Analysis: Citizen Kane

“Citizen Kane.” Those words, alone, boast elegance and scale- not just scale in production, but in story as well. For 65 years, the title Citizen Kane has been one of the most celebrated and iconic films ever made. Also for 65 years, this film has inspired countless analytical essays and provoked an endless stream of thought as people ponder it’s meanings and layers. Similar to the amount of licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie-Pop, the world may never know just what all Citizen Kane is trying to tell us through it’s story, style, production techniques, and other aspects that leave experts scratching their heads. Orson Welles wrote, directed and stared in this tycoon saga, and it is his titular character that has inspired countless other films to be made in it’s likeness, but few films have ever come close to surpassing many aspects of this film. One of the most telling but overlooked moments in the film that shows the most about the character Kane is the very first scene after the opening credits; these first 150 seconds do a better job of explaining the story than the Transformers did across four movies. In the first scene, we see that this seemingly rich and powerful man dies alone, and even though we hear only one spoken word in this opening sequence, we are told exactly how and why this happens.

As a first time viewer, I didn’t think the scene was telling me much, and after watching the film, I didn’t think the scene could tell me as much as it has. The first shot in the film is of a “NO TRESSPASSING” sign (this is also the very last shot of the film), and these two words tell us just about as much about Kane himself as an autobiography would. Kane was a businessman at heart, and he was very secretive about personal matters and he never really let anybody into his heart; all of the conversations he had with the people “close” to him were related to business and business alone. He never explained to anybody what “rosebud” meant to him, and nobody ever found out. Even after dying, he still holds onto his ambiguity and his secretive nature, hence the “NO TRESSPASSING” sign. As the camera rises from the sign, we see that the fence is so high that it changes styles twice before finally reaching the top. It seems as though the fence once began as a normal chain-link fence, but as his life continued, the he kept building the fence higher and higher: first, a slightly more elegant and intricately woven metal fence design on top of the chain-link, and then a thick and classy style of fence atop that one.

We then fade to a shot of the top of the fence, which depicts the letter “K,” and we see a mansion in the distance behind it. In this shot, the letter “K” is in the foreground and because of this, it is even bigger than the mansion. Normally, this wouldn’t mean much, but this shot shows us that Kane, not as a figure, but as an idea, is much bigger than even the largest thing in sight. We are shown many shots from around the mansion (which we see is much more of a castle than any mansion in existence): monkeys in cages, a golf course, and water sources with rain forest-like surroundings. In every one of these shots (there are seven of them in total), we see the castle in the background with a light in one of the windows- and even when the shot fades to a different one, the window stays in the same place on the screen, and this catches the viewer’s eyes because of how it stands out in contrast with the darkness. In the lit room is Kane, and it is his light that shines brightest, even all around his imaginably large yard. This summarizes what his character was to the people who saw him but did not know him: he was a mystery, but a mystery that they could spot from a mile away and not take their eyes off of. At this point in the movie, the audience is getting the sense that whoever lives there must be incredibly important, because the audience is forced to acknowledge his (or her) existence in every frame of the film thus far.

We cut to the interior of the room for a brief moment, and then cut to what appears to be a small house in a snowstorm. The camera pans out to reveal that the house is in a snow globe in the hands of Kane, who is lying in bed. He whispers “Rosebud” just before dying; the snow globe rolls out of his hand and falls to the floor, cracking against the stairs. We cut to a shot on the floor behind the snow globe, then we see the door opening and a nurse coming in, but we see it through a fish-eye lens as if through the snow globe. This shot, to me, reveals so much about Kane as a character: when the camera cuts to the fish-eye lens from the snow globe, it’s the first time we’ve seen anything from the side of the room that Kane is on, almost as if we’re getting Kane’s perspective. Obviously, this is not a point-of-view shot, but this shot takes place right after Kane died, and the last thing he saw was his snow globe. So, it makes sense why this shot could be from Kane’s “perspective.” However, it’s not just what we’re shown literally that means so much, but what we’re told metaphorically that is the most important part of this scene.

The fish-eye lens that photographer Greg Tolland uses for this shot is to show us what seeing through the snow globe is like, but really, he’s showing us what seeing through Kane’s eyes is like: as he sees it, everything revolves around him the way things to in a fish-eye lens. This also means that the way he sees the world is warped, it’s different from how others see the world- and now, it’s broken too. He was a broken and lonely man when he died, and most of this is because he never learned to let people in, and he never learned to let go of the past, and both of those reasons are why he died alone after losing all of his connections with the people he knew. We know these things are true from this scene alone as the “NO TRESSPASSING” sign tells us that people never got close to him, and his last word was “Rosebud,” which he whispers as he stars into what represents his childhood home (his best memories). The breaking of the snow globe as Kane dies (and not before or after, but right as he dies) is significant because we learn after seeing the film just what that snow globe must have meant to him: his last word, “rosebud,” was the name of his childhood sled, which he must have been thinking of as he died, staring into the snow. Earlier in the film, when he met his new love interest Susan, he mentioned how he would often go to a warehouse to feel young again. In the warehouse is where rosebud was stored, which he would visit because he was always holding onto the past, and could never let go. He could only finally let go of the past at death, and this is when he drops the snow globe and it breaks on impact.

During his rise to power, any character’s last guess would be that Kane would die silently and lonely, yet the subtle aspects of the first scene alone tell the audience exactly why he does. Kane is a character who is bigger than life, which is a fact we are told immediately in one of the first shots since his even the first letter of his name is larger than the entire castle he owns. However, he is a character that sees the world in a warped way, and he refuses to change for anybody, even if it means that he will lose everyone. Welles and Tolland tell us an entire story in just under 150 seconds through camera shots, subtle production designs such as props and sets, and a single spoken word from the dying breath of the titular Kane. This movie is just as big as the main character, and it will indubitably continue to inspire analysis and conversation for decades to come.

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