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CITIZEN KANE
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead, Everett Sloane, Erskine Sanford, Ruth Warrick, Dorothy Comingore, Ray Collins, George Coulouris, William Alland, Paul Stewart
Director:  Orson Welles
Audio:  DTS HD Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Warner Bros.
Features:  See Review
Length:  119 Minutes
Release Date:  September 13, 2011

“…rosebud…”

Film ****

Citizen Kane…what could be said about it that hasn’t been said before?

Genius?  Absolutely.  A singular American vision?  No question.  A work of art?  Inarguably.

The greatest film of all time?

Twenty-five year old Orson Welles came to RKO Pictures with the most enviable contract in movie studio history.  He had complete creative freedom to choose, write, direct, and star in any picture he saw fit.  That kind of creative freedom had never been seen before, nor would it again.

With that much freedom, Welles could succeed or fail completely on his own terms.  He made a bold choice for his first motion picture subject:  yellow journalist William Randolph Hearst, one of the most powerful media moguls of his time or any time. 

Co-writer and friend Herman Mankiewicz had been a frequent guest at Hearst’s mansion of San Simeon.  He knew secrets about the newspaper tycoon that few were privy to.  It became the basis for one of the greatest screenplays ever written.

But not content with just brilliant writing, the experimental and bold Welles began thinking outside the box during the filming of his movie.  He created some of moviedom’s most cinematically memorable shots, from slow moving cranes that seemed to go up and up and up, deep focus shots that showed greater dimension than ever before, mixing light and shadow for expressive visuals, and most of all, using editing as a tool of storytelling.  In other words, he took a smattering of vocabulary, and turned it into the language of cinema.

No single scene has inspired as much discussion as the breakfast table scene between Charles Foster Kane (Welles) and his first wife (Warrick).  Ten years of marriage are told in just a minute or so of screen time, with a spiraling visual wipe cutting between each scene and two characters once in love moving farther and farther apart behind this table.  Welles, whether he knew it or not, was beginning to shape film into an art form that could tell volumes of stories with a few carefully crafted visuals.

His cast was perfect, from himself and Ms. Warrick to Mercury Theatre veterans like Joseph Cotten, Everett Sloan, Agnes Moorehead, along with newcomers like Dorothy Comingore.  They peopled Kane with the characters that would tell the story of a once great man who lost nearly everything.  Welles’ story would be deliberately non-linear.  It would begin with the death of the title character, and the story would therefore not be told from his point of view, but from the point of view of those who knew him best.

But Welles’ genius would not be appreciated.  Making a viable enemy in Hearst, the angry tycoon did everything in his power to stop Citizen Kane.  RKO was actually offered back their entire production cost to simply burn the negative…imagine!  Kane would see light of day, but the backlash was already set up.  It went largely ignored, and was booed at the Academy Awards, where it picked up on a single award (for screenplay).

Welles’ career would never recover.  Starting with his next picture, The Magnificent Ambersons, the studio reserved (and exercised) the right to re-cut his movies.  Some of Welles’ original footage from that masterpiece was removed, never to be seen again.  Over the course of his life, he would get recognition for what he created with Kane, but never another legitimate chance to be the iconoclastic auteur he once was.  It was as though he made the greatest movie of all time, and was never forgiven for it.

Did I say greatest movie of all time?  Yes, I guess I did.  No picture has been as influential or has inspired as many filmmaking careers as Citizen Kane.  Without it, there might not have ever been a Martin Scorsese, a Brian De Palma, an Alfred Hitchcock or a Stanley Kubrick. 

Welles’ struggle as a moviemaker might have been seen as a failure in every way but one:  Citizen Kane came through uncut, unharmed, and completely intact to serve as an indelible artistic landmark on the medium of motion pictures.

It is indeed the greatest film of all time.

Video ****

Exemplary…this Blu-ray will set a new standard for classic film transfers.  My last home video copy of Kane was the 50th anniversary edition, which I thought looked quite good.  I had no idea.  This new digital transfer is flawless…cleaner and brighter than just any black and white film I have on disc.  There are no marks or scars anywhere (save the purposeful ones used during the “News on the March” sequence”), and the contrast is sharp, detailed and pristine without a hint of grain, shimmer, or contrast.  Blacks are deep and pure, whites are bright and clean.  The detail level is so good, I noticed aspects of images that I’d never seen before in my countless viewings of the film.  In the scene where Thompson interviews Mr. Bernstein, for example, you can see rain in the far window.  Not only that, you can see the reflection of the rain in a small pattern on his desktop.  The deep focus shots made famous by Welles and cinematographer Gregg Tolland are more revealing than ever.  Every fan of this movie will want to stand up and cheer this most laudable of efforts!

Audio ***1/2

This may be the highest mark I’ve ever given a one-channel mono mix, but this uncompressed soundtrack deserves it.  Sound was crucial to Kane, and this newly remastered track captures it perfectly, from Bernard Herrmann’s remarkable score to the subtle background sound effects that comment on certain scenes, to the loud, echoing interiors of Xanadu and the Chicago Opera House.  This track is dynamic, clean, and free of noise…a perfect accompaniment to the stellar transfer.

Features ****

There are two commentary tracks: the one by critic Roger Ebert is overflowing with information, and makes for a good studious companion to the film.  Director and biographer Peter Bogdanovich provides a more relaxed, paced commentary that’s a little less informative, but still for fans, a worthwhile listen.  The first disc also includes the trailer (one of the all time great ones), a short premiere newsreel clip, production notes, ad gallery, photo montage (with Ebert commentary), studio correspondence, call sheets, and storyboards.  These aren’t designed to be flipped through at your leisure, unfortunately…you basically have to watch them go by at the disc’s chosen speed.  Keep an eye out for a couple of nice Easter eggs, too:  interview clips with star Ruth Warrick and editor Robert Wise.

Disc two is the documentary feature The Battle Over Citizen Kane.  It’s exactly the same as the previous DVD release, and is a nice addition.  For our full length review of it, click here.  And the third disc contains the HBO film RKO 281, also a DVD, and a terrific retelling of the story of the making of the movie and the beginnings of the unmaking of Orson Welles

The anniversary package also includes some wonderful collectibles, including:

10 Reproductions of Studio Memos and Correspondence
20-Page 1941 Souvenir Program Reproduction
48-Page Book with Photos, Storyboards and Behind-the-Scenes Info
5 One-Sheet/Lobby-Card Reproductions

All in all, one terrific package!

Summary:

Citizen Kane stands alone.  No other film has been more influential, more imitated, more studied and more admired, even 70  years after its initial release.  Orson Welles may have never reaped the benefits of his ingenious singular vision, but movie fans have, and continue to do so.  This is a landmark film with an amazing transfer and terrific package of extras.  This is what Blu-ray is all about, friends.  It doesn’t get any better than this.

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