Citizen Kane, 1941.
Directed by Orson Welles
Starring Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Comingore, Ray Collins, George Coulouris, and Agnes Moorehead
Criterion is celebrating Citizen Kane’s 80th anniversary with a new edition featuring not only a 4K digital restoration of the film but also two extra Blu-ray platters overflowing with new and old bonus features. A square-bound booklet with an extensive essay rounds out the “film class in a box” approach that Criterion is known for.
As I noted when I took a look at Warner’s 75th Anniversary Edition of Citizen Kane five years ago, my high school had a film class taught by one of the English teachers. We talked about movies from an academic point-of-view, and between that and enjoying behind-the-scenes documentaries, I was primed for the world of DVDs and the idea of a “film class in a box.” (I missed the Laserdisc train, unfortunately.)
Over the years, Criterion has consistently set the standard for film classes in boxes, and they’re celebrating the 80th anniversary of one of their first ever home video releases with new 4K and Blu-ray editions of Citizen Kane. I was sent the Blu-ray for this review, so I can’t comment on the video quality of the 4K release, and I actually can’t say much about the Blu-ray since Criterion has acknowledged a problem with it and I’m sending the disc back. (If you have one of the faulty discs, you can learn how to get it replaced here.) I’ll update this review after I receive the replacement disc.
However, I can say that this is a comprehensive, albeit not definitive, edition of Kane that’s packed with legacy and new bonus features. Notably missing are the Battle Over Citizen Kane documentary and the HBO dramatization partly based on it, RKO 281, but including them would have added a fourth Blu-ray to this set. I imagine that rights issues played a part in that omission too.
Criterion also pulled out all the stops with their packaging design, which unfortunately is a prime example of form topping function. It’s a slightly oversized package, which gives it some heft (deservedly so), with an imposing “K” on the front. After you take off the slipcover, the interior package unfolds, with the letters “K,” “A,” “N,” and “E” on the panels. The obligatory booklet resides in the center, and the discs sit inside the panels – you have to slide them out, which is awkward and can end up with the owner getting fingerprints all over the discs in the process. A more standard package design would have been easier to use, even if it didn’t look as impressive as this one does.
I’ll skip a recitation of the plot, since I’m sure you know the basics. If not, you can’t go wrong making this a blind buy; it’s a classic that has stood the test of time. As I said in my review five years ago, it’s silly to claim that Citizen Kane is the greatest film of all time, since there’s no way to really judge such a thing, but it’s certainly one of the greatest. I imagine it’s a favorite for plenty of film fans.
Writing about the film in the accompanying square-bound booklet, film critic Bilge Ebiri concludes: “We still recognize, in Kane’s portrait of the corrosive power of unchecked wealth and authority, a vision of the world that remains all too familiar. After all the debates and interpretations and polls and reassessments, this eighty-five-year-old film, about which more ink has probably been spilled than any other title in cinema history, still carries with it the power of prophecy.”
Ebiri’s essay occupies the bulk of that booklet, with the last couple pages used for notes about this new restoration of the film, as well as thanks and production credits. It’s nice to see that Criterion continues to include printed materials with their releases.
Moving on to the bonus content on the second and third Blu-ray discs in this set, I’ll start with the new stuff and then cover what’s been ported over from past editions:
- New commentary track: James Naremore and Jonathan Rosenbaum, authors of The Magic World of Orson Wells and Discovering Orson Welles, respectively, contributed to a new commentary recorded for this release. They were recorded together, which allowed them to play off each other for a track that has, as you might imagine, a scholarly bent to it. I also appreciated how they talked about Citizen Kane through the lens of contemporary politics – it’s not hard to imagine that Welles would have drawn the same comparisons they do, if he was alive today to talk about the film with the same perspective.
- The Complete Citizen Kane (96 minutes): This documentary isn’t new – it was created by the BBC in 1991 – but it’s new in the sense that I don’t believe it’s appeared in previous home video releases of the film. Criterion describes it as “rarely seen,” and it opens with a construction of the beginning of Heart of Darkness, the movie Welles wanted to make before RKO pulled the plug on it. The documentary then uses archival clips of Welles, as well as interviews with some of the people he worked with in 1941, to tell the story of the director’s life as well as the making of the movie.
- Craig Barron and Ben Burtt (28 minutes): Visual effects artist Craig Barron and sound designer and editor Ben Burtt discuss Kane’s special effects. While this isn’t the kind of film that many people think of when the subject of special effects comes up, Kane actually had a good amount of visual trickery.
- Robert L. Carringer (14 minutes): The author of The Making of Citizen Kane discusses the film’s production, including the meaning of “Rosebud.” (I won’t spoil it for you, if you haven’t seen the film yet.)
- Farran Smith Nehme (24 minutes): The film critic compares Welles’ character with William Randolph Hearst, the real newspaper baron who was the basis for Kane. The fact that Citizen Kane was a thinly veiled attack on Hearst was the cause of much grief for Welles.
- Reframing Kane (16 minutes): Film scholar Racquel J. Gates discusses how to frame the story for newer generations of movie watchers. Her comparison of Charles Foster Kane and his wife to Kanye and Kim Kardashian is a smart way to engage young people and get them talking about the power dynamics in the film.
- My Guest is Orson Welles (43 minutes): This is a collection of Welles’ TV appearances from the 70s and 80s, including the one he did with Merv Griffin just hours before he died. Criterion notes that the appearances were paid and helped finance his later movies.
The previously available bonus features include:
- Commentary tracks with Roger Ebert and Peter Bogdanovich: Dating to 2002, these tracks have shown up on multiple Kane discs over the years. The Ebert track is a great one: he clearly came prepared to deliver an enthusiastic discussion of the movie’s technical details, thematic elements, and much more. The Bogdanovich one is more subdued, with lapses into silence, but it’s worth a listen if you want to hear from someone who worked with Welles.
- Working on Kane (18 minutes): This 1990 featurette includes interviews with editor Robert Wise (who went on to his own directorial career), actor Ruth Warrick, and visual effects operator Linwood Dunn.
- On Toland (15.5 minutes): Also from 1990, this piece examines Kane cinematographer Gregg Toland through thoughts from fellow cinematographers Allen Daviau, Haskell Wexler, and Vilmos Zsigmond.
- Martin Scorsese (8 minutes): The famed film director talks about why he loves Kane so much. While marveling at how young he looks (it was shot in 1990), you can hear how he discovered the film on TV as a kid and later dug deeper into it during a theatrical showing. I found his Kane-related inspiration for breaking the rules in GoodFellas to be fascinating.
- Stills photography with commentary by Roger Ebert (11 minutes): Also dating to 2002, this is a series of behind-the-scenes photos with commentary from Ebert.
- The Opening: The World Premiere of Citizen Kane (2 minutes): This consists of newsreel footage from the film’s premiere in New York City in 1941.
- Trailer (4 minutes): A vintage trailer for the movie. It’s as quaint as you might imagine.
- Knowing Welles (23 minutes): Another entry from 1990, this pulls together a group of folks who knew Welles to discuss what they learned from him. Featured are Bogdanovich, Henry Jaglom, Frank Marshall, Martin Ritt, and Gary Graver.
- Joseph Cotton (19 minutes): These are two interviews with the actor, one from 1966 and the other from 1975, in which he talks about working with Welles.
- William Alland (21 minutes): Dating from 1996, this is a lengthy interview with the actor talking about working with Welles in theater and radio, and on Citizen Kane.
- Mercury Theatre (3 hours, 9 minutes): This is a collection of three radio broadcasts and two TV appearances featuring Mercury Theatre, a troupe that Welles put together in the years before Citizen Kane. The radio broadcasts are plays, including Heart of Darkness, while the TV appearances are from talk shows: one in 1979 that reunited Welles and Mercury producer John Houseman and one from 1988 with Houseman, who had a difficult separation from Welles.
- Orson Welles: On the Nose (9 minutes): This is a 2017 program created for the Criterion Channel in which David Cairns and Randall William Cook examine the ways in which Welles changed the shape of his nose for the various characters he played.
- The Hearts of Age (9 minutes): This is a silent film Welles made when he was 19 years old. It was his first such effort and showcases his budding talent.
Warner’s 75th Anniversary Edition also included storyboards, call sheets, and materials for the film’s ad campaign, press book, and opening night premiere, none of which is found here, so you might want to hang onto that disc if you have it.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★★★★★ / Movie: ★ ★★★★