Citizen Kane

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Citizen Kane

Orson Welles' Citizen Kane poster
Directed by Orson Welles
Produced by Orson Welles
Written by Orson Welles,
Herman J. Mankiewicz
Starring Orson Welles,
Joseph Cotten,
Dorothy Comingore,
Ruth Warrick,
Everett Sloane,
George Coulouris,
Ray Collins,
Agnes Moorehead
Music by Bernard Herrmann
Cinematography Gregg Toland
Editing by Robert Wise
Distributed by RKO Radio Pictures
Release date(s) May 1, 1941
Running time 119 min.
Language English
Budget $686,034 (est.)
IMDb profile

Citizen Kane is a 1941 mystery/ drama film released by RKO Pictures and directed by Orson Welles, his first feature film. The story traces the life and career of Charles Foster Kane, a man whose career in the publishing world was born of idealistic social service, but gradually evolved into a ruthless pursuit of power and ego at any cost. Narrated principally through flashbacks, the story is revealed through the research of a newspaper reporter seeking to solve the mystery of the newspaper magnate's dying word, "Rosebud."

Citizen Kane is often cited as being one of the most innovative works in the history of film, and in 1998 the American Film Institute placed it at number one in its list of the 100 greatest U.S. movies of all time. In a recent poll of film directors conducted by the British Film Institute, Citizen Kane was ranked number one best film of all time.

The film's main character, Charles Foster Kane, was inspired by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Upon its release, the film was conspicuously absent from Hearst's newspapers.


Actor Role
William Alland Jerry Thompson
Georgia Backus Bertha Anderson
Fortunio Bonanova Signor Matiste
Ray Collins James W. Gettys
Dorothy Comingore Susan Alexander Kane
Joseph Cotten Jedediah Leland
George Coulouris Walter Parks Thatcher
Agnes Moorehead Mary Kane
Erskine Sanford Herbert Carter
Gus Schilling The Headwaiter
Harry Shannon Kane's Father
Everett Sloane Mr. Bernstein
Paul Stewart Raymond
Buddy Swan young Charles Foster Kane
Ruth Warrick Emily Monroe Norton Kane
Orson Welles Charles Foster Kane
Philip Van Zandt Mr. Rawlston


When wealthy media magnate Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) dies, he utters the enigmatic word "Rosebud". This is in the famous first scene, starting with a view of a metal "No Trespassing" sign on a chain link fence. The camera slowly cuts to an iron fence, with the letter "K" on top. In the background looms the large, gloomy palace of Xanadu. There is only one window lit, making it look all the more eerie. The film slowly cuts through a series of shots of the building coming closer and closer, displaying signs of Kane's immense wealth. When it gets to the lit window, the light inexplicably goes out. It then cuts inside the window, where it starts snowing. It quickly pans out of a snow globe containing a little wood house. There is a hand holding it. Kane's mouth is shown uttering the word that anchors the movie - "Rosebud." He drops the globe, which falls on the floor and breaks. The glass reflects a maidservant entering the room. She slowly covers Kane's dead body with a blanket.

An obituary newsreel documents the events in his public life. The producer of the newsreel asks a reporter, Thompson ( William Alland), to find out about Kane's private life and personality, in particular to discover the meaning behind his last word. The reporter interviews the great man's friends and associates, and Kane's story unfolds as a series of flashbacks.

First, Thompson approaches Kane's second wife, Susan Alexander ( Dorothy Comingore), who refuses to tell him anything. Then Thompson goes to the library of Mr. Thatcher ( George Coulouris). It is there that Thompson learns about Kane's childhood. In the first flashback, Kane as a young child is abandoned by his mother ( Agnes Moorehead) when he becomes suddenly wealthy, and sent to live with his banker, Mr Thatcher, despite the misgivings of Kane's father.

Other flashbacks show Kane's entry into the newspaper business and his profit-seeking with low-quality " yellow journalism". These show that he is not a man to be pushed around. He takes over the newspaper and hires all the best journalists (which he gets from the Inquirer's rival, The Chronicle). His attempted rise to power is documented, including his first marriage to a President's niece and his campaign for the office of governor. A "love nest" scandal ends both his marriage and his political aspirations. Kane remarries, but his domineering personality destroys his relationships and pushes away his loved ones.

Despite Thompson's numerous interviews with the people in Kane's life, he is unable to solve the mystery; he concludes that "Rosebud" will remain an enigma. However, the camera pans over workers burning some of Kane's many possessions. One throws an old sled, with the word "Rosebud" painted on it, into the fire. This was the sled Kane was riding as a child the day his mother sent him away. There is a shot of a chimney with black smoke coming out. After this twist ending, the film ends as it began, with the "No Trespassing" sign. The closing shot shows the "K" on top of the iron fence.


Citizen Kane has inspired myriad interpretations over the decades. In Orson Welles: Hello Americans, Simon Callow argued that Citizen Kane should not just be understood as a fictional work but also as a post-fictional piece: a piece where the audience is drawn in to view themselves in the process of watching the film. In a 1941 review, Jorge Luis Borges called Citizen Kane a "metaphysical detective story," in that "... [its] subject (both psychological and allegorical) is the investigation of a man's inner self, through the works he has wrought, the words he has spoken, the many lives he has ruined..." Borges noted that "Overwhelmingly, endlessly, Orson Welles shows fragments of the life of the man, Charles Foster Kane, and invites us to combine them and reconstruct him." As well, "Forms of multiplicity and incongruity abound in the film: the first scenes record the treasures amassed by Kane; in one of the last, a poor woman, luxuriant and suffering, plays with an enormous jigsaw puzzle on the floor of a palace that is also a museum." Borges points out that "... At the end we realize that the fragments are not governed by a secret unity: the detested Charles Foster Kane is a simulacrum, a chaos of appearances."

The film combines revolutionary cinematography (by Gregg Toland, with whom Welles shared a title card, which was a gesture of Welles' appreciation for Toland's overall contribution to the film, much like John Ford previously shared credit with Toland for The Long Voyage Home) with an Oscar-winning screenplay (by Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz — though most film history circles consider Mankiewicz's contribution to the screenplay to be far greater than that of Welles), and a lineup of first time film actors, associates of Mr. Welles from his stint at the Mercury Theatre, such as Joseph Cotten and Agnes Moorehead.


The journalist's mission of retrieving the meaning of Kane's final word leads him in the end to conclude that a man's life cannot be summed up in one word and, as he picks up pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, that Rosebud is a "missing piece" in his life. The movie is made up of fragments of Kane's life, shown in non-chronological order, for the viewer to put together.

When his second wife abandons him, Kane begins destroying her room. He grabs a snow globe and is about to throw it when he sees the falling snowflakes inside. The image of falling snow evokes involuntary memories in Kane. He remembers being sent away by his mother when it was snowing, making him utter "Rosebud" — another memory of the occasion.

Debate over authorship

One of the long standing academic debates of Citizen Kane has been the nature of the authorship of the original screenplay, which the opening credits attributes to both Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz.

Most famously, film critic Pauline Kael, in an essay entitled "Raising Kane" (originally published in The New Yorker in 1971 and later reprinted in The Citizen Kane Book and in her omnibus collection For Keeps) claims that Welles downplayed veteran screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz's contribution. Kael argues that Mankiewicz was the true author of the screenplay and therefore responsible for much of what made the movie great. This angered many critics of the day, most notably critic-turned-filmmaker (and close friend of Welles) Peter Bogdanovich, who rebutted many of Kael's claims.

Subsequently, Robert L. Carringer, in a 1978 essay entitled "The Scripts of Citizen Kane", and in his 1985 book The Making of Citizen Kane, refutes Kael's claim that Mankiewicz was the sole author of the screenplay. After thorough analysis of the seven script revisions of the film, Carringer found the film's dual credit for both Welles and Mankiewicz to be accurate. The script revisions clearly indicate the different contributions and the author of each of those contributions and prove definitively that Mankiewicz did not write the script entirely on his own and that Welles contributed to it significantly.

Welles scholar James Naremore, in his book The Magic World of Orson Welles states:

"Carringer, who has researched the RKO archives, examined all seven revisions of the script, and spoken to most of the people concerned, has found documentary proof that Welles was one of the principal authors of the screenplay. In other words, the credits as they appear on the screen are fairly accurate: Kane was produced by Welles company, co-authored by Herman Mankiewicz and Welles ( John Houseman was offered screenplay credit, but declined), and directed by Welles, who also played the leading character."


During production, Citizen Kane was referred to as RKO 281. Filming took place between June 29 and October 23, 1940. Welles prevented studio executives of RKO from visiting the set. He understood their desire to control projects and he knew they were expecting him to do an exciting film that would correspond to his The War of the Worlds radio broadcast. Welles' RKO contract had given him complete control over the production of the film when he signed on with the studio, something that he never again was allowed to exercise when making motion pictures.

Filmmaking innovations

Film scholars and historians view Citizen Kane as Welles' attempt to create a new style of filmmaking by studying various forms of movie making, and combining them all into one (much like D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation did in 1915). Welles' acting style can also be seen as an early example of method acting. For example, the scene where Kane vents his anger from the top of a staircase, at his political opponent Jim Gettys. Welles tripped and chipped his anklebone during the filming of the scene, but the cameras continued to roll and the shot made it into the final print of the film. Some view this as an example of Welles' workhorse ethic. As a director, Welles disliked actors who subscribed to method acting, considering them unreliable. In particular he dismissed the practice of internalizing as being a hindrance rather than contributing to the production as a whole. He liked to work with actors who were malleable to his vision and always prepared to change a delivery at the drop of a hat without too much worry over motivation. Welles, as an actor, frequently practiced cold reading and spent more time memorizing lines (which never took him long) than doing any mental prep work. It is commonly agreed, however, that there are instances in Citizen Kane where Welles became consumed with his role. In one famous scene in the movie, Kane destroys his second wife's bedroom with his bare hands after she has left him. According to biographers, after Welles destroyed the room and shooting finished he stumbled off the set with bloody hands muttering to himself, "I felt it. I felt it."

The most innovative technical aspect of Citizen Kane is the unprecedented use of deep focus. In nearly every scene in the film, the foreground, background and everything in between are all in sharp focus. This was done by renowned cinematographer Gregg Toland through his experimentation with lenses and lighting. Specifically, Toland often used telephoto lenses to shoot close-up scenes. Anytime deep focus was impossible — for example in the scene when Kane finishes a bad review of Alexander's opera while at the same time firing the person who started the review — Toland used an optical printer to make the whole screen appear in focus (one piece of film is printed onto another piece of film). However, many deep focus shots were the result of in-camera effects, as in the famous example of the scene where Kane breaks into Susan Alexander's room after her suicide attempt. In the background, Kane and another man break into the room, while simultaneously the medicine bottle and a glass with a spoon in it are in closeup in the foreground. The shot was an in-camera matte shot. The foreground was shot first, with the background dark. Then the background was lit, the foreground darkened, the film rewound, and the scene reshot with the background action.

Another unorthodox method used in the film was the way low-angle shots were used to display a point of view facing upwards, thus allowing ceilings to be shown in the background of several scenes. Since movies were primarily filmed on sound stages and not on location during the era of the Hollywood studio system, it was impossible to film at an angle that showed ceilings because the stages had none. Welles' crew used muslin draped above the set to produce the illusion of a regular room with a ceiling, while the boom mikes were hidden above the cloth.

One of the story-telling techniques introduced in this film was using an episodic sequence on the same set while the characters changed costume and make-up between cuts so that the scene following each cut would look as if it took place in the same location, but at a time long after the previous cut. In this way, Welles chronicled the breakdown of Kane's first marriage, which took years of story time, in a matter of minutes. Prior to this technique, filmmakers often had to use a long period of screen time to explain the character's changed circumstances. For example, in Erich von Stroheim's masterpiece Greed, the breakdown of the marriage of the main characters takes almost an hour of screen time, even in the most abbreviated cut.

Welles also pioneered several visual effects in order to cheaply shoot things like crowd scenes and large interior spaces. For example, the scene where the camera in the opera house rises dramatically to the rafters to show the workmen showing a lack of appreciation for the second Mrs. Kane's performance was shot by panning a camera upwards over the performance scene, then a curtain wipe to a miniature of the upper regions of the house, and then another curtain wipe matching it again with the scene of the workmen. Other scenes effectively employed miniatures to make the film look much more expensive than it truly was, such as various shots of Xanadu.

The film broke new ground with its use of special effects makeup, believably ageing the cast many decades over the course of the story. The details extended down to hazy contact lenses to make Cotten's eyes look rheumy as an old man. Welles later claimed that his own dashing appearance as a young man also involved a lot of makeup (including some strategically applied tape to give him a mini- facelift).

Welles brought his experience with sound from radio along to filmmaking, producing a layered and complex soundtrack. In one famous scene the elderly Kane strikes Susan in a tent on the beach, and as the two characters silently glower at each other a woman at the nearby party can be heard hysterically laughing in the background, her giddiness in grotesque counterpoint to the misery of Susan and Kane. Elsewhere, Welles skillfully employed sound effects to create a mood—such as the chilly echo of the monumental library, where the reporter is confronted by an intimidating, officious librarian.

In addition to expanding on the potential of sound as a creator of moods and emotions, Welles pioneered a new aural technique, known as the "lightning-mix." Welles used this technique to link complex montage sequences via a series of related sounds or phrases. In offering a continuous sound track, Welles was able to join what would otherwise be extremely rough cuts together into a smooth narrative. For example, the audience witnesses Kane grow from a child into a young man in just two shots. As Kane's guardian hands him his sled and wishes him a "Merry Christmas" we are suddenly taken to a shot of Kane fifteen years later, only to have the phrase completed for us: "and a Happy New Year." In this case, the continuity of the soundtrack, not the screen, is what makes for a seamless narrative structure. (Cook, 330)

Welles also carried over techniques from radio not yet popular in the movies (though they would become staples). Using a number of voices, each saying a sentence or sometimes merely a fragment of a sentence, and splicing the dialogue together in quick succession, the result gave the impression of a whole town talking--and, equally important, what the town was talking about. Welles also favored the overlapping of dialogue, considering it more realistic than the stage and movie tradition of characters not stepping on each other's sentences. He also pioneered the technique of putting the audio ahead of the visual in scene transitions; as a scene would come to a close, the audio would transition to the next scene before the visual did.


Despite numerous positive reviews from critics at the time, the film was a box office failure which resulted in Welles' career suffering a crippling blow, he spent the rest of his life struggling to make films on his own terms. He lived long enough to see his debut film acknowledged as a classic, and late in life he famously remarked that he'd started at the top and spent the rest of his life working his way down.

Citizen Kane was little seen and virtually forgotten until its release in Europe in 1946, where it garnered considerable acclaim, particularly from French film critics such as Andre Bazin. In the United States, it was neglected and forgotten until its revival in the late 1950s, and its critical fortunes have skyrocketed since. Critics worldwide began listing it among the best films ever made. For Welles, however, this was too late. Hearst had been successful in blacklisting Welles in Hollywood so that no studio would agree to work with him.

Worldwide release dates


Welles' original master film negative of Citizen Kane was destroyed in a fire in the 1970s at his villa in Madrid, Spain, along with the only known print of Welles' 1938 short film Too Much Johnston. Until 1991, all existing theatrical prints of the film were made from copies of the original. When the film was purchased by Ted Turner's Turner Entertainment (which bought the rights to the MGM and RKO film libraries), film restoration techniques were used to produce a pristine print for a 50th Anniversary theatrical revival reissue in 1991 (released by Paramount Pictures). The 2003 British DVD edition is taken from an interpositive held by the British Film Institute. The current US DVD version (released by Warner Home Video) is taken from another digital restoration, supervised by Turner. The transfer to Region 1 DVD has been criticised by some film experts for being too bright. Also, in the scene in Bernstein's office (chapter 10) rain falling outside the window has been digitally erased, probably because it was thought to be excessive film grain. These alterations are not present in the UK Region 2, which is also considered to be more accurate in terms of contrast and brightness.

In 2003, Orson Welles' daughter Beatrice sued Turner Entertainment and RKO Pictures, claiming that the Welles estate is the legal owner of the film. Her attorney said that Orson Welles had left RKO with an exit deal terminating his contracts with the studio, meaning that Welles still had an interest in the film and his previous contract giving the studio the ownership of the film was null and void. Beatrice Welles also claimed that, if the courts did not uphold her claim of ownership, RKO nevertheless owes the estate 20% of the profits, from a previous contract which has not been lived up to.

In the 1980s, this film became the catalyst in the controversy over the colorization of black and white films. When Ted Turner told members of the press that he was considering colorizing Citizen Kane, his comments led to an immediate public outcry. The uproar was for naught, as Turner Pictures had never actually announced that this was an upcoming planned project. Turner later claimed that this was a joke designed to needle colorization critics, and that he had never had any intention of colorizing the film.

Awards and recognition

Academy Awards


  • Best Original Screenplay - Orson Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz


  • Best Picture - Orson Welles
  • Best Director - Orson Welles
  • Best Actor - Orson Welles
  • Best Film Editing - Robert Wise
  • Best Art Direction - Perry Ferguson, A. Roland Fields, Van Nest Polglase, Darrell Silvera
  • Best Cinematography (black and white) - Gregg Toland
  • Best Sound Mixing - John Aalberg
  • Best Music Score - Bernard Herrmann

Boos were heard almost every time Citizen Kane was referred to during the Oscars ceremony that year. Most of Hollywood did not want the film to see the light of day considering the threats that William Randolph Hearst had made if it did.

The American Film Institute put the film at the top of its " 100 Greatest Movies" list; it has been selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry; and it is consistently in the top 30 on the Internet Movie Database. Beginning in 1962, and every ten years since, it has been voted the best film ever made by the Sight and Sound critics' poll. The quote, "Rosebud," was listed as no. 17 on the American Film Institute's AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movie Quotes. The film has also ranked number one in the following film "best of" lists: Editorial Jaguar, FIAF Centenary List, France Critics Top 10, Kinovedcheskie Russia Top 10, Romanian Critics Top 10, Time Out Magazine Greatest Films, and Village Voice 100 Greatest Films.

Other Awards

  • NYFCC Best Picture for 1941


Despite its status, Citizen Kane is not entirely without its critics. Boston University film scholar Ray Carney, although noting its technical achievements, criticized what he saw as the film's lack of emotional depth, shallow characterization and empty metaphors. Listing it amongst the most overrated works within the film community, he accused the film of being, "an all-American triumph of style over substance... indistinguishable from the opera production within it: attempting to conceal the banality of its performances by wrapping them in a thousand layers of acoustic and visual processing." Of its director, he went on to state, "Welles is Kane – in a sense he couldn't have intended – substituting razzle-dazzle for truth and hoping no one notices the sleight of hand." He also criticized critics and scholars of allowing themselves to be pandered to, stating "critics obviously enjoy being told what to think or they'd never sit still for the hammy acting, cartoon characterizations, tendentious photography, editorializing blockings, and absurdly grandiose (and annoyingly insistent) metaphors... When will film studies grow up? Even Jedediah Leland, the opera reviewer in the film, knew better than to be taken in by Salammbo's empty reverberations."

On the movie's release, Jorge Luis Borges opined, "It suffers from grossness, pedantry, dullness. It is not intelligent," and predicted "Citizen Kane will endure in the same way certain films of Griffith or Pudovkin endure: no one denies their historical value but no one sees them again."

Similarly James Agate wrote, "I thought the photography quite good, but nothing to write to Moscow about, the acting middling, and the whole thing a little dull... Mr. Welles's high-brow direction is of that super-clever order which prevents you from seeing what that which is being directed is all about."


According to Roger Ebert, there are several technical mistakes in the film. In the scene in which the young Charles Foster Kane is sent away from his parents, the camera dollies backwards revealing a top hat on a table; the top hat is teetering back and forth, because the table on which it is sitting had just been moved into place to allow the camera to dolly between the two halves. Later in the scene, as the camera moves with Mrs. Kane to the window in the background, a chair can be seen to be yanked out of the picture by a stagehand to clear the way for the moving camera. Late in the film, a white cockatoo links one scene with the next, but the cockatoo is clearly superimposed because the background can be seen through its eye. The "beach party" scene was shot in a studio against a blank grey screen, and the background was matted in later, but the background is stock footage from an earlier RKO Pictures jungle movie and in one shot, pteranodon-like creatures can be seen flying through the trees.

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