“Citizen Kane” (1941): A Cinematic Masterpiece – Film Review

An Iconic Film

“Citizen Kane,” directed by Orson Welles and released in 1941, is widely regarded as one of the greatest films ever made. Its innovative narrative structure, groundbreaking cinematography, and complex portrayal of its central character, Charles Foster Kane, have cemented its status as a seminal work in the history of cinema. The film tells the story of Kane, a powerful newspaper magnate, through a series of flashbacks as a reporter investigates the meaning of Kane’s enigmatic final word, “Rosebud.” Through its exploration of ambition, power, and the elusive nature of happiness, “Citizen Kane” offers a timeless reflection on the human condition.

Narrative Structure and Storytelling

“Citizen Kane” is renowned for its non-linear narrative structure, which was revolutionary at the time of its release. The film begins with the death of Charles Foster Kane and the mystery of his last word, “Rosebud.” This sets off a quest by reporter Jerry Thompson to uncover the meaning behind the word, leading him to interview various people who knew Kane throughout his life.

  • Flashbacks and Multiple Perspectives: The story unfolds through a series of flashbacks, each providing a different perspective on Kane’s life. This Rashomon-like approach allows the audience to piece together a complex portrait of Kane, revealing the contradictions and multifaceted nature of his character.
  • Investigative Framework: The use of a reporter investigating Kane’s life serves as an effective framing device, grounding the film’s narrative in a quest for understanding. This investigative framework adds a layer of mystery and intrigue, engaging the audience in the search for the truth about Kane.
  • Character Depth and Complexity: By presenting Kane’s life through the eyes of those who knew him, the film explores the complexities of his character. Each perspective reveals different aspects of Kane’s personality, ambitions, and relationships, contributing to a rich and nuanced portrayal.

Orson Welles’ Direction and Performance

Orson Welles’ dual role as director and lead actor in “Citizen Kane” is central to the film’s success. His visionary direction and powerful performance bring depth and intensity to the story.

  • Innovative Direction: Welles’ direction is marked by its innovation and boldness. He employs a range of techniques, such as deep focus cinematography, low-angle shots, and elaborate camera movements, to create a visually dynamic and engaging film. These techniques were groundbreaking at the time and have since become staples in cinematic storytelling.
  • Commanding Performance: As Charles Foster Kane, Welles delivers a commanding and charismatic performance. He captures the complexity of Kane’s character, portraying him as both a formidable figure and a deeply flawed individual. Welles’ ability to convey Kane’s charm, ambition, and inner turmoil is a testament to his talent as an actor.
  • Creative Collaboration: Welles’ collaboration with other key creatives, such as cinematographer Gregg Toland and editor Robert Wise, was crucial to the film’s success. Toland’s innovative use of deep focus and Wise’s meticulous editing contribute to the film’s distinctive visual style and narrative flow.

Cinematography and Visual Style

The cinematography in “Citizen Kane,” helmed by Gregg Toland, is one of its most celebrated aspects. The film’s visual style was groundbreaking and has had a lasting impact on the art of filmmaking.

  • Deep Focus Cinematography: One of the most notable techniques used in the film is deep focus cinematography, where both the foreground and background remain in sharp focus. This allows for complex compositions and a greater depth of field, enhancing the visual storytelling. The technique is used to great effect in scenes such as the young Kane playing in the snow outside while his parents discuss his future inside.
  • Innovative Lighting: Toland’s use of lighting and shadow creates a dramatic and atmospheric visual style. High-contrast lighting, often associated with film noir, is used to highlight the emotional intensity of key scenes. This technique adds to the film’s sense of mystery and tension.
  • Creative Camera Angles: Welles and Toland employ a variety of camera angles to convey power dynamics and psychological states. Low-angle shots make characters appear imposing and dominant, while high-angle shots can create a sense of vulnerability or insignificance. These creative choices enhance the film’s visual impact and deepen the audience’s engagement with the story.

Themes of Ambition and Power

“Citizen Kane” explores themes of ambition and power, examining how they shape and ultimately consume the central character, Charles Foster Kane.

  • Rise and Fall: The film chronicles Kane’s rise to power and subsequent fall, highlighting the corrupting influence of ambition. Kane’s initial idealism and desire to use his wealth for good are gradually overshadowed by his quest for control and dominance.
  • Isolation and Loneliness: Despite his immense power and influence, Kane is depicted as a profoundly lonely figure. His relationships are marked by manipulation and betrayal, and his drive for success alienates him from those he loves. This theme is poignantly illustrated in the final scenes, where Kane’s vast, empty mansion symbolizes his isolation.
  • Elusive Happiness: Kane’s relentless pursuit of wealth and power is ultimately shown to be futile in achieving true happiness. The film suggests that material success cannot compensate for the lack of genuine human connection and fulfillment, a theme underscored by the mystery of “Rosebud.”

Symbolism and Motifs

“Citizen Kane” is rich with symbolism and recurring motifs that enhance its thematic depth and narrative complexity.

  • “Rosebud”: The word “Rosebud” serves as a central symbol in the film, representing Kane’s lost innocence and the happiness he could never reclaim. The revelation of its meaning in the film’s final moments adds a poignant layer to Kane’s story, emphasizing the theme of unfulfilled longing.
  • The Snow Globe: The snow globe, which Kane clutches in his final moments, symbolizes his nostalgic yearning for a simpler, happier time. The image of the small house inside the globe contrasts sharply with the grandeur of Kane’s mansion, highlighting the disparity between his public success and private discontent.
  • Mirrors and Reflections: Mirrors and reflections are used throughout the film to symbolize the fragmented nature of Kane’s identity and the elusive nature of truth. One of the most striking examples is the hall of mirrors scene, where multiple reflections of Kane create a disorienting and fragmented image, reflecting his inner turmoil.

The Influence of “Citizen Kane”

“Citizen Kane” has had a profound and lasting impact on the world of cinema, influencing generations of filmmakers and shaping the development of film language.

  • Innovative Techniques: The film’s innovative use of deep focus, creative camera angles, and non-linear narrative structure have become fundamental elements of cinematic storytelling. Many of these techniques have been adopted and refined by subsequent filmmakers, cementing “Citizen Kane” as a cornerstone of film innovation.
  • Inspiration for Filmmakers: Directors such as Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and Christopher Nolan have cited “Citizen Kane” as a major influence on their work. Its exploration of complex themes and its bold visual style continue to inspire filmmakers to push the boundaries of the medium.
  • Critical Acclaim: Since its release, “Citizen Kane” has been consistently hailed as one of the greatest films ever made. It frequently tops critics’ lists of the best films of all time and remains a benchmark for cinematic excellence.

Music and Sound Design

The music and sound design in “Citizen Kane” play a crucial role in enhancing the film’s atmosphere and emotional impact.

  • Score by Bernard Herrmann: The film’s score, composed by Bernard Herrmann, is both haunting and evocative. Herrmann’s use of leitmotifs and his ability to capture the emotional nuances of the story add depth to the film’s narrative. The music complements the visuals, creating a cohesive and immersive experience.
  • Innovative Sound Techniques: Welles’ use of sound in “Citizen Kane” was innovative for its time. The film employs overlapping dialogue, ambient sounds, and creative use of silence to enhance the realism and dramatic tension. These techniques contribute to the film’s dynamic auditory landscape.
  • Integration with Narrative: The sound design is intricately woven into the narrative, with certain sounds and musical cues serving as narrative devices. For example, the echoing footsteps in Xanadu and the recurring sound of the newsreel projector add to the film’s atmospheric tension and thematic resonance.

Exploration of Media and Influence

“Citizen Kane” offers a critical examination of the media and its influence on public perception and personal identity.

  • Power of the Press: The film explores the power of the press through Kane’s control over his newspaper empire. Kane’s ability to shape public opinion and manipulate information highlights the media’s role in shaping reality. This theme remains relevant in today’s media landscape.
  • Construction of Persona: Kane’s public persona is meticulously crafted through his newspapers and public appearances. The film examines the disparity between Kane’s public image and his private self, revealing the complexities of identity and the impact of media on personal truth.
  • Ethical Implications: “Citizen Kane” raises questions about the ethical responsibilities of those in power, particularly in the realm of media. Kane’s manipulation of the truth for personal gain underscores the potential dangers of unchecked power and the moral obligations of those who control information.

Legacy and Continued Relevance

“Citizen Kane” continues to resonate with audiences and filmmakers, maintaining its status as a seminal work in the history of cinema.

  • Timeless Themes: The film’s exploration of ambition, power, and the search for happiness remains relevant to contemporary audiences. Its themes are universal and continue to resonate across different cultures and eras.
  • Cinematic Milestones: “Citizen Kane” is frequently studied in film schools and analyzed by critics for its technical and narrative innovations. Its influence can be seen in countless


works, making it an essential part of the cinematic canon.

  • Cultural References: The film has permeated popular culture, with numerous references and homages in television, literature, and other films. The enigmatic “Rosebud” and the imposing image of Xanadu have become ingrained in the collective consciousness, symbolizing the film’s lasting impact.

Performances and Characterization

The performances in “Citizen Kane” contribute significantly to the film’s emotional and narrative depth. The cast, led by Orson Welles, brings a range of complex characters to life, each adding to the film’s rich tapestry.

  • Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane: Welles’ portrayal of Kane is a tour de force, capturing the character’s charisma, ambition, and eventual disillusionment. His ability to convey Kane’s transformation from an idealistic young man to a corrupted, isolated figure is both compelling and tragic.
  • Joseph Cotten as Jedediah Leland: Cotten’s performance as Kane’s best friend and critic, Jedediah Leland, provides a counterpoint to Kane’s character. Leland’s loyalty and disillusionment with Kane highlight the personal cost of Kane’s ambition and moral decline.
  • Dorothy Comingore as Susan Alexander: Comingore’s portrayal of Susan Alexander, Kane’s second wife, adds a layer of vulnerability and pathos to the film. Her character’s descent into alcoholism and despair underscores the destructive impact of Kane’s control and manipulation.
  • Everett Sloane as Mr. Bernstein: Sloane’s Mr. Bernstein offers a more sympathetic view of Kane, emphasizing his loyalty and admiration for Kane despite his flaws. Bernstein’s reflections on Kane’s life add depth to the narrative, highlighting the multifaceted nature of Kane’s character.
  • Supporting Cast: The supporting cast, including Agnes Moorehead as Mary Kane and George Coulouris as Walter Parks Thatcher, enrich the film with their nuanced performances. Each character adds to the complex portrait of Kane, contributing to the film’s exploration of human nature and ambition.

Themes of Memory and Perception

“Citizen Kane” delves into the themes of memory and perception, examining how personal and collective memories shape our understanding of the past.

  • Unreliable Narrators: The film’s use of multiple narrators, each with their own biases and perspectives, highlights the unreliability of memory. The differing accounts of Kane’s life underscore the subjective nature of memory and the difficulty of discerning the truth.
  • Fragmented Identity: Kane’s identity is pieced together through the recollections of those who knew him, each fragment revealing different facets of his character. This fragmented portrayal mirrors the complexity of human identity and the influence of perception on our understanding of others.
  • Legacy and Interpretation: The quest to understand “Rosebud” symbolizes the search for meaning in Kane’s life. The varying interpretations of his final word reflect the broader theme of how legacies are constructed and interpreted. The film suggests that understanding a person’s life is inherently subjective, shaped by the memories and perceptions of those left behind.

Technical Innovations and Cinematic Language

“Citizen Kane” is celebrated for its technical innovations, many of which have had a lasting influence on the cinematic language.

  • Deep Focus Cinematography: Gregg Toland’s use of deep focus allows for complex, layered compositions, where multiple planes of action are in focus simultaneously. This technique enhances the visual storytelling, allowing viewers to engage with different elements of the scene simultaneously.
  • Innovative Editing: The film’s editing, overseen by Robert Wise, employs techniques such as jump cuts, montage, and overlapping dialogue to create a dynamic and engaging narrative flow. These techniques contribute to the film’s pacing and enhance its thematic depth.
  • Sound Design and Music: The innovative use of sound, including overlapping dialogue and strategic use of silence, adds to the film’s realism and emotional impact. Bernard Herrmann’s score complements the narrative, enhancing the film’s atmosphere and emotional resonance.
  • Special Effects and Visual Tricks: The film employs a range of special effects and visual tricks to create its iconic imagery. Techniques such as matte paintings, optical effects, and in-camera transitions contribute to the film’s visual innovation and have influenced countless filmmakers.

The Role of “Rosebud”

“Rosebud” serves as a central symbol in “Citizen Kane,” representing the elusive key to understanding Charles Foster Kane’s life.

  • Symbol of Lost Innocence: “Rosebud” is ultimately revealed to be the name of Kane’s childhood sled, symbolizing the lost innocence and simplicity of his early years. This revelation adds a poignant layer to the film, suggesting that Kane’s lifelong quest for power and control was an attempt to reclaim the happiness and security of his childhood.
  • Narrative Device: The mystery of “Rosebud” drives the film’s narrative, providing a framework for the exploration of Kane’s life. The search for its meaning adds a layer of intrigue and motivates the characters’ reflections on Kane.
  • Themes of Memory and Loss: “Rosebud” encapsulates the film’s themes of memory and loss, serving as a reminder of the fragmented and subjective nature of our understanding of the past. It emphasizes the idea that certain aspects of a person’s life can never be fully understood, remaining forever elusive.

Cinematic Legacy

“Citizen Kane” has left an indelible mark on the history of cinema, influencing the development of film language and inspiring generations of filmmakers.

  • Critical Acclaim and Awards: The film received nine Academy Award nominations, winning the award for Best Original Screenplay. Its critical acclaim has only grown over time, with many critics and scholars hailing it as the greatest film ever made.
  • Influence on Filmmaking: The film’s innovative techniques and narrative complexity have influenced countless directors, writers, and cinematographers. Its impact can be seen in a wide range of films across different genres and eras.
  • Academic Study and Analysis: “Citizen Kane” is a staple in film studies programs and is frequently analyzed for its thematic depth, technical innovation, and cultural impact. Scholars continue to explore its layers of meaning and its contributions to the art of filmmaking.
  • Enduring Popularity: Despite being over 80 years old, “Citizen Kane” remains a popular and widely respected film. Its themes and innovations continue to resonate with contemporary audiences, ensuring its place as a timeless classic.


“Citizen Kane” is a landmark achievement in the history of cinema, renowned for its narrative complexity, technical innovation, and thematic depth. Orson Welles’ visionary direction, combined with outstanding performances, groundbreaking cinematography, and a compelling exploration of ambition, power, and memory, has solidified the film’s status as a masterpiece. Its influence on filmmaking and its continued relevance to audiences and scholars alike underscore the enduring legacy of “Citizen Kane.” As both a work of art and a cultural artifact, the film continues to captivate, inspire, and provoke discussion, reaffirming its place as one of the greatest films ever made.

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