Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell

Orson Welles (director), Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles (co-writers), Citizen Kane (1941)

The film Citizen Kane (1941) was produced and directed by Orson Welles, and co-written by him with Herman J. Mankiewicz.  The film also starred Orson Welles in the lead role.  The film presents a quest to truly understand a man.  In this case it is the fictional newspaper tycoon Charles Foster Kane who was based on the contemporary media tycoon William Randolph Hearst as well as on other prominent entrepreneurs from that time.  In presenting this quest, the film raises issues as to whether it is possible to truly know another human being, since the character undertaking that quest, the journalist Jerry Thompson, concludes unsatisfied.  Meanwhile, the film also presents a critique of the abuse of the power wielded by wealthy media tycoons and the threat this poses to democracy.

The line of inquiry taken by Jerry Thompson, and by the film, takes two paths: one is influenced by Freudian psychoanalysis, and the other consists of trying to piece together a composite image based on the recollections of those who knew Kane.  

The psychoanalytical line of inquiry centres on the meaning of the puzzling last word uttered by Kane before he died: ‘Rosebud’.  It is revealed at the end of the film to be the name of Kane’s boyhood sleigh.  To a lesser extent it is also relevant to the inexpensive but treasured ornamental snow globe that shatters when Kane drops it as he dies. The film suggests that Kane was initially happy as a young boy.  The scene in the snow globe resembles the time and place when he was happiest and the sleigh was the toy he enjoyed the most.  But he was soon traumatised by his childhood experience of having been fostered out by his mother to be raised by a guardian.  Consequently, he was burdened by an unsatisfied desire to find love and to seek to be secure in that love by controlling the person whom he loves. 

The second line of inquiry finds a metaphor in the jigsaw puzzle, as Jerry Thompson seeks to compose a satisfying portrait of the real man behind the public image, a portrait that is based on five different opinions, all of which are subjective. 

While undertaking its investigative journey into the private life of a public figure that takes the cinema audience into the deeper recesses of this man’s soul, the film uses the similarities between the career of the fictional character of Charles Foster Kane to that of the media tycoon William Randolph Hearst to mount a critique of tabloid journalism and its sensationalist reporting as rendering it untrustworthy as a source of truth.  The film also presents a critique of the ability of media tycoons to abuse their power by manipulating public opinion, usually to support the values and pet causes of the tycoon, a tendency that can sometimes be in defiance of empirical reality.  This is presented as contravening fundamental democratic principles and corrupting the democratic process.  

On a broader front, this criticism of a corrupt media tycoon also serves as a critique of corporate power in general and its ability to corrupt those who wield it.  In addition, Kane’s accumulation of vast wealth is shown to be unsatisfying since it failed to bring him happiness and contentment. 

The film is also hailed as a cinematic masterpiece for its innovative use of cinematic artistry to tell a story in highly creative ways.  This involved techniques such as deep-focus photography to enable the story to be told on multiple planes, the use of dramatic lighting that featured vivid contrasts, unconventional camera angles and camera movements, and a non-linear narrative structure.  These innovations gave the film what was then a unique look, mysterious atmosphere and a profound quality. 

Student resources by Dr Mark Lopez

© Mark Lopez 2021 All RIGHTS RESERVED

The purpose of the concise notes of Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell is to provide much needed help to students seeking to unlock the meaning of the texts with which they have to deal.  (More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my private tutoring business.) 

Subject: Citizen Kane meaning, Citizen Kane themes, Citizen Kane analysis, Citizen Kane notes