Citizen Kane (1941) is the story of a man told the only way any of our stories can be told once we’re gone, through the memories of those who knew us. Love on his terms, that’s what Charles Foster Kane wants, but those terms are impossible and once someone dies, they are irrelevant. We exist, in many ways, exclusively in the minds of other people. When we are alone, we are perhaps more ourselves than ever, but who can prove it? Only once in Citizen Kane are we alone with the man, to watch him utter his dying word, “rosebud.” The rest of his life is reconstructed for us by his friends and enemies. It is the story of an extraordinary man, but it is also the story of all men, who simply want to carve out a place in history that is their own. In the end the only place men can finally exist is in the memory of others, and no one can dictate the terms of that.
The movie begins in Xanadu, a humungous ranch in Florida that newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) has built for himself. The man is dying, he croaks, “Rosebud,” before dropping a snow globe and expiring. Then begins a newsreel, announcing his death and recapping his life. The newsreel is a terrific device; very soon we will embark on a journey of flashbacks, most of which are out of order, so giving a chronological overview of Kane’s existence acts as a road map. It is the first connection between the movie and Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! which similarly gives the details of its story (though, it’s a very different story) early on and then spends the rest of its time having different characters recount the details from their point of view. Furthermore, the newsreel is also funny and energetic, placing Kane, who had political ambitions, in such company as Roosevelt and Hitler. When the reel finishes, the journalists who made it discuss ways to punch it up. “What about rosebud?” one of them asks. No one seems to know who or what that was. They send out a reporter (William Alland) to interview everyone who knew him to find out what it meant; perhaps its secret will explain the whole man’s life.
Through the diary of the man who raised him (George Coulouris); his business partner Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane), his oldest acquaintance; a reporter on his staff Jed Leland (Joseph Cotton); his second wife, Susan (Dorothy Comingore), and finally his butler (Paul Stewart), we learn of a man who was given up by his family after the land he was born on was found to be valuable, created an empire of newspapers, and has his first marriage and political ambitions undone by the appearance of impropriety with a young singer, whose doomed career he vainly dedicated the second half of his life to before retreating to seclusion in his mansion.
None of them knows what rosebud meant, and only in the last shot do we find out the secret and discover that it explains everything and nothing. Rosebud rises above the level of a gimmick because as a device it fits perfectly into the way we characterize people. We want people to be explained by a single word. Kane is a man who wants control. For all his power, he is often seen being discussed, sometimes while he’s in the room or nearby; life-altering decisions are being made for him. He compensates for this by collecting art, real estate, even people, but he can’t get back what he lost, which was a sense of childhood control. “You talk about the people as if you own them,” Jed tells him, but Kane most certainly does not. He says he tells the people what to think, but they don’t grant him elected office and they don’t embrace Susan’s singing, even though he tirelessly promotes it. They will not give him love on his terms.
Each person interviewed feels like their giving the full report on Charles Foster Kane, but of course they’re not; only after they are all added together do we even scratch the surface of the man and even then it’s incomplete. The newsreel reveals that Kane’s first wife and son were killed in a car wreck, which one would imagine would be a tremendous event in a person’s life, but we aren’t ever given that story. When we get the memory of the first time Susan met Kane, she makes an off-hand comment about her mother and says, “Well, you know how mothers are like.” Kane chillingly goes blank and mutters, “Yes.”
As the audience, we’ve been privy to the way Kane was essentially sold by his mother so we know why he reacted this way, but Susan doesn’t; our knowledge of Kane is more complete because we’re objective. The movie presents this idea visually in one of the great shots of the cinema. Near the end of the film, Kane stalks through his castle and he walks by a hallway of mirrors that reflect on each other and give us dozens of images of the walking man, the many versions of Charles Foster Kane; each one is something to somebody, and it’s impossible to know them all.
Orson Welles, who co-wrote and directed this magnificent movie, was 25 at the time it was made. Did he know that he was writing the first line of his obituary while shooting it? There has been a popular critical movement to diminish Welles’ role in the making ofCitizen Kane and give much of the credit to his co-writer Herman Mankiewicz or to the cinematographer Gregg Toland. That Welles was indebted to Toland there is no doubt. (Welles was a first time filmmaker, a fact that led Toland specifically to seek him out. Toland liked working with people who didn’t have present notions about filmmakers.) Welles put Toland’s credit for photography and his own for direction on the same card in the ending credits, a magnanimous gesture. Mankiewicz’s contributions are essential as well (and well-documented in Pauline Kael’s excellent essayRaising Kane), but I think it’s foolish to deny Welles his spot as the author of the film. Not only does he give the great performance as Kane, but his fingerprints are in every shot and every edit. The script and the way it’s shot are some of the film’s great pleasures, but even if Welles had nothing to do with either, which is doubtful, his coordination of all the elements and his radio background are equally important to the success of the movie.
Citizen Kane is a watershed both for the way it looks and the way it sounds. The innovations in the cinematography had been done before; Toland had worked with the movie’s famous deep-focus photography on Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath just a year earlier, but never had they been done all in one place. Look at a scene in which Kane is forced to sign over his empire. He begins in the foreground and then walks toward a set of windows, which appear to be normal size. As he walks toward them, we find out that they are actually massive and Kane appears tiny in comparison. Later, the same effect is done with a fireplace in Kane’s mansion. Nearly every shot has an inventive visual trademark, the lighting is remarkable, and the camera angles and the composition are striking and economical, always furthering the story.
Welles is said to have watched Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) hundreds of times in advance of making Kane, and some of Ford’s canny composition must have rubbed off. Here we have a suicide attempt told in a single shot of a bottle, a sleeping woman and a door. The word “suicide” doesn’t appear in the script but the image is clear enough. In a wonderful moment the camera moves upward away from an opera performance of Susan’s, reaching toward the height of the opera house where two stagehands, who have heard enough bad singing to recognize it, hold their noses in review of the performance. Without a word, we understand that Susan, who sings better than most of us, doesn’t sing well enough for this.
More than the way Citizen Kane looks is the way it sounds. Welles came from radio as an actor and producer and that knowledge informs much of the movie. In many ways, it’s thought of as the first sound picture to truly realize the potential of the additional technology. Edits are link by sound. The clapping of one man for a private singing performance turns into the clapping of an audience at a political rally. In the space between the words “Merry Christmas” and “Happy New Year” twenty years pass. Sounds occur right before the sequence they belong in. You can try to divorce Welles from the screenplay and the photography, but you can’t remove his radio sensibilities from Citizen Kane. LikeGriffith’s The Birth of A Nation (1915), Citizen Kane is the catalog of all the available technical abilities. That’s why it feels so fresh; you’re watching the limits of sound moviemaking at the time and it still feels that way today.
Kael called it a shallow masterpiece; perhaps it is. But movies aren’t given to depth and Citizen Kane, which has a lot to say, wants to remain fun. For a movie that can be so endlessly studied, it never feels like a textbook, or a relic. It’s a blast, as exhilarating as any movie. It has a point, but it doesn’t belabor it; it wants to tell the story of a man and in doing so it tells the story of the legacy of all men. It also tells about the nature of movies. Isn’t Citizen Kanejust another version of Charles Foster Kane? How many edits (done wonderfully by Robert Wise) denied us some more insight into the character? How many cuts, or reverse angles, hid from us the real Kane? How did the screenplay lead us away from finding rosebud? The movie is just another account of Kane’s life, of any life—incomplete. Citizen Kane is the greatest synthesis of story and storytelling. The movies are supposed to be fun; there’s plenty of time for deep masterpieces later.