Often regarded as the greatest film ever made, because of the use of cinematography, narrative structure and music etc. that was innovative of the time it was made in, Citizen Kane (Orson Welles 1941) is a film a clef that peers into the vicissitudes in the life of a newspaper tycoon, Charles Foster Kane, through the accounts of the people in his life that was close to him in order to solve the mystery of his dying word, “Rosebud”.
The sequence that will be analysed is the sequence where in Xanadu’s butler’s account of when he heard “Rosebud”, Susan Alexander, Kane’s second wife, leaves him for good, sending him into a fit of rage which results in his silent departure. This analysis will pick apart the sequence and put it back together again to extract the main themes that arise from it. In the opening scene of this sequence, the dissolve from the exterior view of the day takes us to a large ‘K’, accompanied by dramatic non diegetic music.
The change in music completely interrupts the calm emphatic music that was playing before it, which foreshadows a dramatic scene later on in the sequence. The ‘K’ imposes itself on us; almost looming over us like Kane does to Susan in the previous jigsaw sequence. This reinforces his overbearing, self-centred and narcissistic nature that has increased with his age, and that Susan has had enough of. The first word uttered after this opening is “Rosebud”, and as the camera cuts to Mr Thompson and his interviewee, the light behind them shining in through the windows illuminates the staircase.
This light symbolises Mr Thompson’s quest to find the meaning of Rosebud, as he is literally shedding light on Kane’s life by peeking through it. This is similar to the scene where Mr Rawlston told Mr Thompson to find out what Rosebud meant, where the room was shrouded in darkness apart from the light streaming in through the windows. That symbolised the mysteriousness of Kane’s life, in the sense that Mr Thompson was in the dark as he had no answers, whereas in this sequence the room is illuminated more, showing that Mr Thompson has found out more about Kane and is getting closer to completing his assignment.
The scene dissolves into a completely unexpected squawking bird that seems to just be thrown into the frame haphazardly, but this is not the case, as the bird symbolises Kane and his current situation. All the frustration and emotions he has kept hidden over the course of his marriage, such as the sadness of not feeling any emotional warmth from Susan which led him to seek warmth from the fireplace during the jigsaw sequence has boiled to the surface and overflowed, resulting in his inner scream that the squawk represents. Susan leaving him is the last straw for him, and as she walks away, the backdrop of what could have been appears.
This backdrop of the ocean and the beach serves as nostalgia for Susan and Kane, because it shows them how happy their life was early on in their marriage. Even though the backdrop is really a view of what’s outside Xanadu’s walls, it’s a mirage to Kane as anything happy or good in his life has disappeared; it’s not really there, like an exhausted traveller seeing a pool of water in the desert. He has spent his wealth on possessions rather than experiences, which is evident in his choice to rather buy statues than to go to New York with his wife, and in doing so, he has become a prisoner of Xanadu, a route that Susan doesn’t want to follow.
She walks briskly past the backdrop looking forward without even slightly looking out to the beach, and this shows that she completely disregards him, their life together, and that she won’t be coming back. The scene cuts to a deep focus shot of Xanadu’s butler and Kane, and in comparison to the space between them, Kane is small. This shows how defeated he is feeling, and also his sudden change to insignificance, as without someone to exert power over, he is just a man in a palace with possessions, no different to a man in a house with possessions.
The arches of the doorways between Xanadu’s butler and Kane serve as passages of time that have been passed, and having Kane underneath the last arch shows that this is the man he has become. The space between Xanadu’s butler and Kane is large and empty, which shows that there is something missing in Kane’s life, but when Susan was there it wasn’t a problem for him as she softened the blow of his longing to find it by being there and filling the space as much as she could with her presence.
As she’s not in his life anymore, he has nothing to fill the void in his life, which is why the amount of space there is now holds more resonance than the amount of space there was. The close-up shot of Kane shows his reaction to the news that he is alone, and also how he has aged over the years. His bald head and his sullen look render him as lifeless as the statues he has hoarded, which is permanent as he has no one there to rejuvenate him from his state. The slight stumble he moves into as he turns around shows that he is literally rocked by what has just happened.
His life has been turned upside down in the space of minutes, from when Susan said she was leaving to when she carried it out. The design of the ceiling is set out like bars hanging down, which shows his entrapment; this metaphorically locks Kane into the room. Being in the room where his wife left him in forces him to accept that he cannot regain what he once had. The cameras downwards tilt shows the deterioration of Kane’s mood from sadness to anger. In a quick cut to a low angle shot, Kane is shown to be in power again, but only because of two factors; it’s over his possessions and because he is angry.
As he has aged, his authority has diminished and this is why he is only in power when these two factors are in play; this is why he hit Susan in a previous scene, as he was angry, he viewed her as his possession, and he did not have any other way to show his dominance over her. The squawk of the bird that symbolised Kane’s inner scream is replaced by his destruction of Susan’s room, as he is finally letting out all of his anger in the belief that once he has broken everything, he will feel better.
As he goes on his spree, his shadow follows him around the room, and this symbolises his decline in power and status; he has become a shadow of the man he once was. He has gone from nearly winning the election to become Mayor to losing everything and destroying his wife’s room in a fit of rage. He is looking around the room to find things that he hasn’t broken yet, and this makes this sequence deeper than just a simple break up that can be fixed with a card and flowers like in a romantic film. This shows a man who has just lost everything alive in his life and has lost control; his life has become pointless.
Even though this is the case, Kane still attempts to be the dominant one in the relationship by having the last say. Susan has stood up to him and left and in return he has destroyed her room; by him doing this, with no possible retort or retaliation by her, he has, in his mind, shown his authority over her as he has won the argument. The close-up of the snow globe snowing shows an alternate world to the one Kane is in now. His disruption of it as he picks it up gives it the illusion that it always snows there, which denotes happiness, something that Kane longs for and needs in his life.
Everything is peaceful inside the snow globe, which is disparate to what is going on outside, as Kane’s world is empty. The ‘K’ hanging off his waistcoat is inverted, which reinforces his decline in power; he realises and accepts that he is no longer worthy of his namesake. Kane used to be a name that received respect and praise, and now it is nothing more than four letters. He says “Rosebud” in a sigh, and this shows the epiphany that he just had that his life was so much better when he was younger than it is now.
It was the only time in his life where he was truly happy. He got caught up in the wealth and the power, and now that it is gone, he realises that you can’t buy love or happiness. As he walks out of the room, he has a glazed look on his face, like he is looking but not seeing. All the life has gone from his eyes, and from the emphatic music that plays, and the way his servants look on but don’t speak, it looks like they are in mourning for him, like they are at his funeral. As Kane walks on, he goes out of shot but his reflection is visible in the mirror.
This symbolises the complete disregard of Kane by everyone around him; they see him and feel him, but like a small gust of wind, he has no effect on them anymore. The camera pans right to a reflection of Kane, but as there as another mirror to the side of him, this creates the ‘infinite mirror effect’ in which he is literally reflecting on his life. The different ‘Kane’s’ are different points in his life, and as they are descending into the black hole that he is nearly in, he is stuck in retrospection, wondering what he did wrong to find himself in this situation.
The further his reflection goes down, the more he fades away. He has withered physically, mentally and emotionally throughout his life. As he walks past the mirror, the effect has finished; he has been sucked into the black hole, never to be seen again. Charles Foster Kane has metaphorically died at the end of this sequence. The last thing to leave was his shadow, which shows that the only true friend he ever had, the only person that stayed with him till the end was himself. As a whole, there are two main themes that arise from the sequence that has been analysed.
Kane has an epiphany that love and happiness can’t be bought. Even though he tried his hardest, such as buying her all the things that he ended up destroying, he couldn’t get her to love him as much as he believed that he loved her. The sinking feeling he gets when he realises that he wasted his life trying to get to a result that didn’t exist is the one that angers him the most. The sequence shows the rapid decline of Kane’s power and status, going from a man with everything to a man with nothing.
This is akin to the rise and fall structure of Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, in which you see Kane ‘rise’ to the top throughout his life and then ‘fall’ at the end of it. He believed that what he had made him who he was, but Susan believed it was how he acted which made him who he was. Kane shows himself to not be as dominant as he previously thought he was, as having authority over Susan didn’t mean he had authority over others. This sequence serves as the facade of Kane’s life being revealed to him, which affects him so much he has to leave in silence.