Eli Hayes’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane is a fascinating film to explore analytically, with regard to the notion of plot because, while the storyline of the film is rather simple, the manner in which it is exhibited to its audience is anything but. It’s a prime example of a film being relatively basic in terms of the actual series of events that transpire, but incredibly complex in the way that these events are structured and presented, which allows the audience to approach the narrative from not only multiple planes of thought, but multiple planes of time as well. The nonlinearity of the storyline is key to the intricate presentation of the plot and, in this essay, Welles’ efforts to tell a rather straightforward story via the vessel of a multiplexed plot structure will be investigated at length in order to fully unpack the nuances of his directorial intentions.
In 2006, Emma Kafelenos proposed an adaptation of a theory to suggest a “standard pattern of functions for any narrative sequence.” Similar to literature’s Hero’s Journey theory, this proposition consists of several elements, beginning with an event disrupting the stability of a specific environment and ending with the primary character, whether protagonist or antihero, either succeeding or failing to bring the environment back into a state of stability. In the world of Citizen Kane, I would argue (despite half of the world’s population not being proponents of Charles Foster Kane’s politics), the stability at the beginning of the plot simply being the fact that Charles Foster Kane is still alive, still a cultural icon, a normality, and thus his death is the catalyst — the event which sends the film’s reality into a state of instability.
From there, the film focuses not on one singular character dealing with the fallout or changes resulting from his death, but several individuals approached by the press to discover the hidden meaning behind Kane’s last word before his death: rosebud. In fact, most of the events of the film which take place in the present, in which Kane is no longer, consist of a multitude of individuals being interviewed/questioned about rosebud, whereas the primary source of narrative progression actually emerges from flashbacks throughout Kane’s life, from his childhood all the way to and through his adulthood. Stability is never reached in the present, for no one (aside from viewers) ever discover the meaning of the word rosebud, and thus while the audience leaves the film satisfied with its conclusion, the world of the film is left forever wondering about his final utterance.
Thomas Pavel proposed another theory, a bit of a criticism of theories that remove character motivations from their radar, which he called Move-grammar — almost like a game, in which the characters put forward moves in hopes of propelling forward their own well being, with regard to the progression of the story. Similar to playing chess, one of these moves either has to prompt the action of another move, or end the storyline altogether, and a move has to either be the result of a problem which calls for it, an attempt to reach a solution, or even an “auxiliary agent or circumstance."
In Citizen Kane, we can see Move-grammar being applied through the actions of Kane’s wife, Emily, who, after receiving an anonymous note in the mail containing an address, senses that her husband has betrayed her and brings him to the residence of a woman named Susie who he has been spending time with recently, a woman who he may or may not have fallen in love with. However, when they reach the residence, it is revealed that a politician whom Kane is opposed to in the political climate of the film pushed Susie to send the note to Emily, forcing him into the scenario. This could be seen as a move from two characters, a move from both Kane’s political opponent and Emily to compel him to make a decision (Kane’s counter): either stop seeing Susie and lose her in order to avoid the persecution of the press and save his marriage, or continue to see Susie and lose his wife with the additional consequence of potentially tarnishing his political career and never reaching the office of Governor, a position which Kane has aspired to fill for some time. Kane decides upon the latter, staying with Susie, making her his second wife and losing the Governor’s election to his desperate political opponent.
Part of the reason, however, why the storyline of Citizen Kane comes across as so powerful is because, from the very beginning of the film, a particular ominous mood or tone is set which directs the remainder of the movie’s dark and foreboding atmosphere. Death is inherently fascinating to human beings, so the fact that the film begins with the death of the character being concentrated on immediately forces us to wonder about their life, their past, and their significance to the world which surrounded them. Kane is introduced just prior to the moment of his passing, an unorthodox but effective way to draw us into his character. I would argue, further, that the secondary “main character” of Citizen Kane (second to Kane) isn’t an individual at all, but an entire society. The initial disturbance in the world of this society is Kane’s death and the importance that the press place on his last words — it is the reality itself, mostly the press, that fixates on this final utterance, providing them with a story to chase and a mystery to solve regarding one of the universe’s most wondrous figures, even after his death.
On a purely technical level, the beginning of the film is crucial to the atmosphere of the story as it commences with several still shots of Kane’s overwhelmingly monstrous Xanadu residence, towering within the frame, shrouded in mist and surrounded by animal figures, amongst many other figures, accompanied by an intentionally overbearing (or at least dramatic) musical score. But as soon as viewers witness Kane’s death, the tone shifts and the audience experiences a lengthily newsreel montage which goes over the key points/moments in Kane’s life. This places emphasis not only on Kane’s extreme influence and position of prestige and and power in his world but also how significant the notion of monetary success is in his world (to the point that his parents went as far as selling him to a bank as child). This sudden shift in Kane’s ominous residence, and death, to the almost hyperactive and occasionally darkly humorous newsreel footage also sets the mood as being one of constant tonal shifts, altering back and forth between Kane’s actual reality and the reality that the media perpetuates, just as the film alters back and forth between Kane’s past and the present in which he is no longer.
It’s been asserted that there are essentially three different types of obstacles that a character is capable of facing during the main body of their narrative: physical, personal, and psychological. Charles Foster Kane is a character who surely experiences personal and psychological obstacles, but physical obstacles aren’t emphasized quite as much in his story. It’s even said, at one point, that he rarely ever gets drunk.
It could be argued that the main point of focus, with regard to physical obstacles, comes when he discovers one of his workers writing a negative review of his wife’s opera and, rather than simply scolding the reviewer, he takes it upon himself to finish the negative review and allows it to be published (though this definitely ties into Kane’s personal and psychological shortcomings).
In terms of personal obstacles, Kane, as mentioned, chooses his second wife, Susie, over his first wife, Emily, which I’d describe as being the primary obstacle of this sort in the narrative, especially because it ties into Kane’s political situation and relationships (including his relationship with the man he’s political opposed to).
And, lastly, Kane’s psychological obstacles are perhaps his greatest obstacles in that he never really discovered what would make him happy, or what it means to make others happy, and thus he placed a great deal of his efforts and energy into monetary wealth and the mass distribution of information to the population; he became a shallow figure in the eyes of the populace, whether intentionally or unintentionally (and I’m willing to bet that this was unintentional), despite his chief desire simply to be loved by all.
Tying into this are the numerous points of crises in his narrative, some of them already touched upon and others, not so much. First and foremost (linearly) was the moment in which Kane’s parents, primarily his mother, signed their guardianship of him over to Thatcher/the bank in order to receive monetary compensation, though it’s also revealed that Kane’s father was abusive, which likely contributed to his mother’s inclination to get her son out of the house. Two additional points of crises in the narrative can be found in both of Kane’s marriages: the regression of the first, to Emily, being shown through a brief montage from the first night that they spent together to a great deal of time later in which Emily’s resentments towards Kane have reached astronomical heights.
His regression of his second marriage, to Susie, is shown over a longer period of the film (in terms of runtime) and is good for quite a while, until Kane forces Susie into a career of singing and builds his massive castle, Xanadu, at which Susie spends her days bored out of her wits attempting crosswords puzzles; fed up, she eventually leaves him upon becoming exhausted with his narcissistic ways. One additional point of crises also arises from Kane’s political endeavors, in that he always struggled to win over the admiration of the masses, trying (and failing) to achieve the heights of public office multiple times — his race for Governor is emphasized in the film, though its implied that he even had hopes to become President one day — but always being defeated by his opponents.
It could be argued that the degradation of his marriage to Susie is likely the major turning point in the plot because, after trashing her room subsequent to her leaving him, he discovers the snow globe, utters “rosebud” and, soon after, passes away. Because his death is the catalyst for the majority of the narrative, and due to Susie’s leaving him occurring so soon before his demise, this crises could be considered the narrative’s chief crises.
This is also an example of one of multiple plot reversals that exist within the narrative of Citizen Kane. The first reversal reveals itself rather quickly, that of the regression of his marriage to Emily, likely because it's contained to a singular montage of scenes beginning with them happily meeting and falling for one another, and ending in disdain. We also expect him to win the race for Governor but, as soon as viewers realize that his opponent is out to expose him for what could be seen as actions of infidelity, the audience experiences a double reversal in Kane not only breaking off his marriage to Emily but also losing the race for Governor to the man who exposed him to the press. The final reversal, before Kane’s death, occurs when his second wife, Susie, finally calls him out on attempting to buy love throughout his whole life, rather than naturally showing and receiving it; the one woman who we expect to stick with him, even through his emotional abuse, leaves him as well — all alone to die in his Xanadu palace.
Nonetheless, despite the uncertainty that lurks beneath the entirety of the film’s narrative surface, it does eventually reach closure, not necessarily for those living within the universe of the narrative but, at the very least, for those watching. The final sequence of the film is a technical and storytelling marvel all on its own, slowly tracking across a vast expanse of material objects left behind by Kane until we reach the shape of a sled, a simple sled. Upon the sled reads the word rosebud, and suddenly the viewer understands; the viewer understands why this word was reconstructed from Charles Foster Kane’s memory upon picking up a snow globe and gazing into the snowy depths within. He was thinking back to his childhood, his innocence, his Self before being overtaken by a capitalist culture and monetary obsession and an existence dominated by a futile desire to be appreciated by the rest of the world. This world, however, never comes to understand the meaning of Kane’s final utterance, but the audience leaves the experience of the film satisfied having discovered the significance of the word rosebud, and what it meant to the subject of the narrative.
For the remainder of this essay, though, we’ll revert back to theory in concluding the discussion of this towering, American cinematic achievement. The monomyth structure is a specific theory that incorporates three primary stages, the Departure (leaving the safety of one’s home for a mysterious world), the Initiation (trials and tribulations existing within uncharted territory) and The Return (a sort of homecoming, new reality, or realization for the protagonist or antihero). In Citizen Kane, Charles Foster Kane’s departure comes about when his guardianship is transferred over from his parents to Thatcher, the world of banking, the world of monetary significance. His innocence, and his childhood, is stripped away from him within the matter of a day and he’s thrown into a world in which money is valued above all other things, including his own psychological well being.
His Initiation can be represented by his rise to success in this new universe, his attempt to transform himself and adjust to a new environment, proving to both himself and his new guardian that he’s capable of resilience, capable of adapting to change and achieving what’s expected of him, even if it’s via a shallower lifestyle than he imagined for himself. And, heartbreakingly, his return only comes moments before his death. The very majority of his life, or what we come to know as his narrative or character arc, takes place in the stage of initiation and political endeavors. Only when he re-discovers the snow globe and his childhood sled pops into his mind does he, in effect, re-discovery his innocence and return to a world not enveloped in the influence of money or politics. Only it’s either too late, or too much for him to take, as he meets his demise a short time later.
The film achieves its “plants,” or hints at future events in the narrative (though nonlinearly) early on in the film by introducing many of its characters that we’d come to know better when flashing back to Kane’s past, in the present, subsequent to his death — Mr. Thatcher, for instance, or his second wife Susie, who refuses to speak to a reporter very early on in the film, and we wonder about her from that point forward until the portion of the narrative which concentrates on her relationship to Kane comes about. Furthermore, by beginning the film with such a gloomy and shadowy portrait of Kane’s estate, and following this series of shots up with his death, we come to expect a downfall in his character arc, emotionally if not financially and interpersonally. Lastly, Kane’s forcing of Susie to pursue a career in singing, despite her not even wanting such a life, could be seen as a plant anticipating the downfall of their marriage. After all, one human being can only take so much manipulation and extraneous control over their own life before they slip away and pursue a self-fulfilled liberation.
In the end, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane is a beautiful film to explore with regard to the notion of “reading for the plot” for a number of reason. Firstly, it keeps our attention through its alternation back and forth between a present, post-Kane, and a past, while Kane is still around. This achieves a level of constant inquiry from the viewer. When we’re experiencing the past, we’re perpetually asking ourselves what events will transpire that will lead up to Kane’s death (which we experience in the film’s opening sequence). And when we’re in the present, we’re perpetually asking ourselves what information will be revealed that will shed some light on Kane’s death, or the significance and legacy of his life. It’s left until the very, very end of the film to reveal to viewers the true significance of the word rosebud and, this not only incorporates an aspect of never-ending suspense but, when the final reveal does come, it allows us to exit Charles Foster Kane’s life with a remembrance of his innocence, his childhood, and thus we depart from his story with a sense of sympathy for him and, depending upon our own life experiences, potentially even a sense of empathy.