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Citizen Kane: Criterion Collection

The Criterion Collection // Unrated // January 12, 2022
List Price: $49.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Justin Remer | posted March 8, 2022 | E-mail the Author

The Movie:

Long ballyhooed as one of the greatest movies of all time -- and maybe the greatest -- Orson Welles's debut feature Citizen Kane has inspired filmmakers and puzzled civilians for decades. (THIS is the greatest movie ever made?! My kid could make something more entertaining with their iPhone!) It both made Orson Welles's film career and cast an impossibly long shadow that he never managed to get out from under -- despite an impressive filmography that includes later masterpieces like Touch of Evil and Chimes at Midnight.

Buoyed by his status as a wunderkind whose Mercury Theatre was a hit on stage and radio, the 25-year-old Welles was given full creative control over his debut as a film director, producer, and star. Working from a script credited to him and Herman J. Mankiewicz, Welles fashioned a stylish and mysteriously elliptical rise-and-fall portrait of a newspaper magnate, clearly modeled after William Randolph Hearst.

The film is framed as a mystery that William Alland's newsreel reporter has to solve: what is the meaning of Charles Foster Kane's dying word, "Rosebud"? Of course, folks who know the Kane lore know that "Rosebud" was purportedly Hearst's real-life pet name for the "flower" which resided in his girlfriend Marion Davies's lap. If true, you have to hand it to Welles for making his film's central mystery a bold thumb in the eye to Hearst while making his film's solution to that mystery far more emotionally and thematically powerful than its raunchy alleged origin.

But of course that solution only comes after Alland talks to a number of folks in Kane's life, including his disillusioned ex-friend Jed Leland (Joseph Cotten), his beleaguered business manager Bernstein (Everett Sloane), and his alcoholic second wife Susan (Dorothy Comingore). (The first wife -- played to prim perfection by Ruth Warrick -- dies tragically young.) Each of them has different jigsaw puzzle pieces that might conceivably form a portrait of Kane, but we never seem to get that full picture. The scenes where we see Susan working on jigsaw puzzles can be read as a comment on this fruitless task (in addition to referencing a noted hobby of Marion Davies).

One can easily argue that the quality of the performances here contributes enormously to the lasting appeal of Kane eighty-plus years later. Welles shamelessly shows off in the lead role, giving us Kane as an old, blustering husk of a man, then as a headstrong young punk, then as countless permutations in between. The niftiest trick, of course, is that only rarely do we see through the old age make-up to the young Welles underneath; his physical and vocal attitudes are usually impeccably calibrated for the different stages of Kane's rise and fall. Cotten and Sloane get less screen time, but they neatly match Welles in aging their characters so that we feel the weight of the years on their shared relationships. (Cotten seems to have particular fun playing the irascible-old-coot version of his character.) Welles stocks the rest of the cast with many of his Mercury Theatre colleagues, like Agnes Moorehead, Erskine Sanford, George Coulouris, Ray Collins, and Paul Stewart.

The lasting appeal of Kane is also tied, of course, to its numerous experimentations and innovations -- in terms of blocking, camera movement, cinematography, story structure, and editing. Gregg Toland's expressionist lighting, deep-focus compositions, and unconventional camera placement are still impressive, even decades after being integrated into the standard visual lexicon -- the work's maverick spirit still separates it from the droves of imitators. The editing by Robert Wise (later an Oscar winner for directing West Side Story and The Sound of Music) is the perfect blend of invisible Hollywood-style cutting and bold, rhythmic edits. (The jump-cuts and scratches of the memorable News on the March sequence -- the latter effect famously achieved by Wise and his assistants personally damaging the film -- represent the first and last time that staged newsreel footage was so convincingly manipulated that it could be mistaken for the real deal.)

Legendary composer Bernard Herrmann got his start in film here as well. There's no arguing with his talent and lingering influence but, while showing Kane to newcomers during my re-watch for this review, they swayed me that the placement of his cues many times felt oddly over-the-top and Looney Tunes-ish. (Of course, Looney Tunes composer Carl Stalling is a genius too, so it's not such a slight to say this.)

Film fans will continue to argue whether Kane is truly the greatest film ever -- or even Welles's greatest film ever -- but it remains a film that demands viewing. And re-viewing.

The Blu-ray
Criterion's packaging for the Blu-ray edition of Citizen Kane is pretty much identical to their UHD design (pictured above). Four flaps -- spelling K-A-N-E on their respective outsides -- fold out to reveal different images of the main character on the inside and each hold a disc (well, 3 out of 4 for this BD-only edition). The folks who flipped their lid about the simple "K" cover design really need to see the whole package; it's actually really fun when seen in toto. In the center is a small book featuring a lengthy essay by Bilge Ebiri. The feature and audio commentaries are included on disc one, while bonus features are divided thematically onto two additional Blu-ray discs -- the first concerning Citizen Kane and the second more broadly looking at Welles and the Mercury Theatre.

The Video:
Criterion has corrected the widely reported issue in which the brightness and contrast looked miscalibrated after the first 30 minutes or so. This AVC-encoded 1080p 1.37:1 presentation looks excellent. I don't remember having any qualms with Warner Bros.' 4K-sourced 2011 Blu-ray, so this new transfer only has so much room to improve. Still, the clarity, contrast, and texture are all beautifully rendered here.

The Audio:
The LPCM mono soundtrack naturally has some age-based limitations, but the audio elements have clearly been well-cared-for and meticulously restored over the years. One subtitles option: English SDH.

Special Features:

Disc 1

  • Three audio commentaries - The first commentary track is a newly recorded discussion with critics James Naremore and Jonathan Rosenbaum. During the track, Naremore describes his distaste for the documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane, which is oft-included as a bonus on recent editions of Kane -- though is pointedly not included here. The other two commentaries have appeared on Kane releases since 2001: one featuring the comments of Welles's friend and biographer Peter Bogdanovich, and one featuring critic Roger Ebert's analysis of the film.

Disc 2

  • The Complete Citizen Kane (HD upscale, 1:35:16) - A feature-length BBC doc about the making of the film from the early 1990s. It includes anecdotes about Welles's early career, the film's production, and the controversy over who wrote what in Kane's script.

  • Working on Kane (HD, 18:16) - Taken from 1990 interviews that Criterion conducted for their 50th Anniversary laserdisc. Actor Ruth Warrick, editor Robert Wise, and optical effects designer Linwood Dunn discuss the imagination and innovation that went into making the film. Some of this material also appeared in the Reflections on Citizen Kane featurette that appeared on the 1991 VHS edition of the film.

  • On Toland (HD, 15:32) - This is also taken from 1990 laserdisc interview footage. Legendary cinematographers Allen Daviau, Haskell Wexler, and Vilmos Zsigmond talk about the power of Kane's filmmaking and the influence Gregg Toland has had on their work.

  • Craig Barron and Ben Burtt (HD, 27:34) - Visual effects designer Barron and sound designer Burtt discuss the intricacies of the picture and audio design of the film, and how it relates to Welles's experience in theater and radio.

  • Rosebud Reconsidered (HD, 13:52) - Robert L. Carringer explores the making of and the reaction to the film, eventually folding Camus's The Myth of Sisyphus into his analysis and discussing the fate of a surviving "Rosebud" prop.

  • Farran Smith Nehme (HD, 23:06) - Nehme compares William Randolph Hearst's biography to that of his alleged analogue.

  • Reframing Kane (HD, 15:56) - Prof Racquel J. Gates discusses the obstacles of teaching Citizen Kane to young modern viewers who are resistant to its outdated qualities. She also cogently problematizes the positioning of the film as the "greatest." A surprising and spot-on supplement to the film!

  • Martin Scorsese (HD, 7:25) - From 1990. Scorsese shares his memories of first seeing the film and how it reverberated across his own work.

  • Production: Still Photography with Commentary by Roger Ebert (HD upscale, 11:00) - Another classic DVD extra resurrected here.

  • The Opening (HD upscale, 1:08) - A Pathé newsreel feature of the film's world premiere.

  • Trailer - The famous original hard-sell trailer which shows no footage from the film, but does feature some exclusive behind-the-scenes moments.

Disc 3

  • My Guest Is Orson Welles (HD, 42:37) - A charming and energetic compilation of moments from Welles's appearances on talk shows over the years, including his final appearance on TV.

  • Knowing Welles (HD, 22:24) - More 1990 interview footage. Henry Jaglom, Martin Ritt, Gary Graver, Frank Marshall, and Peter Bogdanovich discuss working with Welles at various points in his career.

  • Joseph Cotten Television Appearances (HD, 18:18 total) - The raw 16mm footage of a 1966 UK interview with the actor, plus his speech at the 1975 AFI Lifetime Achievement ceremony for Welles.

  • The Man Who Pursued Rosebud: William Alland on His Career in Theatre and Film excerpt (HD upscale, 20:49) - 1996 interview footage shot by director John McCarty. A featurette on Alland's experiences working with Welles in theater and radio, and as the newsreel reporter in Kane.

  • The South Bank Show (HD upscale, 50:47) - A 1988 episode that profiles Welles's Mercury Theatre producer (and The Paper Chase star) John Houseman.

  • The Merv Griffin Show (HD upscale, 18:31) - A 1979 segment where Welles is reunited with Houseman. And a chatty Robert Blake is there too.

  • Radio broadcasts - Two Mercury Theatre on the Air episodes (Dracula and Heart of Darkness) and a 1941 episode of The Free Company with the cast of Kane (His Honor, The Mayor).

  • Orson Welles: On the Nose (HD, 8:21) - A Criterion Channel featurette about Welles's fondness for acting with different false noses.

  • The Hearts of Age (HD, 8:21) - Somewhere between a student film and a home movie, this silent 1934 co-directing and acting effort from Welles is a surreal whatsit that I've frankly never really liked.

Final Thoughts:
Criterion's presentation is so lavish that, even if you own previous Blu-rays and are not looking for a 4K UHD upgrade, this new release is a must-own. DVD Talk Collector Series.

Justin Remer is a frequent wearer of beards. His new album of experimental ambient music, Joyce, is available on Bandcamp, Spotify, Apple, and wherever else fine music is enjoyed. He directed a folk-rock documentary called Making Lovers & Dollars, which is now streaming. He also can found be found online reading short stories and rambling about pop music.

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