Not many people can claim to have directed, co-written, starred in, and produced what is regularly considered one of the best films of all time---let alone by the age of 25, and on the very first try---but Orson Welles did exactly that with Citizen Kane (1941) a production so deeply rooted in Hollywood lore that first-time viewers have every right to feel a little intimidated. As a straightforward narrative, this story inspired by the turbulent life and times of American newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst ironically mirrors that of Welles himself, a daring and audacious smoke-and-mirrors exercise that nonetheless has plenty of substance to go along with all that style.
Yet it's the precise, deep-focus cinematography by talented up-and-comer Gregg Toland and clever editing by Robert Wise (more well known for directing West Side Story and The Sound of Music two decades later) that give Citizen Kane such an immediate presence and lasting impact, serving as just two of many reasons why it holds up so well 75 years later. The film's carefully-staged lighting and creative set design make it a technical marvel in any decade, amplifying Citizen Kane's larger-than-life scope on a budget barely equivalent to $14M in today's dollars. Smart cost-cutting measures, including extensive use of stock footage from the RKO library (some of it purposely damaged by Wise during production) and a vast array of matte drawings and other practical effects, leave a big impression during this "little film that could". Its massive visual footprint almost completely changed film language in the years and decades to come, yet Citizen Kane still feels as fresh as ever three-quarters of a century later.
With such a strong technical pedigree, first-time viewers might expect the story and performances to place a distant second. Not so: Welles' magnetic presence as Charles Foster Kane, who undergoes a drastic rise and fall during his business and political career spanning 50 years, is just as believable as Maurice Seiderman's terrific use of make-up to maintain the illusion. Equally impressive are Joseph Cotten (as Jed Leland, Kane's closest friend), Dorothy Comingore (as Susan Alexander, Kane's mistress and eventual second wife), Agnes Moorehead (as Kane's mother Mary, who makes an immediate impact during a brief scene from his childhood), and more; like Welles himself, most of the supporting cast make their film debut in Citizen Kane, just one more example of its sizable impact. Had it not been for the intervention of William Randolph Hearst (undoubtedly angered at the portrayal of his on-screen alter ego), it might've even performed better at the box office...but positive critical response and word-of-mouth kept it afloat from 1941 onward, with its stature growing exponentially in the years and decades to come.
12 minutes pass before the actual filmed story of Citizen Kane begins, lulling us into hypnosis before flash-forwards and expertly-shot vignettes snap us back to attention. It's the kind of film that's easy to take for granted if you're not paying attention, but just as easy to appreciate on multiple levels if you're at all interested in how visual creativity can serve a story rather than hog the spotlight. Welles' film has enjoyed a handful of progressively-better home video releases, including Warner Bros.' 2001 Special Edition DVD and two separate Blu-ray editions 10 years later (a two-disc Digibook and more substantial Ultimate Collector's Edtion)...but for the film's 75th birthday, the studio's taken a half-step backwards. It's essentially a stripped-down version of the 2011 Blu-rays, pairing the same terrific 4K-sourced transfer with a decent assortment of recycled extras. Those who have yet to purchase Citizen Kane on Blu-ray will be glad to find it back in print, even if they're missing out on a few bells and whistles.
Video & Audio Quality
Though it's aged a tiny bit since 2011---and has been docked a half-point accordingly---this 1080p transfer of Citizen Kane (sourced from the same 4K restoration as Warner's previous Blu-ray) still looks quite wonderful and a decade or two younger than its age implies. For those new to Kane in high definition, this Blu-ray represents a substantial improvement over lesser formats in every category: black levels, fine details and textures are all quite solid across the board, while only a modest amount of dirt, debris, and flickering can be spotted along the way. Digital problems (such as edge enhancement and compression artifacts) don't seem to be an issue at all, with the only other small issues being entirely source related and acceptable under the circumstances. Overall, this recycled but perfectly capable presentation still makes Citizen Kane as enjoyable as ever, so it's tough to complain.
DISCLAIMER: The still images and screen captures on this page are decorative and do not represent the Blu-ray under review.
The audio presentation isn't as impressive, though it's entirely due to source material limitations. Presented in DTS-HD 1.0 Master Audio, this one-channel track at least preserves Kane's original mix and doesn't resort to any sort of faux-surround trickery. Still, there's a modest amount of room for improvement, even if this Blu-ray sounds a notch or two better than Warner Bros.' older DVD editions: there's still a modest amount of distortion and clipping near the high end, giving some of the film's louder moments a slightly shrill and abrasive quality that thankfully doesn't hurt most of the dialogue. Optional dubs are included in Polish and Portuguese (Dolby Digital 1.0 mono), as well as subtitles in English (SDH), French, Spanish, Portuguese, Czech, Greek, Hungarian, Polish, and Romanian.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
Not surprisingly, we get the same interface and menu options on this one-disc release, which sports Warner Bros.' typical layout and awful eco-friendly keepcase packaging that makes this seem a lot cheaper than it really is. The cover design is an improvement, however, as it reverts to the superior Special Edition DVD artwork.
peaked early in the extras department with Warner Bros.' 2001 Special Edition DVD
; a decade later, we got a few more odds and ends in the Ultimate Collector's Edition
via a third bonus disc. This 75th Anniversary Blu-ray takes two small steps backward, omitting the previous second DVD (PBS' 1996 documentary "The Battle Over Citizen Kane
") and the Ultimate Collector's Edition's third DVD (HBO's 1999 film RKO 281
), leaving us with material that most fans have owned in multiple formats. These recycled extras include a pair of Audio Commentaries
by Roger Ebert and Peter Bogdanovich, a decent Storyboard Collection
, Promotional Materials
, New York Premiere Footage
, the film's Theatrical Trailer
, and more. Great stuff, to be sure...but again, it's all recycled from older discs.
One of cinema's most iconic and celebrated classics returns to Blu-ray, but Warner Bros.' 75th Anniversary Edition is a bit lackluster. It's basically a stripped-down version of their 70th Anniversary Digibook (or an even more stripped-down version of the Ultimate Collector's Edtion, also released in 2011), as it keeps the first disc from those sets and abandons the rest. What's worse is that at least one missing extra (PBS' "The Battle Over Citizen Kane" documentary) has been present on every other home video release since 2001. The good news? If you don't mind missing extras or recycled A/V presentations, this one-disc release of Citizen Kane is cheaper and easier to find than the out-of-print earlier Blu-rays. Definitely Recommended to those folks, but everyone else can safely skip this one.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.