Directed by Orson Welles
Screenplay by Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz
Cinematography by Gregg Toland
Starring Orson Welles, Joseph
Cotten, Agnes Moorehead, Everett Sloane, Dorothy Comingore, Ruth Warrick, Ray Collins,
Erskine Sanford, William Alland, George Couloris
Back to screening room
By Jim Emerson
That tarnished sign on a forbidding black wire
fence is the first thing we see in Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, the rather
formidable beginning of an opening sequence that's still as electrifying as any in the
history of movies. Charles Foster Kane -- the eponymous tragic hero and central enigma of
1941's Citizen Kane -- expires moments after the movie bearing his name comes
stirring to life, gasping that cryptic word Rosebud with his last breath. But Citizen
Kane, now re-released on its 50th anniversary, is as thrillingly alive as it has ever
The thrills of Welles' breathtakingly exciting debut picture
are multifarious. For one thing, there's the exhilaration of watching a cocky 25-year-old
genius named Orson Welles explore the possibilities of the medium for the first time,
playing provocatively with the properties of film as if he'd been doing it all his life.
Visually and aurally -- from Gregg Toland's celebrated deep-focus cinematography to Robert
Wise's crisp, complex editing to the multi-layered impressionistic/expressionistic
soundtrack -- Kane is as stunning and sophisticated as any movie ever made, and it
crackles and whizzes along at a pace that can even keep the MTV generation riveted to the
Then there's the thrill of watching the exuberant
young Mercury Players, among the finest actors ever to work in front of a movie camera,
having the time of their lives as they projecting themselves into the future and into the
past. Their fresh performances still bristle with spontaneity and an edge that few
contemporary actors (Robert DeNiro comes to mind) can match. And, behind that NO
TRESPASSING sign, there's also the thrill of the forbidden. For Citizen Kane --
in its first few images -- takes us behind that barrier, erected to keep out the public,
for an intimate look at a great and powerful man who got everything he ever wanted... and
then lost it.
As Bernard Herrmann's ominous score rumbles portentiously on
the soundtrack, the camera surmounts several layers/levels of fences and, in a series of
dissolves focused on a lit window in a distant tower, moves across the dark, spooky,
deserted grounds of Kane's Xanadu estate. That window remains in the same place in the
frame -- upper right-hand corner -- in each successive shot, including one that turns the
image upside down: a reflection in a disused boating pond. As we approach the window, a
light inside (and, soon, a life) is snuffed out. Another match-dissolve takes us almost
imperceptibly from outside Kane's castle to inside his room, where... it is snowing. A
house sits nestled in a soft, white landscape, but the camera pulls back rapidly and we
see it's one of those little liquid globes with fake flakes inside. This wintry world held
tight in the palm of his hand, Charles Foster Kane loosens his grip on life. The glass
bubble bursts on the floor as his disembodied lips (in close-up) whisper:
Like that shining window in the distance, Rosebud
becomes the elusive focal point for a newsreel reporter's investigation into the life and
times of Citizen Kane, an exploration which provides the plot framework for the
movie. And like those shifting, sometimes inverted initial images, each person reporter
Thompson (William Alland) interviews provides a different perspective, a contrasting image
of the same man: Charles Foster Kane.
In one of the film's most memorable images, Kane, having torn
apart in anger the bedroom of his wife (who's finally worked up the strength to leave
him), walks trance-like down an echoing corridor lined with mirrors, where his reflection
is multiplied a hundred-fold into the distance. Citizen Kane is about those
images that we all reflect and project, the sum total of which -- the impressions we make
on other people -- are all we that leave behind us.
And that central, unsolveable riddle of
personality is at the core of what makes Citizen Kane so endlessly watchable.
Charles Foster Kane -- despite the best efforts of Thompson and the people he interviews
-- refuses to be reduced to any convenient formula. And how many contemporary movie
characters can you say THAT about? Citizen Kane is a portrait of a public and
private figure that, by design, remains tantalizingly unfinished. It's an elusive
shadow-play, done in a vivid black-and-white that's far richer, more suggestive and
mysterious than the neon paint-by-numbers palette of most of today's stupefyingly
unimaginative Eastmancolor pictures.
As Thompson puts it near the end of the movie: "Perhaps
Rosebud was something he couldn't get or something he lost. Anyway, it wouldn't have
explained anything. I don't think any word can explain a man's life. No, I guess Rosebud
is just a piece in a jigsaw puzzle." It's the mystery -- combined, of course,
with the mastery of Orson Welles and his collaborators -- that draws us back to Kane
again and again.
Kane is a movie about perception and projection.
Critic David Thomson (no relation to the newsreel reporter) has even suggested that:
"The whole of Citizen Kane might be Kane's own dreamed recollections in the
last moment before his death -- his life flashing before his, and our, eyes. The fact that
the film takes the form of investigations carried out by a representative of a newsreel
company," Thomson writes, "could be interpreted as showing the degree to which
Kane's own publicity has conditioned his attitude to himself." Indeed, the
whole movie seems to take place in a kind of psychic projection room. The deathly,
dreamlike hush of Citizen Kane's shadowy prologue jumps abruptly into that
blaring newsreel ("News On the March"), which introduces us to the Official
Version of the Life of Charles Foster Kane.
But when the film runs out, flipping on the reel of the
projector, we're left in the dark -- in a dim screening room with shadowy faceless
figures, silhouetted in front of the screen, who (like us) aren't satisfied with the
portrait of Kane they've just watched.
The movie as a whole -- though as artistically satisfying as a picture can get -- also
leaves us with certain unexplicated pieces of Kane's life that only we, as viewers of Citizen
Kane, can put together for ourselves.
Yes, we eventually find a symbolic meaning for the riddle of
Rosebud -- even though none of the characters in the film is ever priviledged to discover
it. But, in the end, the movie reverses itself and we back out of the life and works of
Charles Foster Kane the same way we came in: drawing back behind the fence and coming to
rest on that stubborn NO TRESPASSING sign, as the remains of a man's life
turns to smoke in the distance.
Back to screening room