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The Secret Life of Citizen Kane

All that remains of Citizen Kane (Citizen Kane, 1941)

9. "I don't think any word can explain a man's life."

The next scene sees the couple in the cavernous halls of Xanadu.   Kane has built a palace, ostensibly for Susan, but it is a cold and cheerless mausoleum.   Susan is clearly bored there, and Kane has visibly aged and gained weight.   The huge rooms of Xanadu dwarf its inhabitants, creating yawning spaces between them that accentuates their individual isolation even though they are together.   The materialistic trappings with which Kane has surrounded himself are poor substitutes for the loss of love.   And where, earlier in the film, he had commanded and controlled his surroundings, he now appears small and lost. Susan fills her empty hours by completing an endless succession of huge jigsaw puzzles - to which Thompson, when his quest proves unsuccessful, compares Charles Kane.

Susan wants to go to New York to have fun, but Kane objects: ’our home is here, Susan.   I don’t care to visit New York.’   Once again, the similarities between the older Kane and his former guardian Thatcher become apparent.   Susan wants to have fun in the same way that the younger Kane had frivolously suggested that running a newspaper would be fun.   Thatcher was as dismissive of what Kane wants as Kane is of Susan’s wishes - he has effectively become the very thing he once despised.

Susan solves jigsaw puzzles to relieve her boredom (Citizen Kane, 1941)

A brief montage sequence shows Susan completing puzzle after puzzle to suggest the passing of time - many of the puzzles are of outdoor scenes, a choice that indicates Susan’s yearning for the outside world and her sense of imprisonment .   Once again Kane enters the cavernous hall to find Susan at work at yet another puzzle; although time has passed, only one thing has changed - Susan’s attitude towards Kane has altered.   She is now almost openly hostile towards her husband.   When he suggests inviting people to a picnic the next day, Susan contemptuously contradicts him by scoffing at the word ’invite’ and changing it to ’order’.   For all her simplicity, Susan now knows Kane well enough to understand how he operates, and with such knowledge comes disillusion - as Jedediah Leland discovered before her.

The next scene shows a long convoy of cars driving alongside the beach on their way to the picnic, but it is a cheerless scene: the convoy of black cars resembles a funeral procession moving slowly in rigid single file.   Susan and Kane sitting in the back seat of the lead car now look as equally at unease in the close, claustrophobic confines of the car as they did in the empty spaces of Xanadu.   ‘You never give me anything I really care about,’ says Susan.

We next see a close-up of a black singer singing the words ‘It can’t be love, for there is no true love, no true love,’ a reflection on Kane and Susan’s failing relationship.    The picnic is taking place at night in the depths of the  Florida Everglades (the ‘birds’ flying around in the background are actually ‘pterodactyls’ created for one of RKO’s King Kong movies which Welles used to cut costs).   Despite being in the midst of a party of friends, Kane and Susan are alone in their tent - another indication of their isolation, and an extension of the stifling atmosphere at Xanadu.   As before, Susan kneels on the floor in a submissive position, but this time she stands up to her husband.   Once again she criticises him for his inability to demonstrate his love.   The only way he is capable of showing his love is by buying her expensive gifts but, given his immense wealth, such gifts are meaningless: ‘What's the difference between giving me a bracelet or giving somebody else a hundred thousand dollars for a statue you're gonna keep crated up and never even look at? It's just money, it doesn't mean anything! You never really give me anything that belongs to you, that you care about!

The vast, cavernous rooms of Xanadu (Citizen Kane, 1941)

Susan continues to goad Kane until he rises from his chair.   Shot from a low angle, he looms over her threateningly, but tells her that whatever he does he does because he loves her, indicating the oppressive nature of what passes for love in Kane's mind.   In contrast to Kanes face, which is in darkness, Susan looks up into the light, giving her an innocent appearance which is in keeping with the fact that this incident is told from Susans point of view.

Their argument becomes so heated that Kane is provoked into hitting Susan.   She stares up at him without flinching or crying and says, Dont say Im sorry, to which Kane replies, Im not sorry.   Outside the tent a womans unexplained screams can be heard; they serve to both vocalise Susans hurt and frustration and to emphasise the fact that she and Kane are so wrapped up in the death throes of their marriage that neither seems to hear or be concerned by the screams.

The scene that follows takes place at Xanadu, where Raymond, Kane’s butler, informs Kane that Susan has been packing her bags since early morning.   Kane hurries to Susan’s bedroom, which is decorated in noticeable contrast to the rest of Xanadu.   The room is bright and small, with a low ceiling, and is cluttered with dolls and ornaments (a reference to Susan’s relationship to Kane).   The low beams of the room are decorated with paintings of small animals.   The difference in Susan and Kane’s characters is emphasised further by the way Welles shoots Kane standing in the doorway of the room, using a kind of chiaroscuro effect so that he is in darkness and she is in light.   Kane looks uncomfortably out of place in the only part of Xanadu that truly belongs to his wife.   Susan informs Kane that she is leaving him.   For once, she is shot from the same level as Kane, indicating the shift in control of their relationship.   Previously, Susan was usually shown on a lower level to Kane, gazing up at him, and often in his shadow.   But now, finally free of his tyranny, she confronts him as an equal.   The balance of power in the relationship shifts even further when Kane begs Susan not to leave him.   Kane is anxious, he rubs his hands nervously.   As he pleads with her, Susan’s expression briefly appears to soften – until Kane says, ‘You can’t do this to me,’ and demonstrates that he is not considering her feelings and unhappiness, but only thinking of how empty he knows his life will be if she leaves him.   ‘I can’t do this to you?’ she says.   ‘Oh yes I can.’   With that she finally turns her back on Kane and walks away from him.   He watches as she departs through a series of doors.   The silence as he (and we) watch her leave, emphasise the loneliness that is about to engulf Kane.   Once more, the woman closest person to him is abandoning him.

This scene completes Susan Alexander’s recollections of her former husband, and she suggests to Thompson that he question Raymond, Kane’s butler.   As he rises to leave, Thompson says that, despite everything, he feels sorry for Kane.   ‘Don’t you think I do?’ Susan replies.   She, of all the witnesses to Kane’s life, has most reason to despise Kane, but his character is too complex (and tortured) to be seen in pure terms, and his memory evokes conflicting emotions in those who knew him best (Leland and Alexander) and polarised opinions in those who didn’t know him so well (Thatcher and Bernstein).

Mirrors (Citizen Kane, 1941)

Raymond is in darkness at the beginning of the next scene, an indication of his dubious character.   He lights a cigarette, and the flickering flame illuminates his face.   ‘Sure, I’ll tell you what I know,’ he says, moving into the light to reveal his true nature, ‘for $1,000.’ 

He tells Thompson that Kane ‘acted kind of funny sometimes,’ then boasts of how he knew how to handle him.   The shot of the two men is abruptly replaced by the harsh shriek of a cockatoo as we return to the moment of Susan’s departure.   We see a close up of Kane as the realisation that Susan is really leaving him sinks in, and his pain is slowly transformed into a rage that sends him blindly thrashing around her bedroom, destroying everything he lays his hands on.   This moment marks the third time Kane resorts to violence in the film, and each episode occurs when he realises he has lost control of some aspect of his life: the first is when, as a child, he angrily attacks Thatcher with his sled, and the second incident occurs when he verbally attacks Jim Gettys.   Each time, his outburst is useless.

Kane resembles an ungainly giant as he blunders around Susan’s bedroom, destroying all the ornaments, symbols of the material possessions he has given her as a substitute for the love he is unable to give.  As the strength begins to drain from him, he chances upon the snow globe, a symbol to him of the few positive aspects of his life and of Rosebud, the modest sled which was the only valuable possession he ever owned.   Kane’s rage is stilled as all the associations that the globe evokes wash over him.   With Susan’s departure he has lost everything but his childhood memories, and he pockets the globe, finding it his sole source of comfort at the moment when his world is collapsing.   As the repressed memories flood back Kane utters the word ‘Rosebud,’ and its dramatic effect is increased by the sudden silence in the room following the end of his cacophonous tantrum.

Kane leaves the room to find his staff, alarmed by the noise of his tantrum, lining the hall.   He walks past them, humiliated by their presence.   In another famous shot, we see his image repeated endlessly as he walks between two mirrors, not only a visual metaphor for both the multi-faceted nature of his character and his fragmented state of mind, but also a powerful signal that he is now truly alone in a desolate world of his own making; one that is bereft of other people – and which is the only kind he has any chance of controlling completely.

Kane's shadowy butler, Raymond (Citizen Kane, 1941)  Thompson informs Raymond that the information he has provided isn’t worth $1,000, and descends Xanadu’s extravagant staircase to join his fellow reporters as they mill around the vast collection of Kane’s belongings, which have been gathered in the vast reception area in preparation for removal.   When his colleagues ask him if he has succeeded in his quest, Thompson admits defeat.   One reporter asks him what he did find about Kane, and he is forced to admit that he has learned very little.   Without the opportunity to interview the man himself, the information he has received has been conflicting and unreliable because of the opposing opinions of those he interviewed and the unreliability of their memories.   He has been trying to piece together a jigsaw from which the main part – Kane – is missing.

Another reporter speculates that Thompson would have been able to solve the puzzle had he been able to discover the meaning of Kane’s last word, but Thompson disagrees: ‘No, I don't think so. No. Mister Kane was a man who got everything he wanted and then lost it. Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn't get or something he lost. Anyway, it wouldn't have explained anything. 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.

The reporters move off-screen, but the camera remains and begins its inquisitive journey over a vast mountain of Kane’s lifetime of acquisitions, many of them still packed in their crates.   The sheer volume of artefacts illustrates the emptiness of the man who owned them.   Familiar objects from Kane’s life are briefly glimpsed: the bedstead that once was in the Inquirer’s office, a framed photograph of Kane and his mother, a bundle of newspapers.   The camera then briefly alights upon a child’s sled the moment before it is picked up by a workman.   He takes the sled to an incinerator where all the possessions that are considered worthless are being burned, and is instructed by Raymond to ‘Throw that junk.’

The musical score builds while the camera closes in on the sled in the incinerator as the flames lick at it, to reveal the name ‘Rosebud’ which is painted on it.   The secret of Kane’s dying word is revealed to the audience but remains a mystery to the people who knew him.

From outside Xanadu the camera pans up to reveal the black smoke rising from the incinerator’s chimney.   The deconstruction of the man is already underway, and the creation of the legend – in the absence of tangible facts – is inevitably about to begin.   The camera pulls back to find the same ‘No Trespassing’ sign with which the film began.   For all the delving into Kane’s past, the man still remains an enigma, the barriers remain in place, and we essentially know nothing more about him than we did at the start of the film.

Rosebud (Citizen Kane, 1941)

8. "Something of an authority"



















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