Release Date(s)1941 (November 23, 2021)
Studio(s)RKO Radio Pictures/Mercury Productions/Warner Bros. (The Criterion Collection – Spine #1104)
- Film/Program Grade: A+
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: A+
[Editor’s Note: The film portion of this review is by Barrie Maxwell, from his review of the 2011 70th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray. The 4K UHD portions are by Bill Hunt.]
It’s not difficult to know what to say about Citizen Kane (1941, RKO), just coming up with something new that hasn’t been said before. The film must surely be the most analyzed and written about of any produced during the past century—not that one would expect any less for what is widely considered to be the best film made to date, regularly heading the various top-ten film lists whether they be of popular or academic origin.
And yet, there are people that don’t get it. “The plot is too convoluted.” “Yes, it’s technically interesting, but otherwise boring to sit through.” “It’s an Orson Welles ego trip.” And so on. Of course, one’s enjoyment of any film is a subjective affair, but at risk of alienating part of my audience, I can only say that if you don’t like Citizen Kane, then I would have to question your real appreciation of or love for cinema.
This is a film that can be savoured on multiple levels. Is it acting that’s your primary interest? Then sit back and enjoy a whole raft of actors making their impressive film debuts: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead, Ruth Warwick, George Coulouris, Everett Sloane, Ray Collins, Paul Stewart. Maybe you appreciate the work of a top-flight cinematographer? Then let Greg Toland give you a course on the sort of deep focus work previously only hinted at in films. Perhaps you enjoy watching how the director frames the various scenes and positions the actors to get certain desired effects? Then Orson Welles will give you endless examples to analyze and argue about. Does skillful editing do it for you? Then Robert Wise and Welles virtually provide a textbook on when and how to go about it. Or maybe an intriguingly structured script full of good turns of phrase excites you? Then Herman Mankiewicz and Welles have the answer for you.
Yet a collection of individual parts, no matter how good each part is, doesn’t always add up to an effective whole. To make that happen, there has to be an overall vision and an ability to ensure it’s realized. Fortunately, one man had both the vision and the clout—Orson Welles, a 25-year old with virtually no previous film experience to speak of. How did that come about in Hollywood in 1941—a place and time where the studio system was dominant and the ultimate power was in the hands of studio heads like Jack Warner at Warner Bros. and Louis B. Mayer at MGM?
By 1939, Welles had already conquered radio with the infamous broadcast of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds and had just made his mark on Broadway with several productions. Films seemed like the obvious next step and in August of that year, Welles signed a contract with RKO Radio Pictures. At the time, RKO was undergoing extensive reorganization and was led by George J. Schaefer, the most progressive of any studio head of the time. As a result, of the major studios, it was only RKO that would have given Welles a contract with the sort of control that he wanted and to which he felt entitled. The agreement called for Welles to make one picture a year, for which he would have final cut, and in which he could be producer, director, writer, or actor as he wished. Welles immediately jumped into pre-production on a film of Joseph Conrad’s Hearts of Darkness, but eventually RKO got cold feet over Welles’s unorthodox approach to the material. A second, more conventional project was proposed—a film based on an English thriller by Nicholas Blake, The Smiler with a Knife. Only when this too was shelved after the lead role was turned down by several top actresses of the day (Carole Lombard and Rosalind Russell) did Welles turn to Citizen Kane. The initial script was written by Herman J. Mankiewicz and with Welles contributing, subsequently went through three more drafts before it was considered ready. So, after almost a year of screening films, working on scripts, and learning the practicalities of lighting, sound, and camerawork, shooting finally began on a Welles film on June 29, 1940. Principal photography on Citizen Kane was completed on October 23. After post-production, RKO was ready to release the film on February 14, 1941.
Citizen Kane, however, did not actually premiere until May 1, 1941. The delay was entirely due to the objections raised by newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, upon whose life the film was supposedly based. The saga began when Louella Parsons (the Hollywood representative for the Hearst papers) and two Hearst lawyers saw an early print of the film. When Parsons reported to Hearst that Citizen Kane was an unauthorized biography of him, Hearst demanded that RKO not release the film. Thus began three months of wrangling that included a ban on any mention of RKO product in Hearst newspapers, a split in the RKO Board of Directors over whether Kane should be released, a cash offer to RKO from other Hollywood studios for the film’s negative (which they would supposedly then destroy), a threat that Welles would file a breach-of-contract suit over RKO’s failure to release the film, and so on. The whole tempest really ended with a whimper, however, as the news gradually trickled out from advance press screenings that Citizen Kane was the real thing. Eventually, RKO’s Board came on side and an official release was approved despite Hearst’s continued protestations.
If not unanimous, the acclaim for Citizen Kane was widespread. The film did well at the box office initially and particularly in major cities; however, it was only with its re-release in 1956 that it finally turned a profit for RKO. It was cited as the best picture of 1941 by the New York critics and the National Board of Review. Nine Academy Award nominations were announced including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor (Welles), but Hollywood itself was not won over and Citizen Kane triumphed in only one category—Best Original Screenplay. It was only with the 1956 re-release that the real acclaim for the film began to build. Sight and Sound polls of international film critics and scholars to select the best films in motion picture history placed Citizen Kane at the top of the list in 1962, 1972, 1982, and 1992. In 1998, the AFI’s Top 100 American Films list (whatever one may think of it) also placed Citizen Kane at number one.
Which brings us back full circle to why it’s so acclaimed. I’ve already mentioned the acting and the direction and the camerawork and the editing and the script and so on. All had innovative elements. The real brilliance was that so much innovation should appear in one film and that all components should work so well both individually and collectively. No matter how many repeated viewings one experiences, you never manage to exhaust all the film’s pleasures. I think it’s a matter that you notice one particular framing or cut or optical effect or line of dialogue and you’re so struck by it that by the time you get your mind back on the film, you’ve missed some other extraordinary piece.
Consider the sequence during which the young Charlie Kane is taken from his home in Colorado and the following years of Thatcher’s guardianship. Look for: the brief but wonderfully lyrical music that introduces us to Charlie playing in the snow—the only music of that sort in the film; the deep focus effects, particularly where Charlie playing outside in the snow remains completely in focus in the background through the window while his future is finalized inside, in the foreground; the overlapping dialogue between Charlie’s mother and Thatcher which in turn overlaps Charlie’s father’s concerns, as well as the fainter sounds of Charlie playing outside; the camera positioned at table-top level where Charlie’s mother signs the papers, clearly showing the roof of the set, and creating a triangular effect between Charlie’s father on the left and his mother and Thatcher on the right and the distant Charlie at the apex; the power of Agnes Moorehead’s performance as Charlie’s mother—despair, resolve, and resignation all simply conveyed through blank facial expression and flatness of voice; the entire interaction between Thatcher and Kane’s parents both inside and outside the house filmed with but a single cut (when Charlie’s mother goes to the window to call him after the signing of the papers); Charlie’s departure with Thatcher, simply signified by a shot of the abandoned sled accumulating a layer of snow as a train whistle sounds in the distance; the first temporal cut handled so adroitly around Thatcher’s words “Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year” taking us from a young Charlie to one 25-years old, and the second more jarring temporal cut that accents Thatcher’s displeasure over Charlie’s avowed lack of interest in any part of his fortune other than a newspaper. All this in little more than five minutes of screen time.
Much has been made of Citizen Kane’s deep focus photography. And rightly so, for it provides a striking look to the entire picture that distinguishes it from any film that had come before. But this was not the first usage of the technique. Some examples exist in silent films including D.W. Griffith’s Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912). When film stocks improved in the 1930s, the possibilities became greater. Jean Renoir experimented with several deep-focus shots in his films including La règle du jeu (1939). By that time, cinematographer Gregg Toland had been experimenting with deep focus or what he referred to as “pan-focus,” a technique that allowed the camera to photograph objects as close as a foot or so and others up to several hundred feet with equal clarity together, much as the human eye is capable of doing. Some examples of his efforts prior to Citizen Kane can be seen in John Ford’s The Long Voyage Home (1940). In Welles, Toland found a like-minded film-maker and the two worked hand-in-hand in developing the camera angles, lighting, and photographic technique. There was extensive pre-production planning and testing of such aspects, a novelty in itself in Hollywood where cinematographers often found themselves assigned to a film only a day or so before shooting began. It is no accident that Toland’s credit for cinematography on Citizen Kane is as large as that of Welles for its production and direction.
One can dwell exhaustively on other technical aspects of the film’s production, but in the end, it is the entertainment value of the story that Citizen Kane tells that is key to the film’s success, as it must be with any good film. Welles’ original notion had been to tell the same story several different times, each from a different point of view. With that as a premise, he and Herman Mankiewicz searched for a person for the story to be about and eventually settled on the American press barons as the source of a composite character that came to be known as Charles Foster Kane. It was an excellent opportunity to depict the spirit of the early part of 20th century America by focusing on one individual’s foray into mass media, popular entertainment, and politics. Seeing how the mighty rise to power and how their success often leads to personal downfall always has appeal to a broad audience. Structuring the telling of the story of that life in the manner that Welles did and cloaking it in a treasure chest of film technique make the story come alive in such a way that it seems ever fresh no matter how often you see the film. Above all, this is a film that’s great fun to watch. Orson Welles’ enjoyment and exhilaration in putting the film together come through in every frame.
Citizen Kane was shot on 35 mm nitrate B&W film by Toland (Wuthering Heights, The Grapes of Wrath) using Mitchell BNC cameras, with Cooke Speed Panchro and Astro-Berlin Pan Tachar Lenses, and of course it was finished photochemically in the 1.37:1 Academy aspect ratio for its original theatrical release. Unfortunately, the film’s original camera negative no longer exists, so the film has been newly restored by Criterion (in conjunction with Warner Bros. Motion Picture Imaging) from a combination of sources, including a 35 mm nitrate composite fine-grain master along with a 35 mm dupe negative (for select scenes for which the nitrate master was too damaged), both of which were made from the original camera negative in 1941. Each was scanned in 16-bit 4K in high density and “3-flash HDR” to retrieve maximum detail from the negatives, using a 35 mm Academy print and the 2010 Warner Bros. restoration as a grading reference. The image is presented with both HDR10 and Dolby Vision high dynamic range on the 4K disc. The result is impressive, with a remarkable abundance of image detail—certainly more than we’ve ever seen on any home video before. Occasionally, parts of the image exhibit soft focus. But when the focus is crisp, you can see the fine weave of suit fabric and the rich texture of plaster, wood, and brick. One of the most impressive shots is the aforementioned flashback sequence, which starts with young Charlie playing outside in the snow as his parents sign over his guardianship indoors. Grain is medium in optically printed shots and transitions (which are numerous) and light to light-medium at other times, though the film’s opening newsreel sequence exhibits a variety of quality issues by design (including scratches, more coarse grain, and density issues, some of which are due to the use of—or replication of—hand-cranked camera stock footage). The HDR grade widens the contrast range a bit without pushing it too far, allowing for deeply dark and detailed shadows, with more realistically bold brights. This isn’t the finest looking B&W film available in 4K, but it’s certainly the best that Citizen Kane has looked in a very long time, which is remarkable given that the production is 80 years old now.
The film’s original English mono audio is available in LPCM 48k/24-bit. This too has been restored from the nitrate negatives’ optical tracks, using the cleanest portions of each. An enormous amount of physical damage has been repaired or addressed, including pops, clicks, dropouts, warble, and other distortion. The result is the cleanest track possible, a modest but notable improvement upon the 2011 audio experience. Dialogue is clear at all times. Sound effects have nice dynamics and heft. Bernard Herrmann’s score fares well in the mix, with pleasing fidelity. And there’s very little in the way of audible analog hiss. Optional subtitles are available in English only.
Criterion’s new Ultra HD/Blu-ray Combo release is a 4-disc set, featuring the film in 4K and 1080p HD on separate discs, along with two discs of special features. Extras are distributed thusly:
Ultra HD – Citizen Kane (4K)
- Audio Commentary by James Naremore and Jonathan Rosenbaum (recorded in 2021)
- Audio Commentary by Roger Ebert (recorded in 2002)
- Audio Commentary by Peter Bogdanovich (recorded in 2002)
Blu-ray Disc 1 – Citizen Kane (HD)
- Audio Commentary by James Naremore and Jonathan Rosenbaum (recorded in 2021)
- Audio Commentary by Roger Ebert (recorded in 2002)
- Audio Commentary by Peter Bogdanovich (recorded in 2002)
[Editor’s Note: This disc has a problem in that the original HDR master has been improperly converted to SDR for most of the film. The trouble starts about 30:01 and continues for the remainder of the film, the result of which is that the image is far too dim. Criterion has announced a replacement program for this Blu-ray, and you’ll find the instructions of taking advantage of it at the end of this review.]
Blu-ray Disc 2 – Special Features (HD)
- The Complete “Citizen Kane” (1992 BBC documentary) (Upsampled SD – 95:16)
- Working on “Kane” (1990 Criterion LaserDisc interviews) (HD – 18:16)
- On Toland (1990 Criterion LaserDisc interviews) (HD – 15:32)
- Craig Barron and Ben Burtt (2021 featurette) (HD – 27:34)
- Robert L. Carringer: Rosebud Reconstructed (2021 video essay) (HD – 13:52)
- Farran Smith Nehme (2021 interview) (HD – 23:06)
- Racquel J. Gates: Reframing “Kane” (2021 interview) (HD – 15:56)
- Martin Scorsese (1990 Criterion LaserDisc interview) (HD – 7:25)
- Stills Photography with Commentary by Roger Ebert (2002) (Upsampled SD – 11:00)
- The Opening: The World Premiere of “Citizen Kane” (1941 newsreel) (Upsampled SD – 1:08)
- Theatrical Trailer (Upsampled SD – 3:47)
Blu-ray Disc 3 – Special Features (HD)
- My Guest is Orson Welles (2021 vintage TV appearance gallery) (Upsampled SD – 42:37)
- Knowing Welles (1990 Criterion LaserDisc interviews) (HD – 22:24)
- Joseph Cotten 1966 Interview (HD – 15:16)
- Joseph Cotton 1975 AFI Speech (Upsampled SD – 3:02)
- William Alland: The Man Who Pursued Rosebud (1996 interview) (Upsampled SD – 20:49)
- Mercury Theater: The South Bank Show (1988) (Upsampled SD – 50:47)
- Mercury Theater: The Merv Griffin Show (1979) (Upsampled SD – 18:31)
- Mercury Theater: Dracula (1938 radio broadcast) (HD – 53:13)
- Mercury Theater: Heart of Darkness (1938 radio broadcast) (HD – 35:24)
- Mercury Theater: His Honor, The Mayor (1941 radio broadcast) (HD – 28:42)
- Orson Welles: On the Nose (2017 Criterion Channel short) (HD – 8:21)
- The Hearts of Age (1934 silent film) (HD – 8:21)
What’s great about Criterion’s supplements is that they’re a fantastic mix of material that’s appeared on previous Warner Bros. Blu-ray and DVD releases, as well as material carried over from Criterion’s original 1990 LaserDisc release, and much newly-produced and curated content as well. All of the LaserDisc features have been updated to HD (with photography and film imagery in 1080p) but with the original SD video interview footage upsampled. It would be a disservice to describe all of this content in detail, because one really should experience it first hand, but highlights include the previous audio commentaries and a new one by authors/historians James Naremore and Jonathan Rosenbaum (who offer contextual detail and information about the film gained from years’ worth of research), a rarely seen BBC documentary on the film from 1992, a great piece with Craig Barron and Ben Burtt (who look back at the film’s groundbreaking visual effects work and innovative production techniques), an interview with Columbia University film professor Racquel J. Gates (who talks about the challenges of teaching Citizen Kane to today’s young film students, and how she approaches this task by finding ways to make the material relatable to them), scores of vintage TV appearances by Welles and his collaborators from the 1970s and 80s, a trio of original Mercury Theater radio productions in their entirety, and even one of Welles’ first short films made when he was just nineteen. There’s also a 42-page book featuring a terrific extended essay by Bilge Ebiri of New York magazine.
Not quite everything created before is included here—some of the SD video image galleries from Warner’s 2011 Blu-ray are missing, as are that edition’s inclusions of the documentary American Experience: The Battle Over Citizen Kane (SD – 113:25) and Benjamin Ross’ feature film RKO 281 (SD – 86:42) on separate DVD discs. But short of that, this is a fantastic archive of content—literally hours’ worth—all of it thoughtful and deeply illuminating for your experience of the main event.
Citizen Kane is a film that belongs on the shelf of any serious cinephile, regardless of video format. But if one needs further incentive to own Criterion’s stunning new 4K UHD/Blu-ray compendium, know that the film looks and sounds better here than most of you will ever have experienced it before, and it’s supported by one of the finest collections of special features assembled for a Hollywood production of this vintage to date. Even with the movie Blu-ray SDR error (which is swiftly being corrected—again see the details below), don’t hesitate for a moment in adding this release to your collection. Criterion’s Citizen Kane is not simply recommended, it’s essential.
- Barrie Maxwell with Bill Hunt