"I think it would be fun to run a newspaper."
--Charles Foster Kane
Why lavish a 1080p, high-definition Blu-ray transfer and lossless DTS-HD Master Audio on an old, 1941, black-and-white movie in monaural sound? More to the point, why lavish such attention on a movie that doesn't contain even a single gunshot, car chase, or explosion? Because it's "Citizen Kane."
The question has never been whether "Citizen Kane" is one of the greatest films ever made; that's a given. The question is whether it is THE greatest. The American Film Institute thinks it is, voting it to their number-one spot. Other such lists usually place it at least in the top five, usually at one, two, or three. Not bad for a movie that failed in its initial theatrical run. In any case, it's a self-recommending film, but I'm not here to tell you to buy it. Let me just say I can't imagine anyone even remotely interested in the subject of film not buying it. Warner Brothers give their "70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector's Edition" every advantage a classic movie of this stature should get: newly remastered HD picture and sound, two full audio commentaries, a documentary as long as the film, a TV movie about the making of the film, and a ton of collectible material, all contained in a handsome three-disc package.
My late best friend, a professor of film, always used to say he thought people overrated "Citizen Kane." Maybe. I won't argue the point. I first saw the film in the Fifties when I was still in my teens, and I must confess it didn't overly impress me. Then I watched and studied it more seriously in a college film class in the early Sixties and began to see its worth. Having owned several tape and CD copies of it and taught it to a number of film students over the years, I've come to agree with those critics who place it number one on their lists of all-time-great movies. I certainly can't think of any film that deserves more respect or commands a more prominent spot in the history of film.
As everyone probably knows, cowriter, producer, and director Orson Welles based his story on the real publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst, his fictional character of Charles Foster Kane imitating pretty closely the personal and professional life of the famous newspaperman in rather unflattering terms. The resemblance was so startling, in fact, that Hearst, who controlled a good number of the country's media outlets in 1941, tried everything he could to stop the public from ever seeing it. The disc's accompanying documentary, "The Battle Over Citizen Kane," does a good job detailing the controversy surrounding Heart's attempts to suppress the film, which he made on a modest budget at RKO. Heck, Hearst even tried to buy the negatives (with the help of a pal, MGM's Louis B. Mayer), and when that failed he refused to allow any of his own newspapers or radio stations to run ads for it. By the time the film opened, to good reviews in non Hearst-owned outlets, the general public either believed it was a loser or didn't get a chance to see it at all thanks to its limited distribution. It wouldn't be for another decade or two before people had the chance to reevaluate the film, and then it began appearing in art houses and college classrooms as a classic of the silver screen.
Obviously, people have written books on the merits of "Citizen Kane." Let me just mention in passing that while it breaks little new ground, it does bring together a number of filmmaking techniques that had been in various stages of development previously. For example, the movie refines the use of narrative point of view and flashback storytelling; emphasizes psychological lighting, light and shade (chiaroscuro), and deep-focus photography; embraces a sound track of amazingly wide dynamics for its time; provides frequent instances of overlapping and interruptive dialogue; employs complex and elaborate camera work, unique camera angles, abrupt cuts, multiple exposures, special effects, and dissolves; extensively uses mirrors, mirroring, and mirrored scenes and imagery; and utilizes many other examples of modern cinematography and storytelling in general. The result is a cinematic tour de force that's just as dazzling to watch today as it was so long ago. It's hard to dispute that it has influenced almost every filmmaker since its day.
Never mind that at age twenty-four this was Welles's first film, and that some people often criticize him for relying too much on the work of others without giving them entirely proper due. Yes, famed cinematographer Gregg Toland did the amazing camera work and perfected the deep-focus photographic style, Bernard Herrmann did the musical score, and Herman J. Mankiewicz helped write the script, for which Welles gave them all due thanks in the credits. But one cannot deny that this was Welles's baby from start to finish; and, besides, at this stage in the game, some seven decades later, what difference does it make who was responsible for it. The point is that what we have is splendid, no matter who the collaborators were or how much they contributed.
But probably the movie's strongest claim to fame is that it tells a good story. Covering Kane's life from childhood to deathbed, multiple recurring flashbacks look at the story from differing points of view, as a newspaper reporter tries to track down an angle on Kane's mysterious dying word, "Rosebud." All of the characters, we come to realize, actually know the enigmatic Kane less well than they think.
Welles himself stars as Kane. Welles was an actor, writer, director, producer, magician, and pitch man who was almost as complicated as the man he was playing. Be that as it may or perhaps because of it, Welles puts in a first-rate, commanding performance as the poor boy left a fortune, who turned it into an empire "the likes of which we shall probably never see again." For his supporting cast Welles chose largely players he already knew and had worked with before, many of them stage actors from his old Mercury Theater days, like Joseph Cotten, Everett Sloane, Agnes Moorehead, Paul Stewart, and Ray Collins. For the part of his mistress in the film, Welles chose Dorothy Comingore (pregnant at the time but nicely camouflaged) to play Susan Alexander, a role modeled on the real-life actress and Hearst mistress, Marion Davies. Comingore may at first appear a bit superficial in the part, but she amply conveys the emptiness of a life filled with everything and nothing at the same time.
Possible Historical Spoiler:
According to an essay by Gore Vidal and to a trivia note at IMDb, "Rosebud" was William Randolph Hearst's pet name for the most-private part of his mistress, Marion Davies. The use of the term as a plot device in the film enraged Hearst, which is probably why he tried to destroy both the film and Welles. "Hearst always suspected it was co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz who divulged this secret, since he had been a part of Hearst's and Davies' inner circle."
What we've got here is a 2011, MPEG-4/AVC digital transfer on a dual-layer BD50, the movie restored from original nitrate elements in 4K resolution and remastered for Blu-ray in 1080p. The results look better to me than the print I saw in a theater long ago, although here memory does not serve me so well. One cannot find a blemish in this fresh, new transfer, which retains its original 1.37:1 theatrical aspect ratio. What's more important, the black-and-white contrasts are startlingly vivid, with deep black levels and glowing whites. Toland's photography keeps both background and foreground people and objects in crystal-clear focus, and any minor moments of softness go by almost unnoticed. For all I know, the film probably never looked this good when RKO first showed it in motion-picture theaters.
The monaural soundtrack, rendered via lossless DTS-HD Master Audio, sounds smoother now, particularly the dialogue, with a more-powerful dynamic range than ever. After undergoing some apparent noise reduction, it sounds almost as clean and clear as the picture is sharp, with almost no discernible background hiss. This is still not modern multichannel audio, but for 1941 it is as good as it gets.
Warners' "70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector's Edition" includes not only the movie in high-def but a multitude of valuable bonus features on three discs, plus an assortment of collectible items.
Disc one contains the feature film in HD, accompanied by the choices of two audio commentaries. The first is with film director and Welles biographer Peter Bogdanovich, who has spoken lovingly before on the subject of his hero and sometime mentor. The second commentary is with film critic Roger Ebert, who spares us no apologies in his unabashed affection for the movie. Both men supply knowledgeable insights, behind-the-scenes anecdotes, and revealing observations on the filmmaking process. There's quite a difference between listening to an actor talking about an insignificant film and a pair of experts providing important information about one of the world's greatest films. Bogdanovich, for example, tells us that Welles told him that many of the camera angles he and Toland worked out, so discussed and admired today as symbolic and meaningful, they produced simply because they looked good to Welles. OK, so maybe the guy was just lucky; in any event, everything worked. It's hard to make a choice between the two commentaries; I'd suggest if you have the time listening to both of them. I found myself flipping back and forth; when one fellow would pause for a moment, I'd click over to the other. That way I got to hear essentially what both men said about the same scenes. Anyway, in addition to the commentaries, there are thirty scene selections; a theatrical trailer; English, Polish, and Portuguese spoken languages; French, Spanish, Polish, Portuguese, Czech, and Romanian subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Disc two, a standard-definition DVD, contains the 1995 PBS documentary, "The Battle Over Citizen Kane," which is almost as long at 113 minutes as the two-hour feature film itself. The documentary, of course, chronicles the struggles between Hearst and Welles over the film and its content, two titans of their time in a clash of super egos. Today, Hearst is a footnote, Welles a curiosity, and "Citizen Kane" a monument. The movie outlives them both. Warner Bros. present the documentary with chapter titles and English subtitles.
Disc three, also a standard-definition DVD, contains the Emmy and Golden Globe-winning 1999 movie "RKO 281." It stars Liev Schreiber as Orson Welles, James Cromwell as William Randolph Hearst, Melanie Griffith as Marion Davies, John Malkovich as Herman Mankiewicz, and a host of other stars as the notable personalities in the story of the making of "Citizen Kane." Warner Bros. present it in its native 1.78:1 television aspect ratio, with Dolby Digital 5.1 sound and several filmographies.
Among the additional items, there are the collectibles: a twenty-page souvenir 1941 program reproduction; ten reproductions of studio memos and correspondence; a forty-eight page book with photos, storyboards, and behind-the-scenes info; and five one-sheet/lobby-card reproductions. The three discs come housed in a handsome cardboard-and-plastic foldout Digipak container, it and the rest of the extras tucked into a strong, handsome cardboard slipcase.
I've read that the Academy Awards audience in 1942 hissed and booed the film's nine Oscar nominations--for Best Picture, Actor, Director, Writing, Art Direction, Cinematography, Film Editing, Scoring, and Sound Recording. The film managed to win only for its screenplay, mainly, people surmise, because Mankiewicz co-wrote it with Welles. The movie made Orson Welles forever a living legend, yet because of the movie's unwarranted notoriety he found himself also forever an outcast in Hollywood.
As an aside, William Randolph Hearst III, the old man's grandson, said in 1985 that he had always enjoyed "Citizen Kane," and that he invited Welles to visit the Hearst Castle, San Simeon, anytime he pleased "on my tab." I suppose time heals all wounds. In the case of "Citizen Kane," time has also helped improve upon a good thing.
"There's only person in the world to decide what I'm going to do, and that's me."
--Charles Foster Kane