The Underside of Ambition: Corruption and Ambiguity in ‘Citizen Kane’
It is the textual integrity of Orson Welles’ film Citizen Kane (1941) which enables it to effectively demonstrate the need for healthy relationships and the dangers of the exclusive pursuit of power. The film’s non-linear structure which returns to the Gothic façade of Xanadu also conveys the ambiguity of Kane’s character and the human experience. Elements of German Expressionism then account for many of the film’s unorthodox techniques such as chiaroscuro lighting and distorted sets, which add richness in textual integrity and heightens the enigma of Kane.
Kane’s relentless pursuit of power and disregard for integrity can only yield him temporary glory, followed by endless regret. Kane’s eventual downfall exposes the intrinsic flaws of the idealistic American Dream, which promoted the false illusion that financial success generated emotional fulfilment. Kane’s youthful innocence is depicted in the childhood scene, where his indistinct shouting in the background of a deep focus shot emphasises his blissful detachment from the money-driven, adult world in the foreground. However, his unwilling departure with banker Thatcher immerses him in an unhealthy environment of “gold mines, oil wells, shipping and real estate”. Kane’s corruption emerges when signing the Declaration of Principles, where the chiaroscuro lighting covers him in darkness to convey a sense of moral ambiguity, thereby foreshadowing his compromise of honesty for publicity. His moral transformation leads me to agree with critic Pauline Kael (1971), who views Citizen Kane as “the story of how heroes become comedians and con artists”, representing how those respected in public often decay into figures of immoral behaviour. The shadowed confrontation between Kane and Gettys then reveals that the corrupting influence of power is not limited to Kane, and parodies a ‘backroom deal’ to critique the wider manipulation within politics and society. The mid-shot of his first-person confession “If I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a very great man”, reveals his genuine recognition of his immoral character and hence questions his adherence to selfish values. Wide angle shots of Xanadu’s interior then create optical illusions of Kane being dwarfed by seemingly normal-sized fireplaces and doorways, to suggest that his sudden impotence is a result of his own materialistic doing. Orson Welles traces Kane’s corruption in his quest for power to warn viewers against the dangers of relentless ambition.
Kane’s inability to form emotional connections stems from the trauma following his family’s rejection, but also from his self-centred ambitions. Growing consumerism in the 1930s prompted many American parents to send their children to the East Coast for greater opportunities and sacrifice familial bonds in the process. Kane’s family separation is compounded by the coldness of Thatcher, whose monotone voice across an abrupt time-lapse, “Merry Christmas…and a Happy New Year”, is stripped of any emotional significance to imply that Kane’s childhood has quickly dissolved into the spiritually empty environment. He consequently struggles to reciprocate feelings with first wife Emily, as seen in the breakfast montage. The scene features a succession of close-up shots cutting continuously between the two, which highlights their lack of unity and Kane’s indifference for emotional connections. Their growing estrangement is then confirmed as the camera dollies out to reveal the physical distance between them. In contrast, the close, even proxemics between Kane and Susan in her apartment suggests that Kane is still able to forge a connection with someone who is mutually “lonely”. Hence critical interpretations such as that of Robert Carringer (1976), “*Kane was incapable of loving, or even of dispensing simple humanity”, are incomplete, since Kane is still intrinsically able to love Susan despite his early loss of family. However, during Susan’s opera debut, a series of strings are then revealed through a rising shot to mimic a puppet show, a symbol of Kane’s growing perception of Susan as a mere project rather than a partner. Hence the breakdown of his relationship with Susan is more due to his self-centred character and lack of respect for her. Orson Welles tackles the everlasting themes of love and relationships which resonate within responders.
Ultimately, Kane’s true character is layered under a contradictory and fragmented interpretation of his actions and values, inhibiting a definitive understanding of him. Public figures in the early 1900s such as William Randolph Hearst similarly manipulated public perception and developed enigmatic personalities. The shot through the shattered glass globe at Kane’s deathbed provides a distorted view of the room, creating a symbol for his complex thought processes which can no longer be retrieved. It can only be inaccurately pieced together to form an ambiguous, ineffectual story, exemplified by the film’s non-linear structure of flashbacks, and also the newsreel sequence which labels Kane as both “a communist” and “an American”. Kane’s true identity is not only shrouded from the viewers, but also from the general public in the film. In a wide angle shot of his political campaign speech, the real Kane is juxtaposed against his vast propaganda portrait behind him, which represents the idealistic public image he hides beneath. The crowd is completely shadowed except for an emotionless Leland and Emily, evoking a contrast between Kane’s public and private reception to suggest that viewers are also shadowed from the truth.After Susan leaves him, the hall of mirrors which duplicate his image to infinity is symbolic of how all the conflicting aspects of Kane have moulded in the same distraught figure. Hence even Kane himself struggles to justify his past, futile ambitions, adding to the contradictions in his character. Critic Ronald Gottesman (1971) similarly provides a paradoxical but valid portrait of Kane as “selfish and selfless, an idealist, a scoundrel, a very big man and a very little one”. The cyclical structure ensures the film returns to the Gothic façade of Xanadu to remind the viewers that they have gained no significant insight into his real life. Welles deliberately distorts the truth of Kane and instead depicts a compelling persona which interests all viewers.
Citizen Kane has the unique ability to examine universal ideas power and relationships. Perhaps most remarkably, Welles’s film does so with only a limited representation of the central character. However it is this distortion of Kane’s personality which enables a worthwhile critical study, since it encourages all responders to personally question the fundamental values behind power and relationships.
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It is the textual integrity of Orson Welles’ film Citizen Kane (1941) which enables it to effectively demonstrate the need for healthy relationships and the dangers of the exclusive pursuit […]