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Film Essay: Citizen Kane

Filmmakers usually use techniques and strategies normally hidden from audiences – and can easily go unnoticed by the viewers – but they make the film interesting and entertaining. These strategies are called cinematic invisibility. In the same way – as discussed by Barsam & Monahan – cultural mores that form under the film’s surface can go unnoticed, leaving the audiences only with the general explicit meaning. Citizen Kane (1941) is an American classic tragedy film regarding the uses and abuses of wealth and power. In the film, various film techniques have been used to support the casual viewers’ beliefs. However, in its complex analysis, the film presents an implicit meaning that is either undermined or supported by the film’s formal systems and filming techniques. Therefore, this essay will focus on cultural invisibility, addressing the implicit meaning that lurks under the Citizen Kane film’s surface and is likely to miss the audiences’ eyes during a casual film view mostly supported and reinforced by the employed film techniques and strategies.

The film opens with a shot of Xanadu, a private estate owned by Kane. At the beginning of the film, the newsreel records that Kane build the estate for his second wife, Susan Alexander. The estate is both featured in the opening and closing shots of the film and is described as having been the world’s fancy, costliest and largest estate that a man has ever owned. The scene is taken with an ascending crane shot over Xanadu’s main gate (Fraser et al., 1982). The view shows an estate comprising of a large championship golf course having an artificial waterway resembling the Venetian canals. The estate has a large private zoo with various animals such as horses, monkeys, donkeys, birds, elephants, and giraffes. It also boasts of having a huge Aquarium. At the middle of the estates rests Xanadu’s palatial mansion which was Kane’s official residence and a museum of his massive painting, status, and pictures’ collection. The description of Kane’s collection is that it is so huge that it can fill ten museums. The mansion has dozens of footmen, maidservants and a butler (Singer & Marc, 2008). In a casual viewers’ belief, this scene highlights an individual having massive wealth and living a lavish lifestyle.

However, this scene – represented by both the storyline and the filming techniques – has a political, cultural, and ideological meaning that lurk under the film’s surface and may easily go unnoticed when the film is not critically examined (Kael et al., 2002). The cultural meaning of the fancy and costliest Xanadu in the present time is the foolish excessive lavish lifestyle lived by many wealthy individuals. The film’s script undermines this message as the general meaning highlighted by Xanadu is that of a wealthy and powerful individual living a fancy lifestyle. The crane shot taken over Xanadu’s gate reveals a huge estate with various large luxuries (Bordwell et al., 1993). This view illustrates Kane’s desire to have massive wealth for himself, therefore, Xanadu also represents the desire of possessing, owning and controlling everything. This aspect is also illustrated by his huge collection of pictures, statues, and paintings that can fill ten museums (Welles et al., 1958). However, the filming technique used in this scene undermines this explicit meaning as the surface meaning intends to show a cosy and expensive estate revealing that a wealthy person must be living there.

Notably, the Citizen Kane film was filmed and released when the American debate regarding isolationism and interventionism was at its peak (Kael et al., 2002). Therefore, the implicit meaning of the film portrays Kane as a blinkered American isolationist who is careful to adopt the European culture but still who avoids political involvement to help Europe’s situation against Fascism. Further, the film director uses Kane’s political failure and the subsequence loneliness in Xanadu to indirectly show the simultaneously ongoing European crisis at that time (Baumann et al., 2001). However, this message is undermined by the film’s formal systems and techniques as Kane is explicitly used to represent a wealthy individual who abuses power and wealth.

The film notes that Kane built the Xanadu estate for his second wife, Susan. Therefore, despite the fancy and cosy appearance of the estate, Xanadu represents a prison. This underlying meaning is achieved through the film’s dialogue and cinematography. In the film, Susan is seen desperately asking for Kane’s permission to travel to New York and mingle with the elites. Here, Susan’s voice sounds isolated and her emotional energy restrained. The filming shots used in this scene are long take, also called static shots which are evident when Kane approaches Susan during their conversation signifying the lengthy Xanadu distance that engulfs them (Bordwell et al., 1993). Therefore, Xanadu represents a prison in the sense that Susan lacked enough freedom to socialize with her elite friends and also her distance from Kane who regularly gave her limited attention. The film script, sound notes and filming techniques support this message as it is through Susan’s vocal level and emotional energy that we understand that her freedom is constrained (Reisz et al., 1971). Also, the long take shots used in this scene, are intended to reveal Susan’s distance from Kane and the outside world.

An American dream gone hollow is a significant implicit meaning of citizen Kane film. The American Dream is a concept rooted in the American Declaration of Independence stating that all men are created equal. This spirit indicates that anyone who comes to America and works hard is bound to make it regardless of social status or other circumstances. In the film, when Thatcher picks Kane up from his parents, Kane is offered what looks like an American dream. Initially, Kane seems to have achieved the American dream where his hard work earns him massive wealth, power, and status through his media empire (Singer & Marc, 2008). However, Kane discoverers that material possessions do not give him fulfilling happiness. The American dream becomes sour for Kane as his wealth isolates him from the outside world and he ends up living in loneliness at Xanadu. The film portrays all the achieved American Dream goals to be worthless and empty as Kane dies lonely surrounded by his possessions and lamenting his lost childhood innocence (Welles et al., 1958). The film’s storyline undermines this message as the general theme portrayed by the film – the surface meaning – regards the use and abuse of wealth and power.

Another notable implicit meaning of the film is innocence. Citizen Kane film is structured or framed around Thompson’s bid to crack the meaning of Rosebud, Kane’s last word before his death. Unfortunately, Thompson fails to discover the Rosebud’s meaning. However, at the end of the film, the director reveals Rosebud’s meaning where a shot of Kane’s childhood sledge is shown being tossed away. At the top of the sledge, a label reads “Rosebud” (Fraser et al., 1982). In the film’s flashbacks where Thatcher comes to collect the young Kane from his parents, Kane is seen happily and carefree playing outside with his sledge. Therefore, the sledge represented his childhood moments, hence, Rosebud signifies Kane’s realization that he had lost his childhood innocence which he possessed before wealth, power, and status destroyed him. The film will support this message as through flashbacks, we see the young Kane paying with a sledge outside his parent’s house. At the end of the film, Orwell’s gives us the secret behind Rosebud by showing us a sledge being thrown away with an inscription, Rosebud (Hale & Mike, 2010). Through this, we understand that Kane was longing for his irreversible long lost childhood innocence.

Further, another implicit meaning appearing in Citizen Kane’s film is the difficulty of interpreting life. After a critical examination of the film, one wonders what defines an individual’s life. Thompson – a reporter – tries to crack the meaning of Rosebud, Kane’s last word, by unfolding his life story (Welles, 1941). However, although he interrogates people who were close to Kane, he fails to reveal the secret behind Rosebud. This is because the people’s views of Kane’s life were characterised by their particular perspectives, prejudice, and maybe how they expected Kane should have lived. Therefore, these perspectives are ambiguous and unreliable to conclude who was Charles Forster Kane. It is also unfortunately that Kane did not tell his own story, but instead, we get to understand Kane’s life through other people who also fail to understand why he did the many things he did (Welles, 1941). Therefore, trying to understand Kane’s life in absence of his perspective compels us to question what defined Kane’s life and generally what constitutes a life.

To answer this question, it is clear that Kane was not defined by his political aspirations, newspaper empire, social status or friendships. This is because, despite Kane’s massive wealth, he dies surrounded by his possessions and as his life comes to a halt, he recalls his childhood experiences. Hence, what defines Kane’s life is the time his life changed for the better, but unfortunately, it is the same time that leaves him lonely, jeopardized and helpless. Therefore, what constitutes life is not wealth, status, power, achievements or associations but rather something deeper which is complex and difficult to interpret (Briley & Ron, 2002). The film supports this message in the sense that Thompson is seen attempting to find the secret behind Rosebud by trying to interpret Kane’s life through investigations. The difficulty of interpreting life is observed where even with all the efforts made by Thompson, he fails to unravel the definition of Rosebud, Kane’s final word before his death.

In conclusion, cultural invisibility is a technique regularly used by filmmakers – whether intentionally or unintentionally – to prioritize stories and themes that support the viewer’s shared belief systems. However, these techniques cause vital cultural mores that form under the film’s surface to go unnoticed, leaving the audiences only with the general explicit meaning. Nevertheless, with a deeper analysis of a film like Citizen Kane, a viewer discovers or unravels the implied political, cultural, and ideological Messages hence making the film more interesting and informative (Briley & Ron, 2002).


Baumann, Shyron. “Intellectualization and art world development: Film in the United States.” American Sociological Review (2001): 404-426.

Bordwell, David, Kristin Thompson, and Jeff Smith. Film art: An introduction. Vol. 7. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993.

Briley, Ron. “Teaching film and history.” Magazine of History 16, no. 4 (2002): 3.

Fraser, Howard M. “Through the Eye of the Camera: Some Film Techniques from Citizen Kane in La Muerte De Artemio Cruz.” Chasqui 11, no. 2/3 (1982): 47-54.

Hale, Mike. “A film within a film.” The New York Times (2010): C7-L.

Kael, Pauline, Herman J. Mankiewicz, and Orson Welles. Raising Kane. Vol. 12. Methuen, 2002.

Reisz, Karel, and Gavin Millar. “The technique of film editing.” (1971).

Singer, Marc. “Making history: cinematic time and the powers of retrospection in Citizen Kane and Nixon.” Journal of Narrative Theory 38, no. 2 (2008): 177-197.

Welles, Orson. Citizen Kane. USA, 1941.

Welles, Orson, Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff, Joanna Moore, Ray Collins et al. “Touch of evil.” (1958).


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