A thousand releases down the line, Criterion gives us a special edition of the most creatively brilliant & innovative movie in history, as the label debuts selected 4K releases. It’s a four-disc set, with three Blu-rays that hold a huge quantity of well-chosen and well-produced extras. What can be said about Kane that hasn’t been debated decades ago? Our Declaration of Principles is to just try and tell the truth: we try a ‘civilian’ approach, sketching the film’s wonderments without assuming the reader is already a true believer in the Cinema God Orson Welles. Which Welles definitely is.
Citizen Kane 4K
4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray
The Criterion Collection 1104
1941 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / 119 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date November 23, 2021 / 47.96
Starring: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Comingore, Agnes Moorehead, Ruth Warrick, Ray Collins, Erskine Sanford, Everett Sloane, William Alland, Paul Stewart, George Coulouris, Fortunio Bonanova.
Cinematography: Gregg Toland
Art Director: Van Nest Polglase, Perry Ferguson
Film Editor: Robert Wise
Original Music: Bernard Herrmann
Written by Herman J. Mankiewicz, Orson Welles
Produced and Directed by Orson Welles
Warners put out a handsome Blu-ray of Citizen Kane 4K ten years ago, at which time they lined a number of fun extras, including an entire movie dramatizing the production of Orson Welles’ masterpiece. The added value commentaries, documentaries and prime-source film and video that appear as extras for this lavish edition will satisfy every fan and student of Kane, and I give them a close look below. I received positive feedback on my very basic 2011 review, which I happily repeat here, slightly rewritten.
Picture a man forever scrambling and hustling for completion funds. Orson Welles became the original Hollywood outsider, his legacy littered with half-completed and broken projects. Yet he defied the odds by bouncing back several times with superb movies. At the beginning of his career, starting at the top at RKO, Welles’ problem was indecision; some observers doubted that he would get a movie off the ground at all. He was dissuaded from making Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and dropped a thriller called Smilier with a Knife as well.
Welles’ monumental Citizen Kane instead tackles the enormous puzzle of American identity that Orson Welles seemed to personify: genius, ambition, folly. Emerging from a spoiled childhood to make his mark assaulting the status quo, Kane resembles the nation even more closely than he resembles Orson Welles, the boy genius that overwhelmed New York. With his brash manner, fresh ideas and willingness to risk everything Welles was convinced that his force of personality, sheer bluff and raw talent would pull him through.
The boy wonder’s vaunted reputation prompted an unthinkably generous contract offer from Hollywood. Welles took RKO at its word when he was handed the keys to the studio, with the promise to make something brilliant. Daring innovation had worked on Broadway and in the radio, and now the movies were his next horizon to conquer. Welles dodged the naysayers in Hollywood — who had been making talking pictures with one factory model for over ten years — by approaching his movie as art and assembling a dream team of technicians. Knowing the value of personal control, Welles imported cinematographer Gregg Toland and his entire camera crew to RKO. The key actors were his own from New York. The front office was something to be kept in the dark and fed misinformation.
Denied an official start date on what would become Citizen Kane, Welles filmed elaborate ‘tests’ that turned out to be usable scenes for the film. This of course sounds exactly like a brash stunt Charles Foster Kane might pull. Welles knew that winning over the front office was at best a hollow goal because only the final result would determine his future in Hollywood: “People will know who is responsible.” Meet young Orson, the most daring tightrope walker ever to perform at Gower and Melrose.
The first thing film students heard about Orson Welles is that he made the greatest film in history when he was 25 years old. For ambitious would-be filmmakers that benchmark is like a biological clock: I’m 22 and I haven’t got my first studio contract yet!” The shocking thing about Welles is that his masterpiece shows few of the usual signs of immaturity. Welles had lived largely among sophisticated adults since early childhood and could dominate most any adult discussion. Herman J. Mankiewicz has an equal or greater claim on the script for Kane, but as Welles reshaped the material to his liking it is his presence that we feel in every frame of film.
The famous Welles quote about the ‘biggest set of trains’ mischaracterizes the director’s creative approach. Welles and Toland took pains to make every sequence its own mini-movie of filmic innovation — reinvigorating every school of film theory established to date. Some Hollywood detractors surely reacted to things they didn’t understand, which they called meaningless film tricks. Take the screaming parrot added as a jarring scene punctuation. There are now as many analyses of that parrot as there are books on Citizen Kane. But the parrot isn’t an extraneous gag, it’s an effective expression that communicates the delirium of the sequence. Kane sees Susan’s exit through a dislocated set of doors, another psychological image. A forest of reflections expresses Kane’s ‘shattered’ mental state, the last time we see him.
Critics are just as apt to misinterpret the film’s technical claims. I’ve read and heard in commentaries the howler that Kane was the first Hollywood film that showed interior ceilings (!). We’re still not sure if any of Welles’ idea of performing to audio playback remains in the film; some sources say that radio-inspired experiment was scrapped in earlier Heart of Darkness tests and others say it lingered on. We read that Gregg Toland hated opticals, but Kane employs every trick that Linwood Dunn could manage on his optical printer. We see not only precise dissolve transitions (many with unusual, expressionist hold-out mattes) but entire scenes that are nearly undetectable matte paintings, with only part of the frame consisting of a live-action segment.
The visual style of Kane is Welles’ attempt to create a ‘super theatre’ dramatic experience. The movie isn’t expressionist in the orthodox sense yet every angle is stylized; he acknowledges that his visual ideal is John Ford. Welles loved deep focus shots, so Toland used wide-angle lenses and poured in light from arcs normally used for Technicolor work. Thus we get a film where every shot is composed in depth. If the drama aimed for a less dynamic pitch many of the angles and camera moves would come off as forced. But the heightened elements are in balance. Welles demands that each shot express the meaning of a scene, not simply record actors and motion. Kane’s so-called baroque style is really Welles’ ‘Declaration of Principles’: everything on the screen is both important and personal.
Welles’ corps of actors includes colleagues from his radio days in New York. Among them only Joseph Cotten has the looks of standard star material. Welles seems to have been a huge fan of old-age makeup, and several of the actors underwent complicated work to represent different ages. We note that Welles’ cast roundup at the finale shows the actors in old-age makeup where possible. Cotten and Welles wear glassy oversized contact lenses to make their aged eyes look rheumy, an effect that works extremely well. The most stunning age illusion is provided by Everett Sloane, whose Mr. Bernstein outlives everybody else even though he doesn’t look all that young when we first meet him. The actor was only 30 or 31 during filming. I marveled at Sloane’s undetectable bald cap makeup in his later scenes. Then I was told that he had simply shaved his head. A good magician can make us imagine more movie magic than is really there.
Citizen Kane’s multiple flashback structure can be confusing for first-time viewers. I always become a little disoriented when Kane loses The Enquirer in the ’29 stock market crash — why didn’t he retain his beloved newspaper by selling his ocean liners or something? Even viewers accustomed to stories told out of sequence can lose their way when the narrator relating the flashback recounts events that seemingly took place when he was absent, Joseph Cotten’s character especially. But what storyteller restricts himself to events he personally saw? Kane uttered his final word ‘Rosebud’ when the appeared to be alone, without a witness to hear him seay it. But Paul Stewart’s Raymond relates the event in the first person: he was at Kane’s side when he died. We are also surprised at how many writers claimed that we never see the face of Mr. Thompson (William Alland), the reporter chasing down the secret of Rosebud. Alland doesn’t get a high-key close-up but we see his facial features clearly in many shots.
What is consistent throughout the film is the focus on Kane’s psychology, the mindset of a ‘great American’ who finds wealth and power and thinks he can stake a claim on the public’s love as well. Kane drives away his loved ones by demanding their love on his terms. Woefully blind and naïve in his personal dealings, the cocky entrepreneur betrays his first wife and turns on his best friend. He drives his second wife to the brink of insanity with his grandiose, unrealistic demands. Kane appreciates art by acquiring it and withholding it from the rest of the world; his awful selfishness in all things is matched by an infantile innocence. Orson Welles was also deprived of his parents at an early age. He paints Kane as a man given the world but unequipped to understand his own feelings.
It’s too easy — auteurish-easy — to say that Orson Welles’ later films merely revisit the themes of Citizen Kane. This first movie is so packed with ideas that parallels would pop out if Welles had become a director of Republic serials. But one persistent Kane idea is that an individual’s life is not a puzzle that can be solved with a few observations and clever conclusions, the kind proffered by magazine biographers on a deadline. Whenever Welles plays a character of power or authority, the same question of ‘knowability’ arises. Who was this man, really? How can we assume we know anything about another person, based on what we hear or read second-hand?
The leading character of Welles’ quirky suspense thriller Mr. Arkadin is a man of mystery that Interpol cannot pin down. Arkadin thinks he can erase his criminal past by methodically eliminating his former cronies. When this scheme to rewrite his own biography backfires, Arkadin is forced to erase himself. The gross, corrupt cop Hank Quinlan of Touch of Evil seems capable of unlimited villainy, yet his long-time associates insist that he was the most important person in their lives. “He was some kind of a man… What does it matter what you say about people?”… Marlene Dietrich tosses off that line in much the same way that Kane’s Raymond shrugs off Mr. Thompson’s probing questions about Rosebud. Speeding through what was until 1941 a charmed life, Welles already seems aware that he is as incapable as anyone of figuring himself out.
The Criterion Collection’s 4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray of Citizen Kane 4K is a big disc production, indeed. One of the Criterion label’s earliest achievements was a laserdisc (from 1990) with many extras, including a number of interviews that have been retained for this presentation.
The new 4K digital restoration (with Dolby Vision HDR) is quite an item, bright and sharp, with a very clear and emphatic soundtrack. Bernard Herrmann’s music score still charms. It generates a real ‘memory chill’ at the outset of the flashback to Charles’s childhood in the snow.
The 4K disc with its commentaries is accompanied by three Blu-ray discs, that carry a standard Blu-ray feature and most of the extras. I’m not at all a fan of the set’s deluxe packaging. It cleverly folds out in all directions. Getting the discs out of their stiff envelope slots isn’t easy, and I found myself getting fingerprints on the disc surfaces. I also thought I was going to tear something, damaging the packaging.
Orson Welles fans that have memorized every inch of Kane are still going to be intrigued by these extras. They’re genuinely curated, with a slant toward prime source items. Instead of being used only as an editing source, the minute or so of 1941 newsreel footage of Kane’s New York premiere is also presented separately, intact. I sampled all the extras and watched most, including the seldom-seen BBC documentary from 1991, here presented intact. We like the opening’s fabrication of a false ‘Heart of Darkness’ movie. I know Welles associate and actor William Alland mostly as a Universal producer in the 1950s. He narrates some passages, impressing us with his polished speaking voice. Vilmos Zsigmond contributes to the older group of interviews. He first saw Kane in a theater in a Belgrade film school jammed with students eager to see the normally forbidden Hollywood feature.
Criterion’s interviews are often visual essays, illustrated mini-lectures. I was most impressed with Farran Smith Nehme’s piece that pegs William Randolph Hearst as an unprincipled, unethical publisher and empire-builder. Nehme details Hearst’s reaction to Kane in a way that convinces me that Orson Welles seriously miscalculated. He thought Hearst was a toothless lion that he could take down, perhaps as part of a strategy to enter the world of politics. Hearst had ignored decades of ordinary denunciations and lampoons, but Welles stupidly went after Marion Davies’ reputation as well. The depiction of Susan Alexander Kane as a pathetic alcoholic was the insult that prompted Hearst to retaliate in force.
The accumulated interviews and interview excerpts soften our image of Welles. He proves a winning guest in the casual TV arena. Especially entertaining are his appearances on Merv Griffin’s show, where he seems to honestly appreciate the attention.
Also fun is seeing Joseph Cotten interviewed at two different times, explaining how Orson Welles launched his film career after being passed over by Hollywood scouts for years. Some of the interviewees refer to Welles as a genius that they’re grateful to have worked with, but Cotten and a few others seem to have understood the man in more depth.
Criterion regulars Craig Barron and Ben Burtt preside over a nice show & tell piece on the film’s elaborate visuals and experimental audio track. Their basic explanations of methods and ‘tricks’ are very good, and for once Mr. Burtt discusses an audio track that even he likely had to study closely. The 4K image makes it easier to ‘read’ the image for shots that don’t immediately stand out as optical effects. In a deep-focus shot of Kane rushing forward to check on an unconscious Susan, some glassware has been matted and double-exposed into the foreground. The giveaway is that the extreme foreground and the extreme background are in sharp focus, but the middle distance with Susan is not — something that doesn’t happen with human vision.
Welles’ teenage movie The Hearts of Age is here. It’s a precocious mess that definitely shows Welles was preoccupied with makeup effects. Also present are some inviting Mercury Theater radio shows: Heart of Darkness, Dracula.
Not listed on the standard contents docket is a Criterion Channel piece called On the Nose by David Cairns and Randall William Cook, which contains some very thoughtful observations about Welles’ approach to screen acting. It begins with a survey of the seemingly endless parade of false noses that Orson Welles wore in movies. The first thing we see is the actual mold on which the noses were sculpted. It reminds us of the gag in Woody Allen’s Sleeper about an attempt to re-clone a dictator from his surviving nose. You know, Welles is gone for good — but never fear because we have this sacred nose to remember him by.
The only key subject that we miss is some discussion or study of composer Bernard Herrman, whose music score is one of the best ever, and equally as experimental as the film’s direction. Perhaps that subject was just too big?
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Citizen Kane 4K
4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray rates:
Three audio commentaries: James Naremore and Jonathan Rosenbaum (2021); Peter Bogdanovich (2002); Roger Ebert (2002).
Feature length BBC documentary The Complete Citizen Kane (1991);
New interviews with critic Farran Smith Nehme and film scholar Racquel J. Gates;
New video essay by Robert Carringer;
New program on the film’s visual effects by Craig Barron and Ben Burtt;
Interviews from 1990 with editor Robert Wise; actor Ruth Warrick; optical-effects designer Linwood Dunn; Bogdanovich; Martin Scorsese, Henry Jaglom, Martin Ritt, and Frank Marshall; and cinematographers Allen Daviau, Gary Graver, and Vilmos Zsigmond;
New documentary featuring archival interviews with Welles;
Interviews with actor Joseph Cotten from 1966 and 1975;
The Hearts of Age, a brief silent film made by Welles as a student in 1934;
Television programs from 1979 and 1988 featuring appearances by Welles and Mercury Theatre producer John Houseman;
Program featuring a 1996 interview with actor William Alland on his collaborations with Welles;
Selection of The Mercury Theatre on the Air radio plays featuring many of the actors from Citizen Kane;
Insert bookly with an essay by Bilge Ebiri.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One 4K Ultra HD disc and three Blu-ray discs in folding card packaging.
Reviewed: November 28, 2021
Text © Copyright 2021 Glenn Erickson