Writing a review about "Citizen Kane" is like meeting your all-time favorite actor or director, only to stutter and stammer through the encounter. What new observations can I add that has not already been discussed in the six decades since the film’s release? Books, dissertations, college courses have been devoted to examining, analyzing, deconstructing and "grailifying" Orson Welles’ first motion picture, made at the tender age of 25.
Warner Home Video’s new two-disc DVD special edition further deifies the 1941 RKO classic with a pristine transfer, super clean audio and a treasure chest of extras including commentary tracks by director/Welles biographer Peter Bogdanovich and film critic Roger Ebert, archival materials as well as the excellent PBS documentary "The Battle Over ‘Citizen Kane.’" Yet for anyone who has never sat down to watch the film from beginning to end, uninterrupted and without critical assessment or superlatives, I suggest watching the film before tackling any of the extras. Let the film speak for itself before others (including myself) speak for it.
Wunderkind Orson Welles had already taken theater (his legendary staging of Shakespeare in Harlem) and radio (his infamous 1938 "War of the Worlds" broadcast sent America into a panic) to new heights when RKO Pictures gave him carte blanche in directing his first film. After several false starts on other projects (including an aborted attempt at filming Joseph Conrad’s "Heart of Darkness"), Welles collaborated with screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz to flesh out his vision of an American tragedy. In Charles Foster Kane, Welles and Mankiewicz created the perfect template for Yankee brashness, ingenuity and potential. They also saw in the fictional magnate the mythic embodiment of H.L. Mencken’s pessimistic adage that "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely!"
The timing was right for the film to be made. Two years earlier, in 1939, the studio system peaked. (That year saw the release of such films as "Gone With The Wind," "The Wizard of Oz," "Stagecoach," "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," "Young Mr. Lincoln" and "Wuthering Heights.") Looking at the studio as "the greatest train set a boy could ever play with," Welles surrounded himself with equally gifted individuals: cinematographer Gregg Toland literally revolutionized filmmaking with his innovative use of deep focus photography; composer Bernard Herrmann contributed his first, but certainly not last, memorable score with "Kane" and RKO staff editor Robert Wise (director of "The Sound of Music" and "West Side Story") melded the images with then unheard-of jarring cuts and transitions. It’s easy to break the rules when you were never trained to honor them.
Welles may have seen "Kane" as nothing more than an elaborate roman a clef about a misguided businessman. Real newspaper scion William Randolph Hearst did not. The narrative correlations between Kane and Hearst are unmistakable. Both ruthlessly acquired wealth, objects and power. Both built magnificent castles (Kane’s Xanadu unabashedly mirrors Hearst’s San Simeon on the California coast) to house their spoils and their egos. Kane’s flirtation with ingénue Susan Alexander mirrored Hearst’s involvement with the much younger actress Marion Davies. Hearst tried to destroy both "Kane" and Welles, marshalling his considerable media forces (among them gossip columnist Louella Parsons) in an all-out campaign to eradicate the film and discredit its creator. Artistry and posterity won out. The film was released in 1941 but more importantly survived to become what many have called "the first modern American film." Enough pontificating. What about the DVD?
I have seen "Kane" projected three times but I have never seen "Kane" until I watched this DVD. Presented in its original 1.33 aspect ratio, the full-screen transfer just glows. Never have I seen the film look so clean and immediate, no doubt due to the recently discovered fine grain master utilized for the source print. Exhibiting excellent gray scale and deep blacks, the image reveals details that I imagine only 1941 audiences have previously seen. The scuffs on the battered "No Trespassing" sign that start the film now seem ominous rather than just dirty. Not only do brightly lit scenes sparkle, even scenes bathed in shadows yield detail. The projection room sequence in previous incarnations looked like a shadow puppet play; here, I could see faces in the darkness. Edge enhancement appears to have been applied a little too liberally in some instances, but overall the picture never seems overly processed or "metallic."
Funny how we rail about the colorizing of black and white films (one little clause in Welles’ contract prevented the colorization of "Citizen Kane"), but we make little or no fuss about the "stereoization" of mono soundtracks. The reason I make this observation is that unlike other older films that get spruced up or even turbo charged soundtracks, ""Citizen Kane" is presented in full, glorious, original monophonic sound. Everything sounded crisp and clear: dialogue, music, and sound effects. For a sixty-year-old soundtrack, the audio possesses better dynamic range that I would have expected. Despite aural extremes, like the aural transition from Kane’s death scene to the announcer blaring "News On The March," the audio never peaked or distorted. Not until halfway through the film that I realized I had not heard any hiss from my center channel speaker. Okay, perhaps it would have been nice to hear Herrmann’s score in stereo, but at no point did I feel that the audio was anything less than completely complimentary and organic to the visuals.
Two feature length commentaries deconstruct the film from slightly different angles. Film director / Welles biographer Peter Bogdanovich elucidates at a leisurely pace, infusing some scenes with specific information and then taking off on a tangent about John Ford or how Herman Mankiewicz thought the film lacked enough cross-cuts. (Bogdanovich certainly has the historical perspective, having interviewed Welles and Ford in the 1970s). However, sometimes the insights come off a little dry and distant. The musings on Roger Ebert’s commentary track, however, practically leap off the screen. Ebert literally dissects the film frame by frame, pointing out how lighting, edits, close-ups and long shots reflect earlier moments or foreshadow later scenes. Technical explanations of Toland’s photography, speculations on how gas flames next to Kane’s head suggest latent evil (Chapter 11) along with additional historical explanations make for a very detailed but almost clinical journey through the movie. The sheer volume of information was such that, in each case, I had to turn it off for a few minutes just to get my wind back. (Just one nitpick: in Chapter 18, Ebert comments how the famous "changing headline" scene was mimicked in a British sci-fi film from the 1960s. While I don’t recall that reference, there was the scene in "Superman II" where Perry White plays with the headline of the Daily Planet, switching from "Paris Saved" to "Paris Destroyed.")
The supplements continue with footage from the 1941 New York premiere at the Palace Theater. (The Los Angeles premiere was at the El Capitan Theater in Hollywood, a movie palace still in operation.) Spanning only a minute, the RKO-Pathe newsreel highlights the arrival of Orson Welles (with Dolores Del Rio) as well as showcase the elaborate marquee and throngs of moviegoers having their ticket stubs processed by very well dressed ushers. The original theatrical trailer shows some physical wear (speckles, scratches) and the tinny sound pales when compared to the feature audio. Running three and a half minutes, Welles narrates the coming attraction, touting the stars and subject matter in a manner all his own.
The remainder of disc one contains the galleries and other memorabilia documenting the film’s inception, production and release. "The Production," "Post Production" and "Production Notes" mark each chapter of archival materials. Within each chapter, sub-chapters denote the actual elements. "Production" houses the storyboard, call sheets and still galleries. The individual photos, drawings and panels unfold in ten-second intervals, rather than offering them in still-frame. The storyboards demonstrate how Welles left nothing to chance, pre-visualizing such scenes as the first meeting between Kane and Susan Alexander, Susan’s apartment and the El Rancho Cabaret. In "Post Production," more stills and artwork illustrate the final editing and promotion tactics. In "Deleted Scenes," drawings reveal the Brothel sequence that Welles and Mankiewicz originally conceived for the "Newspaper Party" sequence. (Of course, censors nixed the idea of Kane and his cohorts cavorting with women of questionable morals purely for fun’s sake.) Press book shots, posters, even a letter from George Gallup breaking down the audience reaction demographics, show that even for a ground breaker like "Kane," the studio still had to make sure people knew about the film (despite Hearst commanding his newspapers not carry any advertising). Also, on the Special Features menu page, there is a sled. Cursor over to it, hit "Enter" and a four-minute interview with Ruth Warrick (Emily Norton Kane) pops up. Filmed in 1997, she talks about how it was her first film and of course working with Orson.
Disc Two contains what I think is the crown jewel of the DVD’s extras: the real story of how Orson Welles, Charles Foster Kane and William Randolph Hearst collided. Produced in 1995 for PBS, "The Battle Over Citizen Kane" briskly and thoroughly charts the historical paths of two titans and how they were seemingly destined to clash. In Thomas Lennon and Michael Epstein’s expert two-hour expose, they effortlessly crosscut the upbringing of Welles and Hearst, how both were born of privilege and how both became barons in their respective fields. At times the structure seems a little ping-pongy but my interest never flagged and even though the material itself inspired a movie (HBO’s "RKO 281"), the reality of Hearst’s obsessive quest to destroy the film makes the fiction it inspired look…phony. The remainder skews the extras towards WGBH Boston, the PBS station that produced "Battle" as well as other documentaries, listed in the "Other DVDs of Interest" section.
A luminescent transfer. Crystal clear sound. Extras that leave no sleigh unturned. What does it add up to? "Citizen Kane" on DVD. No mystery here; get it, get it, get it!!!