Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
Citizen Kane (1941)
Pages: (1) (2) (3) (4) (5)
Plot Synopsis (continued)

Kane's final days are spent at the decaying Xanadu. He is seen in old age, sitting on a lounge chair by his pool. Then, he is pushed along and wheeled forward in a wheelchair, seen by a concealed camera peeping through a cross-barred fence [This referenced a famous shot in a newsreel called Munitions, showing a hidden camera view of an 85-year old arms czar Sir Basil Zaharoff getting wheeled to his train]:

...Alone in his never-finished, already decaying pleasure palace, aloof, seldom visited, never photographed, an emperor of new strength continued to direct his failing empire, varyingly attempted to sway as he once did the destinies of a nation that had ceased to listen to him, ceased to trust him. Then last week, as it must to all men, death came to Charles Foster Kane.

A moving electric sign wraps around the exterior of a New York building - this is the famed Times Square electronic news ticker. As it travels, it spells out the words:


The News on the March newsreel film abruptly ends, distorting the final moments of sound.

In the smoky projection room following the screening of the newsreel, the reporters are seen as sinister shadows striking up matches in the dark, with streams of light coming from the projection booth. [Both Joseph Cotten and future star Alan Ladd are momentarily visible in the shadowy scene.] The newsreel producer-editor Rawlston (Philip Van Zandt) is unsatisfied, speaking to the assembled group of reporters about the difficulty of getting seventy years of a man's life into a newsreel. He is disappointed because the empty newsreel doesn't have an angle and they are literally 'in the dark' about Kane:

It isn't enough to tell us what a man did. You've got to tell us who he was.

Rawlston and the other reporters [viewed as anonymous, faceless individuals to 'mock' Henry Luce's staff of editors and journalists] then call to mind Kane's last words, searching for more beyond his public life, and trying to distinguish how he was different. Although Kane's character is elusive (e.g., he's an idealistic philanthropist and a materialistic egotist, and both "loved and hated"), his story is typically American: a rapid rise to fame and wealth, and a lonely decline in his failing years in his private residence - with a quick (inside joke) reference to Hearst included:

Maybe he told us all about himself on his deathbed...Yeah, maybe he didn't...All we saw on that screen was a big American...One of the biggest...But how is he any different from Ford? Or Hearst for that matter? Or John Doe...I'll tell ya, it comes from a man's dying words...What were they?...You don't read the papers...When Charles Foster Kane died, he said just one word -...Rosebud, just that one word, but who is she...What was it?...Here's a man that could have been president, who was as loved and hated and as talked about as any man in our time. But when he comes to die, he's got something on his mind called 'Rosebud.' Now what does that mean?...A racehorse he bet on once...Yeah, that didn't come in...All right, but what was the race?

While the newsreel is held up for one to two weeks, cinema newsreel reporter Jerry Thompson (William Alland) is sent out to discover the meaning of Kane's last word: "Rosebud," possibly a simple secret to Kane's mysterious, complex life. [The character of Thompson is never clearly visible or identified - he is always viewed in backlit silhouette, or from behind.] He is assigned to contact and interview as many of Kane's friends and associates as possible, who knew him over a two week period:

Get in touch with everybody that ever knew him, oh, knew him well...that manager of his, uh (snaps his fingers) - Bernstein - his second wife - she's still living...Susan Alexander Kane...She's running a nightclub in Atlantic City...See em all. Get in touch with everybody that ever worked for him, whoever loved him, whoever hated his guts. I don't mean go through the city directory, of course...Rosebud, dead or alive. It will probably turn out to be a very simple thing.

The structure of the film is not told as a traditional chronological story. Over a two week period, Thompson gathers information from four of Kane's associates and from some posthumous memoirs of Kane's ex-guardian. In a series of interlocked, semi-overlapping flashbacks and tightly-woven, personal vignettes, each of Kane's closest associates gives a different, slightly prejudiced, contradictory and inconsistent account of the Kane they knew, revealing different facets of a single personality:

  • legal guardian and bank manager Thatcher (written memoirs)
  • deferential personal manager/business partner Bernstein
  • best friend Leland
  • ex-wife Susan, Kane's second wife
  • Raymond, the butler

The film essentially asks, 'how do we interpret a life?' - similar to the question filmviewers ask about Citizen Kane, 'how can we understand this film?'

Each of the five sources from which the dogged reporter receives his information serve to introduce six separate sections of the remainder of the film. The sections are not structured chronologically, yet they progressively follow the memories of Kane's life in logical stages. At the conclusion of the non-traditional, non-linear narrative, it is concluded that none of them know the implications or meaning of the word 'Rosebud' - a possible clue to the meaning of his life.

First Interview with Kane's ex-wife Susan Kane:

(1) In a striking movement after Rawlston's last words ("...a very simple thing"), the camera first views a close-up billboard picture of a provocative blonde woman - punctuated by a flash of lightning and thunderclap during a pouring thunderstorm. It then swoops up to the building's flashing neon sign announcing the tawdry woman's El Rancho floor show performance:

Floor Show
Twice Nightly

Then, in a startling, prying movement (a spectacular crane shot), the subjective camera breaks through the sign and into the broken skylight on the building's roof and then moves down to a table inside the El Rancho Nightclub. [The nightclub roof and skylight is only a model, while the interior of the nightclub is a real film set.]

Underneath the skylight in an enclosed space, there's a seedy Atlantic City cabaret below, where showgirl Susan Alexander Kane (Dorothy Comingore) sits with her head bowed drunkenly on her arms resting on the table. A lone, sordid figure, she appears lost in her memories. She is drinking heavily by herself and very uncooperative. Thompson makes an attempt to interview her, but she will not talk to him in his first visit:

Susan: Who told you you could sit down?
Thompson: I thought maybe we could have a talk together.
Susan: Well, think again. Why don't you people leave me alone? I'm minding my own business. You mind yours...Get out of here. Get out! (hysterically)

The head nightclub waiter/captain John (Gus Schilling) brings her a mixed drink and then attempts to soften the rebuke and explain her mourning: "She just won't talk to nobody, Mr. Thompson...She'll snap out of it. Why, 'til he died, she'd just as soon talk about Mr. Kane as about anybody." After calling in to Rawlston on the phone (in a phone booth) to tell his chief that the second Mrs. Kane "won't talk," Thompson asks the waiter whether Mrs. Kane ever mentioned 'Rosebud.' After pocketing a bill to make him talk, the waiter remarks that he had asked her the same question when Kane's death hit the papers, and she responded: "She never heard of Rosebud." The scene fades quickly to black.

[Thompson speaks to Susan Kane a second time later in the film.]

The Memoirs of Walter Parks Thatcher, Kane's Legal Guardian and Bank Manager:

(2) With a stale, flat sounding note (emphasizing the headwaiter's previous comment), the camera shoots up at a statue of the late Walter Parks Thatcher, a J. P. Morgan-like figure and Kane's Wall Street financier and guardian. [This second scene, like the one just before it, is introduced by a representation or image of the character - previously a flimsy billboard of Susan, now a solid marble statue of Thatcher.] The statue's base is inscribed with the words:


The camera pans down the statue and 'wipes' into the austere Walter Parks Thatcher Memorial Library in Philadelphia, where Thompson visits. [The statue is, in fact, only a drawing. From there, the camera invisibly 'wipes' into the next image - the set of the library.]

At a desk, a mannish, stern and severe-looking librarian instructs him about the restricted use of Thatcher's unpublished memoirs. The sound of Thompson's footsteps echo through the marble halls of the mausoleum-like building as he is led to one of the reading room vaults (resembling a bank vault). Shafts of dusty sunlight pierce the room, as in the earlier projection room. A guard removes one of the revered volumes - a diary - and bears it in his arms toward Thompson. There, sitting at a long table, Thompson is confined to inspecting pp. 83-142, the pertinent parts of Thatcher's manuscripts-diaries-journals. He is also told that he must leave at 4:40 pm sharp. The door closes shut on the face of the subjective camera (imprisoning it and Thompson himself). Then a dissolve moves beyond the door and moves to peer over Thompson's shoulder at the pages of the book.

Thatcher's words in the memoirs are viewed in gigantic, handwritten black script on the white page in a camera pan from left to right:

I first encountered Mr. Kane in 1871.

The white margin of the page suddenly becomes a blank white page - and then dissolves into a snowy scene - a 'living memory' of what exists on the page. It's a surprising flashback to young eight-year-old Charles' (Buddy Swan) boyhood and humble beginnings on a farm in Little Salem, Colorado. Outside in a long shot, young Charles is sledding alone on a hillside in the snow. He throws a snowball at the sign on the top of the rustic wooden building - the snowball smashes against the letters that read "MRS. KANE'S BOARDING HOUSE." (His mother Mary (Agnes Moorehead), proprietress of the lonely, run-down, wooden boarding house, becomes unexpectedly wealthy when seemingly worthless mining stock certificates given her by a poor prospector/boarder in lieu of payment make her the sole owner of one of the world's great gold mines, the Colorado Lode.)

Just before being sent away, in one of the memorable deep-focus shots of the film in the famous boarding house scene, the camera moves from outside and pulls back through the window of the rural boarding house where his mother (on the left) admonishes him not to catch cold: "Be careful, Charles, pull your muffler round your neck, Charles." The camera tracks back as she turns, and states: "I'll sign those papers now, Mr. Thatcher," and then walks the length of the wood-paneled parlor with Thatcher into the adjoining room. She moves to the center of the frame, obscuring the view of the window (and her son). [If one watches carefully, the camera moves right through where the table is located in the room, before coming to rest. Later, when the camera follows and tracks Mrs. Kane back to the window after she has signed the legal papers, it appears that she walks 'through' where the table was positioned.]

Inside the cabin, the camera remains stationary at the table where they negotiate Charles' future. With Kane's rustic, "uneducated" father anxiously haranguing them on the left of the frame (complaining: "You people seem to forget that I'm the boy's father...I don't hold with signing my boy away to any bank as guardeen..."), well-dressed Thatcher officiously sits next to Mrs. Kane on the right (in close-up) as she signs legal papers to appoint Thatcher as Charles' guardian. The boy can be seen as a tiny figure (and heard yelling "The Union forever!") playing with his sled in the snow through the distant window in the center of the frame. The boy's stern, emotionally-controlled mother gives her child up and signs the papers.

She appoints the banking firm of Thatcher and Company to manage all her financial interests, to administer her estate, and to act as trustees of the fortune and guardian of her son. Mr. and Mrs. Kane will each be given $50,000 a year - the rest of the fortune will be placed in a trust fund for Charles until he reaches maturity at age 25, at which time he would come into complete possession.

Rather than remaining there, Charles is traumatically uprooted from his mother - a scene wrought with Oedipal meaning. His subsequent life is forever influenced by this separation and void in his life. Outside, the boy is in front and center in the frame next to his mother, with Mr. Thatcher, his new legal guardian and surrogate father, half-obscured behind Mrs. Kane. Mr. Kane is far in the background (insignificantly positioned). Thatcher attempts to shake the boy's hand:

Why, we're going to have some fine times together, really we are, Charles. Now, shall we shake hands? (Charles pulls back) Oh, come, come, come, I'm not as frightening as all that, am I? Now, what do you say? Let's shake.

Upset and reluctant to leave, the bratty boy violently rams Thatcher with his sled and then is struck by his father. He glares knowingly at Thatcher, aware that he is being taken away from his innocent childhood and mother - sent east to be cultured, educated and raised under Thatcher's stern guidance. After he has departed, the camera shot dissolves to a long-held closeup of Charles' abandoned sled on a snowbank - it is gradually covered by a cold snowfall - a preserved (and buried) symbol of vanished innocence, loss and purity. Significantly, the name of the sled - Rosebud - is completely obscured - although it is symbolic of the 'cold' life where Charles will be taken. A train whistle is heard leaving town, symbolic of his unhappy transfer to Chicago.

[The scene in the glass paperweight is of a cottage in a snowstorm, strikingly similar to Mrs. Kane's Boarding House of Charles' youth.]

Through a quick-cut edit/dissolve from the white snow scene to white wrapping paper in a Victorian-style Christmas celebration scene, Charles opens a present in front of his guardian's Christmas tree - it is a replacement sled for the one left behind. [This sled is named "Crusader" and is emblazoned with a decorative helmet of a medieval knight. It is NOT the same sled that burns in the furnace at the film's conclusion - the "Rosebud" sled embossed with a rose.] Thatcher wishes the young Kane "Merry Christmas..." The young boy snarls back: "Merry Christmas," obviously unsatisfied by the present and making life miserable for Thatcher. Thatcher continues his sentence decades later (in a "lightning mix" - two scenes connected by the soundtrack but not by the visual images) "...and a happy New Year" just before his protege's 25th birthday. [This filmic technique is also called a 'flash-forward' in time.]

Having reached legal maturity, and with the proper background and training to manage his acquired wealth, the full estate becomes his and he acquires control. Thatcher dictates a memo to that effect: "...may I again remind you that your twenty-fifth birthday which is now approaching marks your complete independence from the firm of Thatcher and Company as well as the assumption by you of full responsibility for the world's sixth-largest private fortune."

In a memorable scene, Kane responds in a manner counter to Thatcher's wishes, interested in taking charge of only one small part of his holdings:

Sorry but I'm not interested in gold mines, oil wells, shipping or real estate...One item on your list intrigues me, the New York Inquirer, a little newspaper I understand we acquired in a foreclosure proceeding. Please don't sell it. I'm coming back to America to take charge. I think it would be fun to run a newspaper. I think it would be fun to run a newspaper. Grrr.

Soon, Kane uses the paper to attack trusts, Thatcher and others among America's financial elite. Headlines of the Inquirer blare out the expose in a montage of early Inquirer newspaper headlines: "TRACTION TRUST EXPOSED," "TRACTION TRUST BLEEDS PUBLIC WHITE," and "TRACTION TRUST SMASHED BY INQUIRER." Other social causes are heralded by the paper: "LANDLORDS REFUSE TO CLEAR SLUMS!!," and "INQUIRER WINS SLUM FIGHT." The paper also attacks capitalistic Wall Street itself: "WALL STREET BACKS COPPER SWINDLE!!" and "COPPER ROBBERS INDICTED!"

Thatcher is enraged and indignantly confronts the young publisher in the Inquirer office about his newspaper's criticism of banks, privilege and corruption. Kane is seated at his desk facing the camera and sipping coffee as Thatcher stands over him with his back to the camera asking: "Is that really your idea of how to run a newspaper?" Arrogantly but with a soft-spoken voice, Kane replies:

I don't know how to run a newspaper, Mr. Thatcher. I just try everything I can think of.

Thatcher explodes at him, accusing him of following a radical policy at the paper of concocting stories: "You know perfectly well there's not the slightest proof that this Armada is off the Jersey coast." Kane is informed by his assistant Bernstein (Everett Sloane) that a correspondent named Wheeler in Cuba has sent a communique: "Girls delightful in Cuba stop. Could send you prose poems about scenery but don't feel right spending your money stop. There is no war in Cuba. Signed, Wheeler." Kane calmly tells his assistant to answer the war correspondent [a dictation that echoes one of William Randolph Heart's most famous quotes in the yellow press to artist Frederic Remington regarding the 1896 Spanish-American War]: " provide the prose poems, I'll provide the war."

Soon, Thatcher sits down and Kane explains how he is really "two people" - he is both a major stockholder in the Public Transit (he owns "eighty-two thousand, three hundred and sixty-four shares of Public Transit Preferred"), a trust he is attacking, and also the dutiful publisher of a newspaper representing the interests of the public against the trust. Kane stands up by the end of the scene, towering over Thatcher, explaining:

The trouble is, you don't realize you're talking to two people. As Charles Foster Kane, who has 82,634 shares of Public Transit Preferred. You see, I do have a general idea of my holdings. I sympathize with you. Charles Foster Kane is a scoundrel. His paper should be run out of town. A committee should be formed to boycott him. You may, if you can form such a committee, put me down for a contribution of $1,000 dollars. On the other hand, I am the publisher of the Inquirer! As such, it's my duty - and I'll let you in on a little secret, it's also my pleasure - to see to it that decent, hard-working people in this community aren't robbed blind by a pack of money-mad pirates just because - they haven't anybody to look after their interests.

Thatcher reminds Kane that his philanthropic paper enterprise is losing a million dollars a year. Kane blithely jokes that "at the rate of a million dollars a year, I'll have to close this place - in sixty years."

The next scene is "in the winter of year 1929" (at the start of the Great Depression after the Crash), much earlier than the predicted year for the demise of the paper. [The year is seen in an enlarged script, black on blinding white, as the camera pans from left to right over a handwritten sentence in a document.] Kane's general business manager Bernstein reads a typed statement regarding the newspaper - Kane "relinquishes all control thereof...and agrees to abandon all claims..." In the scene once composed, Thatcher sits to the left, with Bernstein on the right, while Kane forms the apex of the three in the shot. [Welles introduces each character in the scene one by one. First, only Bernstein is in the scene, then Thatcher is added - when Bernstein lowers his paper, and then Kane walks into the scene from the right.]

Emphasizing his ignominious fall and subsequent dependency, Kane interrupts the reading while walking away into the distant background in the middle of the shot - to stand before what first appears to be a normal-sized window. He acknowledges that the paper is bankrupt by saying, "which means we're bust." In a deep-focus, depth-of-field shot that fools the eye about the size and scale of the window in view, Kane stands under the huge, high window with his back to the proceedings in his cavernous office - his diminished size symbolizes his great loss. [The shot recalls another scene earlier in the film, when young Kane is in the distance in the outdoor snow, and his mother signs an agreement with Thatcher inside their cabin.]

Thatcher takes over much of Kane's power and control of his newspaper holdings in the name of the bank. Thatcher criticizes Kane's methods: "You never made a single investment, always used money to..." Giving himself an honest appraisal, Kane finishes the sentence while he signs the papers to give away his newspapers: buy things. Buy things. My mother should have chosen a less reliable banker. Well, I always gagged on that silver spoon.

[This is Kane's first of only two mentions of his own mother in the film.] Then, he congratulates himself in a remark directed at Bernstein: "You know, Mr. Bernstein, if I hadn't been very rich, I might have been a really great man...I think I did pretty well under the circumstances." But it is Thatcher who responds: "What would you like to have been?" Kane shows his contempt for Thatcher in his brooding answer, implying that he has turned into something like Thatcher himself: "Everything you hate!"

The scene returns to the Thatcher library, where Thompson is told that his time is up for the day. The attendant asks if he has found what he was looking for in his "very rare privilege" at the library. Thompson, of course, replies that he has not, and then impulsively and playfully asks her: "You're not Rosebud, are you?"

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