Norman Holland on Orson Welles' Citizen Kane

Orson Welles, Citizen Kane, 1941.

Norman N. Holland

Enjoying:  In the unlikely event that you’ve never seen Citizen Kane, I think you ought just to watch the movie and let it happen to you. If you have seen Citizen Kane, then I think reading this essay first can add to your seeing as you watch it again.

    Countless film buffs have said that this is the greatest film ever made. It has evoked many books and a legion of articles. I doubt if I can add anything new, and inevitably, I will repeat points others have made (and in a footnoteless format). My aim is not to add to this scholarly mound, but to give you a route into enjoying this masterpiece.

    You can begin with the artful structure of Citizen Kane. The film opens and closes with a “No Trespassing” sign. Nevertheless, in the opening, the camera penetrates fences and gates into quite artificial shots of Xanadu, the vast estate of Charles Foster Kane, a castle topping an exotic landscape. We see, first, monkeys, then gondolas, followed by architecture from every period to find a high gothic window and the huge lips of Kane (played by Welles himself) whispering “Rosebud!” as he dies. At the end of the movie, the camera reverses this path, backing away from the chimney smoke (of the sled, presumably) until the last thing we see is the “No Trespassing” sign again.

    The two No Trespassings contain the rest of the film, which consists of two parts. First, after that shot of Kane dying, the film cuts to a “News on the March” newsreel (like the old March of Time shorts). It tells the public story of Kane’s life and career. But what did “Rosebud” mean? The editor assigns a reporter, Jerry Thompson (William Alland) to find out. “Rosebud, dead or alive!”

    News On The March shows us the outside of the Kane story: the gold mine that made him rich, the newspaper empire, the fantastically wealthy public man running for office, the elegant first marriage and the scandalous second, hobnobbing with Hitler, and pronouncing on the nations issues. We see him as the buyer (and hoarder) of numberless masterpieces. In old age, he is Xanadu’s reclusive landlord, as fabulous as Coleridge’s Kubla Khan.

    With the newsreel, we have seen the public Kane, Kane from outside. The rest of the movie seeks the private Kane, Kane from inside, as the reporter interviews five narrators (with the reporter himself always photographed from behind, until the end of the film). These five fragmentary interviews finally fail to come together to let us really know that private, inside Kane. We are left with the unassembled pieces of a jigsaw puzzle (a metaphorical image that comes up several times in the film).

    The five (or six) interviews give us fragments of the private Kane. The first interview, in a sense, doesn't count. The reporter tracks down Susan Alexander, the second wife, a “singer,” now in a rundown Atlantic City nightclub, played by Dorothy Comingore. Drunkenly, she refuses to talk. But the interview establishes a number of the motifs of the film. First there is the penetrating camera, artfully finding Susan after passing through the nightclub sign and down through a broken skylight. The genius cinematographer Greg Toland’s camera makes many, many such penetrating moves, and his celebrated deep focus shots do the same. The camera acts out our desire to know, to get inside, to learn the secret.

    Susan's drinking establishes another theme—I think, the major theme of the film—desire and particularly oral desire. Her apparent sorrow at his death cues us to think about Kane in terms of love, who loved him and whom he loved. Finally, we learn (from the server) that Rosebud is something that even those closest to Kane do not know—or are silent about, a secret.

    The second interview takes us to the echoing, tomb-like Thatcher Memorial Library, There reporter Thompson is allowed to read the millionaire banker’s memoirs. Thatcher in flashback (George Couloris) tells how, in 1871, Kane’s thin, cold mother (Agnes Moorehead) came into a gold mine and the mother sent him East with Thatcher to be raised as a rich boy; how the boy disliked Thatcher on first sight and struck Thatcher with his sled; and how the adult Kane took over The Inquirer, a small newspaper, and turned it to muckraking yellow journalism, attacking the wealthy (like Thatcher, like himself). Finally, in a flashforward to the 1929 Great Depression, Kane loses this and all his papers.

    Thompsons second (or third) interview takes him to Bernstein, Kane’s business manager (Everett Sloane). Kane never calls him by his first name, and we never learn it. Bernstein is of a different social order and Jewish, and Kane, for all his supposed love of the common people, never forgets that. Bernstein himself never calls Kane anything but “Mr. Kane.”

    Bernstein recalls early days on the paper, days of reform, trust-busting, stealing the opposition’s star reporters, youthful enthusiasm, exuberance, and celebration. His narrative culminates in Kane’s marriage to Emily Norton, niece of the President (Ruth Warrick), whom he has “collected” as he has been collecting statues in Europe. Asked by Thompson about Rosebud, he recalls, in a seemingly irrelevant aside, a glimpse of a girl in white whom he never knew but has never forgotten. Maybe that was something he lost. Mr. Kane was a man who lost almost everything he had. Desire again, this time for what one has lost, Bernstein’s girl in white.

    Bernstein sends Thompson to his third (fourth) interview, Kane’s best friend from schooldays. Jed Leland (Joseph Cotten) is in a nursing home (under the recently-completed George Washington bridge). He had been Kane’s college chum, an impoverished aristocrat. He influenced Kane toward liberalism and reform, but watched him decay into yellow journalism. Leland recalls for our eyes the slow chilling of Kane’s marriage to Emily and his reform campaign for governor, built on attacks on the corrupt machine of Boss Gettys (Ray Collins). He remembers the night Kane met Susan Alexander, who then becomes his mistress. At a mammoth political rally, Gettys uses this fact to try to blackmail Kane into abandoning his campaign. Kane refuses—and is roundly defeated by the scandal. His first wife leaves him. This is 1916, and from this point on, his career goes downhill. Disappointed by Kane's failure to live up to the liberal principles he had at first announced, Leland leaves him to become drama critic for the Chicago paper. As he departs, Kane offers a revealing toast: “A toast, Jedediah, to love on my terms. Those are the only terms anybody ever knows—his own”.

    Kane pushes Susan’s operatic career to a dreadful opening in Chicago, and after Leland’s devastating review (completed by Kane), Kane fires him. Leland tells Thompson, about Kane’s efforts to push Susan into stardom, “He was always trying to prove something. That whole thing about Susan being an opera singer. That was trying to prove something.” Psychologically Leland is pointing to an over-compensation for something Kane doesn't or cannot himself deep down believe.

    Thompson returns to the El Rancho nightclub where drunken Susan now carries the narrative through Kane’s relentless forcing of her puny voice into the semblance of a career, her miserable, discordant appearances onstage, and her suicide attempt. She tells Thompson, “Everything was his idea, except my leaving him.” More over-compensation. She says to Kane, “You don’t know what it is when a whole audience just doesn’t want you.” And Kane replies, “That’s when you have to fight them.” But, with her potential suicide a source of scandal, his newspapers going or gone, he gives up promoting Susan. They retreat to the vast Floridian gloom of Xanadu, he stalking aimlessly here and there, she doing huge jigsaw puzzles and vainly asking to go to New York and have fun.

    Finally she packs her bags to leave him. He begs her not to, but she points out how he is reacting: “It’s you that this is being done to! It’s not me at all. Not what it means to me.” And she leaves him. Yet she tells Thompson that she feels sorry for him, another clue that Kane has somehow missed the mark. He never got what he really wanted—desire again.

    Susan sends Thompson to the sinister butler Raymond (Paul Stewart). He picks up the account of Susan’s leaving with—at this point—a famous shot of a screaming cockatoo. It reminds us of Susan in her feathers with her screechy voice. It signals (among many things) the unreality, now, of Xanadu. Raymond remembers the one time before when he said, “Rosebud.” As Susan left, Kane began deliberately smashing her room but stopped, and, muttering the fateful word, picked up a toy glass ball containing “snow” and a winter scene, the glass ball that would fall from his hand and break in the moment of his death.

    Raymond accompanies the reporter through the sea of Kane’s jumbled crates. As the reporter decides his quest is pointless, unknown to them, a workman tosses the sled named “Rosebud” into a fiery furnace. Its smoke rises into the sky behind the sign that says “No Trespassing.”

    At the end, that huge “No Trespassing” sign is accompanied by quite unreal-looking pictures of Xanadu like those at the opening of the film. This is a film that mixes the unreal—as in those shots—with the intensely real, the kind of material that could—and does—go into a newsreel, shots of Kane with Hitler or Teddy Roosevelt (the latter adapted from a real newsreel of T.R.) But Xanadu looks unreal. In fact, the matte drawing that was rear-projected for these opening shots was drawn by Disney artists. Later, the “Everglades” of Kane’s huge, unhospitable picnic will be background shots taken from one of the King Kong movies, complete with animated pterodactyls (or are they only bats?). It is at Xanadu that we will hear the weird cry of the cockatoo and see in the incredible crane shot of the finale the vast jigsaw puzzle of the “things” Kane has collected. It is here, the newsreel portentously tells us, that Kane is like Kubla Khan or Noah or even, perhaps, Adam in a world devoted to his own wellbeing, “Xanadu’s lord.” He retreated to Xanadu to lord it over the monkeys. Kane is man himself, in an evolutionary sense.

    The film builds, it seems to me, on a fundamental contrast between its realistic body and this fantastic unreal Xanadu, emblem of insatiable desire. Welles’ and Gregg Tolands celebrated camera techniques build a similar contrast. The subject they render is realistic—enough like William Randolph Hearst to have earned Hearst’s enmity and opprobria from Hearst’s newspapers—yet Welles’ (and Toland’s) camera render it surrealistically. Lightning sound mixes compress time into the space of a dialogue. “Merry Christmas, Charles,” says Thatcher, “and a Happy New Year” but between Christmas and New Year fifteen years have passed. Ceilings suggest fateful limits pressing down on the characters, and swish pans compress time into space (as in the famous sequence of breakfast-with-Emily). The deep focuses collect long spaces into the flat film frame. Extreme close-ups make the tiny huge. In the scene of Susan s suicide her medicine bottle at the front of the frame is bigger than Kane’s head five feet away. In general, there are vast differences in scale (like Kane’s enormous face on the political poster over the actual Kane on the rostrum).

    If I identify the fantastic Xanadu and the exaggerations of the camera with the power of desire over reality—in one case, Kane’s, in the other Welles’s (but surely they are the same!)—I would also think of the structure as an instance of desire. The film is organized, like a Tale of King Arthur or like a mystery story, as a Quest. Who was Kane? What was Rosebud? And the reporter must go to various strange places and seek answers of strange helpers. Both reporter and Kane’s newspaper are “the Inquirer.”


Deep focus, signing the boy away

The sled as weapon

The 2nd sled: Crusader

In The Inquirer office

Jed Leland reminisces

Boss Jim Gettys watches Kane's entry into politics

Susan's operatic fiasco

The mystery of Kane

The final jigsaw puzzle

The mystery solved

    We get Kane in five fragmented narratives or views, skipping and overlapping in time, partial views, like those in the flickering beams of light after the showing of “News on the March.” The fragments suggest the reporter’s final metaphor: that his—and our view—of Kane have been like a jigsaw puzzle. That is truer perhaps than he knows, since for us the showing of “News on the March” has been like the picture of the puzzle on the cover of the box. Then we had the separate pieces. Then we had the crane shot of the huge jigsaw puzzle of Kane’s crates at the end, then finally the reporter’s conclusion that “Rosebud” is a missing piece of one of Susan Alexander Kane’s jigsaw puzzles.

    I read the film as a study in desire, the hunger one has to find that missing piece, whatever is lacking. “’Rosebud’ must have been something he wanted or something he had and lost,” concludes reporter Thompson, but all the characters in the film want or desire something, and they say plenty about it.

    The reporters want to find out who Kane was and what Rosebud was. The butler and the waiter want money. Thatcher wants money and power. Bernstein wants the girl on the ferry. Leland wants a cigar (for his mouth) as earlier he had wanted liberal victories. Susan wants (at first) a drink, then in her flashback to live in a palace and have fun. “What about me?” is her squeaky leitmotif.

    Kane, however, never quite says what he wants (except to be everything that his surrogate father, Thatcher, hates). Leland, however, diagnoses him. He wanted to be loved, first by “the people,” then, when that failed, by Susan, whom he called “a cross-section of the American people.” Yet Kane cannot say it: he is boyishly bashful when he announces his marriage to Emily, and he insists that what he is attracted to in Susan is the “singer.” Instead of acknowledging his desire for love, Kane buys “things.”

    I would be less than a psychoanalytic critic, then, if I did not try to interpret his desire. Defensively he seeks to know and to be and to make “news,” but it is not “news” that he needs to know and to understand (like the reporters from “News on the March”) but, so to speak, the “olds.” Susan is a link to his mother: he was on the way to pick up things from her Colorado house after her death when he met Susan. (He might have found the sled and ended the movie right there.)

    Rosebud (the original wooden sled) was not only the emblem of the turning point in Kane’s life, emblem of the road not taken. It was also (like the snow in the glass ball that he first found at Susan’s and last kept from Susan), a connection to his mother. It was the weapon with which he attacked both his real and his surrogate (Thatcher) fathers. As James Narremore points out, the second, metallic sled, the one by Thatcher’s huge Christmas tree, is named Crusader. Successor to the sled(s) was The Inquirer (note the name). It is a way of peering into the secrets of the fathers (Thatcher, Gettys, previous editor Carter) and attacking them that way. Inquiry was also a way wooing the “underprivileged,” “the people,” treated by Kane as childlike, the way he treats Susan. Kane loses first The Inquirer, then Susan, and retreats to the snow in the glass—and Rosebud.

    Welles himself adopted this reading of “Rosebud,” albeit contemptuously. Frank Brady quotes him in Citizen Welles: “I admit that it’s ‘dollar-book’ Freud, but, nevertheless, it’s how I analyze the film.” And in a 1963 interview with the London Times: ‘It’s a gimmick, really, said Welles, and rather dollar book Freud.’

    Our first and deepest desire, however, is not the oedipal or phallic attempt to attack the father and win the mother. The first organ of our desire is the mouth, its first mode hunger. Here Susan is identified with the mouth: laughing at Kane, toothache, singing, drinking, taking an overdose—finally Kane slaps her across the mouth. Kane, too, is identified with the mouth: his lips and his echoing voice as he dies, his huge, amplified voice at the political rally, his newspaper which is a “mouth,” a “voice” for the people. He vows to send Gettys to Sing Sing. But he is not identified like Susan with taking into the mouth or with the pleasures of orality. Breakfast with Emily fails. “I always gagged on that silver spoon,” he says. Kane is always putting words out of his mouth. To be sure, all the characters talk about themselves. Thatcher writes his memoir. Bernstein and Leland (seeking cigars for his mouth) gossip away. The reporters gabble. But Kane outtalks them all.

    Just as the film inverts Kane's normal relation to the mouth, so snow and cold are identified with his mother, with “Rosebud,” and with the snow in the glass ball which came from Susan. She in turn is identified with the mother: Kane was on his way to the warehouse one wet night to look at his mother’s things when he met Susan. With her he behaves like a child, doing shadow puppets, delighted that she does not know who he is as an adult. Cold for Kane is identified with the real mother, and certainly Agnes Moorehead plays a cold, cold mother as she sends him away. Cold is ordinary life, warmth is the unreal, exotic Xanadu, or the fiery furnace that burns up his “things,” his junk.

    Kane possesses “things” and possesses Susan or Bernstein or Leland like things, but he neither loves nor is loved. Yet his mother gave up possession of her son—and he loves her. It is as though the usual inconsistency of possession and love is reversed. Kane tries to win love by domination and hostility. As Susan says, “You don’t know what it’s like when a whole audience just doesn’t want you.” But of course he does (both through his mother and through Susan), and he answers, “That’s when you have to fight them.”

    I see this as a film about desire and the objects of desire, Kane’s “things.” The film is full of media: the film within the film, newspaper, radio, public address, photographs, voice, opera, statuary . . . Etymologically, all these media are “middle,” between desire and the ultimate object of desire, as Rosebud, the sled, was between mother and son, between Thatcher and the rebellious boy. From this perspective, Kane’s life and ours are frustrations of desire, lives built on substitutes or mediations of desire rather than its gratification.

    Our desires are old, yet they can only be fulfilled by new objects, not only Kane’s desires but the reporter’s, and finally ours—for we know at the end what “Rosebud” means and the reporter does not. Our desire has been satisfied—or has it? Desire is the deflection of ancient, primeval psychological needs that, in the nature of things, cannot be satisfied. We accept a compromise. We accept media instead, this very film, but even so, desire always reaches for the absent, never (by definition) for what is present. What we have we no longer desire. We only desire what we lack. We are wanting. Having perhaps understood the mystery of Citizen Kane, we desire to understand some other mystery. Desire, satisfied, cancels itself, showing its own inadequacy and internal contradiction.

    That is one way of reading the film. Is there a second? That we lose ultimately, everything. Thatcher and Bernstein and Leland talk of his death, Kane’s loss of his mother in distant Colorado, his loss of first and second wives, his newspapers. Finally he is left only with his things and he doesn’t care enough about them to take them out of the boxes. This is a film absolutely about human imperfection: our inability to know and our ultimate failing, our mortality.

    I prefer yet another reading, built on the paradox that Kane lives out, as I do and you do. Kane’s desire is to know, to own, to control (”lording it over the monkeys” in Leland’s phrase), but this desire will not get him what he really wants, love. (In that sense, his “things” are all “media.”) Mother-love is the prototype. One must allow oneself to be known, owned, controlled by another to be loved. Logically, however, those two desires, the desire to control and the desire to be loved, are inconsistent. Yet that is our human predicament: we live by both. We cannot be satisfied, but we keep trying, and our efforts are, quite simply, us, our personalities, our identities.

    Perhaps I am being too cryptic if I say, in the inconsistency of desire is the unknowableness of the person, but that is what Kane’s “No Trespassing” sign says to me about Citizen Kane (and also about the self-defeats and internal contradictions in Welles’ filmic career after this undeniable, stunning masterpiece).

Enjoying:  One of the ways I enjoy this film is by letting it linger in my mind as I think about various questions it evokes and try to answer them. Here are some:

It's easy to conjure up many such questions. It’s easy to propose answers in terms of plot or character. But I think it’s more interesting to understand them as part of the remarkably consistent unity of the film as a whole.

Enjoying:  Even more remarkable than the film's thematic unity is its brilliant style. Welles being new to film, much of the credit must go to his cinematographer, Greg Toland. Here are some strong stylistic touches to remember (adapted from Tim Dirks’ excellent

Again, it's interesting to meditate on the ways these techniques, which call attention to themselves, relate to the thematic unity of this astonishing film.