BR: Citizen Kane (1941)

March 23, 2012 | By

Return to: Home Blu-ray, DVD, Film Reviews / C


Film: Excellent/ DVD Transfer: Excellent/ DVD Extras: Excellent

Label: Warner Home Video/ Region: All / Released: January 10, 2012

Genre: Drama / Satire

Synopsis: An investigative journalist tries to find the meaning behind “rosebud” – the last word uttered by a bloated, possessive media tycoon.

Special Features:  Disc 1: 2011 1080p HD transfer + Standard Definition Extras from 2001 DVD release featuring Newsreel of 1941 premiere (1:08) / Audio Commentary #1: director Peter Bogdanovich / / Audio Commentary #2: film critic Roger Ebert / 2001 interview with actress Ruth Warrick (5:40) / 1994 interview with editor Robert Wise (3:04) / 2 Interactive Making-of Galleries: The Production — Storyboards + Call Sheets + Stills (with commentary by Roger Ebert) (15:01); Post-Production — Deleted Scenes + Ad Campaign + Press Book + Opening Night (5:02) / Thearrical Trailer / 52-page colour Blu-ray making-of book

Disc 2: 1996 documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane [M](SD)




Billed by heady critics as the ‘greates film ever made’ for several decades, it’s tough for newcomers to approach Orson Welles’ film debut (as star, co-writer, director, producer, if not auteur supreme) with virgin eyes when there’s so much essay-long praise out there, ramping up expectations to a level where the film may, upon first viewing, disappoint; perhaps what’s necessary for less than impressed viewers is to let a little time pass to allow Kane to sink in before making a full decision on whether it’s really all that “terrific” or just a classic that’s starting to show its age.

From the pro-Kane camp, Welles’ film debut is a brilliant work, wrought from the boundless energy of its 25 year old protégé in conjunction with wry, veteran  co-screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Dinner at Eight), and a superb team of actors. It’s also an example of a seamless collaboration between a director and cinematographer: veteran Gregg Toland made a point of working with young snots because by not knowing the rules, young directors would challenge him to better his craft.

Welles, then a wonder boy from the stage and radio, enjoyed an astonishing film contract with studio RKO, in which he had full creative control as long as he stayed within the roughly $1 million budget range. The film did enjoy positive reviews from critics, but a boycott by William Randolph Hearst’s vast media empire meant Kane got virtually no ads or media coverage, and  played in mostly indie cinemas, earning less and getting far less critical attention. While it did win an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, it wasn’t regarded by RKO as a box office hit, putting more demands on Welles to deliver a commercial hit in his second directorial venture (which, in The Magnificent Ambersons, turned out to be a career killer).

Kane’s story is ultimately an amalgam of several real-life egotists – Hearst (who maintained a liaison with the much younger showgirl / actress Marion Davies), industrialist Samuel Insull (who built an opera house to reportedly showcase his equally young wife), and Welles himself – but Hearst was so offended by the script’s treatment of the Davies-inspired character (untalented singer Susan Alexander) that he instituted a media boycott which did affect Kane’s chances at reaching the masses and making a profit.

Even with no knowledge of its history or Hearst, Kane to present day audiences should feel remarkably contemporary, because Kane, in every respect, is a cool, assured satire of a media baron, using filmmaking techniques that feel very modern.

On one level, he film offers a straightforward journalistic investigation of a media baron’s life as revealed through the reminiscences of associates, friends, and ex-wife – each theorizing on the meaning of the deceased’s last word, “rosebud.”

On another, it’s a wry satire using news gathering techniques to build a story of a baron’s life from interviews, film clips, sound bites, and photos, ordered in a complex structure that flips between flashbacks and flash-forwards (heavily used in TV’s Lost), and present day bridge material.

Welles was very media-savvy – his infamous 1938 War of the Worlds [M] radio drama was designed to switch into a faux news broadcast at the precise time fans of a rival program on NBC were likely to channel surf during a music interlude – and Kane is filled with a mish-mash of sometimes dizzying sounds and images that feel like a more expanded multimedia style already practiced by Welles in his radio plays with his Mercury Theatre company.

With cinematographer Toland, the two brilliant minds essentially went to town and experimented with amazing deep focus shots, long takes, and camera moves which broke through walls, furniture, and craned up several stories without any cuts. Welles was the equivalent of a visionary music video director whose first crack at feature filmmaking was utterly groundbreaking because he did things he thought were normal to him, and was insulated to experiment because of his rich contract.

The film begins with a mysterious death, smash cuts to a brutal satire of period newsreels that literally unspools to a news conference, and an investigative reporter who’s sent into the big world in search of the meaning of a mighty dead man’s last word. The newsreel immediately tells the audience who the main characters are, outlines Kane’s professional accomplishments and personal quirks, his political aspirations, and his rivals, and what ultimately emerges is a tragic tale of a trouble kid who lost his humanity through wealth and an addiction to acquiring and controlling things, never to reconcile his life with the fleeting pure memories of his busted up childhood.

Often overlooked by critics is the power of Welles’ own performance, playing a handsome (and slender) twentysomething Kane straight into his senior years (wearing thoroughly believable makeup), and the supporting cast of largely radio actors from Welles’ Mercury Theatre making their silver screen debut. Welles and Mankiewicz’s script is letter perfect, filled with quotable lines and some superb dramatic exchanges, and the final shot which reveals the meaning of “rosebud” is supremely powerful, being a blatant icon of lost youth and innocence literally roasting onscreen in painful detail.

Bernard Herrmann’s score is inventive for its brooding sound and strategic positioning, either in simple scene transitions, overtly wry stabs, or the recurring main theme which eventually develops into a full powerful statement at the very end. As Peter Bogdanovich and Roger Ebert point out in their separate (and quite distinct) commentary tracks (each ported over from the 2001 DVD), Herrmann was still using scoring skills from his radio work, and in this case it matched Welles’ overlapping dialogue and fast scene transitions & time jumps.

Kane is easily cited as a key American film which freed filmmakers to have fun, breaking up and fighting against conventions and locked storytelling techniques by aiming for more complex approaches, and raising the sophistication of a sound mix and complex visual layers in singular shots. The newsreel, which essentially tells us Kane’s life before the film’s investigative time-flipping body, was aped by James Cameron in Titanic (via an animated montage of the ship’s sinking before the film’s lengthy flashbacks); and the investigative episodes that reveal details of the lead character’s mysterious life and personal conflicts can be found in A-level and Z-level fodder, such as the sleazy TV movie Calendar Girl, Cop, Killer? The Bambi Bembenek Story (1992).

Equally unique are the main and end credits: stark B&W text over black at the silent beginning; and all cast & crew credits reserved for the very end, with main personnel introduced in little visual vignettes underscored by Welles’ own voice.

Maligned during its initial theatrical run, Kane achieved a renaissance during the fifties during its 1956 re-release when it was re-appraised  by a new generation of critics, and the tragedy is that by then, Welles, as an auteur, was essentially unbankable (yet seemingly available as an actor for any international production); Touch of Evil (1958) would be his final studio picture, released in a re-edited version once again disapproved by Welles.


The 2011 Blu-ray

Warner Home Video offers up a new HD transfer of the film in striking 1080p, showing off the stark cinematography and multiple levels of grey and dim darkness. Grain hasn’t been scrubbed clean, and the mono sound mix sounds rich and dynamic in its uncompressed form.

The standard def extras from the prior 2001 2-disc DVD set are ported over, and they include the aforementioned separate commentaries by Bogdanovich and film critic Ebert, additional interviews with actress Ruth Warrick and editor Robert Wise, a newsreel of the film’s premiere, and a stills gallery.

Bogdanovich’s long friendship with Welles – spanning a cool decade and a half, up until Welles’ death in 1985 – offers up a few anecdotes and some straight observations of Welles’ trademark style, but unfortunately Bogdanovich does a Richard Schickel, speaking only sporadically, and often in little bits and pieces when he should be talking in greater detail. Ebert, however, fills the void with a consistently balanced, critical, and historical track, and his tone is much more animated, guaranteeing listeners aren’t likely to nod off, as can happen with Bogdanovich’s rather monotone delivery and dead pauses.

Ebert also provides additional commentary over a stills gallery – one of several archives featuring surviving documents from the film’s production history. Storyboards cover unfilmed scenes, and there are stills from a filmed but deleted “brothel” scene, including a studio letter that essentially says to Welles ‘What the Hell were you thinking? There’s a Production Code in force!’

Equally amusing are the congratulatory letters, telegrams, and memos from the film’s 1941 release. Several fans voice their preference in paying road show pricing for a film they regard as tops, and one writer urges RKO ‘not to let Welles go’ as he’s a valuable asset.

The publicity gallery is also amusing for the absurd catch-phrases and keywords drummed up by the P.R. department about the character of Kane (“he’s a heel!”), and as was typical of the decade, graphic art fixates on giant actor heads floating over a coloured background, or the heads of Kane’s women angled together like some demon. The original Kane poster was never attractive – Welles looks like Gulliver the farmer, standing proud & tall, towering above mini-people below – but more odd is the alternate campaign which features a giant Kane head over which a giant “K” painted on one side.

The film’s trailer follows Welles’ end credits, with an unseen Welles speaking into a suspended mic, and a montage of the actors clearly shot during rehearsal, prior to costume and hair changes. Tied to the ad campaign are individual vignettes of the actors speaking catch-phrases into telephones, and although the trailer was meant to be mischievous and teasing, it still doesn’t give enough info on what the film was about; it seems the controversy surrounding the Kane-Hearst connection after filming may have pushed the P.R. marketing department into designing a campaign that was too vague – puzzling audiences rather than luring them in.

Citizen Kane is available as a standalone Blu-ray book set (featuring Kane and The Battle Over Citizen Kane [M] documentary from 1996), and as part of Warner Home Video’s Citizen Kane 70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition on DVD and Blu-ray, which includes the HBO teleplay RKO 281 [M] (1999), and several unique extras.

In addition to a separately bound version of the making off Blu-ray book, there’s a folder featuring the “rosebud” logo contains 5 poster reproductions, reproductions of the film’s budget, Schwab’s Pharmacy receipts, deal & inter-office memos, sample press releases, a Box Office Blue Ribbon Award certificate, and Welles’ dry yet ‘emphatic denial’ that Kane is based pr inspired in any way by Hearst’s life.

The folder’s second half is filled with a bound reproduction of the colour souvenir program where Welles’ name is mentioned on every page (“The Amazing Mr. Welles,” “Man of Endless Surprises,” “Master of Make-Up” “Author – Director – Producer – Star: The Four-Most Personality of Motion Pictures!”) and co-write Mankiewicz appears, due to contractual billing, once, proving studios may not have like the auteur persona, but it often proved too easy to indulge when trying to promote a controversial figure.

In the fall of 2011, Welles’ Magnificent Ambersons [M] (1942) was briefly bundled in an exclusive Amazon Citizen Kane deal, but is available separately.

Kane has also had several incarnations on home video that are worth noting due to the unique extras not carried over for the WHV Blu-ray. Criterion released the film in 1984 and 1991 on laserdisc, with the former featuring storyboards and a frame-by-frame history of the production, and the latter loaded with storyboards, a “Legacy of Citizen Kane” interactive documentary that featured 3 mins. interviews with 20+ contemporary filmmakers regarding their thoughts on the film, a visual essay on Welles’ aborted production of Heart of Darkness which was intended as his debut film, and Hearts of Age (1934), the short film made by small theatre group with Welles having a hand in the acting and directing.

A 1985 Image laserdisc featured a commentary by Paul Mandell, but the special feature was dropped from the 1991 reissue. 1991 also offered up a 50th Anniversary VHS set via Turner, containing the “Legacy of Citizen Kane” doc, plus a poster, a 244 page anniversary book by Harlan Lebo, reproductions of stills and publicity materials, and a bound hardcopy of the Mankiewicz-Welles screenplay. The script was also reproduced in book form as The Citizen Kane Book, featuring Pauline Kael’s famous essay “Raising Kane.” (For more details on the video releases of additional Welles films, visit Wellesnet).



© 2012 Mark R. Hasan


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