Directed by Orson Welles
Starring Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Everett Sloane, Dorothy Comingore
If you are serious about movies, you will have seen Citizen Kane a number of times. If you have a DVD player, you need this title. But although it’s absolutely necessary for your library, this two-disc set isn’t everything it could be.
Orson Welles was a 24-year-old veteran of radio and stage drama in New York when he got his first Hollywood studio deal with complete artistic and creative control, and 25 when he directed Citizen Kane; it’s a great, wonderful, hopped-up visual masterpiece that is probably the greatest debut film ever made by anyone. Kane did everything here: stunning visual compositions in deep focus black and white (thanks to cinematographer Gregg Toland), innovative staging (long single-take shots with shoe’s-eye-view angles and furniture that comes apart and goes together again so the camera can go right through it), and an interesting, fragmented way of telling the story of Charles Foster Kane, billionaire magazine publisher with a hole in the middle of his soul.
The genius of this movie is that the central plot of it measures up to all the tricks employed in telling it. Citizen Kane, written by Herman Manciewicz and based largely upon billionaire magazine publisher with a hole in the middle of his soul William Randolph Hearst, is a mystery story with a single word at the center of it: reporter “Thompson” tries to learn what Kane’s last word, “Rosebud,” means; he never learns, but we do. But, as Pauline Kale pointed out many years ago, “Rosebud” is a red herring – this is a movie about how we can never know anyone, really, and how our own self-involvement always gets in the way of self-knowledge. Welles is amazing as Kane, and the various associates who help tell his story are pretty great too, especially Everett Sloane (Bernstein), Joseph Cotten (Jed Leland), and Dorothy Comingore as Susan Alexander, the trollop for whom Kane sacrifices everything.
Citizen Kane was named the greatest American movie ever made in the recent controversial American Film Institute list, and a lot of people agree. I’m not sure it merits that ranking – as my wife points out, it’s just not entertaining enough, especially towards the end, where the film drags harder than Alexis Arquette. Some of the acting sounds better than it looks, which isn’t surprising, considering the fact that it was the first movie made by a lot of radio-based actors. The makeup is execrable; it’s better than Billy Crystal’s in Mr. Saturday Night, but it’s still pretty bad. And you end up getting the sense that Welles bit off more than he can chew.
Citizen Kane has rarely looked better – this transfer is better than anything you’ve seen on video or TV, and even better than some cinema prints you may have seen. I never knew how deep and rich the tones were in this movie; Toland never shot a film that wasn’t stunning, and this may be his crowning achievement. Robert Wise’s excellent editing really comes through here, and the sound is great, too.
As far as first-disc extras, the two standouts are the two commentaries. Of the first one, by former movie director Peter Bogdanovich, not much can be said. It’s heavy on the “Orson turned to me and said…” and light on the serious film knowledge; no wonder Bugsy hasn’t done a noteworthy picture since 1973. Roger Ebert’s commentary, on the other hand, is absolutely crucial. The Rog is thoroughly in command; he points out technical aspects and movie-maker insights, he tells funny stories (“Rosebud” was supposedly Hearst’s nickname for his mistress’ clitoris), he gets all excited when he sees something cool. Even though I don’t buy his central thesis that Kane is really about Welles instead of Hearst – it wasn’t Welles who started the Spanish-American War, and Welles was never really rich or powerful or reclusive – Ebert is really great at this stuff, and one wishes he’d jettison his TV gig, where Richard Roeper has been kicking his ass lately. The rest of the extras, like footage from the movie’s premiere in 1941 and random production notes, is good, but interesting only the first time through.
The second disc is what really let me down. It features a two-hour American Experience documentary about how hard Hearst tried to block Citizen Kane from appearing in theaters. This is interesting because of the subject, but the documentary is extremely sloppy, and told in such a boring way that it’s a one-watcher at best. I was appalled at the way this thing seems lifted straight from its TV airing, with the commercial at the beginning and repetition of crucial detail at the beginning of several chapters, like they just came back from a break. The best documentary about this subject has yet to be made, and since there are no extras here at all, even RKO-281, 1999’s cable movie about this battle, would have been better. How they drop the ball on this, I’m not sure. But it just kind of pisses me off; big shitty action movies get tons of extras while this genuinely groundbreaking great movie gets the shaft. I guess they figure we’ll buy whatever they give us.
But that having been said, let me reiterate how important this movie is and how great the DVD transfer is, and above all how much Roger Ebert’s commentary adds to the enjoyment and understanding of this classic American film. Hell, I’ll probably have to buy the damned thing after all. But I’ll continue to be pissed off about it.