Review: Criterion's CITIZEN KANE, The Citizen Kane of Criterions
Orson Welles' celebrated masterpiece stars Joseph Cotton.
And, that’s a wrap. Not only on the quite full life of Charles Foster Kane -- billionaire, publisher, politician, recluse -- but also on many a Criterion Collection “holy grail” list. After all, if Criterion is “the Citizen Kane of physical media”, then it’s only proper that Citizen Kane is given the Criterion treatment. And, is it ever.
Who was Orson Welles?
So many -- too many -- journalists, historians, and/or documentarians have taken on that question. The answers have been varied if also generally consistent: Filmmaking master. Iconoclast. Cultural force. Erudite. Charlatan. Hustler. Glutton. Ladies’ man. Megalomaniac. Tragic underdog. Fighting liberal. "One man band."
Indeed, all of those bases were at least touched upon throughout his long career as an independent filmmaker. That he was a point of cultural fascination was his saving grace, as he was able to parlay his own sense of showmanship and celebrity into a source of funding for his many self-financed projects. (Many of which never saw completion).
But before that, there was Citizen Kane. His first and most famous effort was the result of his having grabbed one big brass ring of a studio contract. Welles entered the filmmaking fold on absolute top. His subsequent decent proved to be lifelong. He never stopped striving, pushing, or working to continue to be the empowered auteur that he was briefly, at age twenty-five, emboldened to be. Truly, without Kane in the mix, everything about Welles would be different. His reputation, his stature, his rise and fall… all of it. In that, much of moviemaking as we know it would also be impacted. What kind of man is capable of such massive ripples?
Throughout this review, in consideration of the new Criterion Collection’s release of Citizen Kane, we will investigate different aspects of the film, and crucially, it’s maker.
Many years ago, when DVDs were all the rage, a film school friend of mine stated that he wants a Criterion edition of Citizen Kane. “Who wouldn’t?,” I replied to his pie-in-the-sky impossible dream. “But it’ll never happen. Studios don’t license titles like that to boutique labels. It’s just not done.” “But that’s the version I want. I’m going to get the Criterion Citizen Kane,” he said, clearly not understanding the vital legality of these matters which I was getting at. “You’ll be waiting a loooong time,” I told him.
As of late 2021, a mere 22 years since that exchange occurred, his wait is finally over. Now though, he needn’t settle for a mere DVD. With Criterion’s long-lusted-for version of Orson Welles' masterpiece, the one film to ever top the esteemed BFI Sight and Sound “100 Greatest Films of All Time” list multiple times, the illustrious label has seen fit to not only release Kane as a prestigiously packed three-disc Blu-ray edition, but also as an even more prestigious four-disc addition to the company’s new, long-in-coming line of 4K disc editions.
Although this review only covers the Blu-ray edition, it’s important that film buffs who have been waiting so very long for this release understand their options. The 4K version contains everything in the Blu-ray package, but also a fourth disc containing a far-superior 4K transfer of the film. For fans equipped for it, the slight extra expense for the 4K edition is absolutely the way to go. That said, Blu-ray, when done right, is still pretty darn good.
Another point of view ... It’s imperfect. Criterion’s Citizen Kane is imperfect. At least, when it came out in November of 2021, it was. How could this happen?? A mastering error tainting the long, long awaited and wished-for physical media holy grail… so disappointing.
Send it back, send it back!
Such was Criterion’s immediate instruction in its admission of the noticeable mistake with the Blu-ray pressing. The company, however, has already made right on this.
We’ll come back to discuss this further. For now, let’s move on…
Kane, like its namesake, wasn’t always a child of privilege. Unlike said namesake, however, the order of ascension is different. Famously, Welles, still in his early twenties and already a tremendous force in the world of theatre and on the grounds of his notorious 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast, was given complete creative filmmaking freedom at RKO Radio Pictures. The contract was unprecedented, particularly for a first timer. Jealousy of him festered throughout the industry.
Not one to squander such an opportunity, Welles developed a bold, non-linear, fictionalized narrative mystery that was clearly a takedown of powerful newspaper magnate, William Randolph Hearst. (A bear you dare not poke). The film, of course, is Citizen Kane, a cinephile’s fever dream of impossible black and white deep focus visuals (or, as film historian and contemporary visual effects man Craig Barron calls it in his 2021 interview supplement, “hyper-focal distance,” courtesy of the amazing [and prominently credited] cinematographer Gregg Toland). With a screenplay co-authored by the celebrated Herman J. “Mank” Mankiewicz and a cast of first-time thespians from Welles’ Mercury Theater productions (including Joseph Cotton, Agnes Moorhead, Ray Collins, Ruth Warrick, Everett Sloane, and William Alland), Citizen Kane burst forth into a world not yet ready for it and an industry that didn’t know what to do with it.
Young Welles, brimming with a defiant hubris that would never leave him, found his film targeted by Hearst (“Destroy the negative!!”) and himself resented by everyone else in the terminally envious town of tinsel. Citizen Kane failed to make much of a stir at the 14th Academy Awards ceremony, and quickly slid off the popular radar.
Welles too would slide off, never to attain such a place of Hollywood prestige ever again. The notion of cinephilia as any kind of artistic or intellectual virtue was still a couple of decades away. In time, Citizen Kane would be extolled repeatedly as The Greatest Film Ever Made; a canonized staple that thoroughly earns its reputation.
Not that the film’s delayed ascent would do Welles much good. Driven to self-financed independent filmmaking, the one-time coddled and worldly boy genius from Kenosha, Wisconsin spent the rest of his days chasing -- hustling -- in pursuit of realizing his cobbled-together cinematic passions. And just as the reputation of Citizen Kane would balloon into something of a cliché for all that cinema call be, Welles himself would balloon into a portly raconteur of the TV talk show and commercial circuit, plying his magician’s bombast in pursuit of a few dollars here, a few dollars there. Looking to a later bit of Orson Welles brilliance for summation, “He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?”
Welles? In a word? Storyteller.
More words are of course required, but if pressed, “storyteller” will do. Then again, there’ve been many genius storytellers. But there was only one Welles. Protégé… Theatre impresario… Radio talent… Filmmaker. All of it comes into play throughout his entire career, but filmmaking will out as the focus.
Filmmaking itself is about nothing if not shorthand. Welles, out of the gate, excelled at this. Tonal shifts and exquisitely placed moments roll off the press, one after another. The baroque, experimental opening moment? It’s weird, it’s fevered, and it’s death -- got it. That sudden musical number? It quickly tells us just how explosively popular Charles Foster Kane is, primarily with himself. Got it. And the reductive framing of Kane as a boy left literally out in the cold as adults decide his fate? We got that as well.
In one of the set’s several bonus features concerning the making of Citizen Kane, the late cinematographer Allen Daviau comments that the movie is full of “so many breakthroughs evident in every area of the film.” In that statement, Daviau is at least partially correct. As others have said (and in fact some say right here on these discs), Citizen Kane is not so much a project debuting innovation, but a singular gathering of top-tier implementation of a great many of cinema’s techniques up to that point. In that, it’s terrific.
From stunning and sometimes subtle use of visual effects, to the bold use of cinematic visual grammar, to Welles’ ingenious audio techniques (informed by his radio experience), Citizen Kane truly does bring it all together. Even animation with an unexpected bent makes an appearance: before Terrence Malick put computer-animated dinosaurs into his masterpiece The Tree of Life, Welles put silhouette flying dinosaurs into the deep background of the absurdly large picnic sequence in Citizen Kane. In a non-linear film full of mirrors and puzzles and different perspectives on the same individual, such implementations are as much curveballs as they are treats.
Another thing about Welles… he was always multifaceted. Even when the dust of his bustling career settled on moviemaking, his interest in it spanned to every facet. He came to Hollywood knowing nothing of the form, but quickly rectified that. (Thanks, per legend, to back-to-back deconstructive viewings of John Ford’s Stagecoach). Welles absorbed all he could, and even set about trying to do as much as possible on set himself. Thankfully, this passed; though the man’s thorough commitment to high-bar effort has left us with no shortage of things to examine; things both about Kane, and beyond.
Just as Kane itself is a monumental feat of monumental reward, so too is Criterion’s new edition. The label, without question, understands that going forward, this will be looked upon as the definitive release of Citizen Kane. Thus, they’ve pulled out as many stops as possible.
With a sled-load of bonus features both new, old, and old-but-new to most folks, the label does not disappoint in its deep focus exploration into what has been repeatedly hailed as The Greatest Film Ever Made. (Although, perhaps oddly, the PBS American Masters’ “The Battle Over Citizen Kane” -- a mainstay on previous Kane disc releases from Warner Bros -- is not included). Criterion astutely divided this ample set across multiple discs, the final two entirely made up of bonus features.
The penultimate disc focuses on the film itself and its many achievements, both technically and thematically. The last disc frees itself up from Citizen Kane somewhat to spotlight Welles himself- particularly his later years, when Kane was so often an inescapable, long-ago thorn in his side, the Nexus to which he could never return.
The transfer itself is, as it frankly must be, a thing of widespread beauty. The film has been given a new 4K digital restoration, and is presented with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack, replicating the original mix replicating the original mix and ideally preserving Bernard Herrmann's magnificent score. (The 4K UHD edition presents the feature in Dolby Vision HDR).
A major caveat is that collectors who’ve acquired the release in its early days got a flawed transfer, a noticeable momentary variation in picture grading. Blu-ray viewers will want to take advantage of Criterion’s exchange program to obtain a replacement. (The 4K disc is not affected). Although the error is an unfortunate cloud over an otherwise stunning spine #1104, it’s a cloud that’s already passing. Having already received the corrected Blu-ray, I can attest that all is now well, as originally intended.
Here is the official list of bonus features:
• Three audio commentaries: from 2021 featuring Orson Welles scholars James Naremore and Jonathan Rosenbaum; from 2002 featuring filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich; and from 2002 featuring film critic Roger Ebert
• The Complete “Citizen Kane,” (1991), a rarely seen feature-length BBC documentary
• New interviews with critic Farran Smith Nehme and film scholar Racquel J. Gates
• New video essay by Orson Welles scholar Robert Carringer
• New program on the film’s special effects by film scholars and effects experts Craig Barron and Ben Burtt
• Interviews from 1990 with editor Robert Wise; actor Ruth Warrick; optical-effects designer Linwood Dunn; Bogdanovich; filmmakers 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
• English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
• PLUS: Deluxe packaging, including a book with an essay by film critic Bilge Ebiri
While all each of these inclusions are wonderful to go through, I want to give particular attention to the “new documentary featuring archival interviews with Welles”. Nestled away on the final disc, this hour-plus assembly of various talk show appearances (as well as his AFI Lifetime Achievement Awards speech) is a truly fun program.
Rather than simply present the raw interviews in their entirety (an approach that no one would’ve thought to criticize, as Criterion serves up vintage “Dick Cavett” segments and the like this way all the time), special effort has been made to arrange them by subject. It’s a most interesting way of getting at Welles the raconteur, and his glowing penchant for outsized self-mythologizing.
Sometimes, the piece even cuts between different versions of the same story told on different talk shows. Though all the appearances gathered here are of Welles decades after Kane, their thoughtful arrangement can’t help but reflect the structure of the movie that started it all.
As far as the physical set itself goes, it too is well considered. The refined yet lovingly detailed slipcase packaging by Mike McQuade, though controversial to some for its über-simplicity, nonetheless stands as the correct approach. The single large-K on the black cover immediately evokes the film for anyone familiar with film’s striking opening title graphic.
It’s an eyebrow-raising evocation that continues as one unfolds the symbolically multi-pronged inner packaging, revealing the subsequent A, N, and E. Inside, we also find a handsome essay book of Welles-ian girth, as far as such paperback inserts go.
Citizen Kane, for all the pomp and circumstance that tend to surround it, ultimately perseveres not just for how it says what it says, but what it’s saying. Not everyone may agree with my own well-earned default opinion that Citizen Kane is in fact worthy of its mantle. In fact, of the three commentary tracks included (two vintage ones and one new one), only the late Roger Ebert (on one of the all-time great audio commentary tracks) agrees.
The others -- the very recently departed Peter Bogdanovich (on his 2002 track) and new commentators James Naremore and Jonathan Rosenbaum -- each state that not only do they refuse bestow any crown upon Kane, but frankly opine that it’s not even Welles’ own best film. Fair enough; the man did leave behind an exceptional and truly diverse body of work. But none among these scholars refute the film’s vitality, its exceptionalism, and it’s go-for-broke (and Welles got there, all right) fearlessness. It is extraordinary to have these three solid commentaries at our fingertips.
For all of Welles’s conspicuous consumption in his later years, his first film remains a rightly barbed volley in the face of aspirational American much-ness. It’s an age-old tale that money can’t buy happiness, but here, that denouement lands with enigmatic punctuation for the ages. The more successful and influential and wealthy Kane becomes, the more isolated and intolerant and delusional he also becomes.
During one reporter’s ill-fated journey to define him via his reportedly last word (“Rosebud…”), we glimpse varied and fractal notions of this bigger-than-life lost cause of a person. It’s not just another sorry take of capitalism gone wrong, it’s an indictment of the materially warped “American dream”. If the purpose of great art is to ask questions, the Citizen Kane leaves us, even eighty-plus years later, with plenty to think about. The film, far more than just a cynical or cautionary yarn or a hyperbole unto itself, challenges us, even causes us, to strive towards betterment.
This mission may or may not have been what Orson Welles was truly all about as an artist and as a person. But it’s the legacy he’s left us to puzzle through.
- Orson Welles
- Herman J. Mankiewicz
- Orson Welles
- John Houseman
- Orson Welles
- Joseph Cotten
- Dorothy Comingore