In the most dazzling debut feature in cinema history, twenty-five-year-old writer-producer-director-star Orson Welles synthesized the possibilities of sound-era filmmaking into what could be called the first truly modern movie. In telling the story of the meteoric rise and precipitous fall of a William Randolph Hearst–like newspaper magnate named Charles Foster Kane, Welles not only created the definitive portrait of American megalomania, he also unleashed a torrent of stylistic innovations—from the jigsaw-puzzle narrative structure to the stunning deep-focus camera work of Gregg Toland—that have ensured that Citizen Kane remains fresh and galvanizing for every new generation of moviegoers to encounter it.
Making its way back into The Criterion Collection 37-years after being the label’s first title on LaserDisc, Orson Welles’ influential debut Citizen Kane is presented here in a new Blu-ray edition (as spine 1104), sourced from a brand-new 4K restoration performed by Criterion and Warner Bros., scanned primarily from a 35mm nitrate composite fine-grain master made directly from the original negative that appears to no longer exist. Where damage was too heavy, a 35mm duplicate negative was used. The film is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1 on the first dual-layer disc of the three-disc set. The Blu-ray is being released simultaneously alongside a 4K UHD/Blu-ray combo and I am working off of the Blu-ray disc found in that edition. Outside of this edition missing the 4K disc, the editions are otherwise the same.
As has already been noted online there is an issue that crosses over to the standard Blu-ray on both editions, not the UHD: around the time the Bernstein interview begins, maybe even a bit before, contrast goes way off, flattening just about everything to a dark gray, wiping out textures and detail in the process. It’s suspected that somewhere along the line the remaining portion of the film was poorly converted from HDR to SDR, and after doing my own crummy HDR-to-SDR screengrabs from the 4K disc, I would strongly agree that is more than likely what happened.
Criterion is already working on a fix and a new Blu-ray should hopefully be available soon, yet based on the first 24-or-so-minutes (and how the 4K disc turned out when viewed in SDR mode) I’d say this has turned out quite well. To my surprise the first 24-or-so-minutes manages to look better in a few ways when compared to Warner’s already impressive Blu-ray edition, which I think was also sourced from a 4K restoration (though I’m not 100% certain on that admittedly). The image is cleaner, and I’d say a bit more stable, only a few minor bits of debris and what look like the remnants of mold stains on the side remaining. This of course doesn't count the opening newsreel footage, which was purposely damaged to capture the appropriate look.
Contrast is decent but the film does look a little darker in comparison to the previous Blu-ray, blacks coming off a little heavier, but grayscale (again, in the first portions of the film before the technical glitch kicks in) is pretty good, as cleanly shown in the projector room scene following the newsreel sequence, where the smoke is rendered nicely thanks to that sharp contrast and the clean gradients. Shadow details are also nice when the blacks aren’t super heavy.
Before the technical glitch, which manages to severely flatten out the image, grain is rendered cleanly, and the bitrate is healthy, more than likely thanks to the entire disc being devoted to the film. No digital artifacts come to the forefront during the first 24-or-so-minutes.
In all, the first portion of the film looks nice, and it looks promising for the rest of the film after Criterion addresses the contrast issue and reissues new discs.
[The grade above reflects the presentation as it is now but will more than likely be updated when the corrected disc is made available.]
Criterion includes a lossless PCM 1.0 monaural soundtrack. It’s an impressive sounding track considering the film’s age, the release marking its 80th anniversary. Bernard Herrmann’s score shows a shockingly wide amount of range with decent fidelity, dialogue even managing to sound the same. There’s some very minor background noise (which is pretty much expected) but damage isn’t heavy, no drops or pops present.
As expected, Criterion goes all out with special features, spreading them across the three discs. The first disc dedicates its space to the film but we do also get three audio commentaries to choose from. Criterion has first ported over the two commentaries recorded by Warner Bros. in 2002 for their DVD special edition,
the first featuring filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich and the other film critic Roger Ebert. Bogdanovich’s track is okay but is now probably the weakest of the three we get here. Since he knew Welles and even worked with him on the then-unfinished film The Other Side of the Wind, he has plenty of personal stories to share around Welles (and many others he’s not afraid to bring up), but he tends to go silent, pop up to comment a bit about something on screen, whether it’s a composition or technical detail, and then go silent again.
It's fine enough, but it’s completely overshadowed by Ebert’s track, which, all these years later, is still one of my favourite ones. Ebert comes off as far more passionate about the subject matter and rarely goes silent, treating the track as if it’s one of his lectures. As the film plays, he talks about the film’s visuals and the technical tricks Welles and cinematographer Gregg Toland employed in just about every shot and sequence. He’ll point out areas of the screen where you can see how complicated pans and pulls were pulled off, directing your attention to something that would break away for a camera to go through, or even explain how opticals are layered to pull off some unlikely shots. He explains the film’s deep depth of field and how it was accomplished, and then goes into how these visual tricks serve the purpose of the story. Ebert also tackles other subjects around the film’s history, sharing his own thoughts and feelings here and there, but it’s a track very much focused on the technical qualities of the film. Chances are most people who have purchased the film on DVD and/or Blu-ray in the past have already listened to it, but if one hasn’t yet they really need to give it a spin.
The third track, recorded exclusively for this edition, features critics Jonathan Rosenbaum and James Naremore. The two also provided decent-to-great tracks for Criterion’s editions of Welles’ Chimes at Midnight and The Magnificent Ambersons (oddly, not for Othello) and this one’s up there with those. Tackling what many would consider the mother of all films (though the two point out neither consider it the best film ever made, let alone Welles’ best film) the two occasionally feel to be walking on eggshells with each other as they seem to know they disagree—adamantly, apparently—on a number of subjects, seeming to walk around them. But when one says something and the other disagrees, the other lets them know. To an extent this leads them to touching on the many controversies around the film’s legacy, not least of which being the topic on who wrote the film, a topic that also gets brought up a few times throughout the features.
The two also talk about the film’s production and, like Ebert, cover the film’s technical attributes and effects work, go over William Randolph Hearst’s attempts in burying the film, and then how the film, after disappearing for years, started to come back into the mainstream and grow in stature. Throughout they also reference other critics and scholars, including the likes of Joseph McBride and Pauline Kael, Kael’s essay “Raising Kane” and the fallout from that leading to a decent discussion all on its own. It’s another nicely put together track from the two and they yet again keep the momentum going.
The remaining features are then spread over the other two dual-layer Blu-ray discs, the discs seeming to be divided by topic, Blu-ray 2 focusing on the film itself and 3 focusing on Welles’ Mercury Theatre and its troupe. The second disc starts things off with a making-of documentary, though interestingly not the one Warner has included with many their own special and deluxe editions, The Battle Over Citizen Kane, which was an episode from the PBS series American Experience. It may seem like a significant exclusion, but I assure you it’s not. Naremore even lets his distaste for that documentary come to the surface in the commentary track with Rosenbaum, stating he’s ashamed he even has a credit in it, which came out of his providing materials to the episode’s creators. It doesn’t take long to realize he hates the film.
That documentary does cover the film’s production and Hearst’s desire to have the film destroyed in good detail, yet it’s incredibly one-sided. Criticisms thrown at the documentary it feels as though Hearst rose from the dead to commission it aren’t too far off base: it really comes off more like a hit piece against Welles, even going out of its way to paint Hearst in a better light.
There are certain aspects around Welles and the film that prove to be touchy to an older generation, the one that discovered it when it made its way to revival houses after disappearing for years, and I’m sometimes shocked at the level of spite that can be thrown around when the accepted history of the film is challenged, something I got to witness on social media when David Fincher’s Mank was released. Thanks to those types of reactions it can be easy to dismiss the vitriol thrown at a documentary not conforming to a specific narrative locked in by a fervent fanbase, but even if I won’t let myself get worked up on such topics I still thought the documentary was ridiculous. One doesn’t even have to think of Citizen Kane as untouchable to recognize how unfair it is to Welles. It won’t be missed and I’m glad Criterion chose not to include it, going a different direction.
Instead, to fill in that gap, they have dug up a far more interesting and level-headed making-of, advertised here as a rarely seen feature, the 1991 BBC program commemorating the 50th anniversary of the film, The Complete “Citizen Kane.” The 95-minute television episode (which I think was shown before an airing of Citizen Kane) starts things off wonderfully by imagining the opening sequence of the film Welles originally intended to make first, Heart of Darkness, even recreating his planned models and possible narration before moving on to the film he would end up making, Citizen Kane. Through interviews the documentary covers the film’s production and the Hearst controversy in impeccable detail, then moving on to how it was rediscovered and grew in stature through the decades. Critics and scholars like Robert Carringer and Pauline Kael show up, Kael talking about her essay that started a firestorm, leading into the controversy around who should have writing credit. Bogdanovich also shows up to talk about a number of things, including offering a counter to Kael. The program also has an amusing little section covering the year leading up to Citizen Kane’s release, throws in archival interviews with Welles, and the last 10-minutes or so goes over Hearst’s career, drawing parallels to Kane’s life in the film. It’s a great little find on Criterion’s part, coming off fairer in its coverage without going one way or the other on certain controversies and topics. For anyone not already familiar with the film, this is a great place to go to learn about its production and how it came to be as highly regarded as it is today.
Moving on, Criterion has—as I expected—gone back to their LaserDisc features for the 50th anniversary release (not to be confused with their first LaserDisc edition for the film, spine #1, which only had a visual essay by Robert Carringer alongside the original trailer) and re-edited them for this edition. For Working on “Kane” Criterion edits together the interviews they conducted back in 1990 with actor Ruth Warrick, editor Robert Wise, and special-effects artist Linwood Dunn, who all directly worked on Kane. For its 18-minute running time the three talk about working with Welles and share their respective experiences on the film. Warrick talks about the dinner/marriage montage and the lack of directing she felt she received from Welles, the filmmaker explaining to her she didn’t need it, while Wise talks about the more complicated techniques that went into editing the film, like how they degraded the film for the newsreel footage. Dunn recounts some of the optical work and how Welles’ sensibilities changed as he became more familiar with the technical aspects of filmmaking. Freshly edited for this edition, it’s a great little feature providing first-hand accounts on the film, and the Warrick and Wise interviews are more satisfying than the short ones Warner Bros. included on their previous releases.
On Toland is a 15-minute feature on director of photography Gregg Toland, made up again of interviews Criterion recorded back in 1990 for the 50th Anniversary LaserDisc edition, this time with cinematographers Allen Daviau, Haskell Wexler, and Vilmos Zsigmond. The three recount how the first saw the film and how it impacted them and continues to influence them. They talk about the film’s complicated lighting and depth of field, and it was fun hearing how the three, particularly Zsigmond, still weren’t completely sure how Toland was able to pull of some of the sequences, at least when this interview was recorded 30-years ago.
Craig Barron and Ben Burtt, visual effects and sound effects experts respectively, take a deep dive into the film’s effects work, with the conversation around the visuals ranging from in-camera effects to use of an optical printer, matte paintings, and much, much more. I must confess I never paid much attention to the film’s sound design and Burtt manages to point out some things I never paid much attention to, from use of reverberation to placement and timing of sounds. The two’s respective topics then come together when they both breakdown both the visual and sound effects for the attempted suicide sequence, Barron offering up some onscreen visual aids on how things are layered, a technique he utilizes throughout the feature for other effect shots. I always enjoy their contributions since they clearly explain the work and how it was accomplished, and it all ends up being a brisk 27-minutes.
Robert L. Carringer had provided a visual essay for Criterion’s original LaserDisc edition, released in 1984, and he provides another one here, going over the possible meanings of “Rosebud,” including the rumoured salacious meaning it had for Hearst. The 14-minute feature also breaks out into other topics, including Welles’ dislike of Hearst and how he considered the ending “dollar store Freud,” but he couldn’t come up with anything better. Carringer even manages to link in Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus. The essay is quick and nicely edited, featuring photos, designs and what I think are storyboards alongside the narration.
To tackle the William Randolph Hearst link to the film, critic Farran Smith Nehme offers a very in-depth overview of the media tycoon’s life and the parallels it shares with Kane’s in the film. This leads her to speculate why Hearst had his sights set on Welles’ film and not other forms of art that were inspired by his life, including Aldous Huxley’s novel After Many a Summer, the portrayal of Hearst’s relationship with showgirl-turned-actress Marion Davies and her alcoholism maybe being the topic that ultimately sent Hearst into a tizzy. Hearst gets a lot of mention throughout the features, which is not at all a surprise, but I appreciated this focused inclusion that also works to break through some of the myths.
Of the new features I ended up most liking Racquel J. Gates’ contribution, which focuses on the difficulties in introducing the film to younger generations, its reputation and untouchable status as (at the very least) one of the great films being a hindrance since younger generations come to it already prepared to hate it. Gates ultimately suggests the film should be reframed a bit. Using her students as examples, she explains the differing reactions she’s seen in her attempts to appropriately frame the film, ranging from her feeling like Kane during Susan’s opening night where she’s horrified no one is enjoying it, to students getting into the film and understanding the dynamics of the Kane/Susan relationship (and I chuckled at one of the comparisons she used with students). Once the students connect, she can then start going over its strengths, why it’s considered great, and not only show the film’s technical marvels but why Welles used them in the first place. Her conversation then segues into how the film’s reputation can also harm other films from the period, or from decades before, since they can be easily looked over, bringing up how some of Kane’s technical and narrative accomplishments were seen prior, including in the silent film Within Our Gates.
Even though Gates is in no way saying the film doesn’t deserve its status, and she clearly loves the film, I have a feeling some won’t appreciate what she covers, but, to relate personally (and I have a feeling it won’t be a unique experience in my generation), when I went into the film way back I had a certain set of expectations that probably led to negatively skewing my initial viewing (on an RCA VideoDisc mind you) and it took some time and another viewing or two (on VHS) before I felt like I finally got it. The film is quite entertaining and an absolute marvel to this day, but its reputation does set up certain expectations that will probably not be met by newcomers, especially younger generations, and I thought Gates made some great points about how that can and has negatively impacted the film through the years since its rediscovery. Again, I thought this one of the stronger contributions.
Moving on, Criterion digs up their 1990 interview with director Martin Scorsese, who talks for 7-minutes about his first seeing the film (on TV in an edited form that sounds to have inexplicably cut out the newsreel opening) and how he marveled at its camera work and other technical attributes. Criterion also ports over the still photo gallery with commentary by Ebert that has appeared on previous Warner editions. The 12-minute video plays through several production stills but stops at around the 6-minute point (over a title card) while Ebert talks about the impact the film has had and its status as “greatest” film of all time, which he finds a bit silly. But he feels the film is as great as it is, despite Welles’ zero experience at the time, due to the young director just being able to get the right people to work on the film, specifically Gregg Toland. Ebert’s track is a nice little add-on to his feature commentary, which looked more at the technical aspects of the film. Sadly, this is also the only gallery Criterion has ported from the Warner releases, which also featured a few other galleries, including correspondence between various entities. The feature is also a direct port from the Warner disc and has been upscaled from standard-definition.
Also from the Warner disc is 1-minute’s worth of Pathé newsreel footage covering the opening world premiere of the film, followed by the film’s theatrical trailer, which closes off the second Blu-ray.
The third dual-layer Blu-ray, as I mentioned, features content that focuses on Welles and the Mercury Theatre specifically, only referencing Citizen Kane where appropriate. My Guest is Orson Welles is a newly created feature gathering 42-minutes’ worth of excerpts from television interviews Welles participated in through the 70’s and early 80’s, including (but not limited to) ones with Dick Cavett, Merv Griffin, and the AFI. It’s broken down into sections, from Welles’ myth building, where Welles either pushes the myths around his life or explains why he’s built up these myths (which could also be a myth) to how he would finance his films. It jumps around but is impressively edited considering the wealth of material they had to work with, having a clean and natural flow that allows Welles to tell his own story. If I had one slight annoyance with it it’s that the section around his love of magic tricks never shows a complete trick, from beginning to end, only serving up highlights. Otherwise, I thought this was a great little addition.
The final section to make use of Criterion’s 1990 interviews comes in the form of Knowing Welles, a 22-minute program featuring interviews with filmmakers Bogdanovich, Martin Ritt and Henry Jaglom, producer Frank Marshall, and cinematographer Gary Graver. Ritt and Jaglom directed Welles and talk about their experiences with him as an actor and on a personal level, Jaglom seeming to be a bit more irate on how he had been treated and perceived through the years. The other three recount working with him on The Other Side of the Wind, sharing their own stories, including how eating out with Welles meant going to the best restaurants. You also hear stories here similar to stories around the making of Citizen Kane, Gravers recounting how they shot tests that were going to end up being used in the finished film, similar to what Welles did with Kane to get around budget limitations and possible studio interference.
Next is a section devoted to actor Joseph Cotton, which presents his 3-minute speech for Welles’ AFI Lifetime Achievement Award ceremony alongside a 1966 interview with the actor. The 15-minute interview is a decent career retrospective, Cotten—who I keep forgetting was a decade older than Welles—talking about getting into acting at a late age and how Welles and Citizen Kane were the only reasons he was able to get into Hollywood. He also talks about his disappointment behind his interview scene in the film, which ended up being quickly filmed when several unfortunate circumstances led to it being hastily put together and filmed, as a “test” mind you. He hated his make-up, having to incorporate the visor to hide some obvious seams, and it ended up being the first film scene he had ever done, making him wonder if he really wanted to get into film acting. It’s an excellent find and a great interview, which ended up making me aware I don’t believe I’ve ever seen any sort of interview with the actor before.
Criterion also digs up a 21-minute interview from 1996 with actor William Alland, who of course plays Thompson in the film. Here he talks about joining the Mercury Theatre, the move to Hollywood to shoot Kane, and some of his work afterwards. As pointed out in the notes, though, Alland’s career didn’t take off like others from the troupe.
The disc then devotes a section to the Mercury Theatre and writer/producer/actor John Houseman. The first feature here is a 1988 television episode around Houseman from the program The South Bank Show. Featuring interviews with Houseman and others (including archival interviews with Welles) it provides a retrospective of his career, from when he first got into stage production and co-founding the Mercury Theatre with Welles, the move to radio, his eventual fallout with Welles over Kane, and then his late move into acting (after doing small roles here and there) with The Paper Chase, for which he won a number of awards. There’s also mentions of his Smith Barney ads, which may have cemented him as, to quote Bill Murray in Scrooged, “America’s favourite old fart.” When talking about who wrote Citizen Kane it’s worth mentioning that Houseman treats the matter delicately, as this is something that has become a very sore spot for many, including him, as I alluded to earlier. Yet he does share here what he thinks happened, and how he feels Welles perceived things. I admittedly don’t know all of the details, but I do appreciate Criterion still offering content throughout the set that comes at the topic from numerous directions.
That topic also carries on through to an 18-minute excerpt from a 1975 episode of The Merv Griffin Show, which included Welles, Houseman, and actor Robert Blake as guests. According to Houseman and Welles this would be the first time they’ve talked to each other in years, and Welles talks about burying an “imaginary hatchet.” Everything appears fine, though again, that South Bank episode 13 years later suggests its still touchy for Houseman. At the very least, the two here reminisce a bit around that earlier period with the Mercury Theatre, the radio program, and Kane, with Welles admiring how Houseman was able to just change careers and go into acting. Funny enough, the idea of Houseman performing back in the Mercury Theatre days never crossed any of their minds, and Welles has to laugh at how, out of everyone, Houseman was the only one to win an Oscar for acting.
After that, Criterion includes three radio plays recorded for the CBS radio program, The Mercury Theatre on the Air, including Dracula (53-minutes), Heart of Darkness (35-minutes), and His Honor, the Mayor (28-minutes), that last of which also advertises Welles’ then upcoming film, Citizen Kane. Audio is spotty but the first two are faithful adaptations, Dracula told from multiple perspectives, and the Heart of Darkness adaptation manages to create some vivid visuals in your head, making it a bit of shame Welles didn’t end up doing his own film adaptation.
His Honor, the Mayor is an original piece, a cautionary tale around a mayor having to deal with an assembly being put together by a group of white supremacists in his hometown, while also addressing the townsfolk who demand he stop it or let it go as planned. The mayor, who is disgusted by the group, insists he shouldn’t intervene since it’s being conducted in a public space and he has no right to stop it, but various townspeople, concerned about a rise in fascism, want no part of it. The play takes an interesting approach to the subject and doesn’t present things as black-and-white, and the characters, especially for the time, end up being far more complicated than I would have expected. It also touches on how people don’t really understand different ideologies, some characters clearly not knowing what they’re talking about, mimicking what they hear. I was also amused by how another character, accused by many of being a communist, corrects another by explaining he’s, in fact, an anarchist. It’s not perfect but I appreciated that some nuance was attempted, and Welles doesn’t play the “both sides are bad” angle; it’s clear who the villains of the story are, he just seems interested in showing how American ideals can be tricky to properly put into practice. In the end, Welles insists there’s no easy answers for the subject, but the message does ultimately seem to be that the garbage will end up taking itself out.
Closing the disc off are Welles’ actual first film, 1934’s silent feature The Hearts of Age, along with a visual essay put together by David Cairns and Randall William Cook for The Criterion Channel in 2017, Orson Welles: On the Nose. The 8-minute short film appears to be a student film, and it’s a hard one to read into. I couldn’t really make a lot of sense of it, but there are some interesting edits and visuals, and I thought the old age make-up wasn’t terrible considering what I assume would have been limited resources, though the “black face” make-up that appears doesn’t do anybody any favours (the short, which looks to come from a recent restoration, does start off with a warning about the content). The Cairns/Cook essay is a short 8-minute look at how Welles used prosthetic noses for his characters to develop them more, though some of it probably also came down Welles just not liking his own button nose. This leads to some discussion around other actors that used prosthetics and the art behind it. It’s a fun inclusion.
Finally, the set—which comes in an unfriendly fold-out package that would have been greatly improved upon if Criterion had simply put the access slots on the sleeves for the discs on the outer edges of the flaps instead of the inner ones—closes with a 42-page booklet that features an extensive essay on the film written by Bilge Ebiri. It’s an excellent essay, and one of the release’s strongest additions, Ebiri covering the film’s production, rediscovery, interpretations, and controversies in one nice friendly package. For those new to the film, it’s a must-read.
Altogether, Criterion has really knocked it out with the supplements. Due to the film’s reputation and the very fact this was Criterion’s very first title to enter the collection back in 1984, there were probably some unfair expectations around supplements, but I think Criterion has really met those expectations and then some. The features do a wonderful job of covering the film’s development and production, examine its legacy and what that might look like going ahead, and addresses the various controversies in a fair fashion. It also does a wonderful job in covering the Mercury Theatre and the troupe’s move from stage to radio to screen. It’s a hell of a collection of material.
The disc suffers from a poor HDR-to-SDR conversion, but Criterion is already addressing this and will have fixes out soon; what parts of the presentation that weren’t affected do look promising at the very least. Still, Criterion has put together a hell of a special edition when it comes to supplements, loading the three discs with a wide array of features delving into the film’s legacy.