Home Video Reviews
CITIZEN KANE ON DVD
Like King Lear and Don Giovanni, Citizen Kane (1941) has the burden of being "the greatest" and "best ever." Who can really enjoy a film with that much pressure? But Citizen Kane withstands such agressive acclaim as a glance at the wonderful new DVD shows. It isn't the best film ever made simply because there's no such thing - how could it be "better" than Vertigo or Breathless or Sherlock Jr. or Shock Corridor? But there's no denying that Citizen Kane is a stunning, one-of-a-kind film as essential as, yes, Shakespeare or Mozart (both Welles favorites).
The DVD does the film justice; in fact it's like seeing it fresh. The image is crisp and detailed, especially important considering the amount of detail director/star/co-writer Orson Welles loved to pack in. The contrasts of light and dark also show Greg Toland's cinematography to best effect and there are almost no visible spots or imperfections. (One tiny flaw deserves mention: In the scene where the reporter interviews Bernstein, raindrops on the lower part of the window were apparently erased by software considering them image "noise." The drops are visible in the closing credits and on tapes of the film.) The audio is the original monophonic sound and hasn't been revised to create any kind of monstrous stereo effect, allowing Bernard Herrmann's score to shine.
Citizen Kane is a film that stands up to repeated viewings, something even more pleasurable in this clean presentation. You can notice, for instance, how Kane is first shown only in fragments - hand, lips, silhouette - that parallels how his story is presented. Or tucked away (barely noticable) on Susan's dresser the first time she meets Kane is the glass snowball that breaks in the opening. It's amazing how a 25-year-old Welles with very limited film experience so thoroughly grasped the essence of cinema that even today few directors can match him.
The Citizen Kane DVD is a two-disc set that includes numerous extras. The most important are two audio commentaries on the film. One is by Peter Bogdanovich, who did an essential book-length interview with Welles called This Is Orson Welles. Bogdanovich's commentary is good on many of the technical aspects, pointing out where something derived from Welles' vast experience in radio or how a particular shot was constructed by digging a hole in the floor for the camera. He also adds a personal touch (Welles lived with Bogdanovich for a while) by revealing Welles' personal sense of humor or which scenes weren't Welles' favorites. The other commentary is a warm, personable one by noted critic Roger Ebert. He provides more general information on the making of the film, adding some interesting observations of his own.
The second disc includes the documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane, presented just as it was originally shown on PBS complete with an introduction and a fertilizer commercial. The Battle Over Citizen Kane is really a dual biography of Welles and William Randolph Hearst (an inspiration for the character of Kane) that culminates in the Kane controversy. Actual details about Citizen Kane in documentary are fairly limited. Though The Battle Over Citizen Kane is certainly fascinating and fills in a lot of background detail, it's basically a routine mix of modern-day interviews laced with stock footage (some of the latter is clearly from the wrong time period). Unfortunately, it also dismisses the rest of Welles career even though he continued to make films in many ways the equal of Citizen Kane: The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil, Othello, Chimes at Midnight.
Of the other extras, definitely don't miss the clever and funny trailer narrated by Orson Welles. There are also newsreels, production information and a few other odds and ends. Some views of the script and call sheets are included but these flip past with no control over the speed or ability to zoom for a readable image so there's not much point. Also here is an incomplete Welles filmography that lists only the well-known films. Oddly enough, it mentions the partly filmed and abandoned It's All True but ignores mostly completed but unreleased works like The Other Side of the Wind, The Deep and Don Quixote. By the way, for some inexplicable reason, interviews with Robert Wise and Ruth Warwick are hidden on the discs; you can find them by clicking on the sleds in the menus.
By Lang Thompson