It could be argued that Charles Foster Kane's dominant motivation throughout his adult life was to recapture the freedom he enjoyed playing in the snow outside his parents' boarding house. d The artlessness and unrestraint of his boyhood games will soon be contrasted with the programmed life he is headed for when his mother signs the document that makes him a ward of the financier Mr. Thatcher.  This is perhaps too heavy a load for this brief sequence, yet Orson Welles does much more than embed the Rosebud motif here:  he uses camera placement, framing and movement to suggest the small boy's pending entrapment and helplessness.  The security and strength his mother provides will be forever beyond his reach, though never far from his thoughts.  His awkward and at times thoughtless and crass attempts to fill this void will mark the rest of his life. 

A gentleman has come to visit the Kane family but this is not unusual--his mother runs a  boarding house, after all.  Inside the house Mrs. Kane is preparing to sign papers which will separate the boy from her by making the financier Mr. Thatcher Charles's guardian.

Welles eschews the usual cinematic ploy of the shot-reverse shot, but rather he uses a mobile camera and deep focus photography to keep us continually aware of everyone, the three adults inside the boarding house and young Charles outside in the snow, framed in the widow while playing a Civil War  game.  Just as his mother signs the document, the boy is shouting "The Union forever!" _ Already the boy is "captured" by the small window, just as he will be restricted by his guardian Mr. Thatcher throughout the remainder of his youth.  

When the parents bring Thatcher out to meet the boy for the first time, Welles keeps the camera on Charles as the three adults hover around him ,s cutting off his escape, if you will.  (This triangle is a variation of the document signing shot  as the adults surround Charles even as he plays.)  When Thatcher approaches Charles, the boy pulls away holding the sled between them, while his mother holds him within the frame as he glares up at the man.   

To reinforce this triumvirate Welles places a three-sided dinner bell on the post between the mother and father to further emphasize young Charles' powerlessness, placing him up against the right and lower _part of the frame.  

This sequence is crucial if we are to understand at all--or at least appreciate--Charles Foster Kane's subsequent actions, particularly his rebellion against all that Thatcher stands for, and his unending quest to recapture the love he felt for his mother.  We may question Mrs. Kane's motives and the soundness of her decision, but it is difficult to doubt her love for young Charles and his love for her.  After this episode at the Kane boarding house, director Welles will choose to use space to show emotional distance  between his protagonist and others, particularly those he has tried to love or befriend. 

Perhaps the most exquisite example of this is the famous breakfast sequence in which we see the deterioration of a marriage over the breakfast table.  Still in the honeymoon phase of their marriage we see the loving couple shoulder to shoulder in an intimate two-shot, the camera placed directly in front of them at eye level.  

As the breakfast montage  progresses, the couple is seen in a series of one shots: _ rather than as a twosome occupying the  same frame.  In the final scene of this montage, Welles places husband and wife at the two extremes of the frame, the camera near floor level, the ceiling bearing down on them; the white expanse of the tablecloth stretches between them and serves as a barrier to us, the viewers.  He reads his paper, she reads his competitor's.  We need go no closer since it is only too obvious that this is the end of their road together.

Most of the scenes between the second Mrs. Kane and Kane focus on Susan's career as an opera singer and not on their intimacy.  Here, too, space is significant.  We could say that the more spacing within the frame, the greater the emotional distance between Charles and Susan.  

As the virginal Susan of their initial encounter gives way to the tormented shrew, she often seems stuck in some nether world that has little room for others, certainly not for Charles.  As Charles pushes her into opera, she becomes more unhinged to the point that she attempts suicide.  Director Welles shoots her in stark close-ups or isolates her on stage, a naif in the land of predators.  


The end of the marriage is announced well before the actual breakup.  Kane has built the cavernous Xanadu for Susan, a living mausoleum that seems to have been conceived as space to fill, not as an residence.  Susan is put on the level of one of Kane's statues, a small creature who has lost warmth and even acerbity.  When Susan does finally leave Kane the encounter takes place, appropriately enough, in her rather cramped bedroom which resembles a doll's house rather than a rich woman's living space.  Susan is preparing to leave, Charles blocks her path, yet he does not threaten her but pleads for her not to go.  Again  the ceiling hovers above.  The largest object in this shot is neither Susan nor Charles, but rather the porcelain doll on Susan's bed, a nearly exact replica of Susan herself.  Though this may seem rather heavy-handed, when I've shown this sequence to students, most everyone ignores the doll in favor of the two protagonists.  Our attention is directed to movement, and it is only upon examination that we see what Welles is getting at.

The shots that most dominate the later part of the film are stark close-ups and darkened spaces shot with low-key lighting:  Kane as a bitter and lonely man, the looming Xanadu, the massive hall with its walk-in fireplace.  It's as if a vital life force has been sucked out of the story and we are left with emptiness.  Are we closer to knowing what made Charles Foster Kane tick?  The closing shot of smoke rising from Xanadu and the no trespassing sign has certainly not stopped generations of moviegoers from speculating, and certainly this was what Orson Welles was after.



Back to Top Trips