Analysis of ‘Citizen Kane’

Citizen Kane is a 1941 film produced and directed by Orson Welles, and written by him and Herman J. Mankiewicz. It stars Welles in the title role, or Charles Foster Kane, with Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Comingore, Everett Sloane, George Coulouris, Ray Collins, and Agnes Moorehead.

It is regarded as not only one of the greatest films of all time, but by many as the greatest film of all time, with its distinctive cinematography, makeup, and narrative style being seen as way ahead of their time. Welles and cinematographer Gregg Toland used deep focus and camera angles going upward to include ceilings in shots, even cutting into the floor to achieve such unusual angles. Makeup realistically conveyed aging in Kane and other characters shown over a span of decades; and the non-linear narrative showed Kane’s life in flashbacks, from multiple points of view.

Such tropes as a reporter seeking to uncover a mystery (in this case, the meaning behind Kane’s last word, “Rosebud”), and the retelling of the past from multiple points of view, have influenced such films as Velvet Goldmine. And like the mysterious pop star in that movie, Kane is a wealthy, powerful, and narcissistic man loved by many…and hated by many more.

While based mainly on right-wing newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, Kane is a composite character based also on left-leaning newspaper man Joseph Pulitzer, and businessmen Samuel Insull and Harold Fowler McCormick, whose second wife, Ganna Walska, was a failed opera singer, like Kane’s second wife, Susan Alexander (Comingore). Since Hearst knew the movie would portray him in an unflattering light (How else would one portray a Nazi sympathizer who published such blatant falsehoods as the “Holodomor” in his newspapers?), he tried to stop the film from being made.

A link to famous quotes from the film can be found here.

The film begins, significantly, with a shot of a sign saying “No Trespassing” (as will be the ending shot). Next, we see a shot of Kane’s mansion, Xanadu, up high on a mountain in the background. The point of this beginning is to emphasize his ownership of private property, that he is a wealthy capitalist.

We see Kane in his last moments, with a closeup of his mouth as he whispers, “Rosebud” and drops a snow globe; then he dies, and we see an approaching nurse in the curved reflection of part of the shattered snow globe. To get close to Kane–something no one’s ever really done, not even his wives–is to know him, to know the connection between “Rosebud” and the winter scene of the snow globe: the sled of his childhood. The sight of the nurse in the snow globe’s reflection is symbolic of Kane’s narcissistic attitude towards other people–they are a mere reflection of himself, not independent entities unto themselves.

The narrative introduction to him and to his death is presented in an appropriate way: he was a newspaper man, so one should present his death in the form of newsreels and front-page articles. On the one hand, Kane–like Hearst–was a purveyor of sensationalistic yellow journalism; on the other hand, people today have an especial distrust of the mainstream media (90% of the American part of which is owned by six corporations, and which is internationally networked to serve the interests of the global capitalist class). These two considerations show that we should regard this media presentation of Kane’s death as a form of theatre, as artificial, as lies mixed in with truth.

For indeed, Kane’s whole life has been a cleverly sculptured lie. And since Kane is the personification of the mass media, this means that the film is, in large part, about media dishonesty. As Kane tells a reporter, “Don’t believe everything you hear on the radio.” Aptly ironic words from a producer of yellow journalism who then tells the reporter to read his newspaper instead.

Just as his life has been a lie, so is Xanadu. The film makes explicit the name of the mansion as a reference to Coleridge‘s “Kubla Khan” by quoting its first two lines in the newsreel. Kubla Kane, if you will, decreed a stately pleasure dome in Florida, his failed attempt at building paradise on earth, a huge mansion on a tall mountain reaching into the sky, suggestive of Babel.

He collected two of every animal on the earth to put in a zoo in Xanadu, suggestive of Noah’s ark, a symbolic attempt to bring man back from the sinful world and into Eden, part of his failed attempt at regaining paradise. Such extravagance reminds one of Michael Jackson’s animal collections, an eccentricity only the rich can afford.

Kane’s whole life has been an attempt to regain the paradise he lost as a child, that of parental love. No animals, statues, or mansion can replace such a loss, though. He has no one, nothing to look up to.

“Rosebud,” printed on his childhood sled, is an interesting choice of words. The sled glides on snow, whose coldness is suggestive of death and alienation, whereas the rosebud is suggestive of life and the warmth of human company. Therefore, a rosebud on top of death’s coldness is symbolic of his wish to maintain life and love over death and alienation, the carefree life of childhood over the dead conformity of adulthood.

In the scene of his childhood home in Colorado, young Charles is outside with his sled and throwing snowballs. Inside his home are his mother (Moorehead), his father, and Walter Parks Thatcher (Coulouris), who are discussing how the boy will inherit a huge fortune when he reaches twenty-five years of age; but he must immediately leave his parents to be taken care of by Thatcher until he comes of age and receives the money.

A good example of the use of deep focus in Citizen Kane is this scene, in which Mr. Kane is arguing with Mrs. Kane and Thatcher over the boy’s fate. All four characters, nearer and farther away on the screen, are equally in focus, suggesting what should be their equal importance. Since, however, the mining deed leading to the boy’s future fortune is in his mother’s name, the decision to give him over to Thatcher’s guardianship is hers alone, raising her importance over that of the others.

Accordingly, she and Thatcher are in the foreground in the shot, while Mr. Kane–whose wish to continue raising his son is being disregarded–is further back in the shot, and young Charles is the farthest back, behind the window and out in the snow, the one whose future and fate are being decided without his consent, the one whose emotional needs are not only being disregarded…they aren’t even being contemplated.

His well-meaning mother wants to ensure he’s financially as well-off as possible, but she’s oblivious to his emotional needs: to have the love of his mother and father at hand as he grows up. She has given no thought at all to the psychological scars she will be causing him through this unwitting emotional neglect.

Money can’t buy you love: that’s what Citizen Kane is all about.

According to Heinz Kohut‘s notion of the bipolar self, healthy psychological structure is established through two poles: one of narcissistic mirroring (the grandiose self), and one of an idealized parental imago. When one pole is compromised or frustrated, the other can compensate; when both poles are compromised or frustrated, the person in question is in danger of psychological fragmentation, against which the defence of pathological narcissism may be erected. Young Charles, wrested away from his parents and thus with neither a mirror for his grandiosity nor a parental role model to idealize, will resort to narcissism to keep from falling apart…until even his own narcissism won’t save him at the end of the film.

Added to these problems is his unresolved Oedipal conflict. (This being a 1941 film, when Freudian ideas were still in vogue, it is not out of place to analyze it with those ideas.) He asks his mother if she’ll leave Colorado with him, which of course she won’t. Since having him cared for by Thatcher is her idea, this is tantamount to little Charles’s being betrayed by the object of his Oedipal desire.

His father acquiesces to the situation, and when he speaks of little Charles’s leaving with Thatcher, he tries to put on a happy face, telling the boy that he’ll be rich. Mr. Kane’s giving in to Mrs. Kane’s and Thatcher’s wishes, therefore, is another betrayal to the boy. The result is that his parents have become what Melanie Klein called the bad mother and bad father, frustrating little Charles instead of giving what he wants and needs, as the good mother and father would do.

This parental betrayal, as the boy would see it, results in splitting, which when projected out into the world, would in turn result in a perception of the world as all good or all bad…Xanadu, or Thatcher. And because Thatcher is Charles’s new guardian, and will remain so until he reaches age twenty-five and can claim his fortune, Thatcher is receiving a transference of growing Kane’s Oedipal hostility to the bad father.

Young Kane goes to study in a number of prestigious universities, where he meets Jedediah Leland (Cotten), and where he’s expelled from each of them, presumably to spite Thatcher, and because his pathological narcissism is way out of control. Again, to spite Thatcher (with the utmost success), Kane goes into the newspaper business.

He takes over the floundering Inquirer, and resorts to yellow journalism to hurt the business interests of rich landlords and businessmen like Thatcher, again to spite him. Kane rationalizes his newspaper’s dubious reporting by claiming he’s defending the interests of the common working man against bloodsuckers like Thatcher…but we shouldn’t forget that Kane, as a capitalist, and a particularly narcissistic one at that, is no better. His attacks on Thatcher and his ilk are just that: part of his personal vendetta against the symbolic bad father who took Kane away from his good father and mother. Recall that the Oedipus complex is a narcissistic trauma, a wish to hog Mommy and Daddy all to oneself; yet Kane has had them snatched away from him by nothing less than the capitalist system itself.

At a party, Kane puts on a show with pretty young women dancers and a man singing all about how great Kane is. It’s his grandiosity all put on display, a presentation of his grandeur that’s as phoney as that of his “singer” second wife, Susan Kane, née Alexander (Comingmore), on whom he’ll later project that grandiosity.

Now as with any narcissist, this grandiosity of Kane’s is really just a front to disguise how empty he feels inside. His outer grandiosity and vanity have a dialectical relationship with his inner self-hate. As Kane is seen dancing like a ladies’ man with the girls, Leland and Bernstein (Sloane)–Kane’s business associates–are discussing him, among other things.

In another example of the effectiveness of deep focus to bring about symbolism, all three men are in the shot, equally focused on to represent what should be their equal worth; but Leland and Bernstein are in the foreground, and Kane is seen further back, in the window reflection with the dancing girls…just like the shot of him as a boy out in the snow while Mr. and Mrs. Kane discuss his fate with Thatcher. His narcissism is derived from the lack of empathy and love he got from his parents, who discussed him without involving him. The shot of Leland and Bernstein, discussing Kane without including him, symbolizes this ongoing reality of Kane’s object relations.

Other examples of scenes whose visual effects symbolize Kane’s grandiosity–as a disguise for how small he feels inside–include the shot of an aging Kane giving Thatcher financial control over his paper: Kane walks away from the camera towards windows that, at first, don’t seem large, but when he reaches them, we see they’re much larger…making Kane much smaller than he seems.

Another example is in Xanadu, by a fireplace, where he is arguing with Susan; he walks away from her and towards the fireplace which, by the time he reaches it, is seen as much larger than we thought. Yet another example is when Kane is typing and finishing Leland’s negative review of one of Susan’s performances: Kane seems huge in the foreground, but when Leland approaches, he isn’t comparatively all that big anymore.

Other examples of how the clever camerawork reinforces symbolic meaning include the upward angles, symbolizing Kane’s urge to find an ideal to look up to, someone or something to replace Kane’s long-lost idealized parental imago, or to gratify his narcissism by having us look up to him. One shot, looking up at Thatcher during Christmas when Kane is a boy, represents the idealized parental imago as spoiled, ruined, turned into the banker as the symbolic bad father substitute.

Elsewhere, Xanadu, that castle up on a mountain, is the ideal transferred onto a place, a new Eden linking Kane–or so he’d have it–to God the Father. The mirror reflections–of the nurse in the broken snow globe, Kane in the window reflection while Leland and Bernstein are chatting, and old Kane walking past a multiple mirror reflection–all symbolize his need to have his grandiosity mirrored back to him, to have others mirror empathy back to him…because he sees his worth only in terms of such mirroring.

The deterioration of his first marriage, to Emily Norton (played by Ruth Warrick), niece of the American president, is given expression through clever cinematography. First, the newlyweds are shown together at a table at breakfast and very much in love…or so it would seem. Kane, in serving her breakfast and carrying on about how beautiful she is and how much he’s in love with her, is just demonstrating the first phase of the idealize, devalue, and discard cycle of narcissistically abusive relationships.

The scene switches quickly over the years, showing the changing relationship of Kane and Emily at the table, with her complaining of his constant preoccupation with his newspaper and emotional neglect of her. He’s going into the devalue phase of the relationship. They’re filmed separately now, rather than together in the same shot.

Next, he speaks derisively of her uncle, to which she reminds her husband that her uncle is the president. Kane imagines this “mistake” will be “corrected one of these days.” On another occasion, he speaks of making people think “what [he] tell[s] them to think.” His mask of modesty is slipping; his narcissism is showing.

Finally, through a shot of the two sitting at the ends of their table, we see how estranged they’ve become towards each other. In fact, instead of talking, they’re reading newspapers: his, the Inquirer, and hers, the Chronicle.

The discard stage comes around the time when Kane hopes to be elected governor of the state of New York. He has been having an affair with Susan Alexander, and boss Jim Gettys, fearful of losing to Kane and being made vulnerable to charges of corruption from Kane, blackmails him with the threat of exposing his adultery if he doesn’t back out of the race.

Kane’s campaign as a “fighting liberal” and advocate for the common working man, as against corrupt Gettys, is more fakery on Kane’s part. His public image as a “friend of the working man” is an example of his narcissistic False Self; he, the future “landlord” of Xanadu, is as much a rapacious member of the ruling class as Gettys is. Kane’s campaign occurs fairly near the time that he, in Europe, has hobnobbed with Hitler and Franco. His later denunciations of them mean nothing: a true friend of the working man would never be friendly with fascists. Here’s an example of Kane as representing Hearst.

Thatcher, in his animus towards Kane, calls him a “communist” (as many right-wingers do to anyone who is even one or two millimetres to the left of them), in spite of how fake his sympathies with the working man are. Actual labour organizers denounce Kane as a “fascist.” Yet Kane, in his false modesty, just considers himself an American–hence the ironic title of the film.

In his associating with fascists, then denouncing them (only for the sake of his public image, of course), Kane is really just showing himself as a typical example of the shady liberal, who bends to the left or right depending on which way the political wind happens to be blowing at the time. Comparable examples include LBJ and his war on poverty, along with his escalation of the Vietnam War on the mendacious Gulf of Tonkin incident. Elsewhere, there’s when Obama spoke of wanting to “spread the wealth around” while on the campaign trail; then when president, he bailed out the banks, and helped with the coup d’état that kicked out pro-Russia Yanukovych from Ukraine and replaced him with a pro-Western government and paramilitary units with neo-Nazis!

To go back to his beginning relationship with Susan, Kane meets her when a coach has splashed mud all over his suit, and she laughs at him, causing him a narcissistic injury he keeps well under control, but lets out just enough to ask her why she’s laughing. She doesn’t know he’s a big newspaper tycoon, and she’s encountered him in a vulnerable state, like a mother with her little boy.

In her apartment, he likes how she, not knowing who he is, likes him just for himself; so he opens up to her, as a little boy might divulge his vulnerabilities to his mother. Kane speaks of meaning to head over to a warehouse holding old possessions of his from his childhood (which, by the way, include his “Rosebud” sled); he also mentions the death of his mother years ago. This divulging of his personal life to a pretty young woman he hardly knows, to a woman who charms him with her giggles and her toothache, is because of a transference of his Oedipal feelings for his mother onto Susan. In her, Kane has found a new ideal…

His forced defeat to Gettys (on whom, speaking of transferences, he’s shifted his hate of Thatcher), as well as the loss of his financial control over his newspaper businesses to Thatcher because of the Depression, means the pole of Kane’s grandiose self has taken a beating. As I said above about the bipolar self, though, Kane has the other pole, that of idealization, to compensate for his loss of narcissistic grandiosity.

…and this is where Susan, the would-be opera star, comes in.

Kane divorces Emily and marries Susan, planning to make her a great opera star; but in all of this, he’s just making her into an extension of himself (just as the narcissist has made “the working man” an extension of himself, people whom he’d gift with benefits, rather than people with rights they should have always had). Significantly, he says “we” will be an opera star, rather than she will be one. He thinks he owns her, just as (as Leland has observed) he thinks he owns the working man.

The particular problem here is, apart from Susan’s not really wanting to sing opera, that she simply isn’t talented enough. Still, Kane is fixated on making her a great opera singer, a fixation that begins when, on their first meeting, she mentions her mother having wanted her to sing opera; recall that here he’s just spoken of his mother’s death to her, too, and so this fixation is another of those elements that connects Susan to his Oedipal feelings for his long-lost mother, his original ideal.

Still, Susan can’t sing. Her singing teacher is frustrated with her inadequate voice to the point of throwing comical temper tantrums. She is especially incapable of the dramatic aspect of opera, for which Leland’s blunt review gets him fired by Kane. She cannot be his ideal…yet he won’t let her not be his ideal. As with Kane’s public persona and his newspaper, her ‘virtuosity’ is a lie.

Her suicide attempt forces Kane to accept her giving up on her singing. Their relationship continues to deteriorate after that. Her only way of passing the time half-way pleasurably is to do jigsaw puzzles, one of the first of which we see, significantly, is of a winter scene. Elsewhere, there’s the snow globe, which he first sees when he meets Susan.

When Jerry Thompson (played by William Alland), the reporter assigned to investigate the meaning of “Rosebud,” discusses at the film’s end how he’s never discovered that meaning (he himself is usually shrouded in shadows, implying that he’s the personification of Rosebud’s never-answered mystery), he speaks of Kane’s last word as a missing puzzle piece. Susan, the winter scene puzzle, the snow globe, the sled, and Kane’s mother back in snowy Colorado–they’re all interconnected.

When Susan finally leaves Kane, he falls apart because–having already lost the pole of grandiosity–he’s now lost the other pole, the compensating one of ideals. He, lacking psychological structure, fragments, like the pieces of a puzzle taken apart. By trashing the bedroom, he is trying to project outwards the tearing-apart of his inner world.

Kane’s loss of Susan, the ideal on whom he transferred his Oedipal feelings for his original ideal, his mother, has led him to contemplate the snow globe, whose winter scene and house remind him of his original Xanadu, his childhood home in Colorado, where he had the love of his parents, especially his mother. Losing Susan feels like losing Mother all over again; her leaving him is like Mother’s betraying signature on the dotted line and sending him away with Thatcher.

I’m guessing his mother bought him the sled. Even if not so, “Rosebud” symbolizes Kane’s objet petit a, what he chased for all his life–in the forms of the Inquirer, Emily, governor of New York, Xanadu, animals, statues, and Susan–but never got…his mother’s love.

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