Approaching Citizen Kane is like approaching the Mona Lisa or Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Such are great works of art – they’re often encased in amber. And with whatever the innovations they’ve created or expanded upon, coming at them at a later time is often like solving a mystery – you know there’s a reason why they’re so important, but you have to understand the context. And then there’s the legacy of its writer/director/star Orson Welles. The man who directed the greatest film in cinema history only to be denied the chance to repeat himself. That’s a lot of baggage to sort through, so let’s unpack, shall we? Our review of Citizen Kane on Blu-ray follows after the jump.
Welles stars as Charles Foster Kane. The film begins with the character’s death, uttering “Rosebud.” What that means the film hopes to understand. It starts with a then-topical “News on the March” reel/parody of the news footage that would show before movies, which covers the Kane’s history, something that will be talked about for the rest of the film. Reporter Jerry Thompson (William Alland) is assigned the task to get to know Kane, and find out what his final word meant. He first goes to his second ex-wife Susan Alexander Kane (Dorothy Comingore) who sends him away, then to the library of Walter Parks Thatcher George Coulouris), who first took Kane away from his mother (Agnes Moorehead) and into privileged society. Once an adult, Kane spends his time torturing Thatcher and his business interests until Kane goes bust.
From there we meet his older friends Bernstein (Everette Sloane) and Jedidiah Leland (Joseph Cotton), both of whom tell of Kane’s rise in the newspaper business, and when Kane eventually falls after a failed bid at office. He’s done in by his affair with Susan, who he later marries and tries to turn into an opera star. Then, finally, Susan talks to the reporter about the tail end of Kane’s life as he lives in his princely estate Xanadu (in Florida) where both are bored silly.
Famously modeled on William Randolph Hearst (Hearst’s longtime lover Marion Davies then was the model for Susan Alexander, and Davies was an actress. Rumor long has held that Rosebud was a nickname for her vagina), the film isn’t about just about Hearst, though since the public took it that way, and there were many similar details, it’s hard not to read that into the work. But seventy years later, that context is gone. But – without question – it’s one of the things that made the film so daring in its time. Yet knowing who Hearst is is secondary to the film’s pleasures.
Others have read Welles into Kane, though how could Welles know what his life would entail? He was 26 at the time, and the right age to spit mud in people’s eye. Welles had spent much of his time abroad as a youth, and had lived a full life at that point, but that sort of reading dead-ends.
What’s fascinating now is how what appears to be a very difficult read – especially when it’s been so lionized over the years – is how simple and how stated the narrative is. Kane could have been a great man, but he’s undone by the fact that he was abandoned by his mother, and has always had a hole in his heart. Everything he did was then a way to fill that hole, and often not very successfully. And though he tried to do big things, and normal things, Kane was a man who lived big and failed big as age crumbled his ideals. But to suggest the film is just about that misses the point, as it’s also about America changing, and what powerful men do. There’s a lot there, but this is the core of the film.
It’s easy then to be distracted by the technical innovations of the movie, of which any film student can start reeling off if they had the right professor. From the split focus shots, to the use of matte paintings, and opticals, to the low angles that showed ceilings, there are dozens of visual gimmicks that are unnoticeable unless they’re pointed (partly why Roger Ebert’s commentary track is so good). But then there are the narrative innovations as well. From showing a marriage crumble over the course of a number of shots (and how the couple read their morning news), to the structure of the piece, it’s still dazzling in its giddiness to eschew standard structure and content.
But it works because it’s about the inherent confusion of human existence. Kane was a great man, but everyone who came in contact with him saw different people. Mr. Bernstein has more positive memories, while most everyone else has horror stories, but this is a film about people being unable to understand the other’s needs, and so it’s a tragedy of bad timing in that way. Kane – in the end, regardless of understanding Rosebud – was a great and terrible person, often at the same time. He was an idealist who lost his way, but his tragedy is all too human. It’s a fascinating film partly about the difficulty of understanding another human even if the film repeats its central thesis about Kane repeatedly.
But is it the greatest film of all time? Maybe, though suggesting as much makes it more like homework than the funny and inventive film that runs a little under two hours. I’ve talked to a number Welles scholars, and it’s decidedly less fun to watch this than a number of Welles’s other movies partly because of the baggage attached. And there’s so many great films that he made that deserve just as much love. The problem with the system’s coronation of Welles for this picture is it feeds into the mythology around Welles that he – like Kane – lost it. But that’s not fair to his later works (F for Fake, for instance, or Touch of Evil, for that matter). Is Kane a great film? Inarguably. But it’s also a very entertaining one too. I’ve seen it repeatedly over my life – at first trying to find why it was called the greatest, and later trying to shake off those dusty hosannas. There is a great film here, obviously, but if it comes across at first as over-rated or over-hyped it’s worth understanding why it’s heralded as such.
Citizen Kane is presented in its original aspect ratio (1.33:1) and in 2.0 monaural sound. The film was restored with a 4K restoration, and the transfer is excellent. Kane has been looked after for a while, so I can’t call it that revelatory, but it looks better than its previous DVD release. The film comes with two commentaries, the first a dull one by Peter Bogdanovich, who falls into the trap of commenting on the action, but the second is a lively track by Roger Ebert, and it’s filled with great trivia about the film – which Ebert considers the best (or at least one of the best) film of all time. Also on the disc is footage from the film’s opening (1 min.), interviews with Ruth Warrick and Robert Wise (9 min.) a section marked production (15 min.), which offers storyboards, call sheets and stills, and one marked poster production (5 min.) which offers stills from the deleted scenes, the ad campaign, the press book, and notes from the filmmakers. The film’s inventive theatrical trailer is also included, which offers no footage from the film.
As a three disc set, this offers the documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane (113 min.), which was done for PBS, and talks about Welles, and William Randolph Hearst, considered the (un)intentional subject of the film. This is replicated from the original two-disc DVD release. New is the DVD RKO 281 (87 min.), the film starring Liev Shreiber as Welles and John Malkovich as Herman Mankewicz with James Cromwell as Hearst. A failure of a movie, it tries to recast Welles as Kane among many of its myriad of failings. Also included is a booklet, and re-productions of the film’s original artwork, its pressbook, and other ephemera.