Citizen Kane (1941), directed by Orson Welles, draws extensively upon the ethos of the American Dream and the pursuit of happiness to explore the human condition.The film follows the life of Charles Foster Kane, a caricature of the real life media mogul William Rudolph Hearst. Most saliently, the film’s enduring value can be attributed to its ability to explore three universal concepts: the emptiness of wealth, the corrupting nature of power, and the necessity of love.
Welles explores how an obsessive pursuit of material wealth diminishes the holistic pursuit of happiness, leading instead to emptiness and disillusion. Kane’s achievement of the American Dream is emblematic of The United States as it overcame the Great Depression (1929 – 1941) through its entry into WWII, resulting in increased optimism and economic progress. This is evident for Kane, via the faux news montage sequence of “News on the March” depicting the chronology of Kane’s empire. However, despite his wealth, Kane dies lonely and isolated, with a recurring symbolism of entrapment established in the opening scenes by ominous, non diegetic music as the camera zooms in and pans over a “No Trespassing” sign. A quick cut to Kane’s last word, “Rosebud”, a synecdoche for the joy of a childhood untainted by a pursuit of material wealth, also symbolises an eternal winter, emphasising the metaphorical coldness of the adult Kane’s heart, starved of human bonds. Furthermore, following his second wife Susan’s departure, Welles frames Kane in a mise-en-abyme in which double mirrors reflect an infinite sequence of diminishing Kanes, visually manifesting his entrapment in the flawed ethos of the American Dream. We, as the audience, come to understand that underneath his vast material wealth, Kane is a broken man, failing to realise that economic prosperity does not equate with fulfilment. As the critic Roger Ebert (1998) concurs, “Rosebud is the emblem of the security, hope and innocence of childhood, which a man can spend his life seeking to regain.” A panning of his collection of artworks, all packaged in boxes, emphasises his massive wealth yet also exemplifies that his life has no enjoyment as a result of confusing happiness with purchasing power. Kane’s failure to recognise that the happiness of his childhood cannot be achieved through the pursuit of materialistic wealth, and this is visually symbolised by the close up of Rosebud in the furnace, burning. Thus, Welles explores how Kane’s obsession with material wealth eclipses an individual’s authentic pursuit of happiness.
Citizen Kane also conveys a powerful lesson regarding the corruptive influence of power. Newspapers such as Hearst’s New York Journal popularised and used the power of yellow journalism in the 1890s to influence the American public’s opinions on the Spanish-American War (1898).Kane’s initial altruism and idealistic justification of wielding influential political power through the media are expressed through a zooming close up reinforcing Kane’s emphatic delivery of “I am the publisher of the Inquirer…my duty… that… hard working people are not robbed…”. However, Kane’s determined tone in “I’ve got to make the New York Inquirer as important to New York as the gas in that light”, accompanied by the dramatic device of a lamp which he turns off, casting shadows on him, foreshadows the universal truth that power corrupts. This moral decay is emphasised through the use of chiaroscuro lighting and low angle camera work when Kane announces his Declaration of Principles. Furthermore, his abuse of power is revealed through his proprietorial attitude towards Susan’s opera career. The mise-en-scene with newspapers scattered around Susan with articles panning her debut, highlights her sense of hopelessness, amplified by the symbolism of shadows as a low angle shot emphasises Kane’s desire to feel in control. Moreover, Kane’s dismissal of Leiland for criticising Susan in a review conveys the conflict between his initial egalitarian ideals and his power as a media mogul to fabricate lies which align with his opinion. This conflict is emphasised by the diegetic sound of the rapid clicking of the typewriter, not unlike the sound of gunfire. Ultimately, the symbolism of Kane’s tearing up of the Declaration highlights that his ideals and morals have been eroded by a desire for uncontested power.This view is supported by David Wood (2002) who describes Citizen Kane as “a potent metaphor for the betrayal of principles… an intelligent mediation on the corrupting nature of power”.Thus Welles powerfully demonstrates the dangers of falling for the endless spiral of the pursuit of power.
Citizen Kane also explores how a lack of love can result in an inability to form meaningful relationships with other individuals and achieve fulfilment. Kane’s construction of Xanadu for his second wife Susan parallels that of media mogul William Randolph Hearst’s massive property, San Simeon, which began construction in 1919 but was ultimately never finished. Through this allusion, Welles satirises the idea that love can be purchased by money. The skilful use of deep focus in the scene when Kane’s mother and Thatcher are discussing his future allows audiences to see a young Kane in the background playing happily in the snow. The window framing Kane captures his joy in those moments and foreshadows that his childhood happiness is finite. Removed from maternal love, Kane begins a desperate search for love, his identification with the maternal Susan resulting in his attraction to her. Their growing intimacy is reinforced by the use of dissolves to convey the passing of time as Susan sings for Kane. However, his lack of unconditional love as a child results in his inability to genuinely love others, leading to the disintegration of their marriage, evident through Welles’ depiction of the couple’s emotional distance when Susan is solving puzzles in the cavernous interior of Xanadu, the sharp and sterile lighting creating a sense of their isolation and loneliness. When Kane talks to her across the room, the echoes of their conversation reinforces the hollowness of their relationship. Here Susan’s expensive, fancy clothing conveys that she is trapped in a world of Kane’s material construct. Kane’s material wealth leads to his view of love as a commodity, resulting in his inability to become happy. This argument is supported by critic BosleyCrowther (1941) who wrote “For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”. Leiland also recognises Kane’s desire to receive yet not give love, conveyed by his criticism “you want love on your own terms”. The mise-en-scene with streamers scattered on the ground at the Inquirer’s office when Kane loses his campaign emphasises not only his political defeat but also his failure to gain the love of the masses. Thus Welles portrays the detrimental effects of being unable to connect emotionally with other individuals.
Ultimately, Citizen Kane explores how it is genuine connections forged with others rather than wealth and power that bring happiness. As Richard Brody (2013) wrote, the film is indeed “so vast and complex… inexhaustibly self-regenerating” and still relevant as a result of its universal themes, enduring commentary on the human condition and groundbreaking film techniques.