Released in 1941, Citizen Kane is a masterpiece that influenced and inspired countless filmmakers and even over 70 years later is still hailed by critics as being one of the greatest films ever made. It was no surprise that it is so intrinsically linked with Orson Welles after it launched the lead star, first time director and co-writer into Hollywood immortality, which has overshadowed another extraordinary talent behind the scenes.
The Illinois-born Gregg Wesley Toland was the cinematographer on Citizen Kane, and had a huge influence on the innovative lighting, use of shadows and distinct camera angles which included the then extraordinary decision of tearing up the floorboards to place the camera at floor level and get a more imposing shot.
But his legendary work on Kane was no isolated work of genius. Toland was widely credited as discovering the visionary technique of deep focus photography which allowed several items to be in focus at once through the use of lighting techniques. His adaptability in finding ways of removing the excess noise of cameras rolling being included on films when sound was introduced in 1927 also helped him become the highest paid and in-demand cinematographer in the industry.
The celebrated cinematographer first had a glimpse of Hollywood as a child when his mother worked as a housekeeper to prominent stars after they relocated to LA following his parent’s divorce. Believed to have started in the industry as an office boy at William Fox Studios, Toland’s talent soon shone through and it was not long before he was working his way up to assistant cameraman and then lead cinematographer on Palmy Days in 1931.
Toland hit his creative peak in the mid 1930s and was recognised by having a more prominent billing on the credits and gaining an astonishing five Oscar nominations between 1935 and 1941. He won his sole Oscar in 1940 for his wonderfully moody and atmospheric lighting in Wuthering Heights.
Tragically, in 1948 Toland would die of coronary thrombosis at the age of 44, just as he had begin to work in colour and was concentrating on the “ultimate focus” lens, which makes both near and far objects equally distinct. His career may have been short-lived but his wide-reaching influence has ensured his legacy will always continue.