Citizen Kane Review
No Trespassing. The sign is the first introduction to the dark, looming, vast estate of Xanadu, empire palace of an exceedingly wealthy man. The gluttonous parade of soulless yet junk-filled space is clearly evident as we cut in towards one of Xanadu's windows; the room in which a light is shining. As we reach the window, the light vanishes, and we dissolve into a snowy blizzard. We hear the immortal "Rosebud" mentioned; voiced by a hulking menace of a man on his last breath. The man drops dead, and the snow-scene paperweight he was holding drops to the floor and smashes. A nurse enters, and lays him to rest after covering him up.
NEWS ON THE MARCH. Almost instantly, we are treated to a short news feature mentioning the death of Xanadu's landlord Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles). We learn briefly of Kane's rags-to-riches story, such as his foray into being a newspaper editor and politician, and yet we are given a rather superficial insight into the grand achievements of Kane throughout his life. However, this feature keeps the audience at arms length, and refuses to allow Kane's soul to be penetrated. At least the newsreel editor thinks so anyway, and so assigns Thompson (William Alland), a young, intelligent reporter to find out the true personality of Charles Foster Kane. Thompson's task is to find out what the phrase "Rosebud" means, why it was Kane's last words and why it is significant. It's possible that it isn't important at all, but Thompson aims to find out.
Thompson embarks on a thankless, investigative journey to the gates of Kane's locked-away core. He visits many of Kane's friends and colleagues. Walter Parks Thatcher (George Coulouris), the hated benefactor of Kane's estate, has long since died, and so Thompson is treated to an "exclusive" read of Thatcher's memoirs. Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane), Kane's trusted aide, is visited next, followed by Kane's best friend Jed Leland (Joseph Cotton who also starred with Welles in The Third Man) who both have different sentiments and different sides of stories to tell about him. However, it is only when Thompson visits Kane's ex-wife Susan Alexander Kane (Dorothy Comingore) do we fully witness some of Kane's past scars. As the film progresses from beginning to end, we slowly follow Thompson on his quest to piece together the myriad of jigsaw pieces to Kane's forever guarded past.
Orson Welles, a child-genius off the back of a fantastic radio and theatre career, was given the keys to the kingdom by RKO Pictures when he was only in his mid-twenties, and chose to launch a scathing attack on newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst for his first ever film. Scripted with Herman J. Mankiewicz (which has caused debates for years concerning "who wrote what" and so on) and featuring many of Welles' own Mercury Theatre acting troupe, the film is now the spark of envy and admiration amongst all young writer/directors in Hollywood. Welles' godlike ego was the right ingredient to ensure that Citizen Kane managed to pull off every cinematic trick in the book, even if the ferocious battle with Hearst nearly broke him mentally and physically. Fortunately, a recent documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane which was Oscar nominated, is included on this Region 1 DVD release, and concentrates mainly on this intriguing war over the film's controversial content.
Citizen Kane. The title alone conjures up different emotions to different people. To some, it is regarded as the greatest film of all time; a film that can never be bettered technically, structurally or emotionally. To others, the film represents an overrated and archaic example of filmmaking since surpassed. These critics of the film cite the fact that Citizen Kane wasn't even well regarded at the time of its release in 1941 (winning only a sole Oscar for its script), and its charm has since diminished.
To film scholars seeking quality outside of entertaining plots, Citizen Kane is without doubt a masterpiece of technique and structure, and is arguably the most impressive and ambitious debut feature to ever grace cinema screens. But why? This review doesn't aim to be either a fan letter nor a technical manual accompanying the feature, in which viewers can pick out the 'classic' parts, but rather a launching discussion point that will hopefully encourage anyone who hasn't to seek out Citizen Kane. The film is so legendary that hundreds of good books have been written on the subject, from such noted critics as Pauline Kael, so you'd be advised to devote some research to the cause of answering why the film is a masterpiece if you are in doubt.
In terms of technique, Citizen Kane wasn't even landmark in its cinematic devices (as documented here) but was revolutionary in its ruthless policy of embracing these off-the-wall techniques and rendering all other filmic approaches irrelevant. Greg Toland's stunning deep-focus cinematography (A technique that allows all visual planes to stay in sharp focus; therefore objects from close foreground to distant background are as equally and sharply rendered as each other) is a highlight. The use of Toland's cinematography heavily reinforces the narrative discourse in many of the film's sequences. In the sequence depicting Kane signing away power back to Thatcher, Kane walks towards a window that appears to be quite close to him, but is in fact metres away. The window therefore dwarfs him, which symbolises Kane's loss of power as his status is shrinking. It is important to note however, that as this event is being told from Thatcher's point of view, then it is from Thatcher's point of view that Kane is appearing to lose his status and power. Therefore, the cinematography is not only supporting the narrative but also the overall 'chequered flashback' style of storytelling. Also, Welles and Toland so strongly devoted the camera to showing actual ceilings that films ever since have rushed to keep up with such fantastic production design and photography. You see, in the early days of film, ceilings were rarely shown, due to the fact that films were in fact being shot in studios in fake sets.
Every element shines in the film however, from Robert Wise's (later an Oscar winning director of The Sound Of Music and Star Trek: The Motion Picture) masterful editing, utilising a wide array of wipes, dissolves and cutting that helps force home the narrative fluidity of the chronology-jumping order of the film, through to Bernard Herrmann's haunting and intense music score. The production design by Van Nest Polglase and Darrell Silvera is so richly characteristic of the personas of the film's main protagonists that you can't imagine any other world suitable enough to house them. The acting itself is of such a high note that it's hard to find a better performance from Welles, Cotten, Sloane, Coulouris or Comingore. There's such marvellous on-screen chemistry that the characters linger in the mind days after viewing the film.
Structurally, Citizen Kane is a film that says everything and yet nothing. It's completely filled with plot devices and exterior events, and yet we the audience almost adopt the identity of the investigator Thompson, in that we also struggle to actually learn anything worth knowing about Kane. Citizen Kane is haunted by the theme of lost innocence, and not just with regards to Kane himself. The majority of primary characters in the film all cling to their search for the innocence they once had, in order for their life to have some purpose. Mr. Bernstein is a good example of a man clinging to an event that occurred during his 'innocent' phase. His speech to Thompson about the girl he saw on the ferry crossing and how he'll bet a month hasn't gone by since he hasn't thought of that girl helps to explain his fond recollections of both his past and Kane's. Jed Leland, in his refusal to accept old age, acts like an immature child when Thompson visits him, which is clearly for the purposes of fooling himself into feeling young again. Jed also sees Kane as a father figure, as his own father shot himself when he was very young, and his accounts of Kane is almost reminiscent of a boy angry at the rejection of a newly found father figure. Even Susan carries on as a singer after Kane's death, even though she pleads with Kane to stop forcing her to sing when he was alive. It's as if each of the major characters looks to shape the present into a once more-desirable past.
Although the majority of characters are attempting pursuits of the redemption of lost innocence in one form or another, Citizen Kane is primarily concerned with Charles Foster Kane, and in a subtler way Susan. The issue of lost innocence works simultaneously in two ways. Despite the fact that Kane fascinates us and garners our pity, he just as equally appalls us. We pity him over his stolen innocence and youth, and yet we despise him for exposing Susan to a similar fate. Jed mentions how Kane when "searching for his lost youth" accidentally meets Susan Alexander. It is noticeable that rather than carry on searching for his youth (and visit the warehouse with his mother's belongings which was his original aim), Kane chooses to stay with Susan, almost as if he sees Susan as the answer to his past quest. This is probably the most pivotal point in the film, as it is the moment where Kane sparks a gradual ruination of Susan's life that parallels Thatcher's ruination of Kane's (or at least ruination according to Kane).
Many people believe "Rosebud" to signify Kane's lost innocence. There is however an equal argument that Rosebud represents to Kane the mistakes that were made with his life and how they were repeated with Susan. Thatcher plucked Kane from his life of normality to try and raise a man who could earn a considerable fortune, thus ruining Kane's life and causing him to cling to an innocence whereby he felt that he was loved. Even though Kane resents and rebels against Thatcher for this, he still plucks Susan from her life of normality and forces her to be an Opera singer, thus ruining her life too.
However, there are other considerations that need to be taken into account. Firstly, we need to be aware of the fact that we are only given other people's versions of Charles Foster Kane, and each opinion appears to have been clouded by the person's own principles - Thatcher judges Kane by the amount of money he wastes; Bernstein judges Kane by the decisions he makes; Jed judges Kane by his (dis)honesty and Susan judges Kane by how much love he gives (or fails to give). In essence, this is what is so spellbinding about Citizen Kane - it's always empty and yet always full.
Apologies if this review has glossed over most aspects, as the film is so abundantly crammed with such immensely satisfying craftsmanship that words are limitless when used to describe the finer details. No review is ever going to be enough however, since it will, like the film itself, talk at length and yet not actually say anything. Just see Citizen Kane for yourself, and visit the true pleasures of cinema.
Academy Awards 1941
Best Original Screenplay - Herman J. Mankiewicz, Orson Welles
Academy Award Nominations 1941
Best Actor - Orson Welles
Best Director - Orson Welles
Best Film Editing - Robert Wise
Best Black And White Cinematography - Greg Toland
Best Black And White Art Direction - Perry Ferguson, A. Roland Fields, Van Nest Polglase, Darrell Silvera
Best Original Score - Bernard Herrmann
Best Sound - John Aalberg
Those who have seen grainy VHS copies or very old TV prints of Citizen Kane will delight at the truly amazing job Warner Brothers have done with the visual transfer. Presented in its original 4:3 ratio, the transfer feels like it has been created entirely using digital CGI effects - black and white colour tones are fresh, and dazzle when viewed, and the relative lack of speckles, shimmers or unnecessary grain ensures the film has clearly been given a whole new lease of life. Unfortunately, it is rumoured that Warner's mastering has removed some traces of tiny images on the print (i.e. water droplets and snow flakes are much harder to spot, and appear to have been completely removed in some accidental instances) but you'd be hard pressed to ever notice this. You might notice the occasional edge enhancement as well, and this prevents the film from earning top marks, even if Warner deserve a ten-out-of-ten for effort.
Warner have completely restored the original's mono soundtrack, and never before has Bernard Herrmann's original score sounded so menacing, or Welles' dialogue delivery so crisp and clear. Rather than remix or 'stereo-ise' the sound track, Warner have thankfully not aimed to 'fix something that wasn't broken', and the sound for Citizen Kane is thankfully the best presentation it has ever received.
Menu: A stylish and animated menu system that gives the film a grand appearance without pandering to overt visual trickery or an annoying interface.
Packaging: The two discs are presented in a cardboard fold out stylish and minimalist packaging that is itself housed in a cardboard slide-on dust-cover. Thankfully, Warner decided this was not to be a Snapper release, although the lack of an amaray is annoying and noticeable, as this cardboard design appears susceptible to damage over the long term.
The Battle Over Citizen Kane - Documentary: A tremendous bonus as an extra, the recent Oscar-nominated documentary chronicling the battle between William Randolph Hearst and Orson Welles over the subject matter of Citizen Kane. The documentary lasts for nearly two hours, and is fascinating to newcomers of the Kane legacy, even if it only skims the surface for many who have researched the film in more detail. Also, the documentary embodies the essence of conventional documentary filmmaking, and may appear slightly anachronistic in its far-from-edgy style. Even so, it's a good, worthy extra, despite containing a few dubious straight-from-television adverts at the beginning that mar proceedings to a certain extent. Presented in 4:3.
Audio Commentary By Film Critic Roger Ebert: A contender for the title of greatest audio commentary ever produced, highly celebrated film critic Roger Ebert delivers an amazing and insightful commentary that is tremendously entertaining to listen to and powerfully informative. You'd be forgiven for thinking Ebert had a part in making the film, as he is a seemingly limitless well of information. He talks with great fluidity, and renders potentially tricky subjects to the non-scholar such as cinematography and narrative discourse both accessible and utterly fascinating. Ebert is clearly a huge fan of the film, but justifies his views to such a great extent you can't help but be swayed by him.
Audio Commentary By Welles Biographer/film director Peter Bogdanovich: A dry, slower commentary compared to Ebert, but the legendary director and biographer Bogdanovich is arguably a more reputable source, and offers just as many pieces of interesting information and startling Welles anecdotes as Ebert does. In comparison to Ebert's 'fan' approach to Citizen Kane, Bogdanovich offers an insight on the film from the mind of a director, and the two commentaries are fabulous companion pieces to each other that complement the film exceptionally well.
1941 Movie Premiere Newsreel: A brief one minute newsreel clip of footage from the world premiere of the film.
Theatrical Trailer: A good three minute 1941 trailer for the film, featuring Orson Welles off-camera introducing the Mercury Theatre group of actors for the film. The trailer is interesting as it is completely lacking in hindsight, and has no idea of the 'masterpiece' status the film will later receive.
The Production: This features Storyboards, actors' Call Sheets and a Stills Gallery. They are all presented on hyper quick footage rolls and necessitate the pause option should you wish to view them in more detail.
Post-Production: This features as much of the infamous brothel Deleted Scene as could be uncovered, with storyboards, photos and script chunks. The Ad Campaign is a roll of poster artwork, with the Press Book featuring quick excerpts of the premiere's night's press book. Opening Night features a few photos taken during the film's premiere night and some letters between the studios in preparation.
Production Notes: This on-screen text information is split up into four sections: In The Beginning, On The Set, Postscripts and a section devoted to listing the Awards the film received.
Cast & Crew: A brief text page of the main cast and crew members that contributed to the film.
Easter Egg: On the Special Features menu of Disc One, click on the Sled and you will be taken to a five minute interview with Ruth Warren (Emily Kane in the film), recorded in 1997 for the Turner Archival Project.
Welles Filmography: Disc two features a simple on-screen text filmography of Orson Welles.
The most popular choice for greatest film ever made is given a superb two-disc release that features at least three tremendous extra features and superb picture and audio quality. Burn the R2 Universal/Polygram release now, and treat yourself to one of the finest DVD releases to grace the world.
Last updated: 19/04/2018 18:00:01