****/**** Image A+ Sound A+ Extras A+
starring Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Comingore, Ray Collins
screenplay by Herman J. Mankiewicz Orson Welles
directed by Orson Welles
by Walter Chaw There are two shots of Rosebud in Citizen Kane, the first as it's covered by a blanket of forgetful snow outside the boarding-house of Kane's mother, the second as it's being consumed by flames in the basement of Kane's Florida estate. Ice and fire. Citizen Kane is a film about contrast and duality, and it expresses this through nearly every facet of the production. Kane has two friends, two wives, makes two trips to his palatial estate, and visits Susan Alexander twice. He is torn in half by his duelling personas: public magnate and private misanthrope--both sides coming together when he writes an excoriating review of his own wife's debut opera performance just prior to firing his best friend Jedediah (Joseph Cotten) from the newspaper they founded together.
Citizen Kane is also two films: one set after Kane's death as reporter Jerry Thompson (William Alland) struggles to uncover the secret of Kane's enigmatic last word ("Rosebud," of course); the other following Kane from childhood all the way to his lonesome death among dusty stacks of unadmired errata in an otherwise empty mansion. As Kane tells his benefactor, Thatcher (George Coulouris), at one point, "You see, Mr. Thatcher, what you don't understand is that you're talking to two people." The effect of this doubling is to present what is the quintessential American film in terms of influence and literal meaning--the working title of the film, in fact, was the decidedly non-enigmatic "The American." What better way to explore the gulf between American idealism and the demons that haunt our failures, after all, than to portray a man who was presented with the American Dream only to discover that his happiness lay in an artifact from his lost childhood?
Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) starts a daily with his friends Jedediah (Cotten) and Bernstein (Everett Sloan) that employs sensationalism and tabloid journalism, quickly establishing them as the most powerful publishing conglomerate in the land. Beginning with a newsreel obituary that presents the public perception of the monolithic publisher, which transitions into Kane's isolated last breath (such pains are taken to show Kane as utterly alone at the moment of his death that his last word could not, problematically, be overheard by anyone), Citizen Kane traces Kane's steady decline from a bucolic childhood to churlish isolation. A series of testimonials from Kane's aged compatriots obtained by the intrepid reporter Thompson, the film is a meticulously-composed piece that ties together fluid flashbacks, camera tricks, revolutionary editing techniques, and experimental cinematography by the legendary Greg Toland. The importance of Citizen Kane can then be similarly explained in terms of duality: to the eye it remains one of the most technically resourceful and inspired films; to the mind, it is a magnificently satisfying character study of a man--and that man's society's--archetypal struggle between literal and philosophical legacies and what is intended and what is achieved.
Citizen Kane also finds resonance in its evocation of both a dream and a nightmare (a conceit highlighted by the usage of Coleridge's poem Kubla Khan over the prologue, itself a piece composed out of a dream): the voyeuristic spectatorship that ultimately functions as a commentary on the very process and effect of film and media. Toland shot the film with a slightly fish-eye deep focus and stark, startlingly Germanic lighting that's augmented by Welles's extreme blocking and staging techniques. Each of these elements are most recognizable as the stock-in-trade of the horror genre. They present a hyper-invasive hyperreality that distorts perception and leaves the viewer with a feeling of insecurity and a loss of balance.
We aren't handed a solid grasp of Charles Foster Kane. He is grand and pathetic, generous and niggardly, nurturing and selfish, each aspect of his personality bound together by a childlike megalomania that made him turn everything in his life into an object to collect or a toy to mishandle. It is that very uncertainty that lends Citizen Kane its importance as an almost primal study of the instinct of mythmaking (in its modern form, mass media) towards encapsulation and shorthand--the difference, in other words, between the sloppiness of real life and the representative resonance of history. Welles was vocal about his ultimate displeasure with the Rosebud sled as a story device, calling it "Dollarbook Freud." And yet without this relic from childhood (recall that Thatcher attempts to replace Rosebud with a second sled), Citizen Kane's most powerful symbol, the paperweight, would lose a great deal of its meaning.
Appearing first as it falls from Kane's lifeless hand and shattering by his deathbed, the paperweight (really a water-filled snow globe with a winter's scene evocative of Kane's childhood home) reappears at the end of the film after Kane destroys his second wife's bedroom. The item is representative of a moment frozen in time, easily- controlled, visited, and manipulated: the fallacy of a self-contained historical documentation that forever preserves an ideal eternally inviolate within its static confines. When the globe shatters at the beginning of the film, it's a bald declaration that Citizen Kane is going to be a messy thing that attempts to show the eternally invariable makeup of media mythology at odds with the ambiguity of real life.
Contemplating an early scene featuring a roomful of reporters in an RKO screening room, scoffing at the incompleteness and 'un-media-worthiness' of Kane's newsreel eulogy, we come to the startling realization that Citizen Kane itself is invested in the search for a media-worthy "hook" (Rosebud). Startling because it is only at film's end that its wryness, irony, and intelligence becomes clear--there have seldom been any entertainments in any medium that marry a superb mind with a deft hand and an indisputable heart. Citizen Kane is considered to be the best film in history by many historians, craftsmen, and critics for the simple fact that it is brilliant in every individual element that constitutes cinema (acting, directing, writing, editing, photography, set design)--and that it fashions all that surplus of excellence into a tale of unqualified humanity and archetypal resonance.
Citizen Kane is best known, perhaps, as a satire of the life of William Randolph Hearst, whose estate dedicated itself to blocking the film's release. (Rosebud, in fact, is said to have been Hearst's nickname for a certain part of his mistress's anatomy.) The tug-of-war over Citizen Kane is covered in the second disc of its long-awaited DVD version in the form of the 1996 PBS documentary "The Battle Over Citizen Kane", first seen as a part of the "American Experience" series introduced by historian David McCollough. Running a deeply satisfying 113 minutes, "The Battle Over Citizen Kane" is an exhaustive overview of the life of both Hearst and Welles and how their paths intersected in the conflagration over the nearly-aborted distribution of Citizen Kane. It is, along with James Naremore's critical study The Magic World of Orson Welles, the best scholarly work on Welles and Kane and indispensable for a greater understanding and enjoyment of the film and the times that spawned it.
Though hyperbolic, it's not inaccurate to call Citizen Kane the best DVD that Warner has ever produced. Utilizing newly discovered European elements (Citizen Kane's original negatives were destroyed in a blaze), the film is presented in its Academy ratio of 1.37:1 on the first disc, in a transfer that is almost entirely free of defect, something few were expecting. Eye-popping doesn't begin to describe the quality of this painstaking digital restoration: It maintains a brightness and intensity rivaling that of more recent black-and-white movies. If you love films and buy only one DVD this year, Citizen Kane demands to be that purchase. The remastering of the original monophonic soundtrack is solid and crisp. Pops and hisses typical of films of this vintage are conspicuously absent. Like the incandescent visuals, the mono sound on this DVD is above reproach, very probably impossible to improve upon and, frankly, astonishing.
The first disc contains separate yak-tracks from film critic Roger Ebert and Welles's biographer, the historian and filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich. Ebert's second foray into the commentary realm is as compelling and informative as his first (an excellent examination of Alex Proyas's Dark City). A lifetime's love affair with film, criticism, and Citizen Kane overflows in Ebert's track, coalescing as an outstanding insight into the movie itself and, most intriguingly, the art of criticism and the gifts that the art done well has to offer both the audience and the work. Bogdanovich, in his dry, academic style, relates numerous interesting personal anecdotes gleaned from his friendship with Welles and his incomparable series of interviews with the auteur that offer an invaluable take on Citizen Kane. Both tracks are worth the price of the disc, and the contrast between the speakers poetically honours the film upon which they comment.
Footage of the New York Premiere is disappointingly brief, but the original theatrical trailer is full of the kind of exuberance and audacity that marked Welles's career as an auteur. Narrated by Welles with a surplus of wit that predicts the trailers of Alfred Hitchcock (and, to a lesser extent, William Castle), the trailer comprises a cast introduction and brief sound bites expounding on various points of view held on Charles Foster Kane, shot by the actors in character for the trailer. It's fascinating from an artistic and historical standpoint--the first time I ever saw it was on this disc, and it's already something I have revisited numerous times.
A section titled The Production features "Storyboards," "Call Sheets," and a "Still Gallery." Automated and exhaustive, each of these subsections (the last of which includes an audio commentary by Ebert) provides an intimate look at the making of the film and the behind-the-scenes miscellany that provides a wealth of depth to a film already fantastically "deep." A section titled "Post-Production" includes still photos from a censored brothel sequence, accompanied by a letter from the Hays Commission explaining their misgivings. Storyboards for other scenes never shot round out this sub-section. "Ad Campaign" offers publicity art from the original 1941 release as well as the 1956 re-release that cemented Citizen Kane's reputation; "Press Book" offers a glimpse at the promotional material handed out to audiences at the east and west coast premieres of the film (stuff the cinephile in me covets with every jealous fibre of my gut); and another "Opening Night" section offers still photos of the premiere along with guest lists and correspondence to RKO.
Finally, a Production Notes section is an exhaustive text narrative that follows the creation of the film from "In the Beginning" through to "On the Set," "Postscripts," and "Awards and Honors." The presentation is rounded out on the second disc by an Orson Welles filmography, and on the first disc by an Easter egg (accessible via a sled graphic on the special features menu) that takes us to nice interviews with Ruth Warrick and editor Robert Wise. The Citizen Kane DVD is as satisfying as the film it celebrates. Without question it's the home video event of the year thus far. (Aside: Warner made a packaging exception and chose not to house Citizen Kane in their typical snappers, but instead a gatefold within a sleeve, à la Unbreakable.) It justifies the importance and brilliance of Citizen Kane and is reason enough to own a DVD player. Originally published: October 10, 2001.