“You know, Mr. Bernstein, if I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a really great man.”
This line of dialogue from the magnificent script written by the masterful hands of Herman J. Manciewicz and Orson Welles himself – who also directed and played the eponymous Kane in the movie – perfectly sums up the man, the myth, the legend that was Charles Foster Kane.
The movie starts out with Kane on his deathbed holding a snow globe in his hand. As he breathes his last, we hear him utter a single word “Rosebud” as the snow globe slips out of the palm of his hand and gets smashed to pieces.
Through an obituary, we are introduced to Charles Foster Kane, a newspaper publishing magnate who captivated the imagination of millions of people in America while also attracting the ire of an equal number of detractors. We are shown this larger-than-life characterization of Kane, a man known to have influenced public opinion about a war and even the appointment of at least one President through the expansive reach of his newspaper – The Inquirer.
This is how America in the movie sees Kane – as this major public figure who is as equally hated as he is revered, but with an influence that even surpasses that of any major political figure.
As the story moves on, we follow Jerry Thompson, a journalist on a mission to uncover the mystery behind Kane’s last word – Rosebud. What we learn from a bunch of old friends, an ex-wife and a heavily guarded memoirs of Walter Parks Thatcher, Kane’s legal guardian, is that Charles Foster Kane, or Charlie, as he is called dearly (and not so dearly later) by his second wife, is as human, if not more human than any other character in the movie.
A playful boy who is torn away from his parents because his mother came into a lot of money through an extremely fortunate turn of events, Kane is raised and vetted by Thatcher to someday (when he turns 25, to be precise) gain full control of his trust fund.
Kane chooses to raise an empire of newspaper publishing, starting with the New York Inquirer – a proponent of “yellow journalism;” a concept that we of the Internet Age may align with what we know as “click-bait advertising.” He sets himself some principles that he promises his readers he’ll follow as long as the newspaper is in circulation.
We see Kane build a seemingly infallible empire; we see him marry the niece of the President and their relationship going from loving intimacy to utter indifference in a truly great movie sequence; we see him running for Governor and then losing the race after getting caught in a public scandal and then later getting married to his mistress, the “pretty but hopelessly incompetent amateur” Susan Alexander Kane, who is forced into a career of operatic singing that she never wanted; we see his empire crumble and fall and finally we see him distancing himself from the world in Xanadu, a vast estate he builds for himself to spend the rest of his life in, while Susan, becoming increasingly disillusioned by the isolation and the dominating personality of Charlie, decides to leave him for good.
This is the story of a man who sets out for true greatness, but whose own failures and drawbacks and mistakes, things we are all prone to, make him what he becomes in the end – an isolated man with no one to love. He even foregoes his principles in lieu of what he wants, and in the end is left with nothing but his statues, his servants and the memories of his childhood and “Rosebud,” the name on the sled that was closest to his heart.
The genius of Cinematographer Gregg Toland, the once-in-a-lifetime performance by Orson Welles as Kane and the brilliant writing of Manciewicz portray this character epically, in a way that can rarely be seen nowadays. Kane has a gigantic estate, but there are no words to explain how small and lonely he feels inside it. Only the breathtaking camera work perfectly showcases some of the most intimate moments of Citizen Kane to produce true movie magic. Technically way ahead of its time, creatively one of the greatest stories ever told, Citizen Kane transcends any ranking and classification and stands on its own as a great piece of art.
At its heart, it’s just a story of a man who loved his sled. But in reality, it is so much more than that.