As we see the crumbling remains of a never quite finished Xanadu – Charles Foster Kane’s private estate, the “costliest monument of a man to himself” – during the opening scenes, we are welcomed into the collapsing world Kane lived in for his final years. Charles Kane, the lavishly wealthy newspaper magnate, has passed away in his home, uttering the elusive word “rosebud” upon his deathbed. The tabloids rush to discover the true meaning of this phrase, whether it was a nickname for a woman he loved?, a place he visited?, know one seems to know. The audience soon finds out that Rosebud was the name of Kane’s childhood sled that was taken away from him as a child when he was sent to boarding school in the east. To Kane, Rosebud represented the vast hope for the future that he held as a boy but has been lost as he grew.
One of the great tragedies of Charles Foster Kane is his desire for affection in spite of his actions that alienate those who get close to him. The message of Kane’s eventual state of affairs is simply an elaboration of the fact that money can not purchase love. Despite his elaborate home and decadent possessions, Charles Kane dies alone in his bed, cold, and wishing he were with his childhood sled once more.
The nature of this grandiose picture is hidden in its structure, and through the journalist’s delving into Kane’s life in search of the meaning of “rosebud” we see several themes begin to emerge. After Kane has passed away, his potential biographer asks the question “who, really, was Charles Foster Kane”? This is a question that will never be truly answered, for the film explores his life only through interpretation and stories by former friends or colleagues. His final word is the only clue that he had a life outside of his public image, and due to his isolation Kane’s private life remains a mystery, with the exception of insight from his second wife. Even the various witnesses to his life are unsure of who Kane really was, calling into question the reliability of memory. A degree of ambiguity is thus present in this work, and comes to represent the myth or mystique of the American dream. Charles Kane achieved the success and wealth many pursue or hope for, but in the end he is still left isolated. Kane has been isolated for much of his life, for example during a celebration in his honor we see him sat distanced from the festivities alone in his office.
While the character of Kane remains the focus of the story and the film’s genius exploration of his life is what has let it age so well as a film, the title character was not the most influential feature of the film. Orson Welles’ achievement as a director is what has made other filmmakers so giddy when they speak of Citizen Kane. What Orson Welles achieved with this picture was monumental for its time; he was really the first director to use the camera almost as its own character. Until 1941, most filmmakers kept the camera off to the side, using a passive frame to view the action of the actors, yet Welles engages the camera with the action. Through the wide-angle lens Welles uses we see all that he wants us to, and the camera moves more than in most other films at that time, smoothly following characters or slowly transferring glances. With Citizen Kane, Welles not only gave us one of the most memorable stories (and characters) to grace the silver screen, but he opened up – as Martin Scorsese put it – “a Pandora’s box” for filmmakers, showing the true limitlessness of cinema.