Citizen Kane: No One Really Knew Him
Citizen Kane is a film open to many interpretations and analyses. It tells the story of its main character through the complex points of view of those who knew him. Or thought they knew him. The character of Charles Foster Kane is played by, and done so in an enigmatic performance, by Orson Welles. The intrinsic bias and prejudice of the “narrators” in this film creates conflicting accounts of who Charles Foster Kane really was. Kane was a private man; closely guarding his true identity, making it difficult to differentiate the private Kane from his public identity.
Throughout the film’s development of Kane, several inconsistencies and contradictions arise in the depiction of the character’s personality. All of these issues make it difficult to form a solid portrayal of whom Kane actually was. However, there is enough evidence to conclude that Charles Foster Kane was a noble figure sabotaged by his own anti-social behavior and his search for love, his inability to find and provide it, and the way this haunted him to his dying day. To further examine Charles Foster Kane the way in which the film deals with “point of view must” be examined.
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Excluding the opening shot of the film, in which Kane dies, the events of Kane’s life are told through a series of narrators. The audience is informed that the character of Thompson is charged with the task of discovering who Kane really was by decoding the meaning of his last word, “ROSEBUD”. This plants an expectation in the audience that they too will be uncovering the “real” Kane through Thompson’s interviews. However, Thompson’s supposed first contact, the former Mrs. Kane (Susan Alexander Kane), is a complete failure.
This sets up a succession of broken expectations that distort and interrupt the interpretation of Kane. Thompson’s mission leads him from one subjective acquaintance to another, ranging from a book (the autobiography of the money minded Mr. Thatcher) to Kane’s longtime business associate, Mr. Leland. In addition to the five contacts of Mr. Thompson, the reporter creates his own point of view as he interprets the individual stories of Kane. In the final scene, he eventually concludes that Kane cannot be defined by a single word (ROSEBUD) and that the conflicting testimonies only prove that the man is still a mystery.
One significant plot style that aids in understanding the character of Charles Foster Kane is the idea of revealing a private man behind his public character. The opening shot of the film sets up this pattern, as the camera gradually climbs over the tall fence outside of Kane’s mansion and into his bedroom. This peering angle is also apparent as cameras outside of Kane’s mansion catch glimpses of the man being hauled around his estate after his death and ensuing funeral. These images and the way they are shot create the sense that the audience is getting a special look into the private life of Charles Foster Kane.
This becomes increasingly important as the public persona of Kane is established. As the magnate of “yellow” journalism establishes his empire, a continual effort is made to control the public image of his personal values. Kane, in effect, brands himself by becoming a symbol of truth for the disadvantaged. This effort is made clear by Kane’s addition of an editorial note in the Inquirer stating his gallant mission. Unfortunately Kane’s public image takes an incredible downturn after the scandal surrounding his unsuccessful campaign for New York Governor.
Eventually Kane is viewed as an extremist and a loner as he secludes himself in his larger-than-life estate. Unfortunately, none of this knowledge truly helps define who Kane was as a person. This is why Thompson’s editor urges him to contact the five people closest to Kane-to reveal his closely guarded private character. The audience’s first glimpse of the real Kane is briefly displayed as Mr. Thatcher recounts a rebellious Mr. Kane to Mr. Thompson during Thatcher and Kane’s first encounter. This defiance reappears as an older Kane explains to Mr. Thatcher that he never wished to be born into money and is willing to lose money on his newspaper in order to fight for his ideals. Two things can be gleaned from this information. The first is that Kane is forced to live in a way that does not suit his nature. The second is that Kane’s dislike for Thatcher is a fundamental motivation for his actions. Kane’s magnetism is by far his largest asset as he purchases the Inquirer. This charisma and ability for manipulation are what drive his empire of “yellow” journalism, making it possible for Kane to spread his standards to a mass audience.
A clear display of this know-how is Kane’s eagerness to send journalists posing as police officers to scare a man into creating a story. It is important to understand Kane’s keen awareness between news and truth. He views the newspaper as a means of spreading his message, not necessarily the truth. His ongoing battles with Thatcher, as well as his support of the Spanish-American War, are evidence that Kane’s personal grudges hold weight over all else. As Kane struggles to build his empire, he becomes increasingly obsessed with himself. His relationship with his “following” is typical of all his relationships.
Kane craves love without being able to reciprocate love. It is difficult to analyze the character of Charles Foster Kane without also analyzing the many contradiction that arise throughout the film. For example, Kane’s capacity for love seems to change depending on the narrator. There are a number of things that the audience is told Kane loves exclusively: his mother, his newspaper, his second wife, Susan, and himself. The possibility exists that Kane loved all of these; however, he could have also loved none of them. The audience is left to create their own opinion and interpretation of Kane’s ability or inability to love.
A similar contradiction exists in the general description of Kane. He is described as selfish, selfless, a scoundrel, and an idealist. Some would argue that this narrative point-of-view suggests an impartial portrayal of Kane that the audience should believe to be authentic. However, Welles himself has stated that Kane is “never judged with the objectivity of an author”. While the narrative voice can sidetrack viewers into focusing on false assumptions and ideas about Kane, the passionate preconceived notions of each narrator will affect the portrayal of Kane, and it is again up to the audience to make a decision about him.
Without question, the most endearing qualities of Charles Foster Kane were his charm and charisma. This quality was able to shine through his feelings of resentment towards both his mother and Mr. Thatcher. However, it is obvious that his early abandonment and familial detachment triggered his need to be loved. Kane’s magnetism is merely a tool used to manipulate others in an attempt to obtain their love. Kane’s appealing words are made hollow and empty by his inability to give in return the feelings he craves. Instead, Kane uses one elaborate attempt after the next to prove his noble cause.
The fight he wages with the banks is a direct result of his personal grudge with Mr. Thatcher, more so than an attempt to stand up for the underprivileged. This selfish motive is also behind his constant giving of material things to his second wife; building her an opera house and a mansion to try and buy her love. By the end of his life, Kane has destroyed any good intentions he may have had. He becomes progressively more anti-social; and, secluded in his cavernous mansion, Kane eventually dies in the same way he lived – alone and without love. Audience and acquaintances alike are left asking themselves: “Did we ever really know him”?