Warner Brothers’ newly released “Ultimate Collector’s Edition” of Citizen Kane, a magnificent Blu-ray package timed to coincide with the film’s 70th anniversary, is one of the most significant home video releases of all time and a must-buy for anyone who loves movies. Not only is this the definitive presentation of the film widely regarded as the greatest ever made (making up for several previously botched VHS and DVD releases), it also comes stuffed with copious supplemental materials. Some of these extras are admittedly worthless BUT among the goodies is a DVD of The Magnificent Andersons, Orson Welles’ great follow-up to Kane and a movie previously unavailable in any digital format in the United States. This release also provides me with a good excuse to finally blog about a film I’ve shown in the majority of my Intro to Film classes but never actually written about; it seems a daunting challenge to put fingers to keypad when the subject is an ivory tower masterpiece with mountains of published criticism already devoted to it. Nonetheless, here goes . . .
Let’s start by examining the film’s reputation as a colossal work not just of cinema but of twentieth century art and why it has been deemed worthy of the bells-and-whistles treatment from the good folks in the classics division of Warner Home Video. What is it that makes Citizen Kane so innovative and groundbreaking and massively influential? Two things: the visual style and the narrative structure. In terms of style, Citizen Kane is remarkable in that it shows the influence of almost all of the major historical film movements that had received international distribution up to the time of its release (it’s been noted that Citizen Kane was the first movie directed by someone who had obviously studied the history of cinema). And since Orson Welles had travelled the globe as a precocious young man while dabbling in several artistic mediums, he was already well-versed in these international film trends. It is therefore easy to note the influence on Kane of movements as far-flung as:
Narrative Continuity – Welles studied the rules of narrative continuity filmmaking before making Citizen Kane. Specifically, he studied John Ford’s Stagecoach, a particularly beautiful example of a classical narrative movie. While preparing Kane, Welles screened Stagecoach every day for over a month and watched it with different members of his crew each time. Throughout the screenings, Welles would ask his technicians questions to try and figure out how Ford had put his movie together. It was from Stagecoach that Welles learned the basic rules of narrative continuity (how to shoot and edit a scene so that time, space and action continue smoothly from one shot to the next). It may also have been the inspiration for Citizen Kane‘s much commented upon low angle shots, in which the ceilings of the sets are clearly visible, a rarity for the time.
German Expressionism – Citizen Kane features the most artful and self-conscious instances of high contrast and low-key lighting, courtesy of ace cinematographer Gregg Toland, that had ever been seen in a Hollywood film up to 1941. A good example is the scene that occurs in a screening room early in the movie when a group of reporters converse about a newsreel on the life of the late Charles Foster Kane. The contrast between the light and dark areas in the frame of every shot in this scene is extremely dramatic with the faces of each character intentionally hidden by shadows even while the light from the projector behind them is blindingly white. This is also the audience’s introduction to the character of Thompson, the reporter who will spend the rest of the film interviewing Kane’s closest living acquaintances to complete the documentary. Fittingly, we will never clearly see Thompson’s face throughout the movie, a strategy that allows Welles to posit this character as a surrogate for the viewer.
Soviet Montage – Welles was familiar with the the Soviet Montage films of the 1920s (as evidenced by his rapidly edited debut short The Hearts of Age) and Citizen Kane features several impressive montage scenes. The most beloved is probably the exceedingly clever breakfast table montage where the disintegration of the marriage between Kane and his first wife Emily is condensed into a two minute sequence spanning many years. In the first part of the scene, Kane and his new bride are sitting virtually side-by-side and engaging in flirtatious banter. Here, Kane looks like the impossibly young and dashingly handsome man that Welles was. Then, as the scene progresses and the convincing middle-age make-up is piled on, the distance between Kane and Emily, both physical and emotional, increases to the point where the characters are no longer speaking but reading rival newspapers in icy silence instead. The depressing nature of the scene is effectively offset by the wittiness of Welles’ staging and cutting.
French Poetic Realism – Poetic Realism, a movement that defined itself in opposition to Soviet Montage in terms of style, was predicated on long takes and long shots. Citizen Kane has these qualities in spades, which is unsurprising given Welles’ fondness for the films of Jean Renoir (Welles once cited Grand Illusion as his favorite movie of all time); but Welles’ predilection for deep-focus cinematography saw him push the style to an operatic extreme that even Renoir would have never dreamed of attempting. A newly released super-fast film stock allowed for a greater depth of field than ever before and Welles took full advantage by composing images in which important visual information would appear simultaneously in the extreme foreground and extreme background of a shot. A good example is the dialogue scene between Walter Thatcher and Mr. and Mrs. Kane inside of a boarding house in which young Charlie can be observed playing in the snow through a window in the distance behind them.
Documentary Film – Citizen Kane bears the influence of the documentary/non-fiction mode of filmmaking, especially in its opening faux-newsreel sequence “News on the March” (a parody of the “March of Time” newsreels of the day). Welles’ masterful employment of specific aesthetic qualities associated with this mode of filmmaking (jump-cuts, heavily scratched footage, handheld camera shots, etc.) conveys a sense of realism while also greatly adding to the visual wit of the film.
In terms of narrative, Citizen Kane also had a more complex and intricate flashback structure than what had ever been seen in a Hollywood movie up to that point. The bulk of the narrative is taken up by five lengthy flashback sequences. The film begins with the death of its protagonist, Charles Foster Kane, and then skips back over his life in non-chronological order as Thompson listens to (and in one case reads) the reminiscences of those who were closest to him. These recollections serve as the catalysts for the flashbacks, which allow Welles to cleverly introduce the idea of the unreliable narrator. That is to say, none of the five flashbacks necessarily represent the way things “really happened”; instead, they represent the way each character remembers them happening. Notice, for instance, how much more likable Kane is in Mr. Bernstein’s recollection of him than in that of Mr. Leland. Another function of the flashbacks is to allow for abrupt shifts in tone. Throughout Citizen Kane, as we jump from one point-of-view to another, we also jump from one film genre to another. Among the many genres encompassed by Kane are: the biopic (the rise and fall of a great man who bears a strong resemblance to a real life figure), the newspaper reporter movie (a popular genre in the ’30s and ’40s in which a reporter attempts to uncover the truth in pursuit of a story), the mystery (who or what is Rosebud?), the backstage musical (Susan Alexander preparing for her opera debut is similar to the “hey, we’re putting on a show”-type of musicals popular in the ’30s) and even the romantic comedy (a meet-cute involving Kane, Susan and a mud-splattering, horse-drawn carriage).
However, as innovative as Kane remains in terms of both form and content, it also crucially remains a hell of a lot of fun to watch. If it were merely an academic exercise in, say, giving viewers a guided tour through the history of world cinema, it likely would not have achieved the enduring popularity it has enjoyed with both the critics and the public alike. The film’s innovations are all rooted in a sense of excitement and wonder concerning the capabilities of the medium (note the clever logic behind virtually every scene transition, whether visual or aural, in the entire movie). This is no doubt why Pauline Kael said that it may be “more fun than any great movie I can think of.”
Warner Brothers’ high-definition digital transfer of Citizen Kane greatly improves upon all previous home video releases. This includes a 50th anniversary VHS edition “supervised” by editor Robert Wise that appeared overly bright and had purists complaining about attempts to “normalize” the film’s radical style as well as a 60th anniversary DVD edition in which fine object detail was lost due to an overzealous “restoration.” The Blu-ray corrects both problems by presenting Kane the way it was meant to look: with blacks rich and inky in the high contrast sequences, with incredible clarity and detail visible in all shots (including a restoration of the rain falling outside of Bernestein’s window that had been notoriously scrubbed off of the previous DVD) and a nice sheen of film grain over everything. The soundtrack is wisely presented only as a lossless rendering of the original mono track. No attempts to create a new 5.1 surround track could improve upon Welles’ glorious, incredibly innovative original mono mix in which a creative use of sound effects, a superb Bernard Herrmann score (his first!), and the mellifluous voices of some of the greatest theatrical and screen actors of all time jockey for the viewer’s attention. It is simply impossible for me to imagine this greatest of American films ever looking or sounding better on a home theater system. If that sounds hyperbolic, well, sometimes only hyperbole will do.