A new 70th anniversary edition of Citizen Kane, first released in 1941, was recently issued. I thought I’d take this opportunity to discuss why I think this film is great. When film historians and critics write about Citizen Kane, they mention its innovative camera angles — the way director Orson Welles plays with shadow and perspective — or its groundbreaking departure from chronological narrative.
While I admire these features, what I appreciate most about the film is its psychological portrait of Charles Foster Kane. Long before the label narcissistic personality disorder entered our lexicon and people routinely discussed the narcissistic behavior of their friends and family, Orson Welles gave us a character unable to feel empathy for other people; who craves, even demands attention from the entire world, and who becomes enraged when he can’t have what he wants. These are the features we have come to associate with the narcissist.
Charles Foster Kane — or Charlie, as he is known to his friends — was born to parents who operate a simple boarding house in Colorado. When mining stock given in lieu of payment by a boarder makes his mother (Agnes Moorehead) wealthy, she consigns Charlie to the care of a wealthy banker for his education.
In the scene when she signs the necessary papers, Mrs. Kane at first appears emotionally detached; but when her husband threatens to beat Charlie for pushing the banker into the snow, she says, “That’s why he’s going to be brought up where you can’t get at him.” This scene, with an emotionally remote mother and an abusive father, offer the only clues to the origins of Charlie’s personality and later difficulties.