Essay Questions On Citizen Kane

  • 1

    Describe how Welles and Toland used deep focus to enhance the narrative during the scene when Charles's mother is signing the papers to transfer his guardianship to Thatcher.

    This sequence begins with an image that embodies innocence - a young boy (Charles Foster Kane) playing with his sled in the snow, carefree and happy despite the inclement weather swirling around him. This image stays in focus throughout the rest of the scene, where Charles's father, Mr. Kane, argues with his mother, Mrs. Kane, who has made the decision to send Charles to Chicago with Mr. Thatcher so that he can have a chance for a better life. Through the use of deep focus, Welles keeps the audience aware of the fact that this innocent child's fate is being decided while he plays happily in the snow, unaware that the course of his life is about to change. The window creates a frame around the image of young Charles, giving the outdoor scene a nostalgic feeling.

  • 2

    Compare and contrast the circumstances surrounding Charles Foster Kane's two marriages, and how Welles chooses to depict these relationships.

    Charles's first marriage to Emily Norton fits in perfectly with his persona as new American royalty - after all, she is the President's niece. The famous breakfast-table montage takes place in a serene, private environment - and the internal battles of their marriage are played out through passive-aggressive quarrels and silences. Meanwhile, Kane marries Susan Alexander Kane because of a public scandal. Their dynamics play out much more publicly - Susan is a much more vocal opponent than Emily. Charles pushes his new wife to be an opera singer, which brings the conflict between them into the public eye. When Susan is leaving, Charles tries to stop her - his first concern is how it will look to others.

  • 3

    Why does Charles Foster Kane force Susan Alexander to become an Opera Singer? Why is it so important to him?

    According to his friend Jedediah Leland, Charles Foster Kane always had something to prove. With the Chronicle's exposure of his "love nest" with a "singer", Kane is desperate to save face in light of the scandal - which for him, means turning Susan from a "singer" to a singer. When Susan protests, her husband refuses to listen because he does not want to look like a fool in the public eye. Susan's forced singing career is an example of Kane's desperation for public attention - but only on his own terms.

  • 4

    Describe how Bernstein and Leland's flashbacks represent the two men's different relationships with Charles Foster Kane.

    While Welles does not explicitly spell out the state of Bernstein and Kane's relationship at the time of Kane's death, certain cues indicate that Bernstein remained loyal until the end. He is the Chairman of the Board and sits below a framed portrait of Charles Foster Kane. The tone of Bernstein's flashback indicates his longstanding devotion to Kane - he presents the meteoric rise of Charles Foster Kane, up until the point that he marries Emily. Meanwhile, Jedediah Leland, who had a terrible falling-out with Charles Foster Kane, is bitter and cynical, confined to a wheelchair in a hospital. His recollections of Kane are much less flattering - it is through him that we learn about Kane's downfall. Leland pokes holes in Bernstein's hero.

  • 5

    There is only one word spoken in the opening sequence of Citizen Kane. What can the audience discern from the images alone?

    It is clear from the "No Trespassing" sign that the camera is taking us somewhere we (an audience) are not welcome. The extreme close-ups of the chain-link fence and the wrought-iron gates are further evidence of the inaccessibility of the castle in the distance. The images of empty gondolas and a decaying golf course suggest that this place was built by somebody of great wealth, but who does not use any of this massive house's extravagant features. Inside, a dying man is alone, holding a snow-globe with a tiny cabin inside, an item that is clearly important to him. He speaks the word "Rosebud" in a slow, morose way, so it must be something that has caused him pain in some way. The only person who enters when he dies is a nurse, which shows that this man was alone, with no family or friends around him. The fact that these images tell a near-perfect story of the man we will get to know is a testament to Welles's strength as a director.

  • 6

    Describe the conflict between Charles Foster Kane and Walter Parks Thatcher and what their differing political views represent.

    The first time Mr. Thatcher appears on screen, he is testifying in a Congressional investigation that Charles Foster Kane's social beliefs prove that he is a communist. Throughout the film, Thatcher makes his beliefs very clear: he stands for capitalism. Thatcher represents Mrs. Kane's newfound wealth, which she uses to send her son away for a better life. He cannot understand why Charles Foster Kane would print stories in the Inquirer that attack Wall Street, an action he believes is akin to Kane biting the hand that feeds him. Kane's beliefs, on the other hand, are not quite so black-and-white, as he reveals in his speech to Thatcher about his dual responsibility as a shareholder in the Public Transit Company as well as a concerned citizen. He wants to protect his wealth but he is also looking to protect the interests of the disenfranchised. He wants to be rich and adored at the same time, while Thatcher only really cares about protecting his own interests.

  • 7

    Why does Charles Foster Kane destroy Susan's room? What does her departure represent?

    Once Charles Foster Kane loses the race for Governor of New York, he exercises his power to try and make Susan into an opera star. When that doesn't work, he retreats to Xanadu, where he is the master of his domain - even though his domain is smaller and removed from society. Susan is part of this domain, part of Charles's desire to keep up appearances even though his reputation is beyond repair. When she leaves him, this last illusion of control is shattered. He cannot stop her from walking out the door, which is the final stage of his fall from grace. As soon as Susan walks out the door, Kane knows that it is all over for him - he has lost everything. Susan's room is full of things that represent his wealth - he has bought her everything she ever asked for, but, as Susan tells him - he never gave her anything he truly cared about. Kane's rampage in Susan's room shows that she was right - these were just things, and they could never add up to a loving relationship.

  • 8

    Describe how the art direction and cinematography of Xanadu helps to reveal something about Charles and Susan's life.

    Xanadu is large and cavernous, and the Great Hall, where many of the scenes between Susan and Charles take place, is sparsely decorated. Also, Welles chooses to keep the room very dark, with only a few spotlights, making it feel even more gloomy. Though the opening newsreel describes Xanadu as a "private pleasure palace", it hardly feels like a place of joy. Charles alludes to parties and guests, but none of them are ever on screen. In the scene where Charles suggests they go out for a picnic, he is sitting in a grand chair so far away from Susan, who is literally doing her jigsaw puzzle in the fireplace, that she cannot hear him. This is a physical representation of the distance between them. Also, it clearly doesn't matter to Charles whether or not Susan can hear him - he suggests a picnic, she doesn't think it's a good idea, and he just repeats his suggestion, showing that his mind is already made up and Susan's opinion doesn't matter.

  • 9

    What do you think Citizen Kane says about the American Dream?

    Citizen Kane presents a bleak view of all the things that the American Dream represents: power, wealth, and status. Charles Foster Kane's mother sends him away so that he will be able to achieve all these things, and yet, he dies filled with regret over his lost childhood. Had he stayed at Mrs. Kane's boardinghouse in Little Salem, Colorado, there is no guarantee that his life would have been happy. However, achieving the American Dream did not bring Charles Foster Kane happiness either. Perhaps, as he says in the film, if not for his wealth, he could have been a great man; or maybe he just could have been a good husband, a good father, and an upstanding citizen.

  • 10

    When Jim W. Gettys confronts Charles Foster Kane, Gettys tells Emily that he is "fighting for [his] life, not just [his] political life, but his life". Do you think that Charles Foster Kane is able to see the distinction between his own personal and political lives? Why or why not?

    In this scene, it becomes clear that Charles Foster Kane's political life is his life. Gettys, as corrupt as he may be, does not want his children to see insulting cartoons of him in the Inquirer and feels that he must retaliate. However, Gettys offers Charles Foster Kane a choice - either he can disappear for a while, forfeit the election, and save himself and his family from the embarrassment of a public scandal, or Gettys will release the story of Charles and Susan's "affair" to the newspapers. Unlike Gettys, Kane does not care about the effect of his actions on his family. He is more concerned with earning the "love" of his voters than saving his own wife and son from pain and embarrassment. He is happy to pose with Junior and Emily if it helps to endear him to his voters, but he will not make sacrifices for their well-being.

  • It storms after us down the corridors of history like its own hero. Bloated, grotesque, tremendous; destroying as it goes; influencing and renewing too. Every fresh decade calls it the best film ever made. Every new generation poses and tries to answer the question, "Why?"

    Citizen Kane is 70. Three score years and 10 after its New York premiere in May 1941, it is still everywhere. Not just in its own flesh, as reissue, telecast or DVD, but in the monstrous spell it casts on filmmakers. Long after the critics-turned-directors of the French New Wave first made Orson Welles a demigod – remember the young hero of François Truffaut's Les Quatre Cents Coups dreaming of stealing stills from a cinema showing Citizen Kane? – the figure of the haunted megalomaniac, presiding over the shards of his own life, is inescapable. From Michael Corleone in the Godfather films to Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood, via Robert De Niro's Jake La Motta in Raging Bull (the pugilist's Citizen Kane), the examined life is worth living, irresistibly, for an audience nourished on themes of ambition, self-destruction and the war between private and public actions.

    No less ubiquitous since Kane has been the screen drama told through conflicting memories, from Rashomon and Last Year in Marienbad to Memento and Magnolia. No less "modern" in style, especially since Robert Altman added fresh colours to Kane's master sketch, is the crowded fresco of life enriched with overlappings of plot and dialogue. Kane got there first nearly every time. When it didn't, its brilliance destroyed the memory of predecessors.

    Orson Welles didn't bother with the ABC of filmmaking. A precocious marvel, aged 25 when he made Kane, he went straight to the XYZ. X for Kane's home, the mist-wreathed castle of Xanadu, a megalomaniac's dream built atop a man-made mountain. Y standing for "Why?" – again the simplest, most important question. Why was Kane successful, why was he a failure? Why was he a triumph and a tragedy? Why is he, simultaneously and almost symbiotically, all of us and none of us?"

    And Z? That has to be for Zaharoff. Many Kane lovers – me included – think that is how it all began. In 1936 Welles, a radio-producing prodigy in New York, helped to craft a March of Time obituary of the munitions tycoon Sir Basil Zaharoff. Dramatised vignettes opened with Zaharoff's secretaries burning his papers in the giant fireplace of his castle. Later, witnesses are called to remember Zaharoff's life. Later still the dying, castle-dwelling Zaharoff, played by Welles, is given his own voice and his own valedictory cameo. He announces a wish to be wheeled into the sun "by that rosebush".

    We know what the rosebush became. "Rosebud". The most important uttered sound in Citizen Kane, the dying Kane's last word, the secret to his sorrow. It is the name of his childhood sledge, ultimately thrown to the flames as oblivion sears the movie's final scenes.

    Author and one-time film critic Jorge Luis Borges, who loved Citizen Kane, thought the Rosebud motif its single major weakness. The film, he wrote, "has at least two plots. The first [is] of an almost banal imbecility ... At the moment of his death, [Kane] yearns for a single thing in the universe: a fittingly humble sled that he played with as a child!"

    Welles himself dismissed Rosebud as a "dollar-book Freudian gag." (For my disagreement with Welles and Borges, read on.) It was the single detail in Citizen Kane he freely attributed to screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, whom he fought for credit over almost every other part of the film. The problem of Kane's true authorship – the authorship of its genius, not just its story – is the subject of critic Pauline Kael's book Raising Kane, first published as an essay in The New Yorker in 1971. Her contention was that Mankiewicz, the fitfully brilliant, drink-prone brother to Joseph (who made All About Eve), was robbed – partly by Welles's ego – of the right to call himself Kane's creator. (In 1941 he was its only Oscar winner, though the screenplay credit had to be shared with Welles after arbitration by the Writers Guild.)

    In 1972, the critic and filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich wrote The Kane Mutiny, attacking Kael and re-championing Welles. I think Bogdanovich is right. It isn't the concept, it isn't the dialogue, it isn't even the characterisation that makes the movie a masterpiece. It is the vision.

    What do we mean by that? Let's go back to Borges. What was the second of the "two plots" he finds in the film? It is, he says, far superior to the Rosebud plot. It is "the investigation of a man's secret soul by means of the works he has made, the words he has spoken, the many destinies he has destroyed ... The film teems with forms of multiplicity, of incongruity ... the detested Charles Foster Kane is a simulacrum, a chaos of appearances ... In one of Chesterton's stories" – Borges's beloved GK Chesterton – "the hero observes that nothing is so frightening as a labyrinth without a centre. This film is precisely that labyrinth."

    You can script a labyrinth. Mankiewicz helped to do so. But a writer's pen cannot carve and build it, give it size and echo. The labyrinth in Kane, the tomb of life, the palace of death, is a pure delirium of cinema, the creation of the man behind the camera. Its mirrored infinity is crafted by a director who loved reflections (the fairground hall-of-mirrors shootout at the climax to The Lady from Shanghai), its shadowed enormities by a man who loved shadows (Touch of Evil). Supremely Wellesian is the film's obsessive "showdowning" – sometimes you have to invent a word when one isn't available – between the theatrical and the cinematographic.

    No one has come near this filmmaker in understanding this tension. Citizen Kane is all "about" the quest to pierce through proscenium enactment to reportorial truth; and to wonder, in the process, if even reportorial truth is the last level of reality. The Kane sets and ambience are monstrously theatrical yet we keep going through them, behind them, above them. The sign over Susan Alexander's nightclub is – in an "impossible" shot achieved with flyaway scenery – travelled through by the camera. It's a world of greasepaint and artifice, challenging us to find concealed truths. Welles's own portrayal becomes more theatrical by the reel. To play the older Charles Foster Kane he spent six hours each morning in the make-up chair: a grown-up playing charades. Yet ultimately the force of the movie, aided by the power of our curiosity, blows the sense of cosmetic make-believe apart.

    Rosebud is part of the same action. What seems a fairy-tale simplification, a motif from the props department, opens up to become part of the movie's resonance. Welles was an amateur magician later in life; his last feature, F For Fake, was all about conjuring and imposture. No wonder the facile-seeming key to Kane's story – the name of his childhood sled – may be the actual key.

    More literally, it is the bud that opens for moviegoers by being the bud that doesn't open in the movie. On screen "Rosebud" tells us Kane's life was nipped in its growth by a too-early rendezvous with wealth and destiny. But in our experiencing of the film "Rosebud" communicates the opposite. The spell of the word grows and grows. Like so much in the movie it starts as a hint, and expands by a process of change, association, counterpoint and contradiction into the holistic and all-comprehending.

    The part stands for the whole. The part becomes the whole. The pattern is there throughout, from the famous breakfast scene – 16 years of a marriage elided into a two-minute mealtime montage – to the way the idea of the "jigsaw" becomes revelatory and all-pervading. We look back from Susan Alexander Kane's epic bemusement over a literal jigsaw in the final scenes to the whole jigsaw technique this montage-rich movie has deployed: from the early News on the March newsreel to the skittering ellipses of Kane's tycoon career.

    Reality in tension with artifice. Crystallisation in tension with expansion. The distilled in tension with the discursive. And, of course, fact in tension with fiction. Was Citizen Kane a portrait of the multimillionaire newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst? Of course it was. Hearst recognised it, banning any mention of the film in his publications. Louis B Mayer, on behalf of a Hollywood threatened with dire reprisal by Hearst, offered RKO Studios $805,000 to burn all prints and the negative.

    At the same time, Citizen Kane wasn't about Hearst at all and has outlived him as an iconic world memory. You could as justly argue, and probably should, that Kane is Joseph Conrad's Kurtz. Heart of Darkness (later to inspire Francis Coppola's Apocalypse Now) was the debut film on which Welles had started pre-production. Too expensive, it gave way to Kane. But the stories are virtually identical. An "explorer" (in Kane, an investigative reporter) voyages "up-river" (against tides of resistance) through a "jungle" (of conflicting and contradictory information) to find a man – or, in Kane, the secret of a man – who has lived as a wilful, ruthless, overlording tyrant.

    Then again, Kane is Welles himself. Kane lovers and critics recognise the stormy, capricious boy wonder in front of the camera as the one behind it. The fully-grown genius who was simultaneously an overgrown baby. The cranky tyrant who was a lost, lovable, richly imaginative soul. The rosebud who was also rose ...

    This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.

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