Hey, have you seen Citizen Kane
? You probably should; it's practically the Citizen Kane of film.
— Charles Foster Kane
Inside his unfinished palatial mansion
, media mogul Charles Foster Kane lies Dying Alone
, having lived in seclusion from the world for many years. With his final breath
, he utters the word "Rosebud!". The movie unfolds in flashback as Intrepid Reporter
Jerry Thompson tries to unravel the significance of Kane's dying declaration through interviewing those who knew him. However, no one he talks to knows just who or what Rosebud was, the closest answer he gets is from Kane's butler who concludes he was just saying a nonsense word. Thompson never does solve the mystery, though the answer
is shown to the audience in the final scene.The conclusion?
It is indeed Lonely at the Top
and indirect Trope Namer
for It Was His Sled
This film provides examples of:
- Abusive Parents:
- Mr. Thatcher seems to be very distant from his young ward.
- Emotionally, Mrs. Kane towards her son as she wants to insure that he has wealth and "proper" upbringing at the cost of being raised by his parents.
- Kane's father, physically speaking, which is why his partly why his mother sends him away in the first place.
- Actually Pretty Funny: Leland writes a scathing review of Susan's opera performance, passing out from drink afterwards. Kane reads it over his shoulder and can't help laughing.
- Age Cut: "Merry Christmas" [cut forward about 15 years] "and a Happy New Year".
- All There Is to Know About "The Crying Game": It's pretty much guaranteed that the only thing people who've never seen the movie know about it is that It Was His Sled.
- Alternate Character Interpretation: In-Universe with the opening newsreel in which Kane is denounced as both a communist and a fascist.
- Ambiguously Gay: Leland the "Broadway critic" is coded as gay (couldn't be stated outright under The Hays Code) and was possibly infatuated with Kane in his early years.
- Ambiguously Jewish: Mr. Bernstein. In fact, it's implied in one scene that Kane's first wife feels uncomfortable around Bernstein for precisely that reason. note Emily also complains about a Noodle Incident with Bernstein.
Emily: Your Mr. Bernstein sent junior the most incredible atrocity yesterday, Charles. I simply can't have it in the nursery.
- The atrocity in question is a mezuzah, a box containing sacred Hebrew texts, affixed to a doorpost, often believed to act as a warding or protection (and thus a protection over the child). Additionally, if "Mr. Bernstein is apt to pay a visit to the nursery now and then", he'd touch the mezuzah upon entering the room.
- And I Must Scream: How Susan feels about Xanadu.
- And Starring: The final image of the credits, after all the secondary characters have had clips shown of them with their actors' names, is a list of the bit part actors. Then at the bottom it says "Orson Welles as Kane". Roger Ebert stated it was a blatant example of false modesty on Welles' part. He adds that listing Gregg Toland's cinematography credit alongside his directorial credit on the same card was true modesty.
- Aside Glance:
Thatcher: "I think it would be fun to run a newspaper." Hmmph!
- Badass Boast:
Kane: You're right, I did lose a million dollars last year. I expect to lose a million dollars this year. I expect to lose a million dollars next year. You know, Mr. Thatcher, at the rate of a million dollars a year, I'll have to close this place in... (smirking) 60 years.
- Became Their Own Antithesis: Kane starts out with a declaration of principles, championing the Inquirer and himself as a tireless seeker of truth and justice and the defender of "the common man", until he slowly becomes a power-hungry controller of information who wants the common man to love him but who has none to give back, exemplified when he loudly proclaims that the people will think "what he tells them to think".
- Betty and Veronica: Kane's wives, Emily and Susan, respectively
- Big Fancy House: Xanadu.
- Blunt "Yes":
Leland: Bernstein, am I a stuffed shirt? Am I a horse-faced hypocrite? Am I a New England school marm?
Bernstein: Yes. If you thought I'd answer you any differently than what Mr. Kane tells you...
- Book Ends: The same shot of Kane's house and the fence in front with a sign reading "No Trespassing".
- The Brainless Beauty: Susan Alexander Kane
- She's more naive than stupid, really. It's just that her voice has "bimbo" connotations.
- Bus Crash: Thanks to the Moral Guardians, Kane's first wife and son had to be killed in a car crash so Kane could marry Susan.
- The Cameo: Pretty much every male in the cast plays also one of the reporters in the opening projection room scene. That is one of the reasons why it was shot so dark and shadowy, even compared to the rest of the film. Joseph Cotten is still clearly visible in the corner, however, when the editor is asking "What were his last words?".
- Censor Decoy: The birthday/song scene originally took place in a brothel. Welles knew he'd never be able to get away with that, but he kept it in the screenplay so the execs at RKO wouldn't notice the jabs he was taking at Hearst.
- Chekhov's Gun: The now legendary sled.
- Also the Declaration of Principles, which Leland sends back to Kane after Kane has betrayed those principles.
- Chiaroscuro: Like many tropes, the usage of Chiaroscuro in film was widely popularized by Citizen Kane, although it was already common in German expressionist cinema.
- This ties into the film's use of "Deep Focus" (one of the techniques cinematographers rave about in the movie). The way they managed to bring foreground and background objects into focus in the same shot required the more distant objects to be extremely brightly lit, encouraging the heavy-shadow Chiaroscuro compositions.
- Which is why Welles put Gregg Toland's name on the same card as him.
- Collector of the Strange: Kane is one. He collects so many things - animals and plants, everything he had in his life - that after his death, a lot of his collection is not catalogued nor even unpacked, and has to be sold off or destroyed:
Newsreel Narrator: [at beginning of news reel on Charles Foster Kane's death] Legendary was Xanadu where Kublai Khan decreed his stately pleasure dome. Today, almost as legendary is Florida's Xanadu, world's largest private pleasure ground. Here, on the deserts of the Gulf Coast, a private mountain was commissioned and successfully built. One hundred thousand trees, twenty thousand tons of marble are the ingredients of Xanadu's mountain. Contents of Xanadu's palace: paintings, pictures, statues, the very stones of many another palace — a collection of everything so big it can never be catalogued or appraised, enough for ten museums — the loot of the world. Xanadu's livestock: the fowl of the air, the fish of the sea, the beast of the field and jungle. Two of each, the biggest private zoo since Noah. Like the pharaohs, Xanadu's landlord leaves many stones to mark his grave. Since the pyramids, Xanadu is the costliest monument a man has built to himself. Here in Xanadu last week, Xanadu's landlord was laid to rest, a potent figure of our century, America's Kubla Khan — Charles Foster Kane.
- Creator Cameo: No, not Welles. Gregg Toland appears as a reporter in a brief scene in the opening montage.
- Dead Hand Shot: At the beginning, with the snowglobe.
- Deadpan Snarker: Young Kane had his moments.
- Dead Sparks: Kane and the first Mrs. Kane.
- Deconstruction: Citizen Kane in the context of the 40s and even today to some extent radically tackles the conventional Hollywood narrative.
- Citizen Kane was in many ways an attack on the narrative style of The Golden Age of Hollywood as well as several American types like the Self-Made Man and the American Dream. Namely that the idea of defining life in terms of social success and wealth ultimately makes you value people less and makes you desire to control and buy people around you.
- The theme of the story, that of an antihero Dying Alone, unredeemed, an unpleasant, manipulative Jerk Ass who never learns his lesson even in his old age and who leaves behind several disappointed friends and broken loved ones was fairly harsh, in terms of absence of easy conflict resolution, putting across the futility of life and the passage of time. Likewise the characters are not consistent or slaves to type. Rather than being marked by a single trait and attribute, they have multiple traits and attributes. Kane goes from an idealistic, flamboyant young man to a reclusive, paranoid hermit, the Character Development isn't drastic or cordoned to a single transforming event.
- The opening newsreel montage also parodies the glib, cheery newsreel style reportage at the time, pointing out that even if the information is objectively correct, the tone, the interpretation and drastic editing only gives a shallow, superficial idea of the subject. The multiple-narrators approach, which is still quite revolutionary, directly puts across the problem of objectivity, since there's always one part of the story that's missing and ultimately the reporter, William Alland decides that the full mystery of Kane or his motivations cannot really be known and gives up on finding out what Rosebud is. Even if the film supplies The Reveal and gives viewers a resolution to the Driving Question of "What is Rosebud?", the idea that it can explain Kane any more than the other stories we see remains up in the air.
- Determinator: One of Kane's Fatal Flaws, such as forcing the world to accept Susan as an opera singer, which drives her into a suicide attempt.
- Downer Beginning: Kane dies in the first scene of the film.
- Downer Ending: By the end of the movie, the viewer realizes that, despite being on top of the world, Kane was tremendously unhappy and what he wanted above all else in his life was to be loved. Kane dies alone, as the movie opens, as he remembers the last time in his life when he was truly happy; when he was playing with his beloved sled, Rosebud. Plus the fact that the reporter and the rest of the world never do find out what "Rosebud" is. The only way the viewer finds out is when it's too late; when the sled is being burned, along with some of Kane's other belongings. The real tragedy is that he had the sled as part of his property throughout his whole life. Still, owning it didn't change a thing - the past is the past.
- Dramatic Drop: The snowglobe that's dropped as Kane dies.
- Dramatic Shattering: The snow globe at the beginning.
- Driven to Suicide: Susan eventually decides that she's done with the opera singing and all the scathing critiques it brings and tries to overdose. She survives however, but nonetheless stops singing.
- Driving Question: What the hell is this "Rosebud" thing?
- Droste Image: This effect is shown when Kane passes between two mirrors.
- Establishing Character Moment: The first major scene with Welles as a 24 year old Kane has him arguing with Thatcher over how he was running The Inquirer. It does extremely well with establishing how money was simply not a concern of his in any way, shape or form. "You're right, I did lose a million dollars last year. I expect to lose a million dollars this year. I expect to lose a million dollars next year. You know Mr. Thatcher, at the rate of a million dollars a year, I'll have to close this place in... 60 years."
- Famous Last Words: only one actually; "Rosebud", of course
- Fatal Flaw: Kane wanted to be loved, but on his own terms.
- Film Noir: Although there's no crime involved, the movie has a lot of tropes associated with the genre.
- First Name Basis: "He doesn't like that 'Mister' / He likes good old 'Charlie Kane'!"
- Flashback: Lots of them.
- Forced Perspective: Used on multiple occasions. Maybe most notable in the early scene where Thatcher and Bernstein are sitting at a desk signing papers, in front of some ordinary-looking bay windows. Kane enters the frame, and then walks away from the desk—and walks quite a bit further than one might have guessed, revealing that the far wall is actually further away than it looked and that those bay windows are some seven feet off the ground. This also has the effect of making Kane look tiny in a scene where he is being humiliated by having to sign away much of his media holdings.
- Foregone Conclusion: The fake newsreel spells out the whole plot, minus "Rosebud".
- Forgotten Fallen Friend: The newsreel reveals that Kane's first ex-wife and their son die in a car crash. They are never again mentioned in any scene that takes place after they died. Nobody suggests that among Kane's many personal problems, losing his only son might be one of them.
- On the other hand, this might go without saying. Kane would not be so alone in his great mansion at the end if his son wasn't dead.
- Even worse, Kane might be so egocentric by that point that he simply doesn't care.
- See Bus Crash.
- Framing Device: related to above — the story is told mostly via interviews of people who were close with Kane with a reporter.
- Freudian Excuse: On the sled symbolism in Citizen Kane, Orson Welles remarked: "It's a gimmick, really, and rather dollar-book Freud."
- Gave Up Too Soon: Thompson, after spending all the movie looking for the answer to the Driving Question gives up precisely in the very room the answer lies.
- The Gay Nineties: Kane's childhood.
- Gilligan Cut: When Kane announces his intention to make Susan Alexander an opera star, a reporter asks if she'll sing at the Met:
Susan: Charlie said if I didn't, he'd build me an opera house.
Kane: That won't be necessary.
(cut to newspaper headline: "KANE BUILDS OPERA HOUSE")
- He Who Fights Monsters: Kane, who envisions himself as a crusader for the little guy against corruption, becomes a cynic and a reactionary.
- Hitler Cam: Orson Welles was the trope namer. Refers to the practice of shooting a solitary figure from a slightly lower angle. This magnifies the figure's height and presence in the mind of the viewer. Greatly popularized by the film.
- Hollywood Tone-Deaf: Averted with Susan Alexander. To get the effect of a realistically overmatched singer, Welles got a professional alto opera singer and had her sing a soprano part.
- How We Got Here: The film starts with Kane's death. Thompson's investigation then serves as the framework for telling Kane's life story, which is then told in roughly chronological order.
- I Coulda Been a Contender: Inverted Trope by Kane, when he is forced to give up the control of his empire. Hardly a nobody. Very disillusioned, he reflects that it was his advantages that stole him his chance at true greatness:
Charles Foster Kane: You know, Mr. Bernstein, if I hadn't been very rich, I might have been a really great man.
Thatcher: Don't you think you are?
Charles Foster Kane: I think I did pretty well under the circumstances.
- I Just Want to Be Loved: This is Kane's main motivation. Deconstructed, as, despite how innocuous a motivation it seems, it causes him to be a Jerkass — he wants to be loved, but on his own terms, and he doesn't understand that it just doesn't work that way.
- I Take Offense to That Last One:
Charles Foster Kane: You long-faced, overdressed anarchist.
Leland: I am not overdressed.
- It's All About Me: Kane’s mission in life is to be loved on his own terms. Lampshaded spectacularly:
Kane: [pleading] Don't go, Susan. You mustn't go. You can't do this to me.
I see. So it's you who this is being done to. It's not me at all. Not how I feel. Not what it means to me. [laughs]
I can't do this to you? [odd smile] Oh, yes I can.
- It's All Junk: Kane is an obsessive collector of everything, who then treats people like objects and dies a lonely old man, surrounded by glorified junk in a ridiculously opulent estate. The last line of the film is, in fact, "Toss that junk."
- And ironically, the only piece of "junk" that meant something really important to Kane is burned up because it can't be sold.
- It Was His Sled: Despite being the Trope Namer, the sled is a MacGuffin. As Jerry muses over a box of jigsaw puzzle pieces, "Rosebud" is only a piece of the puzzle.
- It Will Never Catch On: Kane in 1935: "You can take my word for it: there'll be no war." Uh-huh.
- Jerkass: Charles Foster Kane
- Jump Scare: The screeching cockatoo near the climax of the film. Quite possibly the best non-horror example in cinema history.
- Large Ham: "Siiiiing Siiiiiing!". It works, though.
- Mr. Exposition during the introductory voice-over could count, as well.
- Let The Past Burn: The ending is a loose example, differing only in that the whole house isn't burnt.
- Lonely at the Top: As a core theme. One of the reasons why he tries to desperately cling to his wife, and eventually comes true when she leaves him.
- Love Hungry: As desperate as Kane is for love, he is too selfish to understand that one cannot force others to love them. It just doesn't work that way.
- Malevolent Mugshot: "Vote for KANE"
- Match Cut: the entire opening sequence. Watch how the light never moves.
- Also after slapping Susan. Her left eye matches with an eye decoration in the next scene. Hard one to see.
- Memento MacGuffin: "Rosebud", which partially drives the plot.
- A Minor Kidroduction: Sort of—we get a glimpse of Kane as he dies and then we see him again in the newsreel, but the story proper starts with Kane at age 8.
- The Mistress: Susan Alexander, before Kane marries her.
- Mockumentary / Newsreel: Early in the film. Welles was good at these. Kind of an example of Aluminum Christmas Trees. People in the 1940s who were used to seeing the "March of Time" newsreels regularly would have been much more amused by the satire. Possibly the earliest example of an in-movie fake newsreel.
- Musical Pastiche: Salammbô, the opera in which Susan Alexander stars, is Bernard Herrmann's pastiche of French grand opéra à la Jules Massenet. Interestingly, it was supposed to be called Thaïs, which is an actual Masssenet opera.
- Mythology Gag: In one scene dated 1935, Kane tells a reporter not to believe everything he hears on the radio. Considering who is playing Kane that is true.
- Name of Cain: No accident, that name.
- No Antagonist: Kane brought his miserable life upon himself.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: William Randolph Hearst felt otherwise.
- Oh, Crap: Kane displays a very subtle one when his first wife Emily tells him she is going to investigate the house of Kane's mistress, Susan Alexander after receiving an anonymous tip about it.
- Old Media Are Evil: The film is one of the earliest criticisms of Old Media.
- New Media Are Evil: The film is also very critical of newer forms of media. Especially newsreels which are shown to be just as constructed, and story driven and as biased as anything else and certainly not objective.
- The Oner: Long shots zooming into Susan's cafe through a skylight and up a ladder at the opera.
- Patriotic Fervor: "I am, have been, and will always be, an American"
- Percussive Therapy: After Susan leaves him Kane tears her room apart.
- Plot Hole: Legend has it that someone asked Welles how anyone knew Kane's Famous Last Words if Kane died alone. Supposedly Welles paused for a long time and then said "Don't you ever tell anyone of this." However, Raymond the butler says he heard the word, implying that the scene was shot from his point of view.
- Popcultural Osmosis Failure: When many films are said to be "the Citizen Kane of horror/comedy/action" or someone says "Bad Movie is Citizen Kane compared to Worse Movie", folks get the idea that Citizen Kane is a great movie. Many people stop there.
- Posthumous Character: Charles Foster Kane, his wife and son.
- Pretty in Mink: his two wives naturally wore a few furs.
- Protagonist Journey to Villain: Charles Foster Kane, obviously. He turns from an idealistic muckraker to a mogul whose life is slowly spiraling out of control.
- Real After All: After Thompson Gave Up Too Soon to find what Rosebud is, the audience gets The Reveal: It Was His Sled
- Realistic Diction Is Unrealistic: Averted. Characters regularly talk over one another.
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Kane gets the same lecture three times from Leland, Susan and Boss Gettys: I Just Want to Be Loved is a Tragic Dream if you truly believe It's All About Me. Does Kane understand or accept it? No.
- Red Scare: Thatcher accused Kane of being a communist near the beginning of the movie. Remember, this was before the US got into World War II.
- Retraux: Editor Robert Wise scratched the "newsreel" with sandpaper to make the "old" footage look old.
- Roman à Clef: Welles denies this, but Hearst, who Kane was supposedly based off of, believed this.
- The film actually attempts to avert this by having Hearst mentioned by name in an early scene (the reporters discussing the newsreel), establishing Kane as a different individual.
- But also shoots itself in the foot in the first scene with Kane as played by Orson Welles, in which he says: "You provide the prose poems, I'll provide the war". Substitute "pictures" for "prose poems", and this is a word-for-word quote of something Hearst himself said to a photographer.
- Herman Mankiewicz, who came up with the story, was a frequent guest at San Simeon (aka Hearst Castle). As much as Welles sometimes denied it, much of the story clearly was based on Hearst's life. Some similarities between the real and fictional men:
- Both were muckracking newspaper publishers who egged on the Spanish-American War, as noted above.
- Both had a family fortune that came from mining precious metals (Hearst's father George struck it rich with the Comstock Lode).
- Both had huge media empires, which wound up getting downsized to some extent in the Great Depression.
- Both had estates of staggering size (San Simeon/Xanadu).
- Both were failed independent candidates for Governor of New York (Hearst actually ran for office several times and served two terms as a Congressman from New York).
- Marion Davies and Susan Alexander were both alcoholics with a fondness for crossword puzzles. Furthermore, both are considered reasonably talented in light entertainment, but were shoehorned into more serious artistic fields that were considered seriously out of their depth.
- Of course there were many differences between Kane and Hearst as well, which helped Welles maintain Plausible Deniability. Hearst was never abandoned by his parents (in fact this more closely resembles Welles, who was orphaned at the age of 15). He never married Davies; instead she remained The Mistress and stayed with Hearst until his death.
- Rule of Symbolism: Some critics think Kane stretches the Willing Suspension of Disbelief in order to include symbolic elements. It certainly is packed with symbols.
- Scenery Porn: The sets (the political rally, the newspaper office, the library, Xanadu) are all lavish, grandiose... and empty like the main character.
- Shaggy Dog Story: The Framing Device ends with Thompson not only giving up to find what Rosebud means, but admiting that knowing it will not explain Kane.
Female reporter:: If you could've found out what Rosebud meant, I bet that would've explained everything.
Thompson: No, I don't think so; no. Mr. Kane was a man who got everything he wanted and then lost it. Maybe 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... a missing piece.
- Kane's dream was a Tragic Dream and so, it was never achieved.
- Single Issue Psychology: All of Kane's problems result from him not knowing how to love due to being taken from his parents as a child. At his mother's urging, because his father was abusive towards him. This does not make it better, however. Welles's when dismissing the story's gimmick as "Dollar Book Freud" regretted it because of this implication, he didn't believe in Single Issue Psychology, and used "Rosebud" as a deliberate Shaggy Dog Story to hook the movie around.
- Slow Clap: After the disastrous operatic debut of his wife Susan, Kane stubbornly stands up and does a◊ Slow Clap; the rest of the audience begrudgingly follows suit.
- Spinning Paper: A standard trope of early 1930s "B" movies, especially in films dealing with organized crime. It went out of style at around the time The Hays Code was adopted; any use after the mid 1930's is a deliberate invocation of the trope as tribute and parody. Citizen Kane is one of these. Making later parodies parody parodies.
- Stage Mom: At their first meeting Susan tells Kane it was really her mother's ambition for her to be an opera singer.
- Stock Footage: The film contains a lot of this. For example, the newsreel has a scene where a man speaks to a political rally, denouncing Kane as a fascist. The crowd was simply stock footage and the man was an actor, filmed in a low-angle shot to hide the fact that no crowd was present. The background jungle footage for the picnic scene was lifted from Son of Kong and, in an infamous case of Stock Footage Failure, you can plainly see pterodactyls.
- Strawman News Media: Not at first but the Inquirer eventually becomes a Type 1, serving as a propaganda machine for Kane himself.
- Table Space: A very clever use of this trope to illustrate the deterioration of Kane's first marriage in a brief montage. The Kanes are shown at a small breakfast table being intimate and affectionate. We see snippets of arguments at other breakfasts. Then the scene ends with the Kanes dining in silence at opposite ends of a long table.
- In an in-universe Take That, Emily is reading The Chronicle, Kane's biggest rival newspaper.
- Take That: Screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz was a regular invitee to Heart's San Simeon until he earned their disfavor and was kicked out. A lot of the satirical details of Kane comes from his own resentment and desire to mock Hearst.
- Rumor has it that "Rosebud" was Hearst's nickname for a very specific part of Marion Davies' person. According to a less interesting explanation, it was a nickname for his mother.
- In-universe example: Kane finishes the bad review Leland began, and instead of cleaning it up (as Leland assumed he would), he keeps the same vitriolic negativity. Bernstein snarks, "That'll show you."note
- Tantrum Throwing: Upon his wife leaving him, Kane goes in a room and smashes/throws everything he sees. He stops at the crystal ball that Susan owned (and reminded him of his mother), making him utter, "Rosebud".
- Third-Person Person:
Kane: Don't worry about me, Gettys! Don't worry about me! I'm Charles Foster Kane! I'm no cheap, crooked politician, trying to save himself from the consequences of his crimes! Gettys! I'm going to send you to Sing Sing! Sing Sing, Gettys! Sing Sing!
- Time Passes Montage: One of the most famous: Kane and his first wife sitting at breakfast. Each shift into the future has their conversation becoming more and more hostile, til the final scene in which they don't say a word - he reads his newspaper, and she reads a rival newspaper.
- Timeshifted Actor: Eight-year-old Kane.
- Trade Your Passion for Glory
- Tragic Hero: Kane, lampshaded by Leland.
Kane: (to Susan) I run a couple of newspapers, what do you do?
- Unrequited Love: Susan to Charlie. She never stopped loving him, ever. She left simply because it was the only way she could express her own feelings. Had Charlie said the right words, she'd have returned to him in a heartbeat.
Manager: Why, until he died, she'd just as soon talk about Mr. Kane as about anybody.
- Video Credits: A clip of each major character is shown in the credits, except Kane himself.
- Whip Pans are used in the breakfast table montage showing the deterioration of Kane's first marriage.
- Wham Shot: The shot near the end showing the name "Rosebud" on Kane's old sled.
- Wide-Eyed Idealist: Kane started off as one, and was moderately successful as such, exposing corruption successfully and ascending the ranks in journalism.
- The Wild West: Eight-year-old Kane grew up in 1871 Colorado; seen in a brief Flashback
- Woman in White: Not seen but remembered by Bernstein.
- Would Hit a Girl
Susan: Don't tell me you're sorry.
Kane: I'm not sorry.
- Yes-Man: Bernstein.