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.A classic film from 1941 and the most famous work of Orson Welles. It's considered by many critics to be the Greatest Film Ever Made or at least the first great "modern" film, but most people only know it throughPopcultural Osmosis. It's a popular subject of The Parody even though many people no longer know the original. One would never guess it was a Box Office Flop.Due to it being hyped as the Greatest Film Ever Made, some find it to be a bit overrated when they do see it. Others who are reluctant to watch because of Hype Aversion may find at least some of this film a hoot. But hey, judge not: most have probably never seen the impressive deconstruction by Roger Ebert, in his Special Edition DVD commentary, that attempts to explain some of the subtleties of why it has its particular rank.Aside from its famous ending, Kane is best remembered for pissing off newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, who thought that the title character resembled him a little too much — or perhaps he was angry that Welles' portrayal of Kane's mistress had destroyed the career and reputation of Marion Davies, Hearst's real life mistress. (In reality, Davies was a superb comedienne and a savvy businesswoman who had actually saved Hearst's publishing empire by giving him $1 million after he lost everything — and that was money she'd earned on the screen.) Welles denied that Kane was based on Hearst or any other specific individual, and later expressed regret that the character of Kane's mistress (which was actually based on the wives of Samuel Insull and Harold Fowler McCormick) was assumed by most moviegoers to be an Expy of Davies. No matter the reason, though, Hearst used his influence to kill any chance the film (and even some later Welles-directed films) had for commercial success.Due to Small Reference Pools, Citizen Kane is frequently used as a shorthand for "really great movie", especially by film critics. For example, a movie review might read "Bad Movie is Citizen Kane compared to Awful Movie." The Wicker Mannote (the original version), for example, has been called "The Citizen Kane of horror movies", while The Social Network has been called "The Citizen Kane of the 21st century."note This comparison is actually rather justified, however, as both films center on the rise of a corrupt media mogul.Contrast Plan 9 from Outer Space or The Room.Trope Codifier and indirectTrope Namer for It Was His Sled.
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. (Mr. Bernstein was played by a Jewish actor, Everett Sloane.)
Emily: Your Mr. Bernstein sent junior the most incredible atrocity yesterday, Charles. I simply can't have it in the nursery.
It's 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 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.
Thatcher: "I think it would be fun to run a newspaper." Hmmph!
Badass Boast: "I'm Charles Foster Kane! I'm not some cheap politician!"
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".
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.
Celebrity Paradox: In the opening, the reporters are asked to compare Kane to various big names — including Hearst.
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.
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.
Decoy Protagonist: Double subverted. Even though Kane is the title character, he's actually the person we learn about through multiple third-person perspectives of him. The real protagonist is Jerry Thompson, whose goal throughout the film is to find out what "Rosebud" meant.
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 does 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 at part of his property throughout his whole life. Still owning it didn't change a thing - the past is the past.
Droste Image: This effect is shown when Kane passes between two mirrors.
Early-Bird 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?".
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."
The Faceless: Thompson, the reporter whose investigation into "Rosebud" is the backbone of the plot, is only shown from behind or with his face in shadow.
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.
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."
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
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.
Meta Casting: There is no denying the parallels between Kane and Hearst, but even more so is the fact Orson Welles himself embodied the exact same characteristics. He fell into great wealth, was remarkably gifted with everything he attempted to accomplish (he dominated theater and radio before going to Hollywood) and proceeded to alienate people with his arrogance and flaunting his success. The script included quite a few touches that were more relevant to Welles than Hearst.
This is highly disputed by Peter Bogdanovich on the commentary for Kane, Welles in fact had several people around him who had Undying Loyalty and indeed commanded a Production Posse that he brought with him to Kane. Welles did end up alienating producer John Houseman who worked on his theatre productions and who used to be friends with him, but Welles wasn't the only one to blame there.
Welles himself said that The Magnificent Ambersons was a more personal work, more reflective of his actual life experience than Kane. He relied on screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, who was a regular guest at San Simeon as information on Hearst. Much of the caricature against Heart comes from Mankiewicz's own bitterness at no longer being welcome at his parties.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Of course, part of that was due to the Hays Code that stipulated that the film could not have Kane remarry without his previous family being dead.
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.
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.
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".
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.
Unusual Euphemism: "Rosebud" was allegedly William Randolph Hearst's pet name for a specific part of Marion Davies' genitalia. Gives a whole new meaning to It Was His Sled now, doesn't it?
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.