Orson Welles’ ‘Citizen Kane’ Is a Labyrinth Without a Centre

Chambers Concise Dictionary defines a “labyrinth” as “a maze or any tangle of intricate ways and connections.” This brings to mind the literal and metaphorical applications of this definition when applied Citizen Kane (1941). There are numerous ways of describing Citizen Kane as some form of labyrinth. What lies at the centre of this “tangle” is an intangible element that purposefully refuses to define itself.

“The point of the picture,” Welles has commented, “is not so much the solution of the problem as its presentation.” The “problem” is the shadow plot of the film, the search for “Rosebud” within the frightening centreless labyrinth of the film’s structure. Although “Rosebud” has been derided by Welles as “rather dollar-book Freud”, it’s this narrative thread that the audience, the reporter, and Kane himself follow in order to determine the meaning of Citizen Kane’s life. The three opening sections of the film (Death of Kane, News on the March, and the projection room) all commence interest in the enigmatic search, yet simultaneously undermine the search object.

The death scene is melodramatic, so that when the giant lips within the gothic castle speak, “Rosebud” takes on an almost surreal, mystic connotation matched by the skewed perspective of the broken snow globe. As a parody of the phrase, ‘The March of Time’, the ‘News on the March’ sequence reminds the audience that the “reel” is entirely subjective (a pun on the whole concept of the film). In the attempt to order a life that, ironically, had no structure, “Rosebud” becomes undermined.

Furthermore, this clash of public documentary style with the private life shown in the opening scene produces a model of tension that will become the film’s central theme. The following scene, shot in the projection room, then proceeds to attribute far greater importance to the last words, than all the pomp in the newsreel, suggesting that “Rosebud” may be the key to Kane’s life. A suspicious solution to the labyrinth is teased before the audience.

“Rosebud” is, of course, the sled that young Kane plays with in the Colorado scene. Yet, this alone does not proffer any explanation of what the memory implied for the dead man. Indeed, it poses more questions; the film could be about lost innocence and parental loss, or about the lack of authentic love, the seeds of a man who can only ever “toast” love on his terms.

Furthermore, the clues to “Rosebud” never appear when any of Kane’s intimate friends narrate; they appear in the death scene at the beginning, the memoirs of his guardian, and in the final flashback of Raymond, the butler. All three scenes treat Kane as a remote “other”, commenting critically on Kane’s actions rather than his character. This may be the reason why only the viewer is allowed to know what happens to the sled, because in the end it does not matter.

The reporter only realises at the end that he does not “think any word can explain a man’s life. No. I guess Rosebud is just a piece in a jigsaw puzzle, a missing piece.” The labyrinth structure of the film calls for the audience to be shown a solution, the potential “centre” of the film. The exaggerated style of this scene (the overhead camera searchingly tracking forward to rest on the fire) suggests that the answer has been found at the centre of the literal labyrinth of boxes and crates. Yet, the centre has not been found, the conventional Aristotelian anagnorisis is ultimately another dead end as the sled burns, confirming that it was not the physicality of the sled that was important, rather its metaphysical signification that had been sought by Kane.

Perhaps old Kane meant to say “Rose-bed” as an ironic comment on how unexpectedly hard life was, for a man who should have had life easy.

Were “Rosebud” of any use in negating the film’s labyrinth, then it must be considered within a structural framework of duality. The sled that Thatcher brings, Naremore has shown , bears the name: “Crusader”. Like the two sleds, “Rosebud” representing innocence and love, “Crusader” representing conflict and championing “good” causes, Kane can be shown to have “changed sleds” as he had his personality at the moment he leaves home with Thatcher.

Furthermore, Kane has two friends, and two wives, each one arguably a polar opposite of the other, and his parents represent a further dichotomy of feelings. The mother seems cold but essentially caring, and the father appears to care but is actually more concerned with beating his son. Kane decides that “There’s only one person who’s going to decide what I’m going do, and that’s me.” However, this aphorism is little use in deciphering Kane’s personality.

On the one side, Kane was attracted to the wealth and glamour of politics and the president’s niece, and on the other, he reckons that if he had no money he “might have been a really great man”. As Leland observes, “he was disappointed in the world, so he built one of his own”. Kane created a labyrinth of myth about him; then realising that his “sort of sentimental journey”… “in search of [his] youth” becomes impossible, with his motherly love substitute Susan leaving, he destroys himself. This leaves other people trying to discover what was originally at the centre beyond the “NO TRESPASSING” sign that Kane had erected to protect his vulnerability.

In a speech included in the final version of the script but absent from the film, Thompson replies to a reporter who asks him what he has discovered: “Well – it’s become a very clear picture. He was the most honest man who ever lived, with a streak of crookedness a yard wide. He was a liberal and a reactionary’. The audience’s search for a solution is undercut by this ironic speech, but it is best left out of the film because it defined too many parts of the labyrinth that the audience had to work out for themselves.

An important symbol within the film is the “K”. It is on the gate of Xanadu at the beginning of the film and a K can be seen carved in ice at the Inquirer party. It is also on a metal pin badge, and it adorns campaign rosettes (a potential link to “Rosebud” through imagery). By the end of the flashback sequences, when Kane stands before the mirror, his ego fractured to infinity, Kane has recognised the reality of what he had become and what he had lost.

All that is left is the decayed symbol of ideological aspiration, the K on the gate as the camera retreats at the end. Citizen Kane enjoys throwing images and ideas at the audience only to suggest that in “solving” the film they could signify anything. The film becomes a comment on the Expressionist labyrinth of symbolism that the film enters, which can never be properly interpreted but only haphazardly guessed at.

The centre of the film seems to purposefully elude whoever seeks it by overwhelming the viewer with numerous different possibilities.

The story of a man’s life ironically starts with his death. Chronology means little in Citizen Kane because the present tenses of the flashbacks have happened in the past tense of the reporter’s “story”. The viewer is presented with a cyclical narrational labyrinth, which in the centre seems to lie the dramatic life of Charles Foster Kane. Kane represents many things to different people and the narration has been styled so that the people in Kane’s life give different accounts of the same man doing the same thing as the stories overlap. For example, Susan’s debut in ‘Salammbô’ is seen three times altogether in different perspectives by different people.

To Thatcher, Kane is a part of “power plays”. Kane is taken away from his parents and retaliates with the way he runs his paper.

Thatcher then takes Kane’s paper away from him in a parallel that echoes Kane’s family trauma. This link between business and the family becomes repeated later with Susan and the opera. Bernstein, like a child, idolises Kane and he recalls in his flashback about all the career triumphs and beginnings of Kane’s political ambition. Bernstein is sycophantically loyal whilst the next narrator, Leland, Kane’s college friend, is far more cynical and romantic. He tracks the love life of Kane, as he marries Emily, then Kane’s involvement with Susan, the ‘cross-section of the American public’ as it is brought into the open by political rival, Gettys.

It is the simultaneous culmination of his personal life and his political career that has intertwined throughout Citizen Kane. The narration of Susan partially agrees with Leland as he launches her on a career that she did not want; nevertheless, Leland’s narrative says that Susan, in her first meeting with Kane, stated that she longed to be a singer.

Clearly, there are discrepancies not only between the perspectives but also between the facts, which adds to the multiple paths that the viewers understanding may take. Russian Formalists would say that the fabula works like a labyrinth around the syuzhet. Reality, which is often considered as objective, becomes subjective and the truth of reality in this story is questioned. The multitude of flashbacks only suggests what may lie at the centre of Kane’s self-built labyrinth, and for each person this varies. Consequently, this then leaves the audience questioning whether anything may actually lie in the heart of the maze.

It is the voyeuristic nature of film that ensures people will always try to get to its “centre”. Citizen Kane’s exposition features a forward tracking camera that “peeps” into Kane’s final resting place, drawn like a moth to the light. A further instance is when Kane first meets Susan and enters her apartment; the door is shut and the camera moves down the hallway almost afraid of what it may be missing. The camera becomes the “Inquirer”, which like Kane’s paper, is limited in its view. Sometimes, the camera angle itself can try to aid the audience in its understanding.

When Kane is a child the viewpoint is tilted down, like the perspective of an adult, but as Kane gets older and his dominance and solitude greater, then the camera tilts up to look at him. When Kane is in Xanadu and begins to lose his power, the high angles are again emphasised, belittling him in his vast castle. Ultimately though, the audience may feel that it is not being guided sufficiently throughout the film and may become frustrated by not being omniscient but having to rely purely on suggestions by the camera.

Welles said that “for the first time in the history of the world, a creative artist is now given the opportunity to address sixty million people. The trouble is, it is not simply an opportunity, but an obligation-he must address them.”

One reason why Citizen Kane could be considered a labyrinth is that Welles addressed the audience in a style that they did not understand. Potentially, in the centre would lie an understanding of the film’s style. Agreeing with John Houseman, Welles’ “particular talent lies not so much in his creative imagination… as in his proven ability to stretch the familiar elements of theatrical effect far beyond their normal point of tension.” The audience is participant to a Brechtian “alienation-effect” where they are constantly reminded that they are watching a film.

In drawing together the two main strands of cinematic tradition, Citizen Kane fluctuates between subjective vision and objective realism. For example, there is the scene where the camera shows a close up of a log house in a snow scene, the camera then pulls back to show it is actually a snow globe. The image connects with the Colorado scene to come, which further makes the film “reality” subjective.

When there is no fixed point of reality, the audience has no reference point by which to guide themselves throughout the film. They can be directed by the audio “lightning mixes” which connect two shots such as the ones just mentioned, to create a feeling of continuity, but in actuality, it creates a greater ambiguity between their relationships than in saying anything concrete.

The only two leitmotifs that pervade the film are the “power” motif in brass and the “Rosebud” motif on the vibraphone. Another definition of “labyrinth” is: “the cavities of the internal ear” so it becomes fitting that in the final sequence of Citizen Kane, the thematically opposing scores come together; this makes the context more ambiguous and the labyrinth more complicated.

Bazin, in his seminal essay The Evolution of Film Language, believed that between 1920 and 1940, there had been two styles of film directors, “those who put their faith in the image and those who put their faith in reality.” Through manipulation of the “plastic” aspects of the medium (lighting, back projection, etc), the reality of the film could be “diluted”.

The “image” that would be created, through juxtaposition of these elements, was not true to the reality of the elements, instead the director only succeeds in creating a labyrinth of images. David Bordwell, like Bazin, believed that: “the spatial and temporal unity of the deep-focus, the simultaneous dialogue, the reflections and chiaroscuro… all increase the objectively realistic effect.”

Because deep-focus photography reduced the need for excessive cutting within a scene (à la Eisenstein), it was perceived as adding to the realism. Additionally, Welles attempted to add to deep-focus theory in an interview with Peter Boganovitch when he said, “Well, in life you see everything at the same time, so why not in the movies?”

Whilst it is true that deep-focus photography can preserve the “continuum” of reality and that the depth on screen can give the illusion of “real” space, like a visual labyrinth, these theories are faulted. Human vision does not approximate depth photography because it can not focus on both the extreme foreground and background simultaneously; it is selective unlike the camera shot that has been perceived as real because it is nonselective.

Furthermore, Welles used “plastic” techniques liberally, such as the overlaying of images in a frame using complex optical printing to give a representation of reality. If the audience is unaware of these interacting elements and takes all the information presented literally, then they are going to be confused by the film. Kane is so obviously stylised, sometimes with half of the screen blocked out for dramatic non-naturalistic effect, that to set “realism” against “aestheticism” in Citizen Kane is outrageous. Rather, the film is a realist work created by an aesthetic that incorporates a reality.

If Citizen Kane is a metaphorical labyrinth, then many critics have got lost trying to understand the directions.

Kane was photographed predominately with a 25mm lens. This means that figures are subject to a slight fish-eye lens effect, as in the extreme foreground are either elongated or slightly inflated. According to C. M. Pennington-Richards: “If you want to dramatize anything, you force the perspective, and using wide angle lenses is in fact forcing it.”

When Susan attempts suicide, the angle appears dramatically distorted with an almost Expressionistic German style. Welles also seems to borrow a gothic style from the Expressionist theatre, as the atmosphere is dark and broody with a clear grasp of chiaroscuro, and large cavernous rooms in Xanadu create a visual labyrinth.

If we examine this optic labyrinth, the Colorado scene for example, it is obvious that a highly symbolic composition exists between the components. The wide-angle lens is used to show three planes of interest. In the foreground sits Mrs Kane and the banker dealing with the child’s future.

In the middle distance paces Mr Kane, agitated at the whole affair, and in the background, framed by the window, is young Kane shouting “The Union forever!” The heightened drama of this scene is dictated by the three elements working clinically with each other within the frame to give the impression of a labyrinth of natural action. Therefore, the mise-en-scène is not the ambiguity of determining the “real action” from the “pretext action”; it is the realisation that the mise-en-scène is multitudinous and always the subjective result of partial bias from the director. This bias forms the labyrinth of signification that constitutes the film’s various meanings.

Like Susan trapped at Xanadu, trying to piece together an impossibly large jigsaw, the audience too is trapped within an equally impossible structure, left with a fragmented jigsaw to try to piece together. Furthermore, analogous to the continuity flaw in which the jigsaw seems to become less complete at a later point in the film, the audience may also find that in attempting to complete the metaphorical jigsaw/ labyrinth their efforts are purposefully undermined or overwhelmed by the film. The film refuses to give a concrete definition of what lies in its “centre” because that would compromise the ethos behind Citizen Kane.

Further Reading

Catherine Schwarz (Chief Editor), Chambers: Concise Dictionary, W&R Chambers Ltd, Edinburgh, 1999.

Christopher Williams (Editor), Realism & The Cinema, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1980.

James Naremore, The Magic World of Orson Welles, Oxford Univ. Press, New York, 1978.

John Cutts, Great Films of the Century: Citizen Kane, Films and Filming, July 1963.

Joseph McBride, Cinema One: 19, Orson Welles, Secker & Warburg Ltd in association with the BFI,

London, 1972.

Pauline Kael, The Citizen Kane Book: Raising Kane, Secker & Warburg Ltd, London, 1971.

Peter Cowie, The Cinema Of Orson Welles: The Study of a Colossus, Da Capo Press, New York, 1973.