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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 7/10/02

Citizen Kane
1941 (2002) - RKO Radio Pictures (Warner)

review by Adam Jahnke of The Digital Bits

Citizen Kane Film Rating: A+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A+/A/A+

Specs and Features

Disc One: Citizen Kane
119 mins, PG, full frame (1.33:1), custom dual disc slipcase packaging, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at ??), audio commentary with director/Welles biographer Peter Bogdanovich, audio commentary with film critic Roger Ebert, cast and crew credits, New York Premiere footage, theatrical trailer, storyboards, call sheets, still gallery with commentary by Roger Ebert, storyboards, sketches and photos of deleted scenes, ad campaign, press book, opening night photos, correspondence and guest list, production notes, Easter eggs, animated film-themed menu screens with sound, scene access (31 chapters), languages: English (DD 2.0 Mono), subtitles: English, French, Spanish and Portuguese, Closed Captioned

Disc Two: The Battle Over Citizen Kane
113 mins, NR, full frame (1.33:1), custom dual disc slipcase packaging, single-sided, single-layered, Orson Welles filmography, 4 synopses of other PBS DVDs, film-themed menu screens, scene access (11 chapters), languages: English (DD 2.0 Mono), subtitles: English, Closed Captioned

What makes a film great? Not in the casual, critic's-blurb sense of the word, tossed off with alarming regularity alongside such hyperbole as "Oscar-worthy", "superb" and "masterpiece". What makes a film so great that for fifty years it has been considered one of, if not THE single greatest motion picture ever made? And for that matter, how does one even begin to approach watching a movie with such an uncontested reputation of brilliance?

For most people, it would seem the answer to that second question would be with great reverence. Every single person I know of my generation or younger, including myself, who's seen Orson Welles's Citizen Kane did not originally watch it because they wanted to. We watched it in school, college usually, where it is discussed, analyzed and held in the same esteem as Shakespeare or any other canonical literature. In other words, the joy of the movie is stripped away long before most people have seen a single frame. This may be one of the greatest losses in cinema history because Kane is, above all else, a movie to be enjoyed. Yes, it's a dense and complex film that challenges the intellect and demands repeated viewings in order to be fully appreciated. But at least once, you owe it to yourself to forget all of that and just sit down to watch Citizen Kane like you would any other movie. Then and only then can you begin to discover what makes this film great.

Is Citizen Kane my favorite movie? Not hardly. Other movies have touched me deeper, have thrilled me more and have resonated with more personal significance than Citizen Kane. Citizen Kane has never moved me to tears. It's never caused me to laugh uncontrollably. It's never made me look at snow globes in a whole new light. To me, Citizen Kane is like one of the jigsaw puzzles that Susan Alexander is forever assembling in Xanadu. I know what the picture is going to be when it's put together, but it's fascinating to see the infinite number of ways that picture can be constructed. I'd seen Kane a number of times before watching this DVD and, in writing this review, I watched it three times in a row. Each time, I discovered something new. There are some movies you watch until you've memorized every shot, every cut and every line of dialogue. Citizen Kane seems to defy memorization. That, I think, is part of what makes this a great film. Every time you see it, your attention is drawn to a different aspect of the film, but you can't predict or control where that will be. For instance, this time I focused on the economy of Welles's storytelling. I guarantee that a movie of comparable size and scope made today would be at least twenty minutes longer than Citizen Kane. Welles somehow manages to tell everything there is to say and then some in just under two hours. Many of today's filmmakers would do well to learn from this element of Kane, rather than trying to ape Gregg Toland's amazing cinematography or mimic the complex structure of the screenplay by Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz.

Film buffs can take heart in the fact that Warner Bros. has released Kane in a stellar two-disc set, that gives the film the treatment it deserves. First off, we have the transfer of the film itself that is nothing short of revelatory. This cleaned-up print is without question the finest I have ever seen this film look. There is some unfortunate edge enhancement, perhaps unavoidable in a movie with as high a rate of contrast as this one. It never bothered me to the point of distraction, however. The blacks are gorgeously detailed, with shafts of light and plumes of smoke standing out in tactile relief. If anything, the movie looks too good. I've heard rumors of the clean-up effort eliminating details like rain from windows. I'm happy to report I didn't see anything that bad. However, portions of the News on the March segment seemed to be spruced up a little beyond what Welles may have intended. He'd wanted that part of the film to look older and in worse shape than the rest of the movie. With the cleaned-up picture, it's a little bit too obvious what was stock footage and what was shot for Kane. On the other hand, I do not envy the people whose job it was to decide what scratches were intentional and what were just the results of old age. On the audio side, Warner has wisely played it very safe, cleaning and remastering the sound in its original glorious mono. No 5.1 Dolby Digital Sensurround remixes here, since the only reward Warner would get from that endeavor would be the loud and furious complaining of a legion of cinephiles. For what it is, this track is excellent, free of hiss or the tinny sound that often affects dialogue in films of this vintage.

Warner Bros. pulled out all the stops on extras for this release. The centerpiece is The Battle Over Citizen Kane, a feature-length documentary made for The American Experience on PBS that takes up the entirety of Disc Two. This is no ordinary making-of piece. Battle traces the lives of both Welles and the man who would become the inspiration for Kane, as well as Welles's primary real-life antagonist, William Randolph Hearst. The program alternates between Hearst and Welles on their way up, leading inevitably to their clash over Kane. This is a fascinating documentary, full of rare archival footage and interviews with those who knew these two brilliant, powerful men. Rightly nominated for a Best Documentary Academy Award, The Battle Over Citizen Kane alone turns this DVD into a must-have.

In addition, Disc One comes fully loaded with bonuses of its own. Leading the pack is a pair of audio commentary tracks. One is by filmmaker/Welles biographer/raconteur Peter Bogdanovich, and the other is by Roger Ebert. Taken together, the commentaries are a study in contrasts. I've never had much use for Bogdanovich. I'm endlessly annoyed by his tendency to work stories about "Orson" and "Hitch" into interviews that seem to have nothing to do with Messrs. Welles or Hitchcock. This time, however, I thought that skill might come in handy and perhaps Bogdanovich would provide the closest thing to an Orson Welles commentary we'd be likely to get. No such luck. Bogdanovich is like the film school professor everybody hates. He sounds faintly bored throughout, as if he's watched this movie a zillion times and can barely be bothered to pass on what he knows. For the most part, he simply describes what we're seeing or repeats dialogue that he finds particularly choice. Every once in a while, he'll say something interesting... but by then, you'll have probably tuned out. Ebert, on the other hand, is the film school professor everybody loves. It sounds like he's seen this just as much as Bogdanovich, but he never gets tired of it. His enthusiasm and love of the film is infectious and his comments are well organized and keenly observed. Quite simply, if you don't already love this movie, you'll want to love it after hearing Ebert.

The rest of the disc is jam-packed with info and film-related ephemera. Beautiful, richly detailed storyboards, advertising campaigns, rare photographs from on the set and of a deleted scene, studio call sheets, correspondence, footage from the New York premiere and, as they say on TV, much, much more. Of course, the disc also includes the original trailer, considered one of the best and most famous trailers of all time. The Kane trailer doesn't show a single frame of footage from the movie. You don't even see Orson Welles at all. It's a striking piece of ballyhoo that's just as innovative as the film it advertises.

With Citizen Kane, Warner Bros. has raised the bar for the presentation of classic films on disc. This is one of the most significant DVD releases to date and it belongs in the library of every serious movie fan. As the advertising copy for Citizen Kane itself reads, "It's Terrific!"

Adam Jahnke

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