An Analysis of Citizen Kane: No Trespassing

Never has the fine art of cinematography been so perfectly executed than by Orson Welles in his perennial film, Citizen Kane. Whether a fan of the story or not, every true admirer of movies can appreciate the cinematic techniques utilized by Welles to capture the life of his enigmatic main character. Many aspects of the movie have been analyzed thoroughly, but what I would like to examine is an idea that is often overlooked. As the movie fades in, an eerie chain link fence and a sign reading NO TRESPASSING greet us. Although seemingly unimportant when watching, these two words hold just as much value to the content of the film as does Charles Kane himself. For, if we realize, the characters are attempting to trespass into Kane’s life. In fact, the mansion can be seen as a metaphor for Kane, while the fence is the demeanor he puts up to block others from his true thoughts. The importance of this idea is reiterated in the final scene; our last shot is of the sign and a view from outside Kane’s manor. The story has come full circle.

This begs the question, “Were we able to successfully cross over into and elucidate the details of Kane’s mind?” I argue that the cinematographic and editing techniques employed by Welles allow the viewers trespass, but deny this access to the characters in the story. Throughout the movie, viewers are able to get past the fence and see Kane in a better light. However, Kane doesn’t reveal much about his thoughts verbally. Rather, it is Welles who provides us with much of the insight through his stellar direction and editing virtuosity. Orson Welles has been noted for using nearly every trick in the film editor’s book to create Citizen Kane. However, to best illustrate how we are able to trespass into Kane’s mind, it is necessary to examine his use of point-of-view and non-linear storytelling, low angle shots, and deep focus, blocking, and framing. These aspects are unnoticeable to the untrained eye, but if we look closely, we see how these subtle filmic elements provide us with a better understanding of the life of Charles Foster Kane.

“Rosebud” is the elusive last word uttered by Kane, and the impetus of the story. We are left wondering what it could mean, and why Kane would say this on his deathbed. One reporter, Mr. Thompson says, “I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life. No, I guess Rosebud is just a piece in a jigsaw puzzle-a missing piece.” It is this missing piece of Kane’s life that we wish to discover, because it leads us to believe there is something deeper to Kane’s character than what we see on the surface. We are forced to trespass into his life, and this proves difficult at times. Two techniques Welles uses in conjunction are non-linear storytelling and varying points-of-view. These actually place the viewer in the same shoes as the reporters, in that we find it difficult to discern anything about Kane. The non-linear nature of the film is evident immediately, as we are shown Kane’s death. The story goes back in time and works itself back to that point. Seeking to understand Kane, Thompson talks with many people who knew him. He speaks with old employees Jedediah and Mr. Bernstein, as well as his second wife, Susan.

This provides the viewer with a series of flashbacks and flashforwards that, as a result, contributes to the story’s non-linearity. Compounding the difficulty of the mystery is that we have several different viewpoints on Kane, each which are somewhat unreliable. Susan is drunk and uncooperative, and Jedediah is old and preoccupied with nurses and cigars. Although Mr. Bernstein is willing to talk, his suggestion is that Rosebud was a girl. However, this thought is based on part of Bernstein’s life, and doesn’t seem to fit Kane’s story. These three people were those who were closest to Kane, so presumably one would think they could provide some useful insight. That isn’t the case, though. These characters don’t know much more about Kane’s mind than we do. It is interesting to note that Susan enjoyed jigsaw puzzles. She herself was likely trying to figure out Kane when he was alive, so clearly she doesn’t hold the answers now that he is dead. So what does, “no trespassing” mean here? By telling the story through his closest friends, I think Welles wants us to see that Kane didn’t ever allow anyone to understand who he was. He built a fence around his heart, so that people only saw him from one side: the outside. Thus, at times, the viewers only see him from this angle, too, and find it equally hard to trespass into Kane’s internal character.

Where non-linear storytelling and point of view prevents us from trespassing, other techniques give us better access to Kane. The first is low angle shots. As the name suggests, these are shots which are taken from below, looking up, and tend to signify the importance of the characters on the screen. Hence, we tend to also get an idea of how Kane views himself throughout various stages of the film. Low angle shots are less frequent in the beginning, suggesting Kane as an equal to his peers. But as the story progresses, nearly every scene seems to have a low angle shot of him. A very good example of this is the election speech. The scene begins with a shot from above and then a distant shot of Kane at the podium. As Kane furiously talks to the crowd, the camera pans down to the bottom of the podium, making it seem exaggeratingly tall. We see Kane next to a giant headshot of himself, although due to the angle, they look similar in size. Kane, we can begin to infer, views himself as a powerful man.

Another example of a low angle shot is when Kane is the only one clapping in the opera balcony. Here we see Kane’s frustration; he loves Susan but needs a reason for others to love her and be jealous of him. He feels he is entitled to be envied because he is so powerful. The low angle shot, in combination with his face covered in shadow, suggests that his power may be diminishing. Finally, the last case of low angle shot comes in destruction of Susan’s room. For the majority of this scene, we are looking up at Kane as he tears the room to pieces, the ultimate culmination of what has become of his life. At last, he picks up a familiar snow globe, and the shot returns to eye level. This standard shot reveals that Kane is no longer the man of power he once was; he realizes that the power he held over others undermined the power he held over himself. It is very interesting to note that no words were spoken in these last two scenes. It is simply through the use of camera angles that viewers obtain better information than the reporters, and begin to see the real Charles Kane.

The final, and most effective method used to illustrate the idea of trespassing is a combination of deep focus, blocking, and framing. Welles uses these extensively, and similar to low angle shots, they show Kane’s sense of importance as he progresses through life. Once again, it is best to use three separate scenes to analyze Kane at different stages. The first is when he is a boy. We see Charles in the snow having a great time, and the camera moves back into the house through the window. As the camera stops we see his mother, father, and Mr. Thatcher. Through the use of blocking, we have Mrs. Kane and Mr. Thatcher on the right, Mr. Kane on the left, and Charles in the center. Even though Charles is now far away, he is still in focus, and framed within the window. This use of deep focus seems to emphasize Charles’ innocence at this point in his life. Later in the film there is a similar scene, where we see Kane happily dancing upon his success as a newspaperman. The camera pans back until two of his coworkers are seen in the next room. Kane is still in focus through the framing of the window, with one friend to his left, and the other to his right. They begin talking about how his ego might be getting the best of him. This dialogue seems to emphasize what the blocking and deep focus try to tell us: Kane is losing his innocence and becoming conceited. The final shot comes right after Kane destroys Susan’s room. As he walks out, the people who work for him silently stare. The camera stops as Kane moves off screen until we see his reflection in a mirror. Everyone in the room is blocked to the left or right of the mirror, and for the few seconds Kane passes it, we can see large pillars, deep in focus, serving to show Kane as a small man. We tend to get the idea that since he is in a mirror, he is reflecting on his life. Since he is so small next to the tall pillars, perhaps he is thinking that he really wasn’t the big man as he purveyed; maybe some part of his life was more important. Blocking and framing are elements of mise-en-scène, and effective manipulation of these two factors results in the whole picture being of value. Deep focus stresses that we should be paying attention to the mise-en-scène as a whole, and not just a specific part. This is further emphasized in these three particular scenes through the use of a continuous shot; there is no editing for a considerable time, eliminating distractions to our eyes. Hence, the viewer can take everything on the screen into account, and analyze the deeper meaning within each frame. Through these film strategies, Welles allows us to trespass into the life of Charles Kane better than any character in the story.

“I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life,” Mr. Thompson says. For Mr. Thompson and all the others in the story, that one word, “Rosebud,” will forever remain a mystery. As viewers, we are given the answer: Rosebud was Charles’ sled as a young boy, the one that was abandoned in the snow on the day he was taken from his parents. Although Kane never explicitly says it, it is clear to us now that he was indeed missing part of his life. He just wanted to experience the kind of happiness he felt when he was with his mother, playing in the snow. The final scene illustrates that this never crossed the mind of the reporters. Among the endless collection of material goods Kane has saved, they find a stove belonging to his mother. Compared to all the other goods, this is worthless, but to Kane it obviously represented something much greater. The reporters simply discard it as “junk”. Perhaps if the reporters had been on our side they would have understood. Because of the cinematic strategies employed by Welles, the content of Kane’s character takes on a new meaning for us. NO TRESPASSING, the sign reads as the orchestral score plays us to the end. No, perhaps no one who knew Charles Kane was ever allowed to trespass, but thanks to Orson Welles’ brilliant cinematography, we find ourselves beyond the chain link fence, beyond the walls of the façade, and into the heart of one of the most interesting characters in movie history.

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