Fade in on a close-up of a "No Trespassing" sign hung on a chain-link fence, with ominous score in the background. The camera slowly cranes up, keeping the fence in crisp focus in the foreground while the background remains a misty mystery. At the top of the wrought-iron barrier is an imposing letter "K", below which two monkeys cling to the bars. Finally, the dark, towering castle in the background becomes clear. This is Xanadu.
Dissolves weave together smoky images that emphasize the solitude of this majestic estate. A light shines through one single window in the top spire of the castle - and suddenly goes off, replaced by a halo of candlelight. Snow streams across the frame, which soon dissolves into a close-up of a snow-covered cabin. A quick zoom out reveals that the cabin is actually inside a glass snow-globe, clutched in a dying man's hand. Dissolve to the man's lips, framed by a bushy mustache, as he utters a single word: "Rosebud". He lets the snow-globe drop from his fingers and roll onto the floor, where it smashes into pieces. A nurse comes to the door, her entrance visible in the reflection on the broken shards of glass. Cloaked in shadows, she pulls a white sheet over the man and crosses his lifeless arms. He is dead.
Cut to a newsreel obituary of Xanadu's fallen landlord. The announcer recalls that Xanadu was the name Kublai Khan gave his castle, known as the "world's largest private pleasure ground". Images of the American version of Xanadu, in Florida, flash across the screen. It was commissioned to be built atop a private mountain. The announcer goes on to list the superlative qualities of Xanadu - filled with enough artifacts to fill ten museums, the "loot of the world." Wipes and hard cuts separate images of crates filled with valuable items, all addressed to "Kane", followed by a montage of animals being moved onto the estate - octopi, elephants, two of each, of course, to fill the biggest private zoo since Noah's Ark. It is the costliest monument a man has ever built for himself. Then, the newsreel cuts to 1941, and a long shot of Kane's funeral, framed by the gray stone walls surrounding Xanadu's chapel.
The first image of Charles Foster Kane's entire, unobstructed face in Citizen Kane appears on the front page of a newspaper. His death has been announced in several newspapers, in fact, and his face is prominent on one after another after another -- in different languages and cities, his death is front-page news. Finally, a title card reveals the reason this man was so important: Charles Foster Kane was the greatest newspaper tycoon who ever lived. He came from humble beginnings, illustrated by an image of a boarded-up door on a modest street, and soon, the announcer continues, he owned a massive media network that spanned all over America, which is detailed via a map graphic. Through a pair of framed portraits, the newsreel reveals this modern-day king's modest beginnings. Born into poverty, Kane's mother ran a boarding house that was merely a small cabin. When a boarder defaulted on his rent, she obtained his supposedly worthless deed to an abandoned mineshaft. But the world's third richest gold mine was discovered on the property - the root of Kane's massive wealth. Charles Foster Kane's story is the kind that American legends are made of.
Cut to 57 years later, to an image of Walter P. Thatcher speaking in a Congressional Hearing. Thatcher, the announcer explains, was the trustee of Kane's fortune and took care of him as a child. Later, however, Thatcher, a scion of Wall Street, became the target of Kane's public vitriol after insinuating that Kane was a communist, attacking the notion of private property. This conflict is underlined by a shot of a peaceful gathering in Union Square where a man over a loudspeaker calls Kane a fascist. At this point, images of Kane on screen become more frequent. He asserts his patriotism and shakes hands at a podium. Through his media empire, he had the power to change public opinion and did so, helping FDR get elected and then opposing American participation in World War II.
This man was a public figure, loved and hated in equal measure. His first marriage, to a President's niece, ended in divorce. The image presented of this marriage is a photograph of the happy couple in front of the White House. However, the announcer continues, she left him and died, along with their son, in a car accident. Two weeks after his divorce, Kane fell into scandal when he married Susan Alexander, an opera singer. In contrast to the modest image of his first wedding, we see Susan and Kane leaving City Hall, thronged by paparazzi. Because of his love affair with Susan, Charles Foster Kane lost the election for Governor of New York. Instead, he built the Chicago Municipal Opera House for his wife, and undertook building Xanadu. Their marriage ended before Xanadu was ever completed.
A televised interview shows Kane asserting his commitment to America and his promise that America will not enter World War II. Finally, the newsreel details Kane's downfall. The depression put a dent in his empire. He is seen through a fence, wheelchair-ridden, being pushed around Xanadu. He retreated from the public eye, and never quite finished building Xanadu. "Aloof, seldom visited, never photographed," the nation stopped trusting him. Finally, the announcement scrolls across the darkened facade of a building: CHARLES FOSTER KANE IS DEAD.
At this point the newsreel finishes and the projector whirs to a stop. The newsreel has been playing inside a small, dusty screening room filled with journalists, none of whose faces are visible in the dim light emanating from the projection room. Mr. Rawlston, the newspaper's editor, feels that Kane's story does not yet have an ending. Knowing what a man has done does not define who he was, Rawlston says, silhouetted against the empty white screen. He wants to know the meaning of Charles Foster Kane's last word: Rosebud. He tasks reporter Jerry Thompson to find out what Rosebud meant by interviewing everyone who knew the tycoon. "Rosebud, dead or alive," Rawlston instructs, believing that the answer will be something very simple.
Lighting crashes over a billboard announcing Susan Alexander, singer. The camera cranes up to show the neon sign of EL RANCHO mounted on the roof. The camera then moves to hover over the skylight, looking down on a woman slumped over a table inside the empty club. Cut to inside the club, where Susan asks a waiter to bring her another drink. The waiter, John, introduces Susan to Mr. Thompson, whose face is hidden from the camera. He tries to join her and ask her questions but Susan refuses to speak to him. She is drunk, with prominent bags under her eyes. John tells Thompson that Susan won't speak to anyone and instructs the bartender to get her another double. Meanwhile, Thompson calls New York in the phone booth, telling his editor that Susan is a dead end. John watches him through the glass of the phone booth, and in the far background, Susan Alexander Kane drinks another highball and then wilts over her tiny table again. Thompson, in a last-ditch effort, asks John if Susan has ever mentioned Rosebud. He says she's never heard of it.
Cut to a low angle shot of a statue of Walter Parks Thatcher (Kane's trustee) in his namesake memorial library. The stern librarian, Bertha, lists the rules of the library to Thompson, who has come in pursuit of Thatcher's memoirs, hoping he will find some illuminating information in the chapters about Charles Foster Kane. The camera follows him into a vaulted room where a spotlight shines on a heavy, dark table. A security guard places the handwritten manuscript in front of Thompson and closes the vault door. Cut to an over-the-shoulder shot of Thompson reading the manuscript, and then to a closeup of the neat cursive on the page. The snow overlay precedes a dissolve to a snowy white landscape, where a young Charles Foster Kane plays on his sled. He throws a snowball at the house in front of him, and it hits a sign that reads, "Mrs. Kane's Boarding House". The camera tracks back to reveal that this shot is from Mrs. Kane's point-of-view through a window. She calls to her son from inside the house, and the window creates a square frame around the image of a young, carefree boy playing in the snow.
As her son plays outside, Mrs. Kane is in the process of turning the boy over to Mr. Thatcher, the trustee of her newfound fortune. She appears to be cold and stern, while Mr. Kane pleads with his wife not to send their son away. The camera moves outside the house, and catches the adults as they come outside so that Mr. Thatcher can meet Charles. Charles is not happy to hear that he will be going away with this man. His father assures him that the reason they are sending him on this trip is so that he can become the richest man in America someday. Charles uses his sled to shove Mr. Thatcher away, and his father, embarrassed, threatens to hit him as punishment. Mrs. Kane holds her son close, turning her back to her husband and saying that once Charles is gone, Mr. Kane can no longer lay a hand on him. Dissolve to a shot of the sled lying outside the house, snow gathering upon it as daylight fades away.
Citizen Kane begins with an ending - an old man alone in his majestic kingdom, uttering the word "Rosebud" as he takes his last breath. The environment and visual treatment of Kane's death indicate a man who lived a lonely life full of mystery. Welles introduces Xanadu, Kane's "private pleasure ground", as a menacing, abandoned palace with scant signs of life. It embodies the faded grandeur of its enigmatic owner, a man who never revealed his heart's deepest secrets to anyone. Kane's final years were spent locked away on a distant mountain and behind towering cast-iron gates marked with imposing 'No Trespassing' signs.
The opening of Citizen Kane is one of the most iconic sequences in American film history. Orson Welles crafted the images to draw the viewer's attention to particular details - the snow globe that falls out of Kane's hand, the extreme close-up of his lips as he says "Rosebud" - rather than reveal a complete portrait of the man. Kane's face is never fully visible on screen during this sequence, and it is clear that he is alone when he dies; later in the film, Raymond claims to have been there when Kane died, although he is not visible in any of the opening shots. In his opening, Welles created an air of mystery surrounding the enigmatic Kane that propels the plot of the film. The story of his life told by newsreel is deemed incomplete and Thompson, a journalist, delves into Charles Foster Kane's past with the goal of elucidating the meaning behind "Rosebud" - the narrative thread that drives the film. Thompson hopes the significance of this final word will provide him (and the audience) with the key to understanding why a man who clearly once had so much material wealth died alone in a decaying castle.
The visuals of Xanadu in the opening sequence are fantastic and dramatic, crafted in the unique style that was the hallmark of 24-year-old wunderkind director Orson Welles. The extraordinary visual artistry on display in Citizen Kane is the result of Welles' collaboration with his extremely gifted crew, in particular cinematographer Gregg Toland. Toland was a veteran of the film business who had become tired with the "heavily diffused lighting, soft tonality, and relatively shallow depth-of-field" that defined Hollywood studio pictures throughout the 1930s (Carringer 73).
Toland accepted the job of filming Citizen Kane because he wanted to work with Orson Welles - an ambitious yet inexperienced filmmaker. In this partnership, Toland, the old pro known for his unconventionality, felt that he could educate Welles in the experimental camera techniques he loved and, therefore, have a large creative stake in the film's visual style. The LIFE Magazine review of Citizen Kane observed that Toland did "everything Hollywood has always said you couldn't do; They shoot into bright lights, they shoot into the dark and against low ceilings, till every scene comes with the impact of something never seen before" (Kael 62). Toland's contribution was so critical to the film's success that Orson Welles put his own directing credit on the same title card as Toland's cinematography credit, which is a very rare practice, especially for a man like Welles who liked keeping the spotlight for himself.
Welles and Toland utilized visual innovation and early special effects to overcome the film's limited budget and fully realize Welles's notoriously grand vision. For example, the shots of Xanadu's darkened exterior are of a background painting, not a real castle. According to film scholar Robert L. Carringer, "the original would have been painted on a sheet of glass approximately three by four feet. It would be the master from which a whole series of paintings showing Xanadu from various angles and distances and at various stages of completion was prepared" (Carringer 94).
Toland was most renowned for his use of "deep focus" in Citizen Kane, of which there are several famous examples in these opening scenes. Toland "used deep focus not for a naturalistic effect but for the startling dramatic effect of having crucial action going on in the background" (Kael 77). In the scene when young Charles Foster Kane's parents arrange for the transfer of his guardianship to the bank, the young boy is visible throughout their negotiations, playing outside in the snow with his sled. This image of childlike innocence (which is what Charles Foster Kane was deprived of the moment that Mr. Thatcher took him away) takes on an air of nostalgia. It's framed by the window, like a photograph in an old album - a moment in time that can never be recaptured. Welles's use of deep focus in this scene also allows him to establish the Kane family dynamic without having to explicitly spell it out. Mary Kane appears emotionless, but it is clear that everything she is doing is for her son and her desire to have a better life than she could provide. This is the only scene in Citizen Kane of Charles Foster Kane's childhood, and yet, it contains the one material item that is the key to Kane's deathbed longing: His sled, Rosebud.
The newsreel section of Citizen Kane stands out stylistically from the rest of the film. This was a common trope that was often utilized in films of the World War II era to explain historical context or pinpoint the topical elements of the story; newsreels were used in films like Casablanca and Confessions of a Nazi Spy. However, the newsreel at the beginning of Citizen Kane serves a deeper purpose beyond informing the audience about the opulent and audacious life of Charles Foster Kane. It is heavy with satirical elements, what Pauline Kael calls "racy neo-conservatism and ritual pomposity" (Kael 80). Welles was quite familiar with the newsreel format, as he had been a young actor on the "March of Time" radio program in the mid-1930s. He even had the RKO newsreel department edit the segment, because he felt they could "best capture the spirit of the original" (Carringer 110). Additionally, Roger Ebert writes, "Although Citizen Kane was widely seen as an attack on William Randolph Hearst, it was also aimed at Henry R. Luce and his concept of faceless group journalism", which is supposedly why none of the journalists' faces are ever visible on screen. Even in its opening, Citizen Kane turns Hollywood convention on its head.