An Analysis of Setting in Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (USA, 1941)

After failing many times over at what should have been a successful life, Charles Kane drives his relationships to exhaustion in Orson Welles’ 1941 classic, Citizen Kane. His insufferable obsession with affluence and paralleled lack of tenderness in old age ultimately causes Kane’s downfall and loss of friendships and love. Material items begin to fill these gaps and Kane’s fixation with success transforms into an unhealthy lust for extravagance that imprisons both himself and Susan Alexander in Xanadu, which can be explored through analysis of the film’s setting.


(Sequence discussed is from 00:00 to 02:14.)

In the sequence “Life at Xanadu”, 2 minutes and 20 seconds, Orson Welles open with shots of their luxurious estate, Susan doing a jigsaw puzzle, and the beginnings of a spat between Susan and Kane. Following the first five shots of “Life at Xanadu”, Welles introduces a 1 minute and 35 second shot, “Hurray for the Bulldog”, of Xanadu’s interior and the dialogue between Kane and Susan. The shot begins with a camera pan, framing Kane in a wide shot as he walks across the expansive room over to Susan and her puzzle. They exchange dialogue and the camera remains still as Kane stands, then walks away from Susan, which emphasizes the consuming room in a deep focus. The setting of this shot is significant because it aids in revealing that Kane can also be viewed as a prisoner to his own life choices. Unlike other settings in Citizen Kane, Xanadu is a relatively empty setting that suggests confinement, counterintuitive to what one would initially conclude about luxury. The setting of Xanadu can be compared to the setting of Kane’s childhood home. Although his childhood home was a small, crowded house, Kane was free. As an innocent child, the world was his.

The sequence leading up to “Hurray for the Bulldog” sets the stage for the implications of Kane and Susan’s argument by displaying the setting of Xanadu through a deep focus wide shot of Kane and a mid shot of Susan working on a jigsaw puzzle, which represents her imprisonment. This allows the audience to concentrate on the room’s mise-en-scène. The sequence and establishment of setting flows into the “Hurray for Bulldog” shot, preparing the audience for the preceding argument and alluding to the trapping atmosphere of Xanadu.

Welles’ setting in the shot “Hurray for the Bulldog” captures the exclusiveness of Xanadu by using camera panning, deep focus, and a wide shot. A wide shot of Kane standing in the doorway begins the scene. The door is carved to look like a church portal with Gothic architecture. The lavish interior is accented by larger than life statues, assumed to be collected from around the world. They appear to have Romanesque, Gothic, and Egyptian themes. As Kane walks across the room, the camera pans to follow his movement. A massive staircase and marble columns are revealed. They seem to continue into the distance of the estate. The camera continues to pan from left to right and Kane walks past a single floor candle holder and over to Susan. Susan is sitting at a table with puzzle pieces scattered across it. The camera movement comes to a stop and Kane and Susan are framed between a giant gargoyle and an enormous fire place. Both the gargoyle and roaring fireplace seem as though they could swallow Susan and Kane whole. Although the setting and mise-en-scène is intricate in its architecture, the only furniture in the room is Susan’s table. It can be interpreted that Welles wants to depict Susan and Kane as a part of Xanadu’s architecture. He achieves this by treating the characters as part of the setting by blocking them against the sides of the room and the scene’s frame.

Through analysis of the shot’s setting, the viewer can explore examples of the mise-en-scène choices that communicate overall themes of Kane’s downfall and imprisoning obsession with material items. Welles uses the expansive emptiness of Xanadu to represent Kane’s lack of emotion as he ages. Xanadu is a beautiful palace, but it also has a lot of unused space. This is a metaphor for Kane’s life and the impossibility for him to hold on to anything meaningful. The coldness of Xanadu is enhanced with Welles’ stage-like lighting. As Kane walks through the shot, the lighting plays with shadows, which emphasizes the monstrosity of the room. By shadowing some of the setting, the audience is made aware that the light cannot reach all the space inside of Xanadu and that love cannot fill all of the “space” inside of Kane.

Susan Alexander’s imprisonment by Kane and Xanadu is enhanced by props in the setting. As Kane feuds with Susan over New York, he looms over her right shoulder. He is dressed in black. Kane’s position matches that of the shadowed gargoyle hanging over Susan’s left shoulder. By framing Susan with Kane and the gargoyle, Welles presents the idea of both Kane and Xanadu holding Susan prisoner. Kane becomes a part of the setting and acts as another gruesome figure that is keeping Susan captive. Susan uses her jigsaw puzzle, which has a landscape painted on it, as a way to dream of the outside world and freedom.

As discussed earlier, the setting portrays Xanadu as a place that could swallow Kane and Susan whole. Through a deep focus wide shot the characters seem to become part of the collection of statues in the estate. Kane begins to blend into his position by the fireplace, the flames representing his unstableness, and Susan becomes another Romanesque sculpture as she sits delicately in her sparkling dress. Analysis of the setting in Citizen Kane’s “Hurray for the Bulldog” brings attention to the growing negativity in Xanadu, the demise of Kane, and hints at the leaving of Susan Alexander in the upcoming scenes.

Zoe Kissel Blog Writing In Filmic Terms an analysis of setting in orson welles’ citizen kane