Let me first acknowledge the fact that the author of this essay finds it rather difficult to even start writing this critique—not because he has no interest in this film (far from it), but because this film happens to be not only one of my all time favorite films but one of the most important films of all time. It then becomes very difficult to figure out where to begin, but I guess the best place to start like all things is, obviously and without a doubt, the very beginning. It is therefore logical to analyze the film from practically start to finish with hopefully a carefully studied and savored middle that will, in the hope of this author, do the film justice. Such a task seems almost inconceivable, but absolutely necessary. For those who are not familiar with this film or maybe not even a fan of it, I hope you will come to enjoy or appreciate the details of this ‘masterpiece’ in the hope that you will see it again and come to realize many things that may have slipped by upon the first viewing should be looked for during a second viewing. It is true that many of Orson Welles’ directorial efforts require multiple viewings in order to truly soak in everything about it. The terrifying thing to me about his greatest work or greatest technical achievement is that Citizen Kane is a film I’ve seen numerous upon numerous times (too numerous to enumerate really) and I’m still learning and discovering things about it. That is truly terrifying and breathtaking on many levels to me. In fact, the first thirty minutes of the film is enough to talk about most of its many technical innovations.
As the film begins, we see an RKO Radio Pictures logo that has now become somewhat synonymous with the early films of Orson Welles (Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Journey Into Fear). The studio no longer exists, but the impact of this film is now forever associated with the RKO studio. The opening credits are interesting in that they are some of the first titles in Hollywood history to NOT feature the credits of the lead actors. This was not a popular idea in 1941 and RKO among other studios that would later finance and distribute Welles’ films balked at the idea of his films not exhibiting their contracted actors’ names at the start of the picture. Eventually, RKO began winning their battle against Welles’ rather unusual idea of having main credits appear at the end of the film and by 1943’s Journey Into Fear and 1946’s The Stranger (this film was not distributed by RKO), those films returned to the regular convention. It would not be till years later around the time of The Exorcist and Star Wars that cast/crew credits would appear at the end or none at all (i.e. the first cut of Apocalypse Now) regularly. The first shot of the film is a ‘no trespassing’ sign that we, as an audience, will see again by the end of the film; essentially bookending the film. This no trespassing warning is an indication that what we are about to see is somewhat behind-the-scenes and invasive to those on the other side of this fence. The fence eventually dissolves from a chain link fence to a decorative metal fence. Remarkably, from an editing perspective, the diamond shapes of chain link fence appear to seamlessly dissolve from one fence to another in size (i.e. diamonds are similar in size to these leaf-like shapes in the metal fence), which is a result of cinematographer Gregg Toland’s amazing measurement and placement of objects and editor Robert Wise’s careful timing. Of course, this was all worked out far in advance by all the filmmakers. This of course will not be the only time we see such careful craftsmanship. A lit window becomes noticeable in the top right corner of the frame, which will remain in practically that same spot for the next series of shots. As we peel away at the layers of this enigmatic universe consisting of beautiful overlay/composited shots (matte paintings with fog added on top to create a three-dimensional looking image), they reveal the main character’s kingdom: gondolas on an artificial lagoon, private gardens, and enormous gates. Eventually, we get close enough to the window to notice the light inside immediately turning off. Another dissolve, perfectly measured, occurs to look as if the window never moved (we just somehow magically ended up on the inside, but it’s as if the audience never moved either; it’s very hard to explain unless you see it, but once you realize how difficult it would be to match something on two strips of film on such a precise level—hopefully, it’ll be appreciated more) to reveal a silhouetted figure lying motionless in bed. One of the most beautiful and most graceful uses of symbolism occurs during a moment when we realize the figure in bed is holding a snow globe. Not only is it snowing within the globe, it is also snowing outside the globe. This man has seen his last storm and the storm within is using up its last bits of strength to utter one word: “Rosebud.” The overlaid snow suddenly slows down as the hands drops the globe, which then rolls off the bed. The globe comes to a tumbling crash as it splashes its internal water all over the floor taking the overlaid snow with it. Welles even uses the reflection off the globe’s broken glass to reveal a nurse entering through the door. She proceeds to move the quiet man’s arms into a crossed position. The lights, like on a stage, dim. Everything Welles has laid out here shows a very sad, dark, and regretful past leading up to this moment. Like a horror film, it reeks of sickness and musty neglect. Charles Foster Kane is dead.
Suddenly like a splash of coffee to the face, Welles startles us with a loud, somewhat obnoxious news reel chronicling the life of this enigmatic Charles Foster Kane. In this montage, Welles and co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz have the reel’s narrator speak in a then-popular “backwards language” in which the predicate is often spoken first before the subject OR another way of looking at is that the sentences are deliberately arranged in a grammatically incorrect way to present the most fascinating points before the less interesting ones. Newspaper writers used this process often in those days in order to get the most potent points out before the reader had a chance to put the paper down if he/she felt they didn’t have enough time to read the whole thing. The montage has also been deliberately scratched up to create the illusion this was an older, roughed up piece of film, which at the time caused a number of audience members to complain that the actual negative of Citizen Kane was too scratched to view. The idea of creating a damaged look on film as a stylistic choice consisting of a partially “burnt” or intensely grainy appearance would not be seen for another 50-60 years as seen in films like Pi, Fight Club, and recently 2008’s JCVD. This montage also gives us a very epic peek into Kane’s gigantic world where Welles uses stock footage of various zoo animals and crowds of people gathering at public functions; all edited together with his own footage to make it appear that these outlandish events are all Charles Foster Kane’s doing. The sequence is even complete with newcomer composer Bernard Hermann’s music (who would later become infamous for his works with director Alfred Hitchcock); making some deliberately abrupt music changes since old news reels at the time tended to have stock music whimsically strung together. One of the more odd reports this reel states is that Kane’s castle is on “the desert coasts of the Gulf.” As a matter of fact, there are no deserts on the Gulf of Mexico coast, and there is a possibility that this is just Welles pulling our leg to show that this film is just a load of fun and games; however, there is no evidence to show that Kane didn’t ship desert sands to the area before construction. One of the most interesting and albeit risky things that Welles does with his montage is show in summary this character’s entire life (even newspapers show vignettes of Kane’s epoch in multiple languages), but as the next scene reveals—it is not enough to tell one man’s entire story.
The montage, like its own short film, also features some outstanding visual effects for its time including Welles as Kane composited into existing footage of President Theodore Roosevelt (Welles’ insert footage is even converted to 16 frames per second to look like an old silent film) and a startling overlay of Kane standing next to Adolf Hitler (the idea would not be repeated till 53 years later with the advent of computer generated imagery as seen in Forest Gump; Welles’ effects wizards accomplished this without computers and only using old-fashioned compositing techniques [beat that Industrial Light & Magic]). This reel also is a demonstration of what Citizen Kane will be in its entirety, one of the first non-linear stories ever, featuring an appearance of some of the first paparazzi-stylized shots in a feature film, where it is implied that a cameraman is hiding behind a fence to capture some illegal shots of Kane in his wheelchair. Everyday stuff by today’s standards, but in 1941—no one ever heard of these ideas before. Despite all this information, the emerging silhouetted, shadowy, indistinguishable reporters in the following scene chit-chat about the rough cut of the news reel and what is missing. One of the interesting points discussed by the reporters is how a single death can not speak at all about anyone’s accomplishments. This idea of starting a film with the death of its main character (sometimes supporting character) was a rather innovative storytelling concept of its time, which then would be followed by a feature-length flashback or clocking-back telling of who the deceased character was (or is presumed to have done) from start to finish (this way the film didn’t have to end on a sad note with a death scene; you could understand the person’s whole life without a bitter ending), and this concept became used successfully in many later films such as The Killers, Sunset Blvd., Lawrence of Arabia, and Lolita. The concept has also been used rather unsuccessfully in films such as Love Story, American Beauty, and Moulin Rouge!, which make the mistake of preparing the audience for HOW this person will die or what events will lead to their death as opposed to what these reporters point out: the death is not important; it’s the person’s life and their accomplishments that are important.
Director Orson Welles keeps a similar visual palette throughout Citizen Kane that may tend to keep his actors in similar positions on the screen, but it effectively creates consistency from one angle to another. For example, there are many instances in which actors are placed in frame to form a TRIANGLE. The one “tallest” in frame usually has the highest status among the three as the “shortest” logically has the least. The characters of course start to move around and the hierarchy begins to shift. On a few occasions, there are four characters on screen that potentially create volatile situations between a few of the characters as if one of the four is trying to remove and replace one of the three figures in the triangle. The triangle is an excellent set up for drama since it tends to complicate an argument between two characters because there is a third figure caught in the middle or more likely—the two figures are attacking the one other figure. This design is put to great use in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws where many scenes include three characters constantly putting each other in check. The main reporter character Mr. Thompson, played by William Alland, who parallels the audience in discovering facts of the story, constantly ends up digging up stories where three characters are discussing or duke-ing it out and sometimes ends up in awkward ‘triangular’ situations himself. Thompson usually faces away from the camera and is in shadow. Toland’s beams of light tend to direct the eye elsewhere and away from him. Thompson’s job is to listen and not to interfere with the character’s testimonies. We, as an audience, only get basic conclusions from him.
Thompson then introduces us to the inescapably, arrogant establishment of banker William P. Thatcher who appears to have been fond of vault-like, marbled architecture and large intimidating statues of himself. His character has passed on well before Kane, but his memoirs (held inside a small safe inside a large safe room—very appropriate for a banker) might hold some vital clues to Kane’s more fascinating aspects of his life and the answer to why Kane uttered “rosebud” on his deathbed. Another example of seamless transition occurs when a rolling insert of Thatcher’s words on white paper dissolve to a white, wintery, but calm snowstorm revealing a young Charles Foster Kane playing outside his Colorado home. Within this home, Kane’s mother and father (played by the infamous Agnes Moorehead and Western film veteran Harry Shannon) are arguing over the future of their son; now being signed away to attend prestigious schools and eventually inherit his mother’s new fortune in recently discovered gold. Toland preserves young Kane’s presence in the window by keeping him clearly sharp within a frame (the window) within another frame (deep focus camera lens). As the scene progresses, we start to ask ourselves is Kane’s mother and father truly good people and should they do this to little Charlie Kane? I should point out that we first see Kane on his deathbed through a window, and then in his youth, we see him once again through a window. When Thatcher finally takes young Kane away, we see a lonely sled, just like the lonely globe seen earlier in the film, cover in snow over time.
One of the most remarkable feats of editing occurs in this film. Robert Wise, who would go on to edit one more film with Welles on The Magnificent Ambersons and later become a director himself with such classics as West Side Story, The Sound of Music, and The Sand Pebbles, creates an interesting phenomenon: young Kane opens up a new sled and the camera pans up to reveal Thatcher looking down on him literally and figuratively (Welles was fond of filming at low angles in many of his films—a style initiated by the German Expressionist movement in the 1920’s, but made more famous by Welles himself through his body of work) to which Thatcher says, “Well Charles, Merry Christmas.” Kane replies solemnly, “Merry Christmas.” Cut 15 or so years later with Thatcher finishing Kane’s reply, “And a happy new year!” This idea of jumping directly to another period of time was a rather alien concept at the time since most stories tended to take place over a short period of time and the conventional ideology tended to favor simple dissolves to show time was passing. Instead, Welles and Wise use one instance where a common expression is used and then have it finished at another point in time. A logical line of thinking considering many Westerners often use that expression at least once every year. Skipping 15 years in a character’s life on film isn’t unusual today, but cutting from one point in time to another and using one half of a familiar expression and finishing off in another point of time is still unusual today. The moment is extremely effective even though it whips by fast.
A very early example of force perspective occurs when we cut 30 some years later when Kane and Thatcher have to make new arrangements to save their monetary holdings. Force perspective is a technique where a person or an object is made to look much larger than it really is by tricking the camera and audience to believe that, at first glance, the size of this person and/or object is a given; presumably that’s how big or close it seems to be. To clarify, other examples of this occur as early as 1940’s The Thief of Bagdad (where a genie is made to look 100 feet tall by simply overlaying a full body shot of the actor next to a panoramic shot of another actor standing very far away—creating the illusion that the genie is towering over the normal sized man) and as recent as Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films (where a wizard can sit very close to the camera on a moving cart, but the cart has also been modified to be much further on the other side to create the illusion that the hobbit on the further end is simply much smaller than the wizard sitting right next to him; the actual distance is invisible). Therefore, when Kane starts walking towards a window, the audience is made to believe the window (features towering buildings) is much closer than it really is. It looks as if it is only ten feet away and that ceiling must be no higher than ten feet as well. After explaining force perspective, it is fascinating that Welles actually divulges the secret to this technique by having Kane walk right up to the window, which actually shows that the window is much further away. It must be about twenty-five feet away and the windows must be in actuality at least twenty-thirty feet high. As Thatcher and Kane discuss this somewhat painful arrangement, Kane becomes smaller and smaller when walking toward these windows whose featured skyline now looks triply enormous. One other physical effect on this film that is worth examining is the split tables and signs. Earlier in the film when Thompson visits the second Mrs. Kane, the camera appears to fly through a sign. In reality, the sign was designed to be split down the middle, so that once the camera got close enough to no longer see the sign in its frame—the sign would move out of the way before the camera would hit it. A less noticeable and reversed method occurs when Kane’s mother walks toward a table to sign some documents. The camera, trucking backward, moves “over” this table. In reality, the table was split down the middle in order for it to be moved into frame. The table could not simply sit there ahead of time because it was in the way of the camera’s tracks (this was long before handheld Hollywood cameras). You can briefly see the hat on the table slightly shake, for reasons only that the table was just moved, right as the camera gets it into frame.
The second montage (or it can be labeled as the first actual montage if you’re not counting the reel since it can be classified as a sequence orchestrated by the characters in the story and not a series of truthful, unprecedented moments that the Deux of the film medium is showing the audience; difficult concept to explain, but many later films often have characters lying to the audience leaving them only to believe “God’s view” of everything they’ve just seen) features moments of Thatcher being caught off guard while reading all the recent headlines written in the New York Inquirer. Thatcher’s reactions seem based on the notion that everything in this paper is either fabricated or that they all pose a threat to his business and reputation. It is humorous to note that this newspaper is called the Inquirer, a rather harmless sounding newspaper from a 1941 perspective, but the title ‘Inquirer’ is today associated with the National Inquirer and its rather absurdly ridiculous tabloid pulp. One comedic moment features Thatcher reading a paper beside a bunch of cigar smokers, and Thatcher is the only one not smoking. This image will be repeated a second time later as if all the normal people of this world smoke and it is the oddballs (our gallery of characters) who hardly smoke at all. By the time, Thatcher exclaims, “Galleons of Spain off Jersey Coast!,” we are finally introduced to our young 25 year old, Charles Foster Kane, played by 25 year old Orson Welles. Welles dives right into this scene like a seasoned pro that acts as if he has been on Earth much longer than 25 years. This Kane is introduced by a newspaper falling out of frame to reveal him behind it. The REVEAL became a very important tool for many filmmakers later on, especially Steven Spielberg who has become infamous for his outstanding build-ups and reveals. Thatcher is ironically revealed behind a paper as well when he has to confront Kane later in life inside the room with the enormous windows. Even though Kane and Thatcher constantly argue in the first act of this story, the reveals are virtually identical for both characters and this seems to suggest that there is something similar about them. The audience doesn’t know what it is, but it is something.
There is a remarkable amount of daring-do and courageous innuendo in this film. Of the daring-do kind, it is highly commendable that Welles had cast a number of Black actors in this film. Most of them sing, play instruments, and are not used simply as butlers, servants, or maids. Young Orson Welles became infamous for using an all Black cast for a Voodoo-Caribbean interpretation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth a number of years before Citizen Kane, so it is no surprise to see him use Black actors once again in his first feature-length film. When Thompson finally becomes fed up with reading Thatcher’s endless journals, the guard standing nearby is noticeably effeminate, which is a rather risky idea to portray on film in 1941, but this man’s presence is balanced out by a very rough, intimidating woman running the Thatcher library. Seeing these two odd characters together is rather humorous. Of the courageous type of innuendo, there are a few moments where characters seem to be implying something, but it is not all too clear if what they are insinuating is actual fact. Considering many filmmakers at this time were competing with the Codes of Decency, there wasn’t much chance to get ‘barely’ away with anything UNLESS there was a possibility that the audience might miss it. When Kane marries his first wife, Emily Norton, there is a moment where Kane asks what the time is. She replies, “I don’t know. It’s late.” Kane, with a sudden excitable smirk, whispers, “It’s early.” This could mean practically anything, but it’s Welles’ performance choice there that seems to imply something of an intimate nature. Later on in the film when Kane meets Susan Alexander, who eventually becomes his second wife, she offers Kane a chance to come to her place for “hot water.” This too can be taken quite literally since Kane is soaking wet and covered in mud, but her quasi-innocent, overly affectionate demeanor seems to prove otherwise. Citizen Kane was made right in the middle of a period at the beginning of the Christian Censorship in Hollywood where filmmakers dared to be provocative by hiding sexual innuendo in plot points. You couldn’t remove the scene without damaging the film’s story and you couldn’t reshoot it if the moment was either too difficult to film in the first place or too sedate a moment to even consider reshooting it. Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps from 1935 features moments where a man and a woman are handcuffed together and the only way for her to remove her character’s wet clothes was to have the man’s hand awfully close to her skin. King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun from 1946 features many moments where the main female character is “almost” scantily dressed, but only due to clothing styles of that particular culture. There had to be another reason why these racy elements were in place. Such reasons quickly vanished by the 1960’s. It is an interesting bit of trivia to know that Orson Welles was the narrator for Duel in the Sun, a filmmaker that would become notorious for pushing the bounds of convention and for some, decency.
In the opinion of this reviewer, the most remarkable feats in this film are its wonderful use of symbolism. The no trespassing sign is a plain use of symbology while the superimposed snow directly after is a far more abstract usage. Of course, symbolism was not invented by Orson Welles, although it would be a rather hilarious idea if he did. He has become notorious for his extremely effective use of it in many of his works. When Thompson meets the gentle Mr. Bernstein (the only two characters whose first names we never learn), a fireplace, continuously burning in a warm glow, is placed right under a large portrait of Charles Foster Kane. The image seems to suggest that even though Kane may be dead—his fire and legacy rage on. As Bernstein begins talk about his loyal service to Charles Foster Kane, we notice two things: he is sitting in an enormous chair that may have one time belonged to Mr. Kane, but Bernstein is far too small in front of its enormous back cushion, which creates the illusion that he may be out of his league to even sit in it. As Bernstein (played by the colorful character actor, Everett Sloane) continues to talk, he eventually leans over his increasingly shiny desk. As he begins to talk about his own personal story, he does this as he looks into his own reflection. Such a moment is so clear in its meaning, it doesn’t require additional explanation. A more unusual and daring bit of symbolism occurs later when Kane is celebrating a rise in circulation at the NY Inquirer. As a big musical number begins to reveal itself, one of Kane’s employees is playing with a fake rifle presumably made out of either wood or thick paper; one of many fake rifles held by singing female dancers during the number. As the music intensifies, the employee sticks the barrel into his mouth as if he were playing a clarinet. The image is both hilarious and certainly startling for 1941. A far subtler example happens a little earlier when Kane and his best friend Jedediah Leland (played by the always charming and sometimes dark, Joseph Cotten) first enter the offices of the NY Inquirer. Kane and Leland are very close friends that they constantly stick together throughout most of the next scenes. At one point, Welles illustrates Leland’s close connection to Kane that when he steps close to a pole—he will not let the pole get in the way or come between them. He walks around the pole to follow Kane. Strangely illogical from a logistical perspective, but somehow the visual comes across understandable without the audience really questioning it. When Thatcher first confronts Kane over his headlines, a coat hanger and a similar pole stands right between Kane and Thatcher creating the separation that Leland fears subconsciously. Sometimes a physical object on camera does not necessarily need to create unconscious separation for characters. When Thompson is interviewing Kane’s past friends and foes, there are many instances where characters are simply talking to someone who is off screen. When the audience can’t see the reactions of both characters in the same frame, it creates a sense of deliberate division between these characters. It works very effectively if they are having an argument or are simply not connecting to each other in the dialogue.
By the time, Kane whips out his idea for a Declaration of Principles, a number of Welles’ carefully designed tools are plainly seen: there is a triangle here between Kane, Leland, and Bernstein. The shot where they all discuss this alternate “declaration of independence” is a long, continuous shot. The camera is at low angle creating the illusion that these characters are almost god-like in their communication. Kane, throughout most of this scene, is the “tallest” in frame giving him the highest status. When Kane starts to think out loud about what this declaration will consist of, he falls into shadow creating a symbol that he is either having a profoundly personal moment that the others can not see or maybe even having a dark bit of thought. Eventually, the triangle is interrupted by a fourth person coming into the scene—the copyboy creating a little friction between Kane and Leland. By the time Leland asks to keep the original draft of Kane’s declaration, the shot finally cuts to a close-up of Leland looking right at Kane. The cut creates emphasis showing this moment is important for the story: this Declaration of Principles is important to Leland like his “first report card from school.” The shot is followed by a rather silly shot of Kane giving an awkward snicker, which then dissolves to a visual motif often repeated in the film: a huge wide shot of objects all piled on top of each other as if it were a God’s point of view of a monstrous metropolis from above. This then begins another montage of Kane, Leland, and Bernstein watching their business boom. Welles throws in another eye popping moment when the camera closes in on a still photograph of some of the best newspaper men in NYC working for Kane’s competitor, the New York Chronicle. The still’s frame eventually becomes the movie camera’s frame, a dissolve almost unnoticeable takes place, and then suddenly Kane walks into frame as if the still suddenly became a motion picture. Kane has simply arranged all the men from that photo in the same positions to mock the Chronicle. Welles, as a director, has also decided to keep us on our toes by throwing us a confusing series of events. Obviously, Welles shot the still of the newspaper men first from the scene where Kane is making a “new” photograph and then placed it in the previous scene, so he could create a seamless transition from one “old” photograph to a “new” one. It’s really the same photograph of course. When it all comes together, it works so seamlessly that most people won’t even notice it. In this world of digital compositing, such an idea is far more pedestrian in preparation and far easier to accomplish by today’s standards. Again, director of photography Toland simply had to measure his frame and its objects very precisely.
One of the many things that people seem to commonly forget about Citizen Kane is its extraordinary ability to tell its story. Not only is it intensive, with its puzzle making, testimonial-spouting approach, but it is also remarkable and somewhat baffling that it is incredibly easy to understand. One of the many nerves that Kane struck involved the film’s seemingly scatterbrained way of telling one man’s story, and yet somehow the film makes it a clear mission to not alienate its audience with confusing details. The tight and at times uneasy collaboration of Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles certainly proved fruitful in creating a script that would not only win them a Best Original Screenplay Oscar to what would become a highly influential and innovative motion picture, but also pave the way for many writers and directors for generations to come who dared to be unconventional, experimental, and even monumental.
The story of Charles Foster Kane is satirically modeled after media mogul magnate, William Randolph Hearst, who like Kane was credited for starting a war (the Spanish-American War), used the media to influence public opinion, and lived in an enormous castle-like home in Florida. It is even rumored that the infamous line, Rosebud, was based on a possible pet name that Hearst once used to label his mistress; most likely in a sexual connotation. It is this possible personal detail among many others that may have caused enough spurn in Hearst to go publicly denounce the film in his media outlets as well as many attempts by him, successfully and unsuccessfully, to destroy as many film negatives of Citizen Kane as possible. Because Welles and Mankiewicz decided to take on such a risky prospect, there was a great chance at one point in time that their film would not even exist today. Before RKO green-lit their Hearst satire, there was a possibility that Charles Foster Kane would have been modeled after another enigmatic mogul: Howard Hughes, who at this point was also developing a reputation as a film director and producer for works such as 1930’s Hell’s Angels and the controversial 1943 release of The Outlaw. The idea, which is briefly mentioned in Orson Welles’ later 1973 docudrama, F for Fake, was originally conceived to be a star vehicle for Joseph Cotten, but when the premise was altered to fit Hearst’s life—Cotten dropped the idea of playing the lead and recommended Welles play it himself. Why did they decide to not do a satire on Howard Hughes? Welles and Cotten unanimously agreed that, with all the things Hughes had accomplished in his life (he was only in his mid-30s by the time Kane was written), no one would believe that one could accomplish so much in such a short amount of time.
Citizen Kane is one of the first films ever to chronicle the entire lifetime of one person. The movie is not necessarily biographical in terms of Hearst’s life—it is just one of the first films to use the journey of a man without necessarily bringing it into the literary styles of the hero’s journey. Unlike the stories and/or legends of The Odyssey, King Arthur, and Robin Hood which tend to examine the lives of men and women through many adventures and journeys to foreign lands, Kane’s life story is simply a man who won everything and eventually lost everything. This premise now has since been used over the years as seen from copycats like Brian de Palma’s remake of Scarface from 1983 (which simply uses the original 1932 Scarface premise and adapts it to the Kane formula), to lampoons like Blake Edwards’ admirable spoof (translating the Kane archetype to the infamous Inspector Jacques Clouseau) of 1982’s Trail of the Pink Panther, to butchered reconfigurations like Mani Ratnam’s misguided 2007 film Guru (which dilutes its main character’s life story with alienating and irrelevant vignettes), to ultimately low grade and forgettable films like Girl in Gold Boots from 1969 that simply tells a story of a woman wanting to make it big who then (of course) faces the consequences of her obvious mistakes. It becomes uncomfortably hilarious when the rise and fall of a character happens in a short amount of time in such stories.
In order for Welles to appropriately age Charles Foster Kane over a period of 50 years, new revolutionary methods in make-up had to be invented. Gregg Toland’s phenomenal cinematography had to complement the actors’ altered appearances, so the quest for realistic make-up became absolutely essential As later mentioned in a commentary by director Robert Zemeckis during his Back to the Future DVD, he describes how it is easier for actors to play much older people, which creates a difficult situation for make-up artists due to the fact that old age make-up is known for being very tedious and time consuming to apply. However, it is much more difficult for YOUNG actors to portray middle aged people, and ironically enough, middle age make-up is much easier to apply for make-up artists. The daunting task of aging the entire cast was in the hands of make-up artists Mel Berns, Layne Britton, and Maurice Seiderman. Unlike the rest of the department heads (Special Effects: Vernon L. Walker, Music: Bernard Hermann [this was his first feature film score by the way], Sound: Bailey Fesler, James G. Stewart, Production Design: Van Nest Polglase, Perry Ferguson, Costume Design: Edward Stevenson, Editing: Robert Wise, Cinematography: Gregg Toland) who are credited in the end title credits, all make-up artists went uncredited. This would be, by today’s standards, a shock to see such extraordinary work going uncredited, but in the early days of Hollywood it was quite common to not credit every crew member who worked on the film. By the beginning of the James Bond movie era in 1962, it became a lot more common to see credits to every crew position that existed on the production. Originally, make-up artists only had one general worriment: if their work showed up clearly from the back row in the theatre hall when looking to the stage AND if their make-up would be sustainable under hot lights. As the cinematic avenue of drama began to develop more and more, the constant need for realistic make-up that would look believable in close ups led to an exhaustive period of experimentation for artists. The Berns-Britton-Seiderman trio came to be the only make-up artists on the entire production, and they would set the standard for many movie make-up artists to come. Not only does it help the actors portray their characters at their respective ages, but it also works tremendously well as a storytelling device—like a tree growing sturdier.
Of course when the film features elementary school age Charles Foster Kane, the need for pound-for-pound make-up was not necessary. It is fascinating from a foreshadowing perspective that as William P. Thatcher (portrayed with such insidious gusto by George Coulouris) and Charlie Kane’s parents discuss the estate certificates, young Kane suddenly exclaims “Union forever!” It is obvious that the child is making a Civil War reference, but if one were to cut ahead later in Kane’s life (just as Welles and Mankiewicz do several times in this story’s puzzle making style)—we can see in one instance pertaining to Kane’s politics where he must defend himself against Thatcher’s comment of him supposedly being a communist by stating to the reporters: “I am and have always been one thing, an American.” This outburst to the press by Thatcher was probably in response to a moment in the large windowed room where Kane proclaims ‘to be everything [Thatcher] hates.’ On the other hand, there are numerous examples in this film’s story that suggest Kane clings to people; requiring a binding union with everyone.
Charles Foster Kane’s undisclosed, unconditional contracts to keep the people “he loves” on his terms, with many of them not knowing anything about these supposed terms till his relationships with them are nearly at an end, is a very telling flaw in Kane’s personality and obviously a huge weight on his psyche. Even with its optimistic intentions, his Declaration of Principles is the first of such contracts he gives to the people. The contradiction—where a person says one thing and does another is of course a common in flaw in any human, but the idea of writing it out plainly on a piece of paper only to use it as a scapegoat for malicious prospects and to then use it as a front to hide behind has been seen various times in history. This clever concept has also been directly referenced in later works like the 1997 James Bond film, Tomorrow Never Dies, where a media mogul promises his own ‘Declaration of Principles’ to the people of the planet while secretly planning their doom in favor of better TV ratings, and just as well used in a 1993 Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman episode titled, The Rival, where a newspaper man models himself after Charles Foster Kane, but takes it a step further into criminality. Bernard Hermann’s musical number that is devoted to twenty-something Charlie Kane reveals an interesting perspective on who he is at this point in his life. He tries to remain humble as much as possible (the song alludes to the point that “he doesn’t like being called Mister… he likes good, ol’ Charlie Kane”), but Jedediah Leland who is noticeably having trouble singing the song with all the others makes an interesting point to Bernstein. Perhaps Mr. Kane will change without Charlie Kane knowing it.
As the story progresses, we are introduced to Emily Norton (played by the ever-so-sweet Ruth Warrick) who becomes Kane’s first wife. As Leland gives the facts as he sees them to Mr. Thompson, we are introduced to the startling ‘table scene.’ The sequence is a timelapse-stylized sequence where we see specific moments of Mr. and Mrs. Kane having meals together. We start out seeing them at their height of their love. Charles and Emily are sitting very close to each other in the first segment, practically side by side at the table. We then dissolve to a fast-pan (camera constantly moving left or right to create the effect of time going by) which then dissolves to the second segment where Charles and Emily are now sitting at the ends of the table. As the sequence continues, segment after segment, we realize more regal looking objects are starting to appear in front or behind the characters. The surroundings are telling as much about their relationship as their continuing arguments do. The scene is quite uncomfortable to watch for anyone who has seen bickering parents or been involved in any argument with a loved one—seeing it all at once is very heartbreaking. An indication of Kane’s binding contracts comes out by the second to the last segment where Emily exclaims, “Really Charles, people will think…,” which is interrupted by Kane hollering, “What I tell them to think!”
Not too long after this sequence, we are uncomfortably introduced to Kane’s future second wife, Susan Alexander, and her mentioning of “hot water.” Kane finds comfort in her innocent charm, and it is in this scene we are introduced to two important details: Kane admits before getting muddied up that he was originally on his way to an old warehouse “in search of his youth.” The idea of Kane looking for things that may have reminded him of better, humbler days might have done him some real good, but it’s this one chance encounter with Susan that paves the way for everything else that would occur in his life—and suffice to say, Kane does not complete this trip to the warehouse. The second detail that almost goes unnoticed is the snow globe sitting nearby Susan’s mirror in her apartment. Kane is too focused on entertaining her to keep her away from thinking about her toothache that at one point she asks if he is a magician. Although Kane is not a magician, it is an inside joke on director Welles who was professional magician.
Having an understanding of this film’s own magical innovations in visual effects come together once again in this next sequence: Leland is campaigning for his friend, Kane, and as the camera closes in, he proclaims, “This campaign…” We cut to a gigantic poster of Kane (he is closer to being in his late 40’s by this point) in an enormous campaign rally for the governorship of New York. Kane then finishes Leland’s line, “…with one purpose only.” This is exactly the same method used in the “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year” jump cut. In the previous shot showing Leland, a sound of clapping is used to seamlessly transition from the shot before which features Kane himself clapping. This idea of introducing a sound that works into the actions of the next shot OR a sound that is introduced before the camera actually sees where the sound is emanating has become a standard practice today. 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia makes one very good use of introducing a sound before the audience sees it when an Egyptian trolley goes by, but in the previous shot—it’s just a hero shot of T.E. Lawrence looking stolid; not answering the question being hollered at him: “Who are you?” This point of “Who are you?” that Lawrence and Kane both share is answered in Welles’ film with an enormous wide shot of an audience sitting in front of Kane’s stage. In actuality, there was no audience present. A matte of a painted audience was placed in the foreground of the wide shot surrounding Welles, his fellow actors on stage, and the enormous poster in the center of the frame. To make it appear that the audience in the foreground is living and breathing, visual effects artists punched holes into the matte and simply moved objects behind it. This creates the appearance that the people are either moving or possibly using their rally programs to fan themselves. A later shot shows Leland sitting solemnly in front of cigar wielding campaigners. This is a repeat of an earlier shot where Thatcher is analyzing a newspaper beside chain smoking readers. This spectacular scene ends rather delicately with a shadowy looking man standing on a balcony looking OVER the stage. Kane looks rather small in his kingdom in contrast to this shadowy figure.
When it turns out this shadowy figure is Kane’s political rival, Jim W. Gettys (actor Ray Collins gives this character a chilling amount of sympathy), Kane is already at the mercy of his threats: quit his bid to take over Gettys’ job as governor or be disgraced by scandal. The interesting thing about this so-called scandal is that it is all presumption on Gettys’ part. He believes that Kane and Susan Alexander are having an affair behind Emily Kane. Gettys is going to use the “appearance” of an affair, the only certainty, to his advantage. The biggest mistake that Kane makes here is that he has become too proud of himself to think of anything else, but his mission and himself. Kane storms out of Susan’s apartment room threatening, with all his screaming muster, to throw Gettys into Sing-Sing Prison. Welles makes a humorous usage of consistency through sound effects by cutting Kane’s screaming into cars honking as Gettys shuts the apartment complex front door on him. This scene is eventually followed by an ironic moment where the ever loyal Bernstein is proposing to use a false headline to protect what is left of his boss’ reputation from the falsities of Gettys.
Leland is very noticeably disturbed by these series of events (the first time we really see him explode at this best friend) and confronts Kane in a drunk stupor. Welles makes use of his low angles here to create a visual allegory of god-like titans arguing with each other. To achieve this, Welles literally had his crew dig a hole into the studio floor to fit the camera to look just above ground. The first initial reaction to this shot by many spectators, used to force perspective trickery even during this period in movies, generally stated, “Why are they so tall?” Two other interesting things happen in this argument worth noting. At one point, Leland predicts Kane’s future by sarcastically stating, “…retreat to some desert island and lord over the monkeys.” Considering Kane’s castle will also have a zoo, he is right on both accounts. This scene also contains one of the first preserved bloopers in film history. At one point, Joseph Cotten flubs his line by saying, “Dramatic crimitism” and then quickly fixes it by saying “…criticism. I am drunk.” Due to the fact that the scene is one continuous shot, it was wise for both Welles and Cotten to keep rolling (it’s not over till the director indeed yells “cut”). Welles actually laughs at Cotten’s flub and they continue with the scene. It seems like a deliberate line in the script, and Cotten’s save comes off so well executed that it goes by unnoticed. This argument contains the first time a character confronts Charles Foster Kane’s “love on HIS terms.” Even Kane admits that is what it is all about by concluding, “Love on my terms. Those are the only terms anybody knows: his own.”
Bernard Hermann’s music number appears again when Kane finally marries Susan Alexander. In an ironic twist, Susan says that Charles Kane might build her an opera house to which Kane says it won’t be necessary. The film immediately cuts to an opera house being built. As seen earlier in the reporters’ News on the March reel, we had prior knowledge to an opera house being built in Kane’s future, but at this point in the story we’ve just as quickly forgotten it as we learnt it due to the amount of other information between the reel and this moment. This sequence reveals Kane’s attempts to prove everyone wrong and that Susan Alexander IS a singer (Susan explains this fact during their first meeting– stating she originally wanted to be a singer at the behest of her mother [a later newspaper labels Susan as a ‘singer’]) and that Kane believes he has the power to create anything from nothing. Despite Susan singing completely out of her range (Welles and co. hired an opera diva to sing deliberately out of her range when dubbing Dorothy Comingore’s voice) and a couple nearby spectators criticizing her performance, Kane illuminates sternly from his balcony seat—staring at his prized position; his new trophy wife. To create huge height above the stage, several shots were put together using what are called wipes (literally wipe over the last shot like a windshield wiper using an object seen in two strips of film to cover the separation within them; Akira Kurosawa’s films and George Lucas’ Star Wars have noticeable wipes used to start new scenes), revealing in this instance two dissatisfied techies up above.
What follows this is probably one of the story’s most telling scenes about what each character, each person, has become. Kane discovers a drunk Leland knocked out over his typewriter. It turns out he has been writing his review (referred to in the film as “a notice”) of Susan Alexander’s performance, but has passed out before finishing it. Kane pulls the paper from the contraption and dictates his interpretation on how Leland would finish it. Bernstein, tending to a revived Leland (an overlay of the word ‘WEAK’ is typed, covering the screen, when Leland awakes), comments that Kane is finishing his notice and “that will show you.” To Leland’s surprise, he walks over to Kane without any hostile intentions and without a complete understanding of Kane’s intentions. Leland and Kane apparently haven’t talked since their first argument, and they share a couple uneasy hellos till Kane drops a big one: “Jedidiah, you’re fired.” A technical marvel occurs in this shot when Kane drops the bad news: Welles and Cotten both were not on camera together for this moment. Gregg Toland’s deep focus camera lens had an apparent difficulty keeping both actors in focus for this bit, so it became a split screen overlay. So when Kane says briefly, “Sure, we’re talking Jedidiah,” they are in actuality not talking to each other, literally. When the typewriter is moved to type out its next line, the sound effect creates an almost a deafening exclamation point to this horrifying moment for Leland. This idea of using a sound effect to create tension between characters is a common tool used in the world of radio. Since Orson Welles made headlines around the world with his 1938 radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, his usage of radio cues is no surprise. It was in fact this broadcast that led him to RKO Studios and the creation of Citizen Kane.
When Thompson gets to re-interview Susan Alexander Kane at her nightclub, the audience is introduced to the distance that Kane creates between himself and others. During Leland’s interview, Kane seems arrogant but not distant. But as an audience we get to see something we’ve hardly seen before 1941, a different perspective on the same series of events. During Bernard Hermann’s opus written just for this film, Susan seems to be more of a showgirl in her eye—to the dissatisfaction of her voice instructor, Signor Mastiste (performed with intense theatricality by Fortunio Bonanova). We see that Kane spends a disturbing amount of time watching Susan from afar as if everything he wants to do for her has to be observed objectively. Kane stands at a creepy distance during Susan’s voice lessons and of course sits, from what can be perceived as the highest and furthest seat, (that maintains a good view) in the opera house from his starring attraction.
Susan gets the news that her entre debut has been slammed and, in one of Robert Wise’s most effective cuts, she whips the newspaper away from her point of view in the first shot to ‘wipe’ into a shot of her revealed behind (once again) a falling newspaper. As she continues to hammer Kane with details of Leland being unfair as a friend to write a bad review of her performance (unaware of course that it was her own husband who wrote the majority of the notice), a letter arrives at their home. Susan is also unaware of the collapse of friendship between Kane and Leland. Unbeknownst to her, Leland has sent back what can be assumed as a severance check and the original sheet of Kane’s Declaration of Principles. Ironically, she criticizes her husband for sending the check to Leland while Kane keeps it to himself that the envelope contains the torn up remnants of that very check. Once Kane realizes he is holding the Declaration of Principles, he merely refers to it as an “antique” and proceeds to tear it up as well. For some people, a promise made twenty-some years ago no longer applies.
When all the opera performances Susan is giving becomes to much for her, we see something that was incredibly controversial in 1941: an implied suicide attempt. Many films before this have shown less painful and less disturbing depictions of suicides such as people jumping off bridges or running into off screen gunfire, but a visual involving a recently emptied bottle and a woman lying in bed, presumably drifting between consciousness and unconsciousness, was a very taboo depiction in those days. Toland makes this visual even more startling by somehow keeping the bottle, glass, and spoon in focus in the foreground, Susan out of focus in the middle ground, and Kane who breaks through her bedroom door in the background in sharp focus. Her out of focus appearance in frame makes her existence appear on the verge of collapse. Kane sits by her bedside looking surprisingly torn, but he remains to sit at a distance. When she finally comes to, Kane looks over her as shadows of nearby window bars create the illusion of prison bars over Susan’s face and bed. Composer Bernard Hermann places a chillingly distorted version of Susan’s opus as man and wife talk. Although Kane says one should fight those who don’t approve of your actions, he finally relents to Susan’s wishes for her to retire her short lived opera career.
The appearance of a prison doesn’t stop there however. When construction on Kane’s “Xanadu” castle is finally completed, Susan finds herself in Kane’s own prison designed to keep out all undesirables. Susan is practically wearing a princess’ gown and crown while putting together a puzzle. While Susan’s innocent and childlike demeanor remains intact, Kane drifts further and further into obscurity. He now sports a noticeable limp and unspoken crick in his back (Welles wore a back brace to create this effect, which was probably helped by an ankle injury he suffered during Kane’s run where he screams at Gettys about Sing-Sing Prison) and has now become complacent in a home fit for a giant. The sets in this sequence are enormous, but this was a common practice in Hollywood since the days of D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille. One of Welles’ trademarks in his later films was the inclusion of massive architecture and old, almost ancient, monuments surrounding his characters as seen also in his 1952 adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello, 1955’s Mr. Arkadin, circa 1959-1970’s project of Don Quixote, 1965’s Chimes at Midnight, and especially 1962’s The Trial. Another demonstration of destroying force perspective comes when Kane walks toward a fireplace. Is it a fireplace that just sits very close to Susan? No, it is actually at least 10 feet high, which makes the logs burning it to be around redwood tree sized, horrifyingly enough. An interesting visual allegory to this film’s story structure is the puzzle Susan is putting together. Like a puzzle, the audience must piece together the facts as the characters are presenting it to them and then assemble it all within themselves to draw their own conclusions. The puzzle in this sequence actually functions as a timelapse sequence with every new puzzle featuring a passing season of the year. Kane, at a distance from Susan, offers a new, fun sounding venture: ordering his entire staff to have a picnic in the Everglades.
Once there, one of the more unusual visual effects is presented. A back screen projection from an old jungle adventure movie, complete with animated birds flying around in the trees, surrounds the camp. An unusual overlay from perhaps the same stock footage featuring a cockatoo screeching away from the camera is later used in a coming scene to deliberately wake the audience up; Welles feared the audience was asleep by that time. Inside the Kane’s tent, Susan and Charles continue to argue about the same undisclosed terms that the first Mrs. Kane and Jedidiah Leland have complained about an enumerable amount of times before. The make-up work presented here is exquisite. It reveals a Kane reaching his sunset years while Susan is beginning to show more noticeable wear around the eyes. One of the most odd details in this film is in this scene where a woman is heard screaming outside the Kane’s tent as their argument reaches a final climax. One could almost assume Welles is pulling a fast one here. While they are having an argument, some couple nearby is having a great load of fun—of climatic proportions as well.
Susan has become just like Emily Norton Kane, a bitter, closed off woman, but not by her own design. She decides to leave Kane and all the presents he gave to her during their marriage: a doll designed to look like Susan’s opera diva character, numerous childlike trinkets, and various amounts of girly paraphernalia. Kane is left all alone, framed by endless doors that lead out of the castle. From a technical side note, all of these frames around the distant Kane are just more mattes overlaid on top of each other to create the illusion of a hallway. Charles Foster Kane has a similar breakdown as he did when once confronting Gettys, and he smashes almost everything in her bedroom until he comes across one object: a snow globe. He eventually walks out of her room, teary eyed, and walks past a distortion of mirrors reflecting off each other. All the reflections show a broken down man. This part of the story is told from Kane’s butler’s point of view. Raymond (as performed by suspiciously oozy Paul Stewart) seems to have a blatant disregard for the castle grounds by casually putting out cigarettes on columned posts in front of Thompson. He at one point, strangely enough, admits to having been there when Kane dropped the snow globe. This would explain how someone heard him say “Rosebud,” but it does beg to ask why Raymond was in Kane’s room while he slept. What was he up to?
What we, the audience, are left with is exactly what Thompson surmises, “a jigsaw puzzle” and states the same conclusion that his boss mentioned earlier in the film: one thing can not summarize a whole man’s life. Orson Welles as an actor creates a puzzling man filled with contradicting emotions, hypocritical thoughts, flawed attempts at rationality, and more importantly grandiose, yet understandable, ambition. His performance is as marvelous as the film’s technical achievements; creating just enough heroic admiration from the audience that everything Kane does later on does not dilute his humble years. Kane is not a bad man. He truly has good intentions, but his flawed tactics destroy his good meaning. What the movie is constantly applauded for is its delicate and intensive look at a person’s up and downs over his entire lifetime. A man or woman is hardly the same person he or she was 10, 20, 50 years ago, and the film creates a timeless portrait of this fact. Kane’s lasting legacy is finally shown in a sweeping overhead shot of all of his possessions—minus the people he thought he owned later in life. It is a repeat of the towering metropolis of newspapers seen earlier in the film. The camera finally closes in on one object: a sled. One of the many misconceptions about the jape of this film (a jape is a plot twist that becomes more famous than the entire movie ala “Luke, I am your father” and “Because we’re the same person…”) is that once the mystery is solved… there’s nothing else to think about. The sled isn’t as important as the time it represents for Charles Foster Kane—the simple life he once had with his mother and father. It was a time before he struck rich and a time where he was just a boy and his sled—his lost childhood. The camera returns to the ‘no trespassing’ sign as before; almost locking us out from this world ever again (that is, until you re-watch the film).
A copy of Charlie Kane’s sled is rumored to be owned by Steven Spielberg, the trophy given to Kane by NY Inquirer employees has circulated around eBay, and Orson Welles’ only Academy Award trophy (the honor he shares with co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz) has been recently found in one of Welles’ later collaborator’s sock drawers. Apparently, Welles gave it away to pay off a debt to a friend. At the end of the film, Welles gives all of his cast a shimmering, but brief recap of their work on this film by playing alternate takes of certain shots in the film over their credits. The idea of seeing an alternate shot of a performance was never heard of before this film. And interestingly enough, Welles does not give himself an alternate take from any point in his performance as Kane and simply places his name and character at the bottom of the credits. He places his directorial credit at the very end of the film (most people would have left the theater by this point; however, his name does appear at the beginning of the film under “A Mercury Production by Orson Welles”), but shares the title card with his director of photography, Gregg Toland. Welles obviously felt that this film wouldn’t have been possible without Toland’s constant perfectionism and impeccable expertise. A director sharing his title card with another crew member has rarely been repeated in any big-budgeted Hollywood picture since. It is a shame though that Welles and Toland never got to work together again.
Director Martin Scorsese once said, (paraphrased) “No other director has influenced more people to become directors than Orson Welles.” The influences Citizen Kane has made over the years in film have been extraordinary. Films such as Schindler’s List and Raging Bull and even comic book writers such as Alan Moore cite the film as a reference. Many of the film’s technical practices have become commonplace in today’s cinema. Welles’ ideas were at least twenty years ahead of its time and many of his later films’ innovations are being replicated in other films as of now in the early 21st century. But without a doubt, Citizen Kane will always be a classic and will continue to be commonly referred to as “the textbook to making great cinema.”