The House is Not a Home: Comparing the Openings and Endings of Rebecca and Citizen Kane

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The striking similarities between Hitchcock and Welles’ Noir-tinged masterpieces.

(Spoilers for both films lurk below. Advance with care.)

When it was released in 1941, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane was regarded as a wholly original film, one that broke the mold of American moviemaking and simultaneously introduced the auteur to American audiences. And while it is true that Kane holds a unique place in the history of film, it isn’t quite as original as many people give it credit for. It was, after all, modeled after the life, times, and persona of William Randolph Hearst, publishing magnate and self-appointed moral custodian of the early 20th century, but that’s just a narrative facet. Aesthetically, Welles might have borrowed a little from other sources as well, namely the Academy Award Winner for Best Picture from just the year before, 1940, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca.

If you look at the opening and closing scenes in particular, the similarities shared between these two films are overwhelming. Both begin with a slow, atmospheric approach to a grand manor – in Rebecca’s case Manderlay, in Kane’s Xanadu – that has fallen on hard times and is in the process of being reclaimed by nature, yet still someone seems to be living inside its vast and opulent isolation, and both end with fire: in Kane it is the titular character’s defining possession, ol’ Rosebud, getting torched in the wake of Kane’s death, while in Rebecca it is Manderlay itself that becomes engulfed in a conflagration as spectacular as the home was in its heyday.

In the following comparative video from Rob Stone entitled “No Trespassing,” both the first and final scenes of Rebecca and Citizen Kane have been set side-by side to reveal the areas in which they overlap. Having seen both films a handful of times, I feel slightly stupid for never having made this connection on my own, but thanks to Stone’s eloquent work, I’ll never see either of them the same way again. And in case you were wondering, these similarities don’t detract from the originality of Citizen Kane at all, rather they inform the myth of Welles, boy wonder, and paint him as the voracious student of art that he was above all else.

Novelist, Screenwriter, Video Essayist