In Green Hills of Africa, Ernest Hemingway [or his fictionalized narrator-self] says, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” The same might be said for American cinema and this week’s film. Although Americans had been making movies for half a century at the time of its release, most of them were firmly tied to the conventions of the stage. Good editing was generally believed to be invisible editing; the events of a film should unfurl before our eyes as though they were not pieced together by mechanical means, but really happening.
In 1939, a young director from New York visited RKO Studios. He had made a name for himself in both stage and [rather notoriously] radio, and numerous Hollywood executives had in vain sought to tempt him west. He simply had no interest in making films. Hoping to end the constant nagging, our young man presented RKO with what he expected to be unacceptable demands: total control, as he was used to having in the theater. He would make his first feature with no interference from studio brass; he would cast, direct, and edit the project independently, and only allow them to see footage once he’d assembled it into a rough cut. No studio in their right mind would agree to such terms.
To his shock, RKO acquiesced immediately. They offered him a budget of half a million dollars for his first film [later increased to $800,000]. He accepted. He was twenty-five years old. His name was Orson Welles. The picture was Citizen Kane.
Citizen Kane is frequently cited as one of [if not the] greatest films ever made. Certainly it marks the moment when American narrative film became its own entity, distinct from all the traditions that preceded it. Welles [and cinematographer Gregg Toland] did not invent any of the techniques used in this film — expressive angles, long dissolves, deep-focus cinematography, even the fragmented narrative itself — but did give them new meaning. Stylistically, Kane owes a great deal to German Expressionist films of the Twenties, but the debt is mostly subtle. We are much closer to Stagecoach than to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.*
Hailed as a masterpiece upon its release in 1941, Citizen Kane changed the face of American film forever. It has been studied, analyzed, and debated for decades, and rightly so. This is a film which demands to be studies, requires analysis, insists upon debate. It does not stretch itself out before the viewer’s passive eye. It forces its audience into an active role, piecing together the story, ferreting out the smallest details and questioning their meaning. It elevates what is so often “mere entertainment” into true art.
But enough unbridled praise. Let’s get down to brass tacks.
Story Structure and Analysis
Don’t panic. I know what you’re thinking; that is one nasty looking script break-down. The idea of reading a structural breakdown of, well, that might even be sending a cold trickle of sweat down the small of your back. But breathe. We are not subjecting Citizen Kane to our usual plot analysis.
For those who may be unaware, the story of Kane goes something like this: wealthy media mogul Charles Foster Kane has died. The newsreel boys are putting together a piece on his biography, but there’s something missing. Kane has always been an enigma in the mind of John Q. Public, and what the rough cut of the newsreel does little to change that. What if Kane’s mysterious dying word — “Rosebud” — holds the key to understanding him as a man?
Reporter Jerry Thompson sets out to uncover the meaning of “Rosebud,” and learn who Kane was beyond his biographical stats. He interviews Kane’s closest associates — his second wife, former manager, one-time best friend — and digs through the memoirs of Kane’s long-deceased guardian. Each person’s story sheds a glimmer of light on the complex character of the deceased, but Thompson never gets to the heart of the mystery of who Charlie Kane was. The mystery of “Rosebud” likewise remains unsolved by the characters [though the audience learns the truth in the final now iconic scene].
It’s a complicated story, both in its content and its execution. Each narrator’s story has its own Fieldian structure; to properly discuss each would take far more time than we have here, and probably hold about as much interest as dissecting a frog down to the cellular level. On the other hand, to condense the tale of Citizen Kane into a single three-act paradigm would be to treat Welles’s narrative framework as somehow incidental to the film. In fact, the multiple-perspective narration is the most important aspect of the film.
The events of Charles Foster Kane’s life are of only slight importance to the story. The facts as they are known are presented to us within the first fifteen minutes of the film, reeled off rapidly from the unpolished newsreel. We need this information only insofar as it gives us some kind of chronological context for the narratives that follow. Those narratives are not so much about what happened — we already know this — but how it happened, and who it happened to.That’s where the real meat of Citizen Kane is.
When faced with a first-person narrator, we must ask ourselves first, who that narrator is, and second, how far can we trust their version of the story? Some, of course, are outright liars, bending the truth to make themselves always admirable, always the man on top. We have no reason to take them at their word. In this category one might include such figures as Humbert Humbert in Lolita or [for slightly different reasons] Chief Bromden in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I would not suggest that any of Kane‘s narrators are of this type [with one possible exception]. They are, however, human, and they view the world through their own individual lens of biases and experiences.
Walter Parks Thatcher, Kane’s erstwhile guardian, remembers Kane as a resentful, ungrateful child. Thus in his memoir Kane seems to be carrying out a personal vendetta against him. Uninterested in his vast holdings in oil, gold, and railroads, Kane opts to take over the New York Inquirer, a struggling newspaper. He then runs a series of articles attacking business in which Thatcher owns significant stakes. In a face-to-face confrontation, Kane declares it both his duty and his pleasure to defend the rights of the common people against men like Thatcher. At the end of his tale, however, the wealthy banker is vindicated; the Crash of ’29 forces Kane to sell him a controlling interest in his now considerable media holdings.
By contrast, Kane’s manager, Mr. Bernstein, has become a wistful old man. He waxes nostalgic about a girl he saw once on a ferry, her white dress, her parasol. He describes the early years at the Inquirer, everyone happy, witty and successful, life an unending parade of wine, women and song. Kane falls in love and marries Emily Norton, the president’s niece. His portion of the tale complete, Bernstein speculates that “Rosebud” must be something Kane had once, but lost. As Thompson departs, Bernstein cautions that old age is “the only disease, Mr. Thompson, that you don’t look forward to being cured of.”
Jedediah Leland was once Kane’s best friend. We are first told of Mr. Leland by Mr. Bernstein, who says that Leland came from an old family which had no money. Throughout the film, he remains an unapologetic Leftist and reformer; when Kane teases him, calling him a “long-faced, overdressed anarchist,” Leland protests, “I am not overdressed!” Thus Leland’s story is one of a man corrupted, losing his ideals in the pursuit of wealth and power. Early on, Mr. Leland applauds Kane’s Declaration of Principles, which he publishes in the Inquirer. “I’d to keep that particular piece of paper myself,” Leland says. “I have a hunch it might turn out to be something pretty important.”
Kane’s rise to power coincides with the collapse of his first marriage. Tellingly, during the oft-cited breakfast montage, Emily objects to one of her husband’s [unheard] pronouncements with, “Really, Charles! People will think — ” and Kane interrupts her with a scowl — “What I tell them to think!” This hints at the lordly attitude toward the public which Leland later throws in his face.
Kane stands poised to become the next governor of New York. But when his rival publicly reveals Kane’s affair with would-be singer Susan Alexander, it brings down his political career and his marriage in a single night. Significantly, despite this scene being integral to Leland’s story, Leland himself is conspicuously absent. Leland learns of the affair outside a saloon on Election Night, and ends his friendship with Kane the next morning; thus he could not have gotten the story of that night from the participants, either. The meeting between Charles, Emily, Susan and Jim Gettys as we see it is wholly Leland’s invention. This calls into question Kane’s reaction to the threat of exposure — that Emily and Gettys are trying to “take the love of the people of this state away.” This is Leland inserting his own words into Kane’s mouth, to bolster his own interpretation.
Kane is defeated on Election Night. As he surveys his deserted, debris-filled campaign headquarters, Leland staggers in, drunk and belligerent. He calls Kane out for lording it over the common man, saying, “You talk about The People as though you own them, as if they belong to you. Goodness! As long as I can remember, you’ve talked about ‘giving the people their rights,’ as if you can make them a present of liberty.” In Leland’s mind, Kane’s defeat on moral grounds has set back the cause of reform irreparably; their friendship is dead from here on, too. Leland goes to Chicago, to work on the paper there; when he passes out mid-way through a negative review of the second Mrs. Kane’s operatic debut, Kane finishes it, keeping the harsh negativity and ascribing the piece to Leland [who he then fires]. Leland ends his story by asserting that Kane wanted desperately to be loved, but “he just didn’t have any to give. He loved Charlie Kane, of course, very dearly.” He also speculates that Kane built his massive palace, Xanadu, to escape the world that had disappointed him and live in his own “absolute monarchy.”
The second Mrs. Kane tells a similar story. Now an night-club owner and an alcoholic, Susan Alexander insists that she never wanted to be a singer. Kane marries her after his first divorce and forces her into an opera career. Despite her lack of talent, Kane insists that she keep singing, adamant that her quitting will make him look ridiculous.** After she attempts suicide, however, he relents; their marriage rapidly goes downhill thereafter. While on a camping trip, Susan accuses him of not loving her, only trying to bribe her into loving him. In retaliation, he slaps her across the face. She leaves him soon after.
A final, brief story from Xanadu’s butler tells of the events immediately following Susan’s departure. But to really understand that piece of the narrative, we need to examine it in the context of of other scenes in the film which ought to feel similar, but somehow do not. The main reason for this different feel, I believe, lies in the cinematography.
Giants and Monsters: Angles of Loss
The montages in Citizen Kane are brilliant. Adopting techniques from radio drama, they expertly suggest in only seconds the fullness of time and its changes [or, in the case of the jigsaw puzzle sequence, the monotony of too little change]. The long, overlapping dissolves of the film’s opening sequence are similarly spell-binding, pulling us deeper and deeper into the decaying world of Charles Foster Kane in his final moments. For the purpose of this essay, however, I want to look at three specific moments in the film and at how they were shot. I believe that the cinematography in these scenes speaks directly to the power and impact of Kane’s character.
For our first example, let’s take a look at the often-cited “Z-Axis” scene [beginning at 0:33 in this video]. Tolland’s deep-focus photography is particularly masterful here, with Thatcher and Bernstein in the foreground at a table, while Kane paces at the far end of the room. The scene was shot with a wide angle lens, which adds two additional key elements to the look of the scene: first, it exaggerates the distance between the table and the far wall, making Kane appear even farther from his guardians than he otherwise would; second, as a consequence of this greater distance, he appears quite small in comparison to them as he paces to the far wall. However, as he turns and begins his approach toward the foreground, his size increases rapidly, until he stands looming over the ancient Mr. Thatcher.
What is of particular import here is how the focus of the scene shifts with Kane’s size. He remains tiny and useless in the background as the other men spout legalese and pore over the financial agreement.*** He grows in stature as he approaches the table, ready to sign away his life’s work to the man he despises. “I always gagged on that silver spoon,” he says, and tosses down his pen. “What would you have liked to have been?” Thatcher asks. “Everything you hate,” he replies, defiant to the end.
Let’s look at a second example: the confrontation with Jedediah Leland after Kane’s defeat on Election Day [beginning at 1:00 in this video]. Here Tolland uses an extreme low-angle shot, gazing upward at Kane as though he were a giant, and we the viewer only ants [imagine the effect this must have had on a big-city theater screen!]. When Leland arrives, however, we see that this magnification is not shared equally amongst all players. As he chides Kane for his high-handed view of “the people,” Leland remains small and far away, while Kane’s stature increases until all we see is a single gargantuan pantleg:
It is only at the scene’s end, when Leland demands to be transferred to the Chicago paper, that he becomes of equal size. For the first time in a long time, Charles Foster Kane stands eye-to-eye with his former friend, and they part ways as equals.
It’s tempting to interpret Kane’s enormity in this sequence only in light of the confrontation with Jedediah Leland. As the image above indicates, it certainly reaches its height during their argument. But the low angle begins long before Leland’s entry into the scene; it remains with him throughout his experience of having lost, first, the election, then, the apparent support of “the people” as presented in Leland’s speech, and finally, of his oldest and truest friend. It’s the moment when he loses everything that matters to him, just as, in the scene from Thatcher’s memoirs, he loses his fortune. In both scenes we are seeing Kane at a low point, perhaps his lowest. Yet in both instances, as he wrestles with his loss, he is made massive, a god among men. Through a few simple camera tricks, Kane is elevated to the ultimate tragic hero.
But let us examine a third scene. As Thompson leaves his interview with Susan Alexander, she suggests that he talk with Raymond, the butler at Xanadu. From Raymond, Thompson learns of the first time Kane whispered the word “Rosebud” — the day Susan left Xanadu. As the front door closes behind her, Kane shuffles numbly back to his wife’s bedroom. He then proceeds to trash the entire room, hurling books and suitcases, tearing the canopy from the bed, and overturning furniture. He stumbles against a dressing table, sweeps aside perfume bottles and knickknacks, and suddenly freezes, his gaze fixed on a snow-globe. “Rosebud,” he gasps, tears in his eyes.
If we examine the scene with the cinematography in mind, we see something quite different from the previous examples. Here again is profound loss — the last person Kane believed still loved him has gone. Yet his subsequent raging is filmed, not from a low angle or a wide lens that distorts size. The whole sequence is instead done in medium and medium-long shots. We watch his rampage, but we don’t feel it. There is nothing godlike or noble in his struggle, only the impotent tantrum of an old man, or of a small boy.
Or perhaps of a different kind of creature altogether. Notice the way he moves through the room. The stiff arms, the awkward gait, the frozen face — all these call to mind two other cinema icons who had made their appearance in the decade before Kane:
There is something downright silly about these clumsy monsters, isn’t there? And maybe something amuses us in Kane’s despair here, too. I strongly suspect that, like the confrontation with Gettys mentioned earlier, this scene plays out very much with the perspective of the storyteller in mind. Raymond is a cynical man without a lot of respect for his deceased employer. He tells Thompson that he knew “how to handle” Kane when he acted strange, and that “He said all kinds of things that didn’t mean anything.” It seems as though this act of wanton destruction is being filtered for us through Raymond’s eyes, lending it a comic, almost cartoonish air.
Then something happens, and it throws the preceding discussion into even sharper contrast: Kane finds the snow-globe. And in that moment, our old friend the distorted perspective returns. As Kane lifts the trinket from its table, he seems again colossal, again the tragic god. Here is an emblem of memory, of a loss somehow more sharp and staggering than anything we’ve so far seen, in comparison with which the loss of Susan Alexander truly is an inconsequential complaint.
And so we come again full circle, to the question with which our story began. What — or who — is Rosebud? Thompson never finds the answer, but ultimately decides it doesn’t matter. He’s been merely, “playing with a jigsaw puzzle,” just a fragment of the totality of Kane’s life. “I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life,” he tells the other reporters, and he’s right. Knowing the meaning of the word doesn’t make everything clear, and may even uncover more questions than it answers.
We may suspect that what Kane wanted most was not love, as more than one of our narrators suggests, but a different life altogether. On their first meeting, he tells Susan Alexander, “I know too many people,” and it may be that the biggest draw she has for him is that she does not know who he is, even after he tells her his name. She might well be the kind of woman he would have married had Mr. Thatcher not taken him from his humble Colorado homestead. He always gagged on that silver spoon, remember. And it’s probably no accident that he meets Susan while he’s on his way to look over his dead mother’s belongings, which he’s had in storage all this time. Perhaps Rosebud represents all he lost as a child, and all he might have had into his later years had he stayed.
Even this only explains some things, not others. And we need to consider the fact that, at least from what we are able to see on-screen, “Rosebud” may not actually have been Kane’s dying word. The death scene itself is played in close-ups, so it is impossible to say, but the entire opening to film suggests that Kane is alone in his final moments. The snow-globe shatters, the nurse rushes in — but was anyone actually there to hear the word?
Raymond tells Thompson that he was there at the end, and heard it. But he tosses this in as an after-thought — “I heard him say it the other time, too” — as though it were of secondary importance to the earlier time. Consider, too, that although it isn’t worth the price of admission, he tires to leverage Thompson into giving him $1,000 for the story of that first mention of the word. It’s conceivable that Kane did die alone, that the version of his death which we are given at the beginning is actually Raymond’s version of the story, concocted to match up with the story of Susan leaving. He’s certainly angling to profit off his employer’s death.
In the end, it doesn’t matter. Like those who’ve spoken before him, Raymond presents only his understanding of the man, not the man himself. Taken together, these stories add up, not to a man, but only to themselves: stories of a man who might or might not have been the real Charles Foster Kane. It’s no accident that the image which bookends the entire film is of a sign posted on the chain link fence surrounding Xanadu: KEEP OUT.
Whew! I don’t know about you, but I could use a breather after that one. Next week, we’ll tackle some lighter holiday fare in honor of the season, after which i’ll be taking a two-week break for Christmas and New Year’s. In the meantime,
Keep on truckin’…
* Welles taught himself filmmaking during pre-production by watching a number of films, mostly German [including Caligari]. The film he studied most extensively, however, was John Ford’s Stagecoach, which he reportedly watched 40 times.
** During an argument on Susan’s career, he receives an envelope from Jedediah Leland, containing the torn remains of Leland’s severance check and the original hand-written Declaration of Principles. “What’s that?” asks Susan. “An antique,” he replies.
*** This shot serves as a call back to the very first shot of Thatcher’s memoir sequence, where he and Charles’s mother sit at a table, discussing the details of their agreement while Charles’s father paces impotently to one side; through the window at the far side of the cabin, we see the boy who will grow up to be our titular character playing in the snow, oblivious to the adults planning his future for him.