirs of a great man, it seems, require a huge room, one whose back wall—the only one visible—is built out of enormous marble blocks, apparently necessary to protect Thatcher’s memoirs from would-be thieves. We see Thompson, as usual, from the back, in the lower right corner of the frame, as he enters the room and walks toward its only furnishings, a single chair at the head of an oversized table. Only one reader at a time, it seems, is granted the “very rare privilege”—as the matronly receptionist will call it—of reading such material. She stands to the left of the table, emphasizing the memoirs still further by standing at attention as the security guard carries them from the vault in the right side of the rear wall. Welles shows us a large, empty, imperious room, evidence of Thatcher’s arrogance in that it exists solely to house, even protect, his memoirs. 

          The lighting confirms Thatcher’s arrogance in that it focuses on the memoirs as well.  Thompson is silhouetted in the frame, as is the high-backed chair placed at the table: standing in relative darkness, neither, clearly, is supposed to attract our attention. The receptionist stands in partial shadow beside the table, which is bathed in light from above, drawing the eyes toward it and the security guard, walking into the light from the back of the room. Illuminated, almost glowing, in the guard’s hands are the memoirs, giving us a clear sense of their supposed importance. Rays of light shine down on the memoirs as if they were sent from the heavens above, and light catches the leading edge of the vault door to keep it in view, for it, of course, housed these sacred texts. Welles literally brings Thatcher’s arrogance to light in this frame by forcing our eyes to focus on the memoirs above all else, leaving all other props and even Thompson himself in relative darkness.

          The camera position also says much about Thatcher’s arrogance, again forcing us to focus on the memoirs. Placed at eye level in the entryway of the door, the camera allows us to notice the receptionist and Thompson standing on either side of the table but forces us to look across the table at the security guard with the memoirs in hand. The silhouetted receptionist, brightly lighted table, and glowing memoirs form a triangle just below the center of the frame, approximately where we would be looking if we entered the room ourselves. The long shot provides a clear, uncluttered view of the memoirs to ensure that we will concentrate on them and them alone. The shot focuses our attention directly on the memoirs, combining with the lighting to bring attention to that one small area of the frame. Welles avoided the cliché of a tight shot on the memoirs in the guard’s hands, which, while clearly marking them as important, would not have conveyed the arrogance of Thatcher as succinctly as the long shot, which allows for so much more—and so much more exaggerated—detail.

Although the scene as a whole is about Thompson’s search for the meaning behind Kane’s dying word, Thatcher’s arrogance is the focus of this frame. The mise-en-scène presents the oppressive surroundings, along with the three characters involved with the presentation of the memoirs, as well as the memoirs themselves. The lighting provides a distinct contrast of shadow and light, giving the impression of divine interest in the memoirs, all the while leaving everything else in relative darkness. Finally, the positioning of the camera allows us to see enough of the room for the mise-en-scène and lighting to combine to effectively show Thatcher’s arrogance. The frame tells us much about the man before we ever really meet him.