Destiny, Failure of Success and A Love Story: Capra’s It Happened One Night, Wells’s Citizen Kane and Curtiz’s Casablanca   Leave a comment

Film comparisons of three classics, their techniques and camera angles. Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934), Wells’s Citizen Kane (1941), and Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942).


Rosebud, Here’s Looking at You Kid, and the Walls Of Jericho carry significant weight in Hollywood’s Classical films. Each one represented a director’s dream. Romantic screwball comedy, Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934), melodramatic film, Wells’s Citizen Kane (1941), and epic romance Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942) were all considered reflections of their reality while heavily driven by symbolism and motifs which resulted in stronger narratives. The camera angles themselves were symbolic in nature as you were lead from one scene into another.

The director, Frank Capra of It Happened One Night brought realism and a true life feeling into the film while adding visual jokes and amusing angles as a close up on a symbolic blanket and string which created the “Walls Of Jericho, a night time separation of the characters. He touched on the economical conditions by the tracking of Ellie in the shower scene showing poverty stricken people in wide angles and their living conditions. It was here that the director spoke volumes regarding poverty contrasting with the rich girl. Capra intended to make a movie that was full of emotion and also to make a statement of the current social and economic status ofAmerica. It was a film that utilized the camera angles to portray the rich compared to poor with fast paced, sweeping effects all while being quirky as a comedy and regarded as having a melodramatic feel. Following Columbia Pictures studio structure the production process created a studio look of laughter as Belton stated, “Columbia earned a reputation for witty and urbane screenwriting and served as the home base for much of the screwball comedy talent inHollywood.” (p.80).

In the analyzing of the three films, one motif was central within these movies establishing a character’s isolation and need to escape. In It Happened One Night, the opening scene was a wide angle of a yacht out at sea jump cut to a full shot of three characters standing on deck, one being the captain,  Ellie’s father, seen in dialogue followed by a medium close up. All were dressed in formal seaman uniforms. The camera revealed the isolation of the water as two boats were close in the background, but no land. The father, authoritative  figure, captain of the ship was captured walking out of the scene to the right and into a vertical wipe transition into a medium close up of three men staring at a door jump cut to a medium shot of father and Ellie standing towards the wall displaying the two characters at odds. A two shot medium close up of the two characters in dialogue revealed the window between them with the water reinforcing the flowing need to escape while showing the distance between the two characters. The camera moved as she paced increasing the tempo of the scene. Jump cut again to servers in a low light entering the scene through a doorway. This was followed by a medium shot of her throwing the food against the cabin wall, portraying a spoiled rich socialite who refused to eat, not getting her way. In a two shot close up the father slapped her in the face with a reactionary response shot and an over the shoulder as she exited the room. The passion of this scene was displayed through the medium close up and full shots of the protagonists actions. A close up revealed Peter drinking, laughing and on the phone quitting his job as a journalist, his friends stood behind him listening and cheering him on. Peter and Ellie met on a bus, Ellie was running away. The first shot portrayed her image as being conflicted as seen in a frame by the low light as she sat in the last seat. A medium close up depicted a fight for the seat ending in both sharing this small space as the adventure began travelling to New York.

Casablanca, directed by Michael Curtiz began as a news reel, giving the feel of a documentary bringing a sense of reality by incorporating the theme of the war and socio-economical issues. Wide angles, close ups and directing the eye were utilized to tell the story. The portrayal of the rich and poor are seen through wide angle camera angles as depicted in It Happened One Night. This film also established its main characters, Ilsa, and Rick through symbolic segregation, the need to escape and loneliness through the camera’s eye. The opening scene was a world globe revolving then dissolving into a wide angle refugee trail of helpless people agonizing on their journey with overlapping maps.

This technique transitioned to the open waters of the sea as a ship sailed conveying isolation, travel and passage of time. The open waters were used in this shot as a representation of freedom but also prison. The first established scene was a fade in to a wide angle crane shot of the city of Casablanca highlighting a tower then panning down the structure to a high angle of the Moroccan street revealing its vendors and showing the exotic and simplicity of the culture. Panning down to eye level we see the crowd and congestion of people, the isolation within the geographic location. A close up of Rick’s hand signing a voucher reflected the power he held in owning an American café in Morocco. As Victor and Ilsa entered the café in a medium shot a shadow was cast on the wall reflecting Victor’s inner torment. Ilsa’s close up revealed soft lighting, sadness, a broken heart and a sense of loss. As the movie progressed the characters representation changed to a more hardened look as in the medium shot with low lighting of her holding a gun risking everything for freedom. The final scenes opened up in a wide angle of an airport with low lighting. The plane in the foreground was in focus and  highlighted but, the one in the background has a blurred haze to it representing freedom and the unknown as it sat in the fog. The ending narrative unfolded through medium shots, quick cut aways, and close ups. The two shot in the dialogue scene with Rick and Victor utilized over the shoulder shots similar to the scenes in It Happened One Night increasing the pace and the tension. Jump cut to the planes propellers getting ready for take off as the three shot position of Rick, Ilsa and Victor as they turn toward the plane for a unique point of view shot. Shot reverse shots and a two shot wide angle reveal the plane taking off. The actors look up as the plane point of view shot fades into the fog.

Warner Brothers was in the middle of other studios when recognizing their style. The war had begun and they chose the path of producing films that were underdog hero centered and based in reality for the lower middle class. As Belton commented, “Warner Brothers earned its reputation as the working man’s studio…looked hasty and rough and conveyed a gritty realism that suited the studio’s narrative interests.” (p.77).

Orson Welles directed Citizen Kane in production with RKO a company that did not follow suit as other studios in finding a unique style. They created musicals to horrors as different heads governed during the classical period. All three of these films camera angles not only developed the characters but, reinforced the theme of the films. In this sense, comparing Citizen Kane’s opening shot portrayed a narrative of Kane’s loneliness, symbolic isolation and escape of the protagonist. It began as a close up on a sign hanging on a wired fence stating, “No Trespassing” appearing cold, dark and mysterious panning upward into an out of focus background highlighting the fence conveying a prison like atmosphere and a state of confusion. A similar technique used in the shot of the closed sign in Casablanca. Over lapping and panning upward two more wired fences were shown in a sharp focus reinforcing the distance between the protagonist and the outside world. The dissolving shot lead into a super imposing of a large stark house in the upper right of the screen with close ups of a fence in a low angle. The balance in the frame was The letter “K” in the upper right hand of the shot portraying the powerful image of the individual who resided behind those barriers with an overlapping of a image of a cross panning down. The camera displayed images of the inner torments and self destruction of the main character followed by a misty dissolve of exotic monkeys leading into an eye line match of the tip of the Chinese boat resting on water linking it to a life preserver floating. The reflection of the house was upside down reflecting the turmoil and uneasiness that laid within the house. Continuous dissolves reveal the grounds of the property to be deserted, lonely and unkept. In each of the scenes the camera slowly closes in on the house. Each scene builds suspense and tension. Each time the house was portrayed, there was a window with a glowing light that stays stationary from shot to shot matching the scenes, an eye match to tell the narrative. The climatic moment in the opening scene was the close up on the window, when suddenly the light goes out representing the characters dark side and his impending death. Daylight breaks threw the window and dissolved into a snow scene. The final scenes were of wide angles revealing a lonely, deserted mansion filled with expensive tangible collectible items, all to be sold or burned. It portrayed a man’s life of trying to fill the unfillable voids in his life. A crane shot panned backwards to show the vast emptiness of a man’s life in boxes and crates, the depth of field was exaggerated heightening the dramatic events to follow. Damico summarizes the scene, scene:

And if at this point this fact has not been adequately established, it may just suffice to suggest a comparison between the unforgettable, chilling long crane shot over the cluttered rubble of Kane’s existence that comes at the end of the film, and the eye-level, 3.3-seceond shot near the opening of News on the March that begins a hesitant pan to the right over a pile of crates in Kane’s storage house before it is cut off and we are whisked on to another of the 38 shots in that portion of the sequence which are meant to convey something of the life of Charles Foster             Kane. (p.58).

As the camera dolly followed the reporter, it captured a close up of woman taking a photograph of what was the demise Kane. The flash of the camera transitioned into a medium high wide angle displaying the enormous space and clutter. The drama of the film was driven by a reporter in search of Kane’s dying word, Rosebud.

The closing scenes in It Happened One Night began with a wedding. The medium close up of Ellie and her and her father walking down the isle as the depth of field in the wedding march added a heighted dramatic importance. As in Citizen Kane where the depth of field in Xanadu revealed a cold, lonely place with a hidden secret never to be told. As the wedding progressed a high angle shot balanced the frame of guests on each side. As she steps in front of the priest, her image was uniquely captured by a framing of candles, symbolizing being trapped in an unwanted situation similar to Casablanca’s character Rick and Victor’s shadow’s reflected on the walls. For a moment, a cross had completely covered the actress representing doing the right thing. Medium shots and close ups led into a wide angle of the bride running off revealing the mass confusion behind her. Jump cut to a couple in dialogue with point of view shot to a cabin, the couple, honeymooning inside. Then a cut away shot with a close up of the symbolic blanket “The Wall Of Jericho” falling to the floor, revealing a happy ending. Iris out.

Each film contained strong willed characters utilizing wide angles yet, the narratives contain very diverse techniques. The sweeping motion giving an actor more freedom to move around within a scene: It Happened One Night; The low angles shots representing power/status, sharp focus and direct eye matching: Citizen Kane and shadows reflecting a characters inner suffering: Casablanca. The reason they are called Hollywood Classics was not only the glamour of the time but the political, economical and social issues in which were imbedded in them.


Belton, J. (2009). American Cinema American Culture. New York: McGraw-Hill Companies.

J. Damico, K. (1977). News Marchesin Place: Kane’s Newsreel as a Cutting Critique. Cinema Journal, 16(2), 51-58. Retrieved April 23, 2010, from


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