|Director: Orson Welles|
|Screenplay: Herman J. Mankiewicz & Orson Welles |
|Stars: Orson Welles (Charles Foster Kane), Joseph Cotten (Jedediah Leland), Everett Sloane (Mr. Bernstein), George Coulouris (Walter Parks Thatcher), Dorothy Comingore (Susan Alexander Kane), Agnes Moorehead (Mary Kane), Ruth Warrick (Emily Monroe Norton Kane), Ray Collins (James W. Gettys), Erskine Sanford (Herbert Carter), William Alland (Jerry Thompson), Paul Stewart (Raymond), Fortunio Bonanova (Matiste), Gus Schilling (The Headwaiter), Philip Van Zandt (Mr. Rawlston), Georgia Backus (Miss Anderson), Harry Shannon (Kane’s Father), Sonny Bupp (Kane III), Buddy Swan (Kane, age 8)|
|MPAA Rating: PG|
|Year of Release: 1941|
|Country: U.S. |
Really, what is there left to say about Orson Welles’s masterpiece Citizen Kane? What can one say that hasn’t already been said about the film most commonly referred to as “the greatest film ever made?” The film that topped Sight & Sound’s illustrious critical poll every decade from 1962 to 2012, the American Film Institute’s “100 Best Movies” list, the BBC’s “100 Greatest American Films” poll, and the Village Voice’s “Best Film of the Century” poll? The film whose presence in popular culture is so deeply ingrained that few even recognize how much of what we see today is indebted to it? The film that has inspired numerous homages and parodies in The Simpsons and one of the funniest and cruelest Peanuts comic strips (Lucy, upon seeing that poor Linus is watching the film, doesn’t hesitate to reveal the ending)? The film whose title has long since become a commonly used descriptor for the greatest anything in any category, even by people who haven’t even seen it? The film that is, literally, the Citizen Kane of films?
There is so much to say about Welles’s grand cinematic debut—the one moment in his entire career that he had both absolute artistic freedom and all the resources he needed to achieve his vision—and yet I can’t help but think that anything I have say about it has already been said by someone else, and probably more eloquently. It is rare that, when writing about a film, I feel utterly dwarfed by it, but such is the case with Citizen Kane, not only because of the immense reputation it has been building for decades as the “greatest film ever made,” but because of its actual achievements. Citizen Kane was so far ahead of its time that audiences in 1941 weren’t entirely sure what to make of it. Critics recognized that there was greatness in it—in the New York Times, Bosley Crowther enthused that it was “far and away the most surprising and cinematically exciting motion picture to be seen here in many a moon” and that “it comes close to being the most sensational film ever made in Hollywood”—and it was afforded a number of awards at the time, including Best Film of the Year from the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics Circle, as well as nine Oscar nominations, only one of which the film won (Best Screenplay for Herman J. Mankiewicz and Welles).
Rather than try to write some kind of summative critical statement about Citizen Kane, I would rather like to approach it in terms of those elements that I most appreciate—understanding, of course, that this will necessarily entail leaving out so very, very much (but, there have already been numerous books written on Welles and his films by luminaries such as James Naremore and Joseph McBride, so completists can look to those). I would have to start with the film’s chutzpah, which is the well from which its greatness springs. Welles was in his early 20s when he began work on Kane, having already conquered Broadway with his daring adaptations of Macbeth set in Haiti and Julius Caesar set in fascist Italy and the airwaves with his extensive vocal work on serials like The Shadow and the productions of his own Mercury Theatre On Air, which he cofounded with John Houseman. When Welles was signed to a two-picture deal with upstart studio RKO that gave him complete artistic control, he had already achieved without shooting a single roll of celluloid on set what many other seasoned directors with decades of experience had never been afforded. He was a kid in a candy story, an enfant terrible with a visionary understanding of the artistic tools at his disposal, and he attacked his first Hollywood production with the kind of gusto and abandon that results in either a masterpiece or a disaster.
The extent of his daring can be gauged in the subject matter he chose for his first film, a thinly veiled fictionalization of media baron William Randolph Hearst, who at the time was one of the richest and most powerful men in the world. Heart’s on-screen corollary, Charles Foster Kane (played by Welles himself), is the heir to a gold fortune who stakes his claim in the world by running a small New York newspaper and turning it into a yellow journalism phenomenon, much to the consternation of his guardian, the Scrooge-like banker Walter Parks Thatcher (George Coulouris). Citizen Kane is first and foremost a profound psychological study of an immensely complicated man, who begins life as a daring upstart and ends it in ruin. It’s a portrait of hubris, stubbornness, and ideals gone sour, and Hearst detested it so much that he tried to have it suppressed. Perhaps he recognized too much of himself in Kane’s rise and fall, although persistent rumors suggest that what he really loathed was the depiction of Kane’s second wife, the shrill, talentless singer Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore), as a corollary of his long-time mistress, the actress Marion Davies. That Welles would dare to incite the wrath of someone so powerful by using him as a portrait of all that is wrong in the world is testament to his brash confidence and willingness to put everything on the line to make something meaningful.
Being a first-time film director, Welles was smart enough to know that he didn’t know anything, which is why he studied intensely (especially the films of John Ford) and surrounded himself with first-rate cinematic collaborators, including cinematographer Gregg Toland, who had worked extensively with Ford and won an Oscar the previous year for Wuthering Heights (1939); prolific art director Van Nest Polglase (Gunga Din, Top Hat) and set decorator Darrell Silvera (The Hunchback of Notre Dame); and special effects supervisor Vernon L. Walker (the film also gave a start to several soon-to-be-prominent figures, including editor Robert Wise, who would go on to become a multi-Oscar-winning director, and composer Bernard Herrmann, who would become Hitchcock’s favorite collaborator). Working together, they turned Citizen Kane into a visual marvel of expressionistic deep-focus cinematography, elaborate production design, and varied editing rhythms.
The cinematography alone would make the film a masterpiece, as Toland turns every shadow and shaft of light into something deeply, emotionally, and symbolically compelling, while Welles finds all manner of expressiveness in mirrors, stacks of newspapers, and the placement of his characters within the frame (the manner in which he conveys relative power via his staging is remarkable). The film was rightly celebrated by French film critic André Bazin for its long takes and deep space staging, which were surely inspired by Welles’s time on the theatrical stage (amazing that the film itself never feels the least bit stagy), but there are also brash moments of editing genius, from the famous “breakfast table montage” in which Welles depicts the dissolution of Kane’s first marriage, to cuts that move us without warning decades into the future (“Merry Christmas” sneers 8-year-old Kane to Mr. Thatcher in one shot, followed by a direct cut to a much older Mr. Thatcher nearly two decades later dictating “... and a Happy New Year!” in a letter to the now-adult Kane).
Which brings us to the film’s narrative style. Long before it was a trendy sleight of cinematic hand, Welles decided to tell the story in nonchronological order, giving us Kane’s life not from birth to death, but in abstracted snippets pieced together by a reporter as he interviews those who knew Kane before he died—some of whom loved him, some of whom loathed him, and some of whom felt pangs of both. The film actually opens with Kane’s death in his palatial mansion Xanadu (an obvious stand-in for Heart’s obscenely large Sam Simeon estate), which has been reduced to a gothic horrorshow of expressionist decay and shadows (the film’s opening moments could easily be the beginning of a Universal horror film). His final word “Rosebud” becomes the driving force in the film, as the reporter seeks to determine what or who this Rosebud is as a means of figuring out who Kane is. By telling his life story out of order, the film reflects how we understand our world and the people in it: Not as neat, clear, linear stories with all the right pieces of information revealed at just the right time, but rather as a messy, disorganized jumble of memories and feelings, some of which conflict with the others.
As the reporter interviews Kane’s various associates, friends, and enemies, including the aforementioned Susan Alexander and Walter Thatcher (the latter through his unpublished memoirs, which are housed in a mausoleum-like archive as cold and foreboding as he was), Kane’s best friend Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotton), and his long-time business manager Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane), he finds shards of Kane’s life that together create less a coherent portrait than a partially completed mosaic that, depending on which angle it is viewed from, shows us something different. Kane is magnanimous and proud, but also sad and desperate. Welles makes him both a leading light and a fool, a man of many flaws and many aspirations whose lonely death foretells his ultimate unknowability. Not to spoil anything for those who haven’t seen it, but Citizen Kane’s greatest daring is that it banks its entire narrative on trying to understand a singular man and then refuses to follow through, not out of perverse nonconformity, but out of the recognition that no one can be fully understood, least of all through something so blunt as one’s last words. The film’s haunting final images in which we finally learn the mystery of Rosebud (something that is withheld from everyone on screen), it simultaneously tells us everything and nothing.
|Citizen Kane Criterion Collection 4K UHD +Blu-ray Four-Disc Set|
|Audio||English Linear PCM 1.0 monaural|
|Supplements||Audio commentary by Orson Welles scholars James Naremore and Jonathan RosenbaumAudio commentary by filmmaker Peter BogdanovichAudio commentary by film critic Roger EbertThe Complete Citizen Kane (1991) BBC documentaryVideo interview with critic Farran Smith NehmeVideo interview with film scholar Racquel J. GatesVideo essay by Orson Welles scholar Robert CarringerFeaturette on the film’s special effects by film scholars and effects experts Craig Barron and Ben BurttInterviews from 1990 with editor Robert Wise; actor Ruth Warrick; optical-effects designer Linwood Dunn; Bogdanovich; filmmakers Martin Scorsese, Henry Jaglom, Martin Ritt, and Frank Marshall; and cinematographers Allen Daviau, Gary Graver, and Vilmos ZsigmondDocumentary featuring archival interviews with WellesInterviews with actor Joseph Cotten from 1966 and 1975The Hearts of Age, a brief silent film made by Welles in 1934Television programs from 1979 and 1988 featuring appearances by Welles and Mercury Theatre producer John HousemanProgram featuring a 1996 interview with actor William Alland on his collaborations with WellesSelection of The Mercury Theatre on the Air radio playsTrailer|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||November 23, 2021|
|Citizen Kane has been through the wringer when it comes to home video, with its much heralded debut on DVD in 2002 marred by extensive DNR that smoothed it out and removed all traces of film grain, a problem that was nicely rectified with the 2011 70th Anniversary DVD and Blu-ray release. And now we have Criterion’s new edition, which marks the return of Citizen Kane to the Criterion fold since it was released as the company’s very first laser disc in 1984 and then in a 50th anniversary edition in 1990. This release is also the historic debut of 4K UHD for Criterion, after having moved from laser disc to DVD in 1998 and then to Blu-ray in 2008. Many of us (myself included) have been clamoring for Criterion to make the jump to UHD, and they couldn’t have picked a better and more momentous film to finally do so.|
Criterion’s presentation of Citizen Kane, which utilizes Dolby Vision HDR, comes from a new 4K scan of a 35mm nitrate composite fine-grain master that was struck in 1941 from the original 35mm negative (which has, unfortunately, been lost). There was some damage to this print, and those sections have been replaced with scans from a 35mm duplicate negative made from the same fine-grain master that same year. According to the liner notes, these elements were subjected to “high-density scanning and 3-flash HDR (high dynamic range) in order to retrieve the greatest amount of detail from the dense nitrate element.” And the results are simply superb—a true demonstration of the depth and detail and filmlike texture that is possible with a first-rate 4K scan. Citizen Kane is easily one of the most beautiful films ever shot in black and white, and the splendid deep focus cinematography looks absolutely marvelous in 2160p. The image has clearly been restored, leaving it free of signs of age and wear, but with plenty of the original film grain flowing naturally throughout. Blacks, which are often heavy and take up significant portions of the frame, are deep and dense, while whites are bright and clean. Detail is outstanding throughout, from the texture of clothing, to the minute details in the background. I genuinely marveled at how much better I could appreciate the depth of visual information in Welles’s deep space compositions, particularly the Colorado sequence, where we can see little Charles Foster Kane playing in the snow through the window in sharp focus in the far background as his parents agree to turn him over to Mr. Thatcher. The original monaural soundtrack, which is so crucial to the film’s effectiveness and such a marvel of sonic innovation and creativity, was transferred from the optical soundtracks of both the fine-grain master and the duplicate negative and digitally restored, leaving them clean and incredibly effective. Presented in a 24-bit Linear PCM mix, Welles’s impressive “lightning” sound mix—with its overlapping dialogue, realistic sound effects, and memorable Bernard Herrmann score—truly shines.
And now, on to the supplements. Where to even begin? Let’s start the fact that the majority of them occupy two—two!—separate Blu-rays that are packaged alongside the 4K UHD disc and a Blu-ray containing the film itself. The discs with the film on its feature three audio commentaries: a new track by Welles scholars James Naremore and Jonathan Rosenbaum, both of whom have written books on Welles and who previously recorded a track together for Criterion’s DVD of Mr. Arkadin, and two older tracks, one by filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich and one by film critic Roger Ebert, both of which were originally recorded for the 2002 Warner Bros. DVD set. From the archives, Criterion has unearthed the BBC documentary The Complete Citizen Kane, which originally aired on British television in 1991 to celebrate the film’s 50th anniversary, but has rarely been seen since. Running 95 minutes, it is a remarkable historical accounting of the film’s production and reception that features tons of archival footage and images, as well as then-new interviews with Bogdanovich, editor Robert Wise, and producer John Houseman, among others. Criterion has also included numerous video interviews that were shot for their 1990 laser disc (cut together with newly scanned footage from the film): “Working on Kane” includes Bogdanovich, Wise, actor Ruth Warrick, and optical-effects designer Linwood Dunn; “On Toland” looks at the film’s cinematography and includes famed cinematographers Allen Daviau, Haskell Wexler, and Vilmos Zsigmond; “Knowing Welles” features Henry Jaglom, Gary Graver, Martin Ritt, Frank Marshall, and Bogdanovich; while director Martin Scorsese gets his own separate interview featurette. From the RKO archives, we have a one-minute RKO Pathe News segment on the film’s premier and a four-minute advertising trailer with Welles. There are two interviews with actor Joseph Cotton, one from 1966 for Granada Television in the U.K. (15 min.) and one from 1975 (3 min.) in which he gives a speech at the AFI ceremony honoring Welles with its Lifetime Achievement Award; two television programs, an episode of The Merv Griffin Show from 1979 (42 min.) and an episode of The South Bank Show from 1988 (19 min.) featuring appearances by Welles and Mercury Theatre producer John Houseman; and a program featuring a 1996 interview with actor William Alland on his collaborations with Welles (21 min). “My Guest is Orson Welles” is a newly created featurette that edits together Welles’s numerous television appearances in the 1970s and early ’80s, including his October 10, 1985, appearance on The Merv Griffith Show, which was recorded only hours before he died. Also included is The Hearts of Age (1934), a 10-minute experimental short that Welles he made when he was still a teenager, and a selection of three radio broadcasts featuring many of the actors who also appeared in Citizen Kane (two episodes of The Mercury Theatre on Air from 1938 and one episode of The Free Company from 1941). There is also an audio-visual program from 2002 in which Ebert recorded commentary over 11 minutes of photographic stills from the film’s production.
And that is just the supplements from the archives. Criterion has also put together some excellent new pieces, starting with a 28-minute featurette about the film’s innovative and largely convincing visual and aural effects as related by film scholars and effects experts Craig Barron and Ben Burtt. In one new featurette (23 min.), critic and historian Farran Smith Nehme discusses the similarities and differences between Charles Foster Kane and William Randolph Hearst, while in another, titled “Reframing Kane” (16 min.), film scholar Racquel J. Gates, associate professor of film at Columbia University, discusses the challenges of introducing the film to a new generation and grappling with the expectations that come with the label “greatest film ever made” (an issue I have every year when I show Citizen Kane in my History of Motion Pictures course at Baylor University). Welles scholar Robert Carringer has also produced a new 14-minute video essay that explores the film’s production and also ruminates on the various possible meanings of “Rosebud.” And, finally, there “Orson Welles: On the Nose,” an 8-minute featurette originally created in 2017 for the Criterion Channel by David Cairns and Randall William Cook about Welles’s fascination with and use of fake noses.
Copyright © 2021 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © The Criterion Collection / Warner Bros.