Release Date(s)1941 (September 13, 2011)
Studio(s)RKO (Warner Bros.)
- Film/Program Grade: A+
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B-
- Extras Grade: A+
It’s not difficult to know what to say about Citizen Kane (1941, RKO), just coming up with something new that hasn’t been said before. The film must surely be the most analyzed and written about of any film produced during the past century – not that one would expect any less for what is widely considered to be the best film made to date, regularly heading the various top-ten film lists whether they be of popular or academic origin.
And yet, there are people that don’t get it. “The plot is too convoluted.” “Yes, it’s technically interesting, but otherwise boring to sit through.” “It’s an Orson Welles ego trip.” And so on. Of course, one’s enjoyment of any film is a subjective affair, but at risk of alienating part of my audience, I can only say that if you don’t like Citizen Kane, then I would have to question your real appreciation of or love for film.
This is a film that can be savoured on multiple levels. Is it acting that’s your primary interest? Then sit back and enjoy a whole raft of actors making their impressive film debuts: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead, Ruth Warwick, George Coulouris, Everett Sloane, Ray Collins, Paul Stewart. Maybe you appreciate the work of a top-flight cinematographer? Then let Greg Toland give you a course on the sort of deep focus work previously only hinted at in films. Perhaps you enjoy watching how the director frames the various scenes and positions the actors to get certain desired effects? Then Orson Welles will give you endless examples to analyze and argue about. Does skillful editing do it for you? Then Robert Wise and Orson Welles virtually provide a textbook on when and how to go about it. Or maybe an intriguingly structured script full of good turns of phrase excites you? Then Herman Mankiewicz and Orson Welles have the answer for you.
Yet a collection of individual parts, no matter how good each part is, doesn’t always add up to an effective whole. To make that happen, there has to be an overall vision and an ability to ensure it’s realized. Fortunately, one man had both the vision and the clout – Orson Welles, a 25-year old with virtually no previous film experience to speak of. How did that come about in Hollywood in 1941 – a place and time where the studio system was dominant and the ultimate power was in the hands of the studio heads like Jack Warner at Warner Bros. and Louis B. Mayer at MGM?
By 1939, Welles had already conquered radio with the infamous broadcast of H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds” and had just made his mark on Broadway with several productions. Films seemed like the obvious next step and in August of that year, Welles signed a contract with RKO Radio Pictures. At the time, RKO was undergoing extensive reorganization and was led by George J. Schaefer, the most progressive of any studio head of the time. As a result, of the major studios, it was only RKO that would have given Welles a contract with the sort of control that he wanted and to which he felt entitled. The agreement called for Welles to make one picture a year, for which he would have final cut, and in which he could be producer, director, writer, or actor as he wished. Welles immediately jumped into pre-production on a film of Joseph Conrad’s “Hearts of Darkness,” but eventually RKO got cold feet over Welles’s unorthodox approach to the material. A second, more conventional project was proposed – a film based on an English thriller by Nicholas Blake, “The Smiler with a Knife.” Only when this too was shelved after the lead role was turned down by several top actresses of the day (Carole Lombard and Rosalind Russell) did Welles turn to Citizen Kane. The initial script was written by Herman J. Mankiewicz and with Welles contributing, subsequently went through three more drafts before it was considered ready. So, after almost a year of screening films, working on scripts, and learning the practicalities of lighting, sound, and camerawork, shooting finally began on a Welles film on June 29, 1940. Principal photography on Citizen Kane was completed on October 23. After post-production, RKO was ready to release the film on February 14, 1941.
Citizen Kane, however, did not actually premiere until May 1, 1941. The delay was entirely due to the objections raised by newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, upon whose life the film was supposedly based. The saga began when Louella Parsons (the Hollywood representative for the Hearst papers) and two Hearst lawyers saw an early print of the film. When Parsons reported to Hearst that Citizen Kane was an unauthorized biography of him, Hearst demanded that RKO not release the film. Thus began three months of wrangling that included a ban on any mention of RKO product in Hearst newspapers, a split in the RKO Board of Directors over whether “Kane” should be released, a cash offer to RKO from other Hollywood studios for the film’s negative (which they would supposedly then destroy), a threat that Welles would file a breach-of-contract suit over RKO’s failure to release the film, and so on. The whole tempest really ended with a whimper, however, as the news gradually trickled out from advance press screenings that Citizen Kane was the real thing. Eventually, RKO’s Board came on side and an official release was approved despite Hearst’s continued protestations.
If not unanimous, the acclaim for Citizen Kane was widespread. The film did well at the box office initially and particularly in major centres; however, it was only with its re-release in 1956 that it finally turned a profit for RKO. It was cited as the best picture of 1941 by the New York critics and the National Board of Review. Nine Academy Award nominations were announced including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor (Welles), but Hollywood itself was not won over and Citizen Kane triumphed in only one category – Best Original Screenplay. It was only with the 1956 re-release that the real acclaim for the film began to build. Sight and Sound polls of international film critics and scholars to select the best films in motion picture history placed Citizen Kane at the top of the list in 1962, 1972, 1982, and 1992. In 1998, the AFI’s Top 100 American Films list (whatever one may think of it) also placed Citizen Kane at number one.
Which brings us back full circle to why it’s so acclaimed. I’ve already mentioned the acting and the direction and the camerawork and the editing and the script and so on. All had innovative elements. The real brilliance was that so much innovation should appear in one film and that all components should work so well both individually and collectively. No matter how many repeated viewings, you never manage to exhaust all the film’s pleasures. I think it’s a matter that you notice one particular framing or cut or optical effect or line of dialogue and you’re so struck by it that by the time you get your mind back on the film, you’ve missed some other extraordinary piece.
Consider the sequence during which the young Charlie Kane is taken from his home in Colorado and the following years of Thatcher’s guardianship. Look for: the brief but wonderfully lyrical music that introduces us to Charlie playing in the snow – the only music of that sort in the film; the deep focus effects, particularly where Charlie playing outside in the snow remains completely in focus in the background through the window while his future is finalized inside, in the foreground; the overlapping dialogue between Charlie’s mother and Thatcher which in turn overlaps Charlie’s father’s concerns, as well as the fainter sounds of Charlie playing outside; the camera positioned at table-top level where Charlie’s mother signs the papers, clearly showing the roof of the set, and creating a triangular effect between Charlie’s father on the left and his mother and Thatcher on the right and the distant Charlie at the apex; the power of Agnes Moorehead’s performance as Charlie’s mother – despair, resolve and resignation all simply conveyed through blank facial expression and flatness of voice; the entire interaction between Thatcher and Kane’s parents both inside and outside the house filmed with but a single cut (when Charlie’s mother goes to the window to call him after the signing of the papers); Charlie’s departure with Thatcher, simply signified by a shot of the abandoned sled accumulating a layer of snow as a train whistle sounds in the distance; the first temporal cut handled so adroitly around Thatcher’s words “Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year” taking us from a young Charlie to one 25-years old, and the second more jarring temporal cut that accents Thatcher’s displeasure over Charlie’s avowed lack of interest in any part of his fortune other than a newspaper. All this in little more than five minutes of screen time.
Much has been made of Citizen Kane’s deep focus photography. And rightly so, for it provides a striking look to the entire picture that distinguishes it from any film that had come before. But this was not the first usage of the technique. Some examples exist in silent films including D.W. Griffith’s Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912). When film stocks improved in the 1930s, the possibilities became greater. Jean Renoir experimented with several deep-focus shots in his films including La règle du jeu (1939). By that time, cinematographer Gregg Toland had been experimenting with deep focus or what he referred to as “pan-focus,” a technique that allowed the camera to photograph objects as close as a foot or so and others up to several hundred feet with equal clarity together, much as the human eye is capable of doing. Some examples of his efforts prior to Citizen Kane can be seen in John Ford’s The Long Voyage Home (1940). In Welles, Toland found a like-minded film-maker and the two worked hand-in-hand in developing the camera angles, lighting, and photographic technique. There was extensive pre-production planning and testing of such aspects, a novelty in itself in Hollywood where cinematographers often found themselves assigned to a film only a day or so before shooting began. It is no accident that Toland’s credit for cinematography on Citizen Kane is as large as that of Welles for its production and direction.
One can dwell exhaustively on other technical aspects of the film’s production, but in the end, it is the entertainment value of the story that Citizen Kane tells that is key to the film’s success, as it must be with any good film. Welles’ original notion had been to tell the same story several different times, each from a different point of view. With that as a premise, he and Herman Mankiewicz searched for a person for the story to be about and eventually settled on the American press barons as the source of a composite character that came to be known as Charles Foster Kane. It was an excellent opportunity to depict the spirit of the early part of 20th century America by focusing on one individual’s foray into mass media, popular entertainment, and politics. Seeing how the mighty rise to power and how their success often leads to personal downfall always has appeal to a broad audience. Structuring the telling of the story of that life in the manner that Welles did and cloaking it in a treasure chest of film technique make the story come alive in such a way that it seems ever fresh no matter how often you see the film. Above all, this is a film that’s great fun to watch. Orson Welles’ enjoyment and exhilaration in putting the film together come through in every frame.
Warner Bros.’ 70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition of Citizen Kane on Blu-ray hits all the marks one would have expected. Employing an all-new HD restoration from original nitrate elements in 4K resolution, a black and white film transfer doesn’t look much better than this. The full frame image in accordance with the original 1.37:1 Academy Standard aspect ratio features deep black levels and an impressively conveyed gray scale that deliver excellent image detail in both bright and dark conditions (and there’s a lot of the latter in the film). Image sharpness is consistently notable. There are a few soft passages, but they’re more attributable to the source material than anything else. The somewhat scrubbed nature of the 60th anniversary DVD release has been replaced by a more film-like look with the film’s original grain clearly visible and not intrusive.
The DTS-HD Master Audio mono track measures up well to the video, offering a crisp clear rendering of the dialogue and sound effects and even suggesting some dynamic heft in doing so. Bernard Herrmann’s score fares well in the latter regard. Portuguese and Polish DD mono tracks are also provided as are subtitles in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Polish, Czech, Hungarian, Greek, and Romanian.
Warner Bros. has provided a very healthy collection of supplements, all well packaged in a sturdy slipcase. Included in a fold-out digipak are the Blu-ray disc and then two DVDs that contain The Battle over Citizen Kane and RKO 281. The former is a very fine 1995 two-hour Oscar-nominated documentary that chronicles the struggle between Welles and newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst who claimed Citizen Kane was but a thinly veiled and slanderous account of his own life. RKO 281 is a 1999 HBO film covering much of the same territory in a dramatic fashion starring the likes of Liev Schreiber, James Cromwell, Melanie Griffith, John Malkovich, and Roy Scheider. The film is a generally well-cast and intriguing effort that won three Emmys and a Golden Globe for Best Miniseries or Motion Picture Made for Television.
Supplements on the Blu-ray disc include two audio commentaries. The best one is by Roger Ebert who entertainingly conveys his admiration for the film as well of plenty of production information. The other by Peter Bogdanovich is also worth your time, as Bogdanovich’s association with Orson Welles informs his own personal appreciations of the film. Also on the disc are brief newsreel coverage of Citizen Kane’s New York premiere; archival interviews of Ruth Warwick and Robert Wise (conducted in the 1990s as part of the Turner Archival Project); production storyboards, call sheets, and stills (the latter with commentary by Roger Ebert); post-production deleted scenes (in the form of stills) and samples of advertising efforts; and the theatrical trailer.
Physical extras in the slipcase include a folio that contains a 5½”x7” reproduction of the 20-page souvenir program available at the time of the film’s original opening; five similarly-sized postcard reproductions of the film’s posters; and copies of various RKO and Welles correspondence and writings related to the film. Additionally, there’s a 48-page, 5½”x7” hardback book packed with production information as well as on Welles’ career, all well-illustrated with photos and stills.
Warners’ Blu-ray release of Citizen Kane: 70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition gets my highest recommendation.
- Barrie Maxwell