47 Great Movie Moments #30 – Citizen Kane

Continuing with this series of 47 moments in film that I love (Why 47?), today, for #30, we look at Citizen Kane. I know it’s sort of cinematic sacrilege to talk about War of the Worlds in one breath, and Citizen Kane in the next, but that’s what just the way we role here.

Citizen Kane (1941)

Directed by:  Orson Welles

Thompson, a reporter, has the task of helping the world understand the recently deceased  millionaire, Charles Foster Kane, by finding the story behind his final utterance, “Rosebud.”

The Set-up

Thompson pursues his story by trying to learn everything he can about the enigmatic Kane. This investigation takes him to the estate of Mr. Thatcher, the bank officer who helped to oversee young Kane’s fortune (and his life) until he came of age.

The Moment

Via a flashback told by his journal, we see how Thatcher met with Charles Kane’s parents, ordinary folk who run a boarding house in Colorado in the 19th century, shortly after they had come into a massive and unexpected fortune.   A debate is taking place. Mary Kane, who technically owns the money, has the decision to sign over responsibility of her son’s upbringing to the bank that will also manage their money. But her husband objects, feeling like it’s a slight on his role as a father. But Mary is adamant, even appearing cold and uncaring as she signs her son away to a financial institution.

But then Mr. Jim Thatcher reminds them both how much money they will receive as part of this agreement – $50,000 a year (which in 1871, is a whole heap of dough!), and Jim Kane grumpily comments that he hopes its all for the best. A moment later, he gets angry at his son and tries to hit him, and we learn that this is the actual reason Mrs. Kane is sending him away…so Jim can’t get at him.

The scene is about three adults deciding the fate of a child, and the cinematography does an amazing job communicating this. Young Charles Kane is framed in a window far in the background of the majority of the sequence, still sharp and clear thanks to the film’s deep-focus techniques. The other three characters are positioned in the shot in a way that reflects their relationships and authority. Kane’s mother is at the heart of it all, with her movements and actions shaping the movement of the camera and the rest of the characters. Mr Thatcher is sits at her side, her ally and advisor, while her husband lurks in the background, largely sidelined in the decision-making. This helps to give the guy an element of sympathy…which the story then subverts by revealing his true character.

There’s so much more going on as well, including some subtle sound design, very deliberate editing and good performances by Agnes Moorehead (as Mrs. Kane), George Coulouris (as Thatcher), Harry Shannon (as Kane’s father) and Buddy Swan (the young Kane)  . In the second half of the scene the composition shifts so that young Charles is no longer nearly forgotten in the background, but is now surrounded…nearly overwhelmed…by the three adults who are deciding his fate.

Then finally the sequence ends with a shot of the boy’s discarded sled, being covered with snow, while the sound of train whistles in the background…the train that is carrying a young boy into an unexpected new existence.

Really, Citizen Kane is a movie that is sort of one astonishing cinematic moment after another—kind of a master class in movie making, demonstrating pretty much every technique in visual and audio storytelling that had been developed up to that point. A lot of the film’s appreciators might be surprised that this, out of everything, is what I’ve focused on here, but it’s one of my favorite scenes in the movie and a powerful bit of storytelling.

The Payoff

It turns out that even though the word “rosebud” is nowhere mentioned in Thatcher’s story of Kane’s childhood, that it’s perhaps the most revealing out of all of the accounts of Kane’s life in terms of what his final words actually meant.

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