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From the DVD Shelf: Citizen Kane (1941)

The 70th Anniversary blu-ray set of Citizen Kane topped my Best DVDs of 2011 list, even though back in January I was still in the process of making my way through the expansive three-disc set.  Over the last few months I’ve had a great time watching the film, listening to all the commentary tracks, and making my way through all the special features (including the 1995 Oscar-nominated feature-length documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane and HBO’s 1999 film about Kane’s troubled production, RKO 281). Citizen Kane is considered by many to be the best movie ever made, and while it’s not my personal favorite film of all time, it’s a film that I really, really love.  More than seventy years after it was made, Citizen Kane remains a magnificent film, and the blu-ray set is phenomenal.

I feel a bit under-qualified to write about Citizen Kane. The film has been the subject of so much scrutiny and attention over the past seventy years, and film scholars far more knowledgeable than I have written voluminous tomes about the movie.  The two commentary tracks on the blu-ray set, by Roger Ebert and Peter Bogdanovich, are both two-hour-long scholarly dissections of Kane above anything I could hope to write.

I first saw Citizen Kane in a film architecture class I took while at college.  The course was a history of set-design in film, but it was also a history of the movies themselves.  Each week the professor screened several films on the big-screen (using a projector in one of the lecture halls).  I encountered quite a few major films for the first time through that class (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Battleship Potemkin, and many more), and Citizen Kane was among them.  I was smitten with Kane immediately.  I’m sure it helped that my first viewing was on such a large screen, where I could really soak in Orson Welles’ and Gregg Toland’s marvelously innovative cinematography.  I have seen the film many times since then, and I never fail to be impressed and engrossed.  This new blu-ray edition is absolutely gorgeous.  The film is dazzlingly pristine, yet not scrubbed so clean that it loses its character.  (Don’t judge the image quality by the opening few minutes — that newsreel footage is SUPPOSED to look crummy!)

I’m a sci-fi nut and I love big visual effects films, so it’s no surprise that one of my favorite aspects of Citizen Kane is the extraordinary depth and variety of visual effects trickery used by Mr. Welles to create the look of the film.  Citizen Kane is a visual effects movie, make no mistake!  In just the opening shot alone (the slow series of dissolves that take us through Xanadu, Kane’s enormous castle and estate, and up towards the one lonely lit window) Mr. Welles used in-camera trickery and optical dissolves to blend models, matte paintings, and live-action shots into a seamless sequence.  Scene after scene in the film features the blending of multiple images, done with such skill that you’d never know you were looking at a visual effect if you didn’t study the image carefully.  Take the scene in which Kane (Orson Welles) writes a bad review of Susan Anthony’s performance, while his estranged friend Jedediah (Joseph Cotten) looks on from the background.  This is an example of the “deep focus” technique pioneered by Mr. Welles and Cinematographer Gregg Toland, in that both Kane (on the left side of the screen, in the extreme foreground) and Jedediah (on the right side of screen, way in the background) are both in perfect focus.  This was achieved by an in-camera trick, in which Welles was filmed first while the right side of the screen was completely dark.  Then the film was re-run through the camera, and Jedediah’s side of the scene was filmed.  The two separately-filmed images are combined so perfectly that the effect remains seamless, even so many decades later.

Still don’t believe me that Citizen Kane is a visual effects film?  Then consider the marvel of the movie’s make-up effects!  Orson Welles is aged, as Kane, from a virile young man in his twenties through middle age and all the way into old age.  There are several different make-up effects used to capture Kane at these different stages of his life, and I always find myself staggered by how convincing the make-up effects are.  Kane in his fifties looks like a real fifty-year-old man to me.  It’s stunning that the character is played by the same actor (Orson Welles himself) who played Kane in his twenties.  Many of the other main characters — Jedediah (Joseph Cotten), Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane), and Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore) — go through a similar aging process, created by make-up.  The actors are of course as critical as the make-up effects in selling these transitions in age, and here is just one example of what a powerful actor Orson Welles was.  The middle-aged Kane doesn’t just look different from his younger self, he MOVES differently.  Mr. Welles carries himself in a completely different manner when playing the older Kane.  Watch the way he walks.  It’s an extraordinarily impressive achievement.

There are so many ways in which Citizen Kane was staggeringly innovative!  Consider the film’s fractured narrative structure.  We start at the end of Charles Foster Kane’s life, and through a series of flashbacks gradually learn the details of the man’s life.  But the flashbacks aren’t in chronological order.  We jump backwards and forwards in time as the film progresses.  As different characters share their recollections of Kane, we follow them into and out of flashbacks.  It’s so easy to imagine how this could be extraordinarily confusing, but the film’s careful structure keeps everything balanced and the audience clearly placed in time and space so we have no question about where or when the scenes we’re watching take place.  This film was made in 1941!  And it’s structure is every bit as clever as a film you might see released today.

Then of course there is the imagery within each scene.  Mr. Welles never chose the ordinary or predictable way to stage a scene or to place the camera.  Watch any five-minute scene from Citizen Kane and I guarantee you that you’ll see some extraordinarily beautiful and clever mise-en-scène.  I adore the shot at the very beginning of the film, right after Kane utters his dying word and the snow-globe crashes to the ground.  We see a nurse run in, but the shot is focused on the smashed open snow-glove — we only see the door open and the nurse run in through the glass of the globe.  Marvelous!

But all of this stunning visual invention, about which I’ve been going on about, would be worthless were not the story so engaging.  Citizen Kane is a great American tragedy, and even upon repeated viewings I find the story of the rise and fall of Charles Foster Kane to be deeply moving.  Despite his basically good intentions and terrific wealth, Kane finds himself continually stymied throughout his life.  But his main obstacle is not external, but internal.  Time and again he proves his own undoing.

Kane, in the end, remains an enigmatic figure.  Despite all the time spent (basically the film’s entire run-time!) examining his life, he persists as an enigma to the audience.  When you consider the film’s structure, this is no surprise.  None of his friends or acquaintances really knew Charles Foster Kane.  Because the film is basically told from their point of view, since they didn’t really know him, neither do we.  Here lies the core, for me, of the film’s powerful re-watchability.  Every time I see the film, I feel like if I only pay close attention, this time I’ll really get to understand Kane.  But, of course, that’s impossible.  ”Rosebud” is suggested as being the key to understanding Kane’s true self, and the revelation at the end of the film does indeed shed some light on Charles Foster Kane’s character.  But as Jerry Thompson (William Alland), the faceless reporter charged with hunting down the meaning of Kane’s last word, says at the end of the film: “It wouldn’t have explained anything… I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life.”

Though much was made at the time (and in the years since) of how the character of Charles Foster Kane was based on publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, the tragedy of Citizen Kane is that, in many ways, it’s also proven to be about Orson Welles himself.  In The Battle Over Citizen Kane documentary, Kane’s editor Robert Wise (who would go on to become a renowned director of his own — he even directed Star Trek: The Motion Picture!) remarked: “Well, I thought often afterwards, only in recent years when I saw the film again two or three years ago when they had the fiftieth anniversary, and I suddenly thought to myself, well, Orson was doing an autobiographical film and didn’t realize it, because it’s rather much the same, you know. You start here, and you have a big rise and tremendous prominence and fame and success and whatnot, and then tail off and tail off and tail off. And at least the arc of the two lives were very much the same.”

Following the controversy and turmoil that surrounded Citizen Kane’s release (because of Hearst’s voracious efforts to block the film’s release, it was little-seen in 1941, and in fact it wasn’t until the film’s re-release in 1956 that it began to garner the wide-spread acclaim that it has today), Orson Welles never again had complete editorial control of another movie.  The remainder of his career is replete with unmade or unfinished projects, or films that were taken away from him.  His follow-up film, The Magnificent Ambersons, was famously cut by about an hour in run-time by the studio, and tragically no copies of Welles’ original cut survive.  His 1958 film, Touch of Evil, was similarly butchered by the studio (though an amazing 1998 effort spearheaded by Walter Murch restored the film, as much as possible, to Wellles’ original intentions, using a famous 58 page memo that Mr. Welles had written to the studio which detailed his unhappiness with their cut).  (Click here for my review of the restored version of Touch of Evil.)  Watching Kane today, it’s hard not to get wistful in watching what Orson Welles was able to create when allowed to operate under his own devices, and wondering what other great films we were robbed of because he never got this same chance again.

Before I bring this already-lengthy piece to a close, let’s turn to some people smarter than I am for their thoughts on Citizen Kane:

In the New York Times’ original review of Citizen Kane from 1941, they wrote that Kane “is far and away the most surprising and cinematically exciting motion picture to be seen here in many a moon. As a matter of fact, it comes close to being the most sensational film ever made in Hollywood.”

In a 1998 article about Citizen Kane, Roger Ebert wrote: “It is one of the miracles of cinema that in 1941 a first-time director; a cynical, hard-drinking writer; an innovative cinematographer, and a group of New York stage and radio actors were given the keys to a studio and total control, and made a masterpiece.”  A decade later, in a wonderful piece from 2008, Mr. Ebert commented that while asking a film critic to name the BEST film of all time is a difficult if not impossible proposition, “Citizen Kane is arguably the most important film… it consolidated the film language up until 1941 and broke new ground in such areas as deep focus, complex sound, and narrative structure.”

Just last week I read an interesting summary of a lengthy interview with Martin Scorsese, that boiled down the conversation into what they called “Martin Scorsese’s Film School: The 85 Films You Need to See to Know Anything About Film.” No surprise, Citizen Kane was on the list.  Here’s what Mr. Scorsese had to say: “Citizen Kane is the greatest risk-taking of all time in film. I don’t think anything had even seen anything quite like it. The photography was also unlike anything we’d seen. The odd coldness of the filmmaker towards the character reflects his own egomania and power, and yet a powerful empathy for all of them—it’s very interesting. It still holds up, and it’s still shocking. It takes storytelling and throws it up in the air.”  Here’s an older clip of Martin Scorsese talking about what he learned from watching Citizen Kane:

In his recent review of the Citizen Kane blu-ray set, The Digital Bits Bernie Maxwell wrote: “This is a film that can be savoured on multiple levels. Is it acting that’s your primary interest? Then sit back and enjoy a whole raft of actors making their impressive film debuts: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead, Ruth Warwick, George Coulouris, Everett Sloane, Ray Collins, Paul Stewart. Maybe you appreciate the work of a top-flight cinematographer? Then let Gregg Toland give you a course on the sort of deep focus work previously only hinted at in films. Perhaps you enjoy watching how the director frames the various scenes and positions the actors to get certain desired effects? Then Orson Welles will give you endless examples to analyze and argue about. Does skillful editing do it for you? Then Robert Wise and Orson Welles virtually provide a textbook on when and how to go about it. Or maybe an intriguingly structured script full of good turns of phrase excites you? Then Herman Mankiewicz and Orson Welles have the answer for you.”  Mr. Maxwell then summed up: “I’ve already mentioned the acting and the direction and the camerawork and the editing and the script and so on. All had innovative elements. The real brilliance was that so much innovation should appear in one film and that all components should work so well both individually and collectively. No matter how many repeated viewings, you never manage to exhaust all the film’s pleasures.”

Agreed!