Talking Pictures in Review: Citizen Kane

Citizen Kane, a work that routinely finds itself at or near the top of cinematic “best of” lists, is probably one of the most talked about movies in history. That made it a perfect candidate to be a vintage selection for our Talking Pictures screening series at The Crossing. Here’s a recap of some of the important features of the discussion.

[Warning: spoilers ahead…then again, the statute of limitations has to be long past for a 70+ year-old film.]

First, Citizen Kane is a staple of college film classes for a reason. Innovative use of shadow/light contrast and deep focus photography (where everything in the shot is in focus) help create wonderfully framed cinematography that is often pregnant with significance. Likewise, the film’s non-linear storytelling doesn’t confuse, but rather draws the viewer further into the life and mystery of Charles Foster Kane.

Perhaps most striking, however, is the simple fact that Orson Welles, who co-wrote, produced, directed, and starred in the film, was all of 25 years old at the time. For such a young man to tackle the subject matter of this film so successfully, and portray the title character at various stages of life so effectively, is nothing short of astonishing.

In fact, the movie is dominated by the figure of Kane. And the viewer is left with a picture of a man that is astoundingly self-focused, with scene after scene helping to paint the portrait. A few of many possible examples:

  • The breakfast montage between Kane and his first wife, Emily. The couple drift further apart even as Kane becomes more personally cold. 
  • Kane defiantly decides to continue his gubernatorial campaign despite Jim Gettys’ threat, regardless of the pain he’ll cause to his wife, son, and Susan Alexander. In a telling line, Kane charges both Gettys and Emily with “trying to take the love of the people of this state away from me.”
  • After his best friend, Jedediah Leyland, accuses him of wanting love only on his own terms, Kane echoes the charge with a melancholy toast: “To love on my terms. Those are the only terms anybody ever knows—his own.”
  • The fact that it’s Kane, rather than Susan herself, that insists she launch and continue her opera career. Considering her success to be a reflection on him, he drives her to the point where she tries to take her own life.
  • Perhaps most telling is Kane’s attempt to prevent Susan, now his second wife of many years, from leaving him. His promise that everything will now be done on her terms rather than his momentarily softens her. But, as if he can’t help himself, he continues by returning the focus back to himself: “You musn’t go…you can’t do this to me!” [emphasis mine]. With this, she is irreparably driven away. 

Two objects help the audience understand Kane’s life. The film’s celebrated mystery—“Rosebud”—turns out to be the name of Kane’s boyhood sled. This enigmatic word finds its way to Kane’s lips when, in the midst of a destructive rampage, he finds a snow globe in the room Susan has left. The globe hearkens back to a wintery scene where Kane’s life is robbed of his childhood happiness and contentment. Summoned from his play with Rosebud in the snow, he learns he’s being sent away from his family and into the guardianship of the bank assigned to manage his future fortune. It is this same snow globe that drops from Kane’s hand when he dies, with the word “Rosebud” once more on his lips.

When we as the audience finally see Rosebud going up in flames, we’re left with (1) the idea that Kane’s self-centered, acquisitive life has been the twisted and tragic response to the loss of the simpler joys of his childhood, and (2) all his attempts to fill the void have been in vain.

With all this in mind, there are several ways in which the film resonates with a biblical Christian worldview. I’ll mention just two:

1. “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity,” and “a striving after the wind,” says the Preacher in Ecclesiastes. Early in the book, the Preacher details his attempt to test the worth of wisdom, pleasure, wealth, and achievement. None of them provide the ultimate key to life. They are, on their own merits at least, nothing but emptiness.

Kane also has more than enough of what many reflexively consider to be the chief aims of life: wealth, power, and accomplishment. But these are all empty in the end. The same is true for his stubborn quest for love on his own terms, relationships that are little more than transactions in his favor. The black smoke rolling skyward from the burning Rosebud is illustrative that all of Kane’s seeking, all his efforts to find what he needs, have been nothing but a striving after the wind.

2. Along related lines, Citizen Kane is a fine portrayal of the tyranny of idols, the many things that human beings futilely turn to for our hope, joy, security, satisfaction, etc. Idols never deliver on their promise, but rather disappoint and even enslave. It’s ironic that Kane collects actual statues to the point of redundancy. He apparently never has enough, but they do nothing for him but sit in crates, powerless to provide meaning or satisfaction. Likewise, Susan’s attractiveness to Kane lies in the fact that she reminds him of the simpler life of his childhood. She seemingly becomes a surrogate for the life (and the love of his mother?) that he’s lost. But like any idol, Susan can’t bear the weight placed upon her. She disappoints Kane in various ways and ultimately shatters him when she walks away.

With these and other elements, Citizen Kane provides a shrewd portrayal of humanity’s deepest problem. The remedy for that problem, on the other hand, must be found in a story that is both older and greater.

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