Warner Bros. // 1941 // 118 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // September 13th, 2011
Everybody's talking about it! It's terrific!
"You're the greatest fool I've ever known, Kane. If it was anybody else, I'd say what's going to happen to you would be a lesson to you. Only you're going to need more than one lesson. And you're going to get more than one lesson."
Esteemed public figure Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles, Touch of Evil) had just passed away. He was born into poverty, but taken away from his childhood home as a boy and raised by the wealthy Walter Parks Thatcher (George Coulouris, Murder on the Orient Express). During his early twenties, Kane entered the newspaper business and quickly became one of the most successful newspapermen in the country. He marries, expands his empire and even entertains the notion of running for public office. Alas, as Kane's personal fortune grows and his life marches on, his personal woes begin to build. Eventually, he retreats to "Xanadu," an impossibly lavish estate where he will spend the rest of his days. With his dying breath, Kane whispers a final statement: "Rosebud." What was the meaning of this man's enigmatic last word?
Today, Citizen Kane is widely known as The Greatest Film of All Time. More accurately, it's widely known as The Film That Lots of People Say is The Greatest Film of All Time. Regardless of where you stand on that particular assessment, it was perhaps destined for such lofty proclamations from the beginning: many expected Citizen Kane to be a masterpiece long before the film was finished. After all, it was the project of so-called "boy genius" Orson Welles (mastermind of the notorious, devilish, groundbreaking "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast), who had been given free reign by RKO to make a big-budget picture of his own choosing. Despite the fact that he had never directed a feature film before (nor starred in one, for that matter), Welles was given complete creative control over Citizen Kane. It's the kind of jaw-dropping risk that seems worthy of a film in and of itself (and indeed, two films made on that very subject are included with this lavish Blu-ray collection). Such an enormous amount of pressure might have crushed other budding talents, but Welles somehow delivered a film which met and exceeded expectations. In his commentary, Roger Ebert suggests that it is not so much a film which invented new techniques as a film which gathered many of cinema's most progressive ideas into a single feature; paving the way for the future of cinema ("It did for the sound era what Birth of a Nation did for the silent era," Ebert declares).
One of the reasons it's so tempting to grant Citizen Kane that lucrative Greatest Film label is that it's a movie that manages to succeed on almost every level. Perhaps there are films which feature better acting, better cinematography, better editing, better direction, better music, better writing and greater resonance -- but you'd be hard-pressed to find many films as consistently strong in every one of these areas. It's the movie for everyone, as it contains something to grab you no matter which side of cinema you gravitate towards. And yet, even as critics hailed the film upon its release, moviegoers had a mixed reaction: it was too dark, too artsy, too strange and didn't feature big-name movie stars (at least they weren't big name movie stars yet). It lost the Academy Award for Best Picture to How Green Was My Valley -- a very fine film, to be sure, but a more conventional one which used comfortingly familiar techniques.
Citizen Kane's structure is startlingly bold even by today's standards, beginning with Kane's death and then circling back around various chapters in his life in dizzyingly non-linear fashion. Even so, the film never seems confusing, as Welles' meticulous direction benefits from clarity of purpose. Cleverly employing a full-length newsreel near the beginning of the film which breathlessly runs through the highlights of Kane's life, we are given a framework within which to place the numerous flashbacks and jumps through time we'll be subjected to over the next couple of hours.
Few films demand repeat viewings quite as insistently as this one. To be sure, the film's plot is easy enough to understand the first time around and there's no reason that a first viewing shouldn't leave a very strong impression, but it's just about impossible to soak in even a fraction of the joys Welles provides in a single viewing. There's so much going on in every single scene; every element of the film has been crafted with an inordinate amount of care and detail. There's always something new to grab you, whether it's a subtle piece of sound design brilliance (say, as Kane's scream at Boss Gettys dissolves into the sound design of the newsroom) or a symbolic piece of framing (perhaps the visual trickery employed as Kane walks to and fro between a table in the foreground and a window in the background) or the nuances of a performance (maybe the exquisite level of subdued feeling Agnes Moorehead delivers during her brief screen time as Kane's mother).
I once attempted to recommend Citizen Kane to someone who hadn't seen it, and they responded with, "I know it's supposed to be a masterpiece and all, but I really just want something fun." If you haven't seen the film, perhaps you haven't been told just how much fun Citizen Kane really is: it's an exhilarating experience from start to finish, maintaining a brisk pace which far exceeds most films of the era. Sure, Citizen Kane is a great work of art, but it's also a thoroughly accessible piece of entertainment (even by today's attention-deficit standards). The screenplay is filled to the brim with memorable dialogue and the famous ending is a twist vastly richer, more surprising and more satisfying than anything The Sixth Sense or The Usual Suspects have to offer. This film is a demonstration of a great filmmaker at the height of his powers. What could possibly be more exciting than that?
Citizen Kane is a catalogue title that has been hotly anticipated for quite some time now, and thankfully Warner Bros. has delivered the beautiful 1080p/full frame transfer this gorgeous flick deserves. Gregg Toland's deep focus cinematography offers some of the most striking imagery the movies have ever seen, and this stunning transfer should certainly give many viewers a new appreciation for his work. Citizen Kane is a film that relies heavily on shadows and darkness, and the level of depth and shadow delineation is amazing. The previous DVD transfer is nearly as exceptional as one could want a 480p release to be, but this Blu-ray disc represents an entirely new level of beauty. Detail is superb throughout; you can see every hair in Welles' mustache during his opening death scene and the details of the many collector's items in the film's more lavish sets. This certainly ranks as one of the finest black-and-white HD transfers to date. Audio is also superb, though Warner Bros. has elected to preserve the original mono track in lossless sound rather than delivering a new surround mix. Personally, I applaud the decision (as the film's distinctive sound design is simply too iconic to mess with), but there will undoubtedly be those disgruntled with this move. Either way, the sound is remarkable for a 70-year-old film, as the dialogue, music and sound design are vastly sharper and cleaner than many films made generations later.
Many of the extras included in this Blu-ray set were also part of the 2-disc DVD release, but they remain a most impressive batch of extras. Things kick off with a pair of audio commentaries courtesy of Peter Bogdanovich and Roger Ebert. The Bogdanovich track is informative (as the director/film historian knew Welles personally and has a lot of private info to share) and worthwhile, but the Ebert track is essential. The esteemed critic breathlessly tackles everything he can possibly manage within two hours, making an awestruck case for why this film is as great as it is. It's clear that Ebert loves the film deeply, but he accentuates its greatness in a thrillingly specific manner without resorting to repetitive hyperbole. You need to hear this. Also included on the first disc is some footage from the film's premiere (1 minute), a pair of interviews with Ruth Warrick and Robert Wise (9 minutes), production stills with commentary from Roger Ebert (15 minutes), post production stills (5 minutes) and a trailer.
The second and third discs are DVDs containing the aforementioned feature films on Citizen Kane's journey to the big screen. The first is the feature-length American Experience documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane (113 minutes), which highlights the conflict between Welles and powerful media mogul William Randolph Hearst (whose life allegedly served as the inspiration for the film). It's a fascinating story, even though the parallels between Welles and Hearst feel a little forced at times. The attempts Hearst made to stop the film from even being released are remarkable and terrifying; it's alarmingly easy to imagine a world in which Citizen Kane is regarded as a lost obscurity. The second film is HBO's 1999 feature RKO 281, starring Liev Schrieber as Welles and James Cromwell as Hearst. The film is partially based on The Battle Over Citizen Kane, so there's a good deal of overlap in terms of the information being delivered (the film takes a few more liberties, naturally), but it's fun to see a host of talented actors (John Malkovich, Roy Scheider, Melanie Griffith, Fiona Shaw, Liam Cunningham, Brenda Blethyn and more) recreating this tale in a much different fashion. As a stand-alone film, it's pretty good. As a bonus feature, it's fantastic.
Other than that, this plus-sized set includes a handful of physical extras: a small hardback book offering production photos, behind-the-scenes info, biographies and such, some cardstock reproductions of original key art and advertisements, some reproductions of some RKO paperwork and letters and a reproduction of the opening night souvenir program. This stuff is a lot of fun to browse through. Everything is housed inside a thick yet manageable cardboard box. Unlike the box set releases of The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind, this Ultimate Collector's Edition release should fit more comfortably on a standard shelf alongside your other Blu-rays (though it's taller than a Blu-ray case).
Two notes: first, those who could care less about special features and only want the movie might consider waiting a little bit, as it surely won't be too long before Warner Bros. releases a cheaper single-disc release (most retailers are asking about $40 for this set). Secondly, Amazon is offering a slightly cooler version of this release that also includes Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons (a superb film marred by studio interference) on DVD. It's about $10 more than the collection being reviewed here.
Hey, it's Citizen Kane. The movie is great. The transfer and sound are great. The extras are great. Go buy this now.
Review content copyright © 2011 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Top 100 Discs: #59
* Top 100 Films: #17
Studio: Warner Bros.
* Full Frame
* DTS HD 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Polish)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Portuguese)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 118 Minutes
Release Year: 1941
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Bonus Film
* Premiere Footage
* Production Stills
* Hardbound Book
* Cardstock Reproductions
* Program Reproduction