I offer up this Citizen Kane analysis with the full acknowledgment that I’m hardly a scholar on the subject. Men and women have spent thousands of hours dissecting the themes and innovations of the first feature film from Orson Welles (see Famous Film Directors for more information), so what makes me think that I can do any better in 500 to 1000 words? Answer: absolutely nothing.
I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel here. I’m simply trying to introduce a few new viewers to a wonderful cinematic work. If you’ve already seen the film twenty times, I doubt there will be anything below to move you. If, however, you’ve barely even heard of the film, I’m hoping this Citizen Kane analysis will both pique your interest and encourage you to go out and rent or buy a copy.
Citizen Kane – The Plot
If you’re a fan of Citizen Kane, then you already know this part by heart. If not, here’s a basic rundown of what you can expect:
Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles), the owner of a vast media empire, passes away at his estate known as Xanadu. Holding a snow globe as he dies, Kane’s final word is “Rosebud.”
People around the world are interested in the life and death of Kane, so a newsreel reporter named Jerry Thompson (William Alland) tries to dig up some extra information, especially the meaning of his final word. As he interviews friends and lovers, the movie engages in a number of flashbacks to paint a portrait of a man who had everything…and a man who had nothing.
Citizen Kane – Cast and Crew
The cast and crew of Citizen Kane have been lauded through the years for their accomplishments on the film. Here are some of the individuals who you might want to be aware of:
Notable Cast Members
- Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane (the film’s lead character)
- William Alland as Jerry Thompson (reporter who sets out to learn more about Kane)
- Joseph Cotton as Jedediah Leland (the best friend of Charles Foster Kane)
- Dorothy Comingore as Susan Alexander Kane (Kane’s mistress and then second wife)
- Ray Collins as Jim W. Gettys (the political rival of Kane)
- Agnes Moorehead as Mary Kane (Kane’s mother)
- Ruth Warrick as Emily Monroe Norton Kane (Kane’s first wife)
- Everett Sloane as Mr. Bernstein (a loyal friend and employee to Kane)
- George Coulouris as Walter Parks Thatcher (Kane’s legal guardian as a child)
Notable Crew Members
- Orson Welles (Director, Producer, Screenwriter)
- Herman J. Mankiewicz (Screenwriter)
- Bernard Herrmann (Composed Musical Score)
- Gregg Toland (Cinematography)
- Robert Wise (Editing)
Themes and Motifs of Citizen Kane
Throughout Citizen Kane, a number of themes and motifs are explored by Orson Welles. Here are some to watch for when viewing the movie:
- What Makes a Man? – While we’re told much about Kane’s life during the course of the film, it all comes from the perspective of someone else. This proves how difficult it is to interpret a person’s life, and the final cry for Rosebud shows that even those who claimed to know Kane best were unaware of certain inner desires and sorrows.
- Materialism - Kane is all about acquiring wealth and women. In the end, it doesn’t mean a thing. He would much rather have Rosebud than all the wealth in the world.
- Dying of the Light – When Kane is younger, the entire film is brightly lit. As Kane becomes older, the lighting becomes increasingly dark.
- Isolation - Regardless of his age, Charles Foster Kane often finds himself isolated from the rest of the world. This is most notable at the beginning of the film when he’s dying alone in Xanadu, but astute viewers will notice it throughout the film.
- The American Dream – While most films up until that time had depicted capitalism and the American Dream as a positive, Welles’s film takes a different stance.
- Unreliable Memories – As the life of Kane is recounted for the audience, it becomes clear that each narrator is unreliable for one reason or another. Some are drunks, others are elderly, and then there are those with a personal axe to grind. Regardless of the reasons, the memories of others are colored by a number of factors.
- Old Age – In Citizen Kane, old age is not a thing of grace. It robs men of the vitality and reduces them to defeated husks.
Citizen Kane – Cinematic Innovations
Citizen Kane featured a number of cinematic innovations that are still influencing films and filmmakers to this day. Here’s just a sampling of the many important achievements:
- Deep Focus – In almost every scene, all objects (foreground and background) are in focus.
- Low-angle shots
- Non-linear storytelling
- The use of miniatures and special-effects
- Overlapping dialogue
- Audio transitioning to the next scene before the visual elements
- Musical score that would sometimes last for only a few seconds to suggest a change in tone or emotion
- Unusual camera angles
- Lack of close-ups
- Linking a montage sequence with related sounds
- Flashbacks and flashforwards
- Long, uninterrupted shots
- Use of shadows (later used to great effect in the film noir genre)
Citizen Kane – Recognition and Influence
Upon its initial theatrical run, Citizen Kane failed to capture the imagination of the public. Of course, it wasn’t helped by the fact that William Randolph Hearst prevented reviews from being published or broadcast throughout his vast media empire. It fared better in France, where its 1946 showing (delayed because of WWII) drew rave reviews from both critics and moviegoers. In fact, it would inspire French critics-turned-directors Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut to revolutionize film in their own way by creating a new cinematic movement in their native land.
The film was nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor (Welles). It would only win one, however, for Best Writing, Original Screenplay (shared by Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz).
In the middle of the 1950s, Citizen Kane would begin to grow on American viewers, thanks in large part to television broadcasts of the film. When Orson Welles returned to the stage in New York City for the production of King Lear, the film was re-released and added even more people to its burgeoning fanbase.
Aided by essays from such noted American critics as Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert, Citizen Kane is now regarded as one of the greatest and most important films ever made. It holds a 100% freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and everyone from Britain’s Sight & Sound to France’s Cahiers du cinema have praised it.
Citizen Kane has also had a lasting impact on pop culture, with elements from the film or the title itself being incorporated into everything from cartoon strips to video games. Here are just a few of the places where Citizen Kane references and tributes have popped up:
- Family Guy
- The Simpsons
- All My Children
- Wolfenstein 3D (video game)
- “The Union Forever” (song by The White Stripes)
- The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck
- Destroy All Humans (video game)
You can also find the influence of Citizen Kane in the work of the following directors:
- Francis Ford Coppola
- Steven Spielberg (See Steven Spielberg Movies for more information.)
- Sergio Leone
- Luc Besson
- Martin Scorsese (See Martin Scorsese Movies for more information.)
- Ridley Scott
- Michael Mann
- The Coen brothers
- John Frankenheimer
- Brian De Palma
Citizen Kane Additional Reading
Citizen Kane has inspired an almost endless stream of discussion since its initial release. Books and scholarly papers have been written on the subject, not to mention entire film classes devoted to the genius of Orson Welles. If you’re looking for some additional reading, here are my recommendations. All of these works are available through Amazon.
- Citizen Kane (BFI Film Classics) by Laura Mulvey
- The Cinema of Orson Welles by Peter Cowie
- Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane: A Casebook by James Naremore
- Focus on Citizen Kane by Ronald Gottesman
- Citizen Hearst by W.A. Swanberg
- The Citizen Kane Crash Course in Cinematography by David Worth and Muse Greaterson
- Citizen Kane Book (Screen and Cinema) by Orson Welles, Pauline Kael, and Herman J. Mankiewicz
- Walking Shadows: Orson Welles, William Randolph Hearst, and Citizen Kane by John Evangelist Walsh
I hope my humble Citizen Kane analysis has sparked your interest in this classic piece of cinema. If you’ve seen it before, go back and watch it again. If you’ve yet to experience the unique vision of Orson Welles, do yourself a favor and screen this watershed moment in cinema for the very first time. Sure, the film is pretty sparse when it comes to car chases, explosions, and shootouts, but it remains one of the most influential pieces of American filmmaking ever produced.