The folowing essay is a comparison of the films Citizen Kane (1941) dircted by Orson Welles and Josef Von Sternberg's The Scarlet Empress. (1934) Specifically it will concentrate on how the two directors use set design, framing and lighting to comment upon the psychology of their principle characters.
Welles' Citizen Kane tells the story of an aging press tycoon and would-be politician Charles Foster Kane. A man whose arrogance alienates him from everyone who loves him, leaving him to die alone inside the vast Gothic castle of a home that he builds for himself in Florida. The film is highly regarded for its filming techniques, including aspects of set design, framing and lighting. Von Sternberg's The Scarlet Empress tells thestory of the rise to power of Catherine the Great of Russia who overthrows her imbecile husband Peter to lead the nation. This film is also renowned for its cinemetography, lighting and set design (rather than its historical accuracy).
What follows shall be a comparison of two specific sequences, one from each film. I shall describe each then explain how the elements mentioned earlier are similar in each and how they relate to their characters symbollically and their respective films as a whole. The story of Charles Foster Kane unravels in a series of flashbacks told to a reporter by the people who knew him. In the film's fourth flashback, Kane's second wife, Susan, recounts her life with Kane to the reporter, Thompson. The viewer has learned earlier in the film that Kane has failed as a publisher, politician and as a husband to his first wife Emily. Kane puts all his hopes and aspirations into promoting Susan's opera carreer. The untalented Susan fails miserably and attempts suicide. The following sequence occurs after Kane tells Susan she can quit singing: A dark and gloomy night-shot of Kane's estate, Xanadu, fades in with a mansion high on a hill. The shot dissolves to a closer, but equally dreary, exterior of the mansion. Both shots are accompanied by eerie brass music building to a slow haunting crescendo. The mansion dissolves into a close-up of Susan's face and hand over a jigsaw puzzle.
"What are you doing?" Kanes voice echo's as if in a deep cavern. The camera pulls back to the right, still on Susan as she reacts by looking left off screen. The scene cuts to a deep focus shot of Kane walking through a fifteen-foot archway, half-lit/half in shadows. Kane tiny in the background under the archway, is dwarfed by the giant statues in the foreground, middle-ground and background as well. "Jigsaw puzzles?" Kane answers his own question with the same deep echoing voice. The sequence cuts back to Susan sitting at the tabled jigsaw puzzle, still looking offscreen. She drops a piece of the puzzle, sighs then props her head in hand seemingly in despair.
"Charlie? What time is it?" The shot reverses to Kane approaching. He is almost entirely shadowed in darkness.
"Eleven thirty." Kane replies. Still walking, Kane turns to his left. The camera pans right, following him.
"In New York?" Susan asks.
"Hmm..?" Kane asks not hearing.
"What time is it in New York?" she asks impatiently.
"Eleven thirty," he repeats. Kane continues across the room still engulfed in darkness. As the camera pans right, more of the room's immense grandeur is revealed. A huge staircase leading to a large second story balcony, more giant statues and the grandest of fireplaces fill the palatial hall. Kane and Susan continue their conversation as Kane stops beside Susan seated in front of the fireplace. Susan's voice takes on a sarcastic then pleading tone as she tells Kane she is bored, then begs him for a trip to New York to have some fun. Kane walks to the fire place, turns to face outward in a stance of stolid resolve.
"Our home is here Susan. I don't care to visit New York." This sequence is highly symbolic and significant to the film's narrative. The exterior establishing shot is dark and gloomy. Welles creates an almost haunted house effect. This is Kanes home. It reflects Kanes own dark and sombre mood at this point in the film. Kane has failed miserably at all attempts to bring happines to his life. Inside the mansion Kane is dwarfed by Welles' giant set pieces. By lighting the colossal statues and fixtures from behind and not lighting Kane's face, he is cast almost entirely in darkness Kane is literally and symbolically overshadowed by Xanadu. This place he has built stands as a greater monument to his life than do his actual acheivments. The deep focus shot in this scene helps to convey symbollically Kane's stature at this point of the film . Earlier in the film Welles shot himself from the floor level /up to create Kanes powerful imposing stature. He even had to remove sections of floor to accomodate the camera and had to create ceilings for the scenes in the newspaper's office where they could be seen. It made Kane appear larger than life. In the Xanadu scene Kane appears tiny in the background. He has lost any power he once had; power in the publishing business, political power and the power to be happy. This deep focus shot also creates a seemingly vast distance between Kane and Susan onscreen. It is symbollic of their marriage. They have grown distant from one another after their shared public failure. There is an atmosphere of lonelyness shared by these two characters, living in this huge dark palace with these imposing statues, where footsteps echo and voices boom.
The grand palacial interior of Xanadu resembles greatly the interior of the Empress' palace in The Scarlet Empress. Sophia Frederica is summoned from Prussia to the Kremelin by the Russian Empress Catherine. She is to be the bride of the Empress' nephew and heir Peter. The Empress' envoy brings her to Russia by horse-carriage and sled-carriage. This sequence begins at the long journey's end with the horsemen leading the sled-carriage into the palace through a series of huge thirty-foot doors opened by guards. Bells are chiming and the scene fades to a close-up of a huge ornate church bell. The chiming fades replaced by regal trumpets as the scene cuts to a medium distance shot of the Empress sitting on her throne. It's a striking shot, as the throne itself is massive. It is in fact a giant sculpture of a two-headed eagle. It is obviously symbollic of the Empress' great power. Its immense size demands the attention of the room and the viewer of the film. The camera (likely on a crane) pulls back to reveal more of the huge room. The throne is atop a grand staircase, similar to the one in Welles's Xanadu. There are smaller yet equally ornate chairs on either side of the throne for her advisors and many large gruesome looking statues and stone ceiling fixtures throughout the room. Not unlike Xanadu, the place has a very cold and dreary atmosphere. It reflects the psyche of the Empress who is herself cold and lacking compassion. She is a powerful woman, both frank and ruthless. This is ascertained right from when we first here her speak. The Empress walks forward down the massive steps as the envoy and Sophia and her mother approach. The scene cuts to a closer and lower, full-length shot of the Empress at the foot of the stairs. Her advisor is standing to her right. The envoy bows and kisses the Empress' hand. "Welcome home your Excellency we missed you." she says to him as he bows the she kisses him on the mouth. He steps aside as Sophia steps forward and bows. "So this is little Sophie." says the Empress as she places a hand on each of Sophia's shoulders and pulls her up. "Sophia Frederica...hardly a name for a future empress. You don't like your name do you?" still holding her shoulders.
"I do your Imperial Majesty" she replies.
"You will be called Catherine Alexina, a good Russian name. We've arranged a special ceremony next week to receive you into our church..." The Empress then congratulates Sophia's (from here on known as Catherine) mother on raising a beautiful child. As the newly christened Catherine steps aside to make room for her mother, the camera cuts to a close-up of her face. Von Sternberg has a key light obviously pointed right at her face which gives her an angelic quality amidst her dreary surroundings. It serves the opposite purpose of Welles casting Kane's face in shadow in the Xanadu scene. Welles villifies his protagonist where Von Sternberg casts Marlene Deitrich in an almost saintly light. Her beautiful face is practically glowing. This helps to convey the innocence and awe of the character. The young Catherine is anxious to meet her husband and asks to meet him. He enters but has the appearance of a deformed imbecile. He stands next to the young Catherine who appears confused and dissapoined. She is still illuminated by the key light while the Duke , though standing right next to her is not illuminated. The effect created foreshadows the events of the film. She appears good and virtuous in her saintly light while he is the dark and evil Duke. Young Catherine retires to her chambers where she finds herself surrounded by more huge gargoyle-like statues countless ladies in waiting cold stone fixtures and huge doors that require several people to open them. Catherine is overwhelmed by her surroundings and her circumstances. She has been stripped of her name and her religion she is far from her home and she is betrothed to a hideous imbecile. Her dreary surroundings only add to her feelings of despair.
Both Orson Welles and Josef Von Sternberg used set design framing and lighting to great effect in the two aforementioned films. I realize that in the space provided I have only described breifly instances of this in each film, but the scenes I have chosen are central to each fim and give good example of how their individual techniques comment on the psychology of their principle characters.