'It's terrific!' publicity for Orson Welles' Citizen Kane touted in 1941; a rather fitting declaration, since the word 'terrific' actually means something that is at once awe-inspiring and strangely unsettling. Welles' movie is certainly both. Just as Gone With The Wind (1939) had bench-marked the height of 1930s melodrama, and has since remained David O. Selznick's uncompromisingly lush vision of that ancient Hollywood glamour, Welles' Citizen Kane became the epitome of the new decade's darker and more nightmarish visions of the human condition. Welles was just twenty-three when he enthusiastically accepted the daunting task to rescue RKO Studios from its steep financial decline. He was told to make whatever movie he wanted without compromising or interruptions from the front offices. But the enfant terrible who had frightened the masses half out of their wits with his radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds a few years earlier was about to meet his match (or perhaps his alter ego) in aging newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst.
Citizen Kane is often mis-perceived as a film a clef of Hearst and his relationship with MGM starlet Marion Davies. In actuality Welles' movie is a scathing, semi-autobiographical amalgam of incidents, some borrowed from Hearst's life that seek to show how a great man is reduced to nothingness by his own ambition. In this respect, Citizen Kane foreshadows the demise of Welles own reputation in Hollywood, although in 1941 no one - least of all Welles - could have known this. As scripted by Herman J. Mankiewicz (a fairly bitter, though brilliant screenwriter) and Welles, the film’s nonlinear narrative charts the life of Charles Foster Kane (Welles); a child torn from his mother's bosom and who thereafter embarks upon a life of deliberate self-destruction under the auspices of his miserly legal guardian, William Parks Thatcher (George Coulouris).
In his twenties Kane takes over a beleaguered newspaper - The Enquirer - with the aid of his best friend, Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotten) and Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane - who shaved his head for the role). Over the course of the next decade Kane will grow the paper into a publishing empire. But the trajectory of Kane's political ambitions is interrupted twice; the first time to his advantage with his engagement to the President's niece, Emily Monroe Norton (Ruth Warrick); the second, to his own detriment after his affair with chorus girl, Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore) is exposed by political adversary Jim W. Gettys (Ray Collins).
The rest of the film is dedicated to a rather depressing illustration of Kane's own demise; his misguided attempts to regain respectability that ultimately unravel his life. Publicly disgraced, socially humiliated, Kane embarks upon the almost Svengali-like transformation of Susan's career from chorine to aspiring opera diva. But this possessive pursuit leads to a rift in their marriage, one that leaves Kane alone, frustrated and reclusive inside his decaying pleasure palace, Xanadu.
When Kane finally dies his derelict of possessions is reduced to a bonfire, the march of time crushing the last tangible vestiges of all that his life has amounted to - or lack thereof. Citizen Kane's final act is at once self-reflexive and very Shakespearean - "a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury...signifying nothing". Kane has failed in his attempts at immortality. He has become a forgotten relic in his own time. Conversely, Welles' own reputation as a director never fully recovered afterwards. The parallels between the film and Hearst’s own life and circumstances are irrefutable, and indeed, raised the old tycoon’s dander to the point where he threatened RKO with a lawsuit and also disbarment from ever appearing in his newspapers again.
The same fate might have befallen Citizen Kane the movie. Upon its release Hearst fired off a litany of injunctions that all but crippled its’ ability to earn back production costs. Despite unanimously glowing reviews from the critics – all except for Hearst stooge, Louella Parsons - RKO's management panicked and pulled the film from circulation at the height of its popularity, shelving it indefinitely to satisfy the tyrannical publisher. RKO did allow Welles another bite at their creative apple however. After all, they could recognize true artistry and were determined to recoup their losses by having Welles produce another masterpiece for them. That Welles chose an even more taboo subject for his follow up project (family incest) with The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) effectively crippled his own chances at immortality as a Hollywood director.
In retrospect time has been more than kind to Citizen Kane - rightfully resurrected to prominence on home video; its stark deep focus cinematography by Greg Tolland largely contributing to our enduring appreciation of the film’s visual style. Yet, even in today's more apocalyptic narratives Citizen Kane remains a darkly haunted and fairly disturbing motion picture. It illustrates that the real demons to be feared are not to be found externally. They come from within our own flawed makeup.
Welles was a creative genius. His prowess both in front of and behind the camera is staggering. Before our eyes he ages some forty years from an ego driven entrepreneur into the very shell of that great man he once hoped to become. But behind the scenes Welles is the supreme puppet master, plucking at all the creative strings; creating his singular vision of cinematic perfection using actors who - like Welles himself - had never before appeared before the camera. That Citizen Kane is as perfect a movie as one might wish it to be is not only a minor miracle but a major coup from the boy wonder who would quickly find himself on the outside looking in on his own Hollywood career. In hindsight, this was the beginning of the end for Orson Welles – director. Although Welles became an instantly recognizable face in front of the camera, often appearing in less than grand film fare for lesser directors to keep his expense accounts in check, as an artist and creative genius he arguably would never again know the likes of such storytelling.
Warner Home Video has unleashed Citizen Kane on Blu-ray in a new 4k 1080p transfer that absolutely blows their old DVD out of the water. The image is slightly darker (as it should be). The gray scale is infinitely more refined with a startling amount of fine detail throughout. Blacks are solid, deep and velvety. Whites are pristine. There is absolutely nothing to complain about here. This is a reference quality Blu-ray that belongs on everyone's top shelf. The audio is mono but perfectly restored for an aural experience that will surely not disappoint.
Extras are pretty much what we've come to expect from WHV; everything but the kitchen sink and most of it carried over from their DVD release from 2001. There are two competing audio commentaries; one from Roger Ebert, the other from Peter Bogdanovich. Ebert's is more comprehensive and introspective. We also get two celebrated documentaries on the film and Welles career; The Battle Over Citizen Kane (1995) and RKO 281 (1999). Warner's slick and handsome packaging – with its faux leather jigsaw puzzle piece exterior - is also to be commended: an extensive collection of lobby cards, reproductions of memos and other archival materials and a thin, but glossy collector's book with factoid information and some production stills. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)