How do you ‘review’ the film that consistently tops both viewers and critics’ polls as the greatest movie of all time? The Citizen Kane DVD is without doubt, the finest b&w transfer for home video ever, not only is there no trace of film grain and age (except the News on the March, newsreel sections), the sound (Digital Dolby 2.1 mono) is completely free of hiss, pops, clicks hum and other forms of audible distortion. No way are you ever going to run into a print this good at a festival. With insightful commentaries by director Peter Bogdanovich and Roger Ebert, and too many fascinating supplements to list here, including storyboards, call sheets, opening night footage and stills; this DVD an absolute must-have. For fans.
But what about those who have never seen Citizen Kane, folks who, as Roger Ebert succinctly notes, generally rent movies that came out six months ago, whose idea of an old movie is Star Wars (1977)? The answer is – it depends. Certainly fans of the Coen Brothers, Lars von Trier, Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, et al, will be spellbound, as will anyone who enjoys foreign film – or New Zealand film. Anyone who enjoys a great saga will be enthralled. But chances are, if you thought Miss Congeniality or 2 Fast 2 Furious was great, Citizen Kane will put you to sleep.
Loosely based on the life of American newspaper tycoon, William Randolph Hearst, the 24-year-old Orson Welles’ film debut was a send-up of the excesses of the wealthy and powerful. The film opens with a long shot surveying a palatial estate, lingering over its private zoo and lake, zooming in on a man-made mountain, on top of which sits a castle with a light burning in a single window.
We enter through the window to find Charles Foster Kane, alone on his deathbed. He whispers the most famous opening line in movie history, “Rosebud” and dies. What follows is a reporter’s search for the meaning of that word. He meets with five of Kane’s closest associates and his ex-wife and slowly a picture forms of an arrogant, frustrated man, driven by the need to be adored.
Made while Hearst was still alive, the multi-millionaire industrialist was angered by the film’s parallels to his life. Unlike Kane, Hearst never divorced his first wife, though he openly lived with Hollywood starlet Marion Davis. According to Hollywood legend, “Rosebud” was Hearst’s pet name for Davis’ pudenda and Welles’ usage of the term as the film’s driver so enraged him, he did his best to prevent it from being released. When that failed, he used his enormous influence to limit its distribution.
Despite critical acclaim for its groundbreaking techniques; Gregg Toland’s ‘deep focus’ photography, which allowed objects in the fore, middle and background to remain in focus at all times; Welles’ revolutionary use of camera angles and lighting (as a first timer, he didn’t know that directors did not set up the lighting), and economical direction, so every shot is essential; the film only won one Oscar, for scriptwriting, which Welles shared with Herman Mankiewicz. It cost $800,000 to make and lost $160,000 in its original release. However, Welles held a 25% interest in the film, and subsequent rereleases met with greater and greater audiences and kept the director solvent through his tumultuous career.
It plays as well today as it ever did. Citizen Kane, isn’t just a classic from 1941. It’s one hell of a good movie.