Charles and Susan’s “Parlor Scene” in Citizen Kane

© 2009 Sean M. Donnell

            Shortly after Susan Alexander and Charles Foster Kane meet for the first time in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, Charles finds out that Susan’s mother wished for her to become an opera singer.  Upon learning this, Charles implores Susan to sing for him in the parlor of her boarding house.  The ensuing parlor scene, in which Susan plays the piano and sings while Charles sits behind and watches her, is one of the richest scenes in the film—for both its cinematic technique and its overall significance.

            Comprising back-to-back shots of two different parlors, the scene begins as a dissolve from a close up of Charles to a medium long shot of the first parlor.  The mise-en-scene in this opening shot utilizes deep space, and the camera is set up for a straight on shot in deep focus.  The camera remains in a stationary position throughout the entire shot.  In the center of the frame, two of the parlor walls meet in the extreme rear of the mise-en-scene.  A lighted space on the left wall reveals the egress from the parlor; it is framed with heavy draping.  A large picture also fills the left wall.  An upright piano occupies practically the whole left edge of the shot frame.  The right wall contains a large bookshelf filled to capacity with kitschy curios.

            The shot also contains a freestanding high-backed chair on the right side of the frame.  A small table lies on the far side of the chair, and a Tiffany lamp sits on this table.  The key lighting for this shot comes from the front left; fill lighting comes from a light fixture over the piano and from the Tiffany lamp situated on the table.  In this shot, the lighting is focused to give stark contrast between the background and the foregrounded objects, namely the high-backed chair and the piano.  Consequently, the lighting gives the room a chiaroscuro effect, casting everything into deep shadow except for the piano and the chair.  The scene props create the atmosphere of a middle- or perhaps lower-class boarding house parlor. 

            Susan sits at the upright piano; she plays the piano and sings throughout the entire shot.  There is no non-diagetic or extra-diagetic sound.  She is wearing the same long-sleeved white top that she wore in the previous shot.  The viewing subject sees her left profile from a slightly oblique angle.  Sitting at the piano completely stiff-backed and raising her hands impractically high before crashing them onto the keys once more, Susan’s musical performance exhibits a lack of refinement.

            Charles sits in the high-backed chair with his hands resting lightly on his lap, calmly smoking a pipe and smiling.  His gaze is focused on Susan and her performance.  He wears a black suit identical to the one he wore in the previous scene.  The viewing subject sees Charles from a left profile; however, Charles has his face turned a fraction more toward the camera, ostensibly so that he can more easily view Susan. 

            The first shot ends with a dissolve into the second shot, and Susan’s singing and piano playing creates a sound bridge between these two shots.  The mise-en-scene of second parlor, while similar to the first, is distinctly different.  The props in this shot portray the parlor of a much more affluent boarding house.  The camera angle has also rotated forty-five degrees to the left so that the connecting hallway is now exposed in the extreme rear of the shot, revealing a Victorian sofa there.  This provides a deeper space for the mise-en-scene.  The drapery enveloping the entrance to this parlor seem to be much more elegant, containing intricate brocades at the upper corners of the archway.  The positions of the fill lighting have changed as well.  The overhead light fixture is now situated in the hall adjoining the parlor, and the Tiffany lamp is now larger and situated on a table closer to the axis of action.  The position of the key lighting and the overall chiaroscuro effect of foregrounding the piano and the high-backed chair is not altered, however. 

            Like the first shot, the piano still occupies the left side of the frame, but the angle from which the spectator views it—and consequently Susan—is closer to a frontal shot than a profile.  Susan is wearing a short-sleeved white blouse rather than the long-sleeved one that she wore in the previous shot.  Also, her motions at the piano display a higher degree of poise than was previously evident.  The high-backed chair is substantially larger and superior than the one from the previous shot and it is now positioned against a wall.  A cuckoo clock hangs on the wall above the chair.  The spectator’s view of Charles is completely a frontal shot, and while he is still sitting, smoking, and smiling, his arms are now folded over his chest.  Tables presently adorn both sides of the chair, and a tasteful miniature of a Greek statue rests on the table opposite the Tiffany lamp.  Also, a large arrangement of dried plants protrudes into the right side of the frame.  The tasteless curios from the previous shot are now supplanted by some finer pieces of art. 

            The action of this shot consists of a continuance of Susan’s performance from the first one.  When she finishes, she quickly whips around to look at Charles.  As he applauds her performance, the shot dissolves into the next scene.  Charles’ clapping in this shot provides a sound bridge to the next scene.

            Containing only two shots and taking up a mere forty seconds of the film, this “parlor scene” is easy to pass over in Citizen Kane. Yet in spite of its length (or lack thereof), film critics would be making an egregious error if they passed over this segment.  Its cinematic technique of dissolving into strikingly different-yet-similar parlors leaves the viewers struggling to conceptualize the difference in shots.  The sound bridge, lighting, and relatively similar positions of props and actors facilitate the idea that the viewing subject is still within the same parlor.  Yet the change of clothes, props, and actions of the actors serve to defamiliarize this parlor.  If we visualize Kaja Silverman’s concept of suture as “the process whereby the inadequacy of the subject’s position is exposed in order to facilitate (i.e., create the desire for) new insertions into a cultural discourse which promises to make good that lack” (234), we can see how the confluence of similar and alien in this scene, at least in part, creates an awareness of the viewing subject’s inferior position. 

            Also, this scene is a titillating view into the voyeur/exhibitionist dynamic, for as much as Charles wishes for Susan to perform for him, she endeavors to fulfill that desire.  As Laura Mulvey illustrates in her essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”:

In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female.  The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly.  In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.  (203)

The two shots in this scene illustrate Susan’s desire to comply with Charles’ masculine fantasies.  We see here the microcosm for what will become Susan and Charles’ relationship.  Charles spends most of the time that they are together in the film projecting his own wants and desires upon Susan.  Her operatic career is launched not out of her desire, but out of Charles’.  Her shift in appearance in the second shot of this scene in indicative of her malleability under a masculine scopic regime.  She changes clothes, appearances, and locations for Charles.  In the end, the only exit that she sees from this male voyeurism is through suicide—the ultimate exit from the symbolic order. 

            This is indeed a great deal of importance to assign a forty second scene; however, it is this voyeur/exhibitionist dynamic which is developed during this scene that not only drives much of Charles and Susan’s relationship, but also provides a major narrative impetus for the rest of the film.  While not the only important scene in the film, it provides another piece of the puzzle that Thompson searches so diligently for in Citizen Kane.


Works Cited

Mulvey, Laura.  “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.”  Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology.  ed. Philip Rosen.  New York: Columbia UP, 1986.

Silverman, Kaja.  “Suture [Excerpts].”  Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology.  ed. Philip Rosen.  New York: Columbia UP, 1986.