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Citizen Kane.jpg
Charles Foster Kane breathes the Arc Word

Inside his unfinished palatial mansion, media mogul Charles Foster Kane lies dying, alone, having lived in seclusion from the world for many years. With his final breath, he utters the word "Rosebud!". The movie unfolds in flashback as Intrepid Reporter Jerry Thompson tries to unravel the significance of Kane's dying declaration through interviewing those who knew him. However, no one he talks to knows just who or what Rosebud was, the closest answer he gets is from Kane's butler who concludes he was just saying a nonsense word. Thompson never does solve the mystery, though the answer is shown to the audience in the final scene.

The conclusion? It is indeed Lonely At the Top.

A classic film from 1941 and the most famous work of Orson Welles. It's considered by many critics to be the Greatest Film Ever Made or at least the first great "modern" film, but most people only know it through Popcultural Osmosis. It's a popular subject of The Parody even though many people no longer know the original. One would never guess it was a Box Office Flop.

Due to it being hyped as the Greatest Film Ever Made, some find it to be a bit overrated when they do see it. Others who are reluctant to watch because of Hype Aversion may find at least some of this film a hoot. But hey, judge not: most have probably never seen the impressive deconstruction by Roger Ebert, in his Special Edition DVD commentary, that attempts to explain some of the subtleties of why it has its particular rank.

Aside from its famous ending, Kane is best remembered for pissing off William Randolph Hearst, who thought that the title character resembled him a little too much — or perhaps he was angry that Welles's portrayal of Kane's mistress had destroyed the career and reputation of Marion Davies, Hearst's real life mistress. (In reality, Davies was a superb comedienne and a savvy businesswoman who had actually saved Hearst's publishing empire by giving him $1 million after he lost everything - and that was money she'd earned on the screen.) Welles denied that Kane was based on Hearst or any other specific individual, and later expressed regret that the character of Kane's mistress (which was actually based on the wives of Samuel Insull and Harold Fowler McCormick) was assumed by most moviegoers to be an Expy of Davies. No matter the reason, though, Hearst used his influence to kill any chance the film (and even some later Welles-directed films) had for commercial success.

Due to Small Reference Pools, Citizen Kane is frequently used as a shorthand for "really great movie", especially by film critics. For example, a movie review might read "Bad Movie is Citizen Kane compared to Awful Movie." The Wicker Man [1], for example, has been called "The Citizen Kane of horror movies", while The Social Network has been called "The Citizen Kane of the 21st century."[2] This snowclone is what named the trope The Citizen Kane of Shark Movies.

Contrast Plan 9 from Outer Space or The Room.

Tropes used in Citizen Kane include:

  • Academy Award: Famous for the awards it lost to How Green Was My Valley and others, but it did win Best Original Screenplay, shared by Herman J. Mankiewicz and Welles.
  • Achievements in Ignorance: Many of the innovative visuals and special effects in this film are the result of Orson Welles simply refusing to believe that certain things couldn't be done.
  • Age Cut: "Merry Christmas" [cut forward about 15 years] "and a Happy New Year".
  • Ambiguously Gay: Leland the "Broadway critic" is coded as gay (couldn't be stated outright under the Hays Code) and was possibly infatuated with Kane in his early years.
  • Anachronic Order
  • And Starring: The final image of the credits, after all the secondary characters have had clips shown of them with their actors' names, is a list of the bit part actors. Then at the bottom it says "Orson Welles as Kane".
  • Anti-Hero: Charles Foster Kane, obviously. He turns from an idealistic muckraker to a mogul whose life is slowly spiraling out of control.
  • Aside Glance:

 Thatcher: "I think it would be fun to run a newspaper." Hmmph!


 Leland: Bernstein, am I a stuffed shirt? Am I a horse-faced hypocrite? Am I a New England school marm?

Bernstein: Yes. If you thought I'd answer you any differently than what Mr. Kane tells you...

  • Book Ends: The same shot of Kane's house.
  • The Brainless Beauty: Susan Alexander Kane
  • Censor Decoy: The birthday/song scene originally took place in a brothel. Welles knew he'd never be able to get away with that, but he kept it in the screenplay so the execs at RKO wouldn't notice the jabs he was taking at Hearst.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The now legendary sled.
  • Chiaroscuro: Like many tropes, the usage of Chiaroscuro in film was widely popularized by Citizen Kane, although it was already common in German expressionist cinema.
    • This ties into the film's use of "Deep Focus" (one of the techniques cinematographers rave about in the movie). The way they managed to bring foreground and background objects into focus in the same shot required the more distant objects to be extremely brightly lit, encouraging the heavy-shadow Chiaroscuro compositions.
  • Creator Backlash: Welles wasn't that big on the film. He preferred some of his later work, like his adaptation of Kafka's The Trial. In a 1960 interview, he said, "I'm ashamed of Rosebud. I think it's a rather tawdry device. It's the thing I like least in Kane. It's kind of a dollar-book Freudian gag, you know. It doesn't stand up very well."
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Charles Foster Kane
  • Dead Hand Shot: At the beginning, with the snowglobe.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Young Kane had his moments.
  • Dead Sparks: Kane and the first Mrs. Kane.
  • Downer Ending: By the end of the movie, the viewer realizes that, despite being on top of the world, Kane was tremendously unhappy and what he wanted above all else in his life was to be loved. Kane dies alone, as the movie opens, as he remembers the last time in his life when he was truly happy; when he was playing with his beloved sled, Rosebud. Plus the fact that the reporter and the rest of the world never does find out what "Rosebud" is. The only way the viewer finds out is when it's too late: when the sled is being burned, along with some of Kane's other belongings.
  • Dramatic Shattering: The snow globe.
  • Driving Question: What the hell is this "Rosebud" thing?
  • Drop What You Are Doing: The snowglobe.
  • Dyeing for Your Art: To simulate heavy drunkenness, Cotten stayed awake for 24 straight hours, resulting in some unscripted flubbery (that caused Welles to grin despite himself).
  • Early-Bird Cameo: Pretty much every male in the cast plays also one of the reporters in the opening projection room scene. That is one of the reasons why it was shot so dark and shadowy, even compared to the rest of the film.
  • The Faceless: Thompson, the reporter whose investigation into "Rosebud" is the backbone of the plot, is only shown from behind or with his face in shadow.
  • Famous Last Words: only one actually; "Rosebud", of course
  • Film Noir: Although there's no crime involved, the movie has a lot of tropes associated with the genre.
  • Flash Back: Lots of them.
  • Forgotten Fallen Friend: The newsreel reveals that Kane's first ex-wife and their son die in a car crash. They are never again mentioned in any scene that takes place after they died. Nobody suggests that among Kane's many personal problems, losing his only son might be one of them.
  • Framing Device: related to above — the story is told mostly via interviews of people who were close with Kane with a reporter.
  • Freudian Excuse: On the sled symbolism in Citizen Kane, Orson Welles remarked: "It's a gimmick, really, and rather dollar-book Freud."
  • The Gay Nineties: Kane's childhood.
  • Gilligan Cut: When Kane announces his intention to make Susan Alexander an opera star, a reporter asks if she'll sing at the Met:

 Susan: Charlie said if I didn't, he'd build me an opera house.

Kane: That won't be necessary.

(cut to newspaper headline: "KANE BUILDS OPERA HOUSE")

  • The Great Depression: Major element of the setting.
  • Heroic BSOD: Kane shortly after trashing Susan's room. He discovers the snow globe and staggers out of the room with a glazed look and a zombie-like shuffle.
  • Hitler Cam: Orson Welles was the trope namer. Refers to the practice of shooting a solitary figure from a slightly lower angle. This magnifies the figure's height and presence in the mind of the viewer. Greatly popularized by the film.
  • Hollywood Tone Deaf: Averted with Susan Alexander. To get the effect of a realistically overmatched singer, Welles got a professional alto opera singer and had her sing a soprano part
  • I Coulda Been a Contender: Inverted Trope by Kane, when he is forced to give up the control of his empire. Hardly a nobody. Very disillusioned, he reflects that it was his advantages that stole him his chance at true greatness:

 Charles Foster Kane: You know, Mr. Bernstein, if I hadn't been very rich, I might have been a really great man.

Thatcher: Don't you think you are?

Charles Foster Kane: I think I did pretty well under the circumstances.

Thatcher: What would you like to have been?

Charles Foster Kane: Everything you hate.


 Charles Foster Kane: You long-faced, overdressed anarchist.

Leland: I am not overdressed.


 Kane: [pleading] Don't go, Susan. You mustn't go. You can't do this to me.

Susan: I see. So it's you who this is being done to. It's not me at all. Not how I feel. Not what it means to me. [laughs] I can't do this to you? [odd smile] Oh, yes I can.

  • It's All Junk: Kane is an obsessive collector of everything, who then treats people like objects and dies a lonely old man, surrounded by glorified junk in a ridiculously opulent estate.
  • It Will Never Catch On: Kane in 1935: "You can take my word for it: there'll be no war." Uh-huh.
  • Jump Scare: The screeching parrot near the climax of the film.
  • Large Ham: "Siiiiing Siiiiiing!". It works, though.
  • Lonely At the Top: As a core theme. One of the reasons why he tries to desperately cling to his wife, and eventually comes true when she leaves him.
  • Magnum Opus Dissonance: Orson Welles saw Chimes At Midnight as his masterpiece.
  • Malevolent Mugshot: "Vote for KANE"
  • Match Cut: the entire opening sequence. Watch how the light never moves.
    • Also after slapping Susan. Her left eye matches with an eye decoration in the next scene. Hard one to see.
  • Memento MacGuffin: "Rosebud", which partially drives the plot.
  • Mockumentary / Newsreel: Early in the film. Welles was good at these. Kind of an example of Aluminum Christmas Trees. People in the 1940s who were used to seeing the "March of Time" newsreels regularly would have been much more amused by the satire. Possibly the earliest example of an in-movie fake newsreel.
  • Musical Pastiche: Salammbô, the opera in which Susan Alexander stars, is Bernard Herrmann's pastiche of French grand opéra à la Jules Massenet. Interestingly, it was supposed to be called Thaïs, which is an actual Masssenet opera.
  • Name of Cain: No accident, that name.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: William Randolph Hearst felt otherwise.
  • The Oner: Long shots zooming into Susan's cafe through a skylight and up a ladder at the opera.
  • Patriotic Fervor: "I am, have been, and will always be, an American"
  • Percussive Therapy: After Susan leaves him Kane tears her room apart.
  • Plot Hole: Every other character knows what Kane's dying words were, despite the fact that he was completely alone when he spoke them.
    • The butler Raymond says he heard the word, implying that the scene was shot from his point of view.
  • Pop Cultural Osmosis Failure: Almost the Trope Namer (the original title was going to be Was What His Sled, and What Was Whose Sled redirects to Pop Cultural Osmosis Failure). When many films are said to be "the Citizen Kane of horror/comedy/action" or someone says "Bad Movie is Citizen Kane compared to Worse Movie", folks get the idea that Citizen Kane is a great movie. Many people stop there.
  • Posthumous Character: Charles Foster Kane.
  • Pretty in Mink: his two wives naturally wore a few furs.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Kane gets the same lecture three times from Leland, Susan and Boss Gettis: I Just Want to Be Loved is a Tragic Dream if you truly believe It's All About Me. Does Kane understand or accept it? No.
  • Red Scare: Thatcher accused Kane of being a commie near the beginning of the movie. Remember, this was before the US got into World War Two.
  • Retraux: Welles scratched the "newsreel" with sandpaper to make the "old" footage look old.
    • The 2011 DVD/Blu-ray release credits editor Robert Wise with this. Thankfully, those involved with digitally remastering the film for high-definition realized this was intentional and didn't fix it.
  • Roman à Clef: Welles denies this, but Hearst, who Kane was supposedly based off of, believed this.
    • The film actually attempts to avert this by having Hearst mentioned by name in an early scene (the reporters discussing the newsreel), establishing Kane as a different individual.
    • But also shoots itself in the foot in the first scene with Kane as played by Orson Welles, in which he says: "You provide the prose poems, I'll provide the war". Substitute "pictures" for "prose poems", and this is a word-for-word quote of something Hearst himself said to a photographer.
    • Herman Mankiewicz, who came up with the story, was a frequent guest at San Simeon (aka Hearst Castle). As much as Welles sometimes denied it, much of the story clearly was based on Hearst's life. Hearst was a muckracking newspaper publisher who egged on the Spanish-American War, as noted above. Hearst, like Kane, was a failed candidate for Governor of New York (as well as multiple runs for other offices). Davies, like Susan Alexander, was an alcoholic who was also fond of crossword puzzles. Of course there were many differences between Kane and Hearst as well; Hearst was never abandoned by his parents and Davies stayed with Hearst until his death.
  • Rule of Symbolism: Some critics think Kane stretches the Willing Suspension of Disbelief in order to include symbolic elements. It certainly is packed with symbols.
  • Single-Issue Psychology: all of Kane's problems result from him not knowing how to love due to being taken from his parents as a child. At his mother's urging, because his father was abusive towards him. This does not make it better, however.
  • Slow Clap: After the disastrous operatic debut of his wife Susan, Kane stubbornly stands up and does a Slow Clap; the rest of the audience begrudgingly follows suit.
  • Spinning Paper: A standard trope of early 1930s "B" movies, especially in films dealing with organized crime. It went out of style at around the time the Hays Code was adopted; any use after the mid 1930's is a deliberate invocation of the trope as tribute and parody. Citizen Kane is one of these. Making later parodies parody parodies.
  • Stage Mom: At their first meeting Susan tells Kane it was really her mother's ambition for her to be an opera singer.
  • Star-Making Role: Joseph Cotten, who went on to a long and very successful career as a leading man in Hollywood. In fact Kane was a Star Making Role to some extent for most of the cast, since the bulk of them were members of Welles' Mercury Theatre troupe and they were all making their film debuts together.
    • Welles himself is an interesting aversion. He was a star since age 16, and became famous for his theatre and (cough) radio, and had in fact made three films prior to this (a bizarre short in 1934, a 40-minute film that was intended to be part of a hybrid stage play/movie performance in 1938, and he narrated a version of Swiss Family Robinson a year before Kane came out), but the movie almost destroyed his career.
  • Stock Footage: The film contains a lot of this. For example, the newsreel has a scene where a man speaks to a political rally, denouncing Kane as a fascient. The crowd was simply stock footage and the man was an actor, filmed in a low-angle shot to hide the fact that no crowd was present. The background jungle footage for the picnic scene was lifted from Son of Kong and, in an infamous case of Stock Footage Failure, you can plainly see pterodactyls.
  • Table Space: A very clever use of this trope to illustrate the deterioration of Kane's first marriage in a brief montage. The Kanes are shown at a small breakfast table being intimate and affectionate. We see snippets of arguments at other breakfasts. Then the scene ends with the Kanes dining in silence at opposite ends of a long table.
  • Take That: Possibly. William Randolph Hearst strongly felt the film was a Take That targeted at him (and his mistress Marion Davies), but Orson Welles denied this. Rumor has it that "Rosebud" was Hearst's nickname for a very specific part of Marion Davies' person. According to a less interesting explanation, it was a nickname for his mother.
  • Tantrum Throwing: Upon his wife leaving him, Kane goes in a room and smashes/throws everything he sees.
  • Timeshifted Actor: Eight-year-old Kane.
  • Trade Your Passion for Glory
  • Tragic Hero: Kane, lampshaded by Leland.
  • Troubled Production: Barely averted - the screenplay might never have been finished had Welles' co-producer Herman Mankiewitz not broken his leg and been cooped up in Welles' home; Mankiewitz was known to disappear for weeks at a time due to his drinking and gambling problems.
  • Unusual Euphemism: "Rosebud" was allegedly William Randolph Hearst's pet name for a specific part of Marion Davies' genitalia. Gives a whole new meaning to It Was His Sled now, doesn't it?
  • Video Credits: A clip of each major character is shown in the credits, except Kane himself.
  • Whip Pans are used in the breakfast table montage showing the deterioration of Kane's first marriage.
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: Kane started off as one, and was moderately successful as such, exposing corruption successfully and ascending the ranks in journalism.
  • The Wild West: Eight-year-old Kane grew up in 1871 Colorado; seen in a brief Flash Back
  • What Might Have Been: Originally, the movie was going to be based on the life of Howard Hughes with Cotten in the lead. Eventually, Welles realized nobody would believe most of the stuff Hughes had done, so he decided to make Kane a media baron instead.
    • Also, Welles was originally going to make an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness but the executives didn't believe they could possibly stretch a budget far enough to cover it, so he made Kane instead.
  • Woman in White: Not seen but remembered by Bernstein.
  1. (the original version)
  2. This comparison is actually rather justified, however, as both films center on the rise of an Anti-Hero media mogul.