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Citizen Kane: 70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition (Blu-ray Review)

10 Sep, 2011 By: John Latchem

Street 9/13/11
$49.92 DVD, $64.99 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Everett Sloane, Agnes Moorehead, Ruth Warrick, Paul Stewart, William Alland.

Is there anything left to say about Citizen Kane that hasn’t already been said?

It’s already widely considered the greatest film ever made, regularly topping prestigious lists from the likes of the American Film Institute and Sight & Sound Magazine. Of course, such judgment is usually based on the film’s exquisite technical merits compared to its contemporaries, the way it experimented with a non-linear narrative to retrospectively tell the story of controversial newspaper publisher Charles Foster Kane, who spends a lifetime trying to control the world to fill the void of the lost innocence of his youth.

In 1941, the film was way ahead of its time, an all-the-more remarkable achievement considering writer-director-star Orson Welles was just 25 when he made it. (Scour the ranks of Hollywood’s current 25 club and you find the likes of Lindsay Lohen, Megan Fox and Shia LaBeouf — not exactly a fair comparison).

What’s even more remarkable is the story behind the film, and how close it came to never seeing the light of day.

The film’s notoriety has led to it being analyzed so much through the years, and that is perhaps the biggest thing hampering this new 70th anniversary set, as there is nothing really “new” here. Almost all the bonus material from the 2001 special-edition DVD has been carried over, including separate commentaries by film critic Roger Ebert and Welles buddy Peter Bogdanovich, newsreel footage from the premiere, and production galleries. And what’s the point of a new retrospective when the “American Experience” documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane, included here as a separate DVD as it was in 2001, covers everything so well?

Aside from photographs and reproductions of production memos, the only new video extras are a pair of brief interviews with actress Ruth Warrick and editor Robert Wise, who went on to become a great director in his own right. These interviews were recorded in the 1990s (both died in 2005), and a lot of what they say covers what they said in The Battle Over Citizen Kane.

Ah, but what you do get is this great film translated beautifully to 1080p. The team at Warner has restored the film in 4K from original nitrate elements, and even removed up a few blemishes that looked like they could have belonged. It doesn’t jump off the screen as much as other classic black-and-whites, such as Casablanca, but with the level of detail Welles and his collaborators built into the film, it doesn’t have to. This is one of those films you could watch again and again and still see something new.

The image is clear enough that you can pause on some of the newspapers in the opening newsreel sequence and read not just the headlines, but story text as well. Interesting trivia: the dummy text used for several of the obituaries states neither of Kane’s ex-wives were present at his death, and then names the women without mentioning, as the newsreel does a few moments later, that his first wife was already dead.

What makes this a really great set is the inclusion of the very good 1999 HBO movie RKO 281, starring Liev Schreiber as Welles and James Cromwell as William Randolph Hearst, the media baron who served as the primary inspiration for Kane. The film, produced by Ridley and Tony Scott and written by John Logan, ingeniously parallels Welles’ rise with that of Kane the character while depicting the famous feud with Hearst over the release of the film.

Though his influence had waned considerably from his turn-of-the-century heyday, Hearst still had enough power to threaten the release of the film, inspiring the other studio heads to offer more than $800,000 to RKO for the negative to destroy it. The implication of RKO 281 is that the movie only survived the tumult because Hearst happened to be going bankrupt.

Welles himself got such a warm welcome in Hollywood because many studio executives probably expected him to take the easy route and make a War of the Worlds movie, following up on his infamous 1938 radio broadcast that garnered him so much attention in the first place. (Producer George Pal would handle that adaptation in 1953).

But the battle with Hearst exposed Welles as too much of a troublemaker, and he opines in a 1982 interview that we would have been better off leaving Hollywood altogether after that. Instead, his career was frought with creative differences with the studios that would still hire him (the most famous example being the re-editing of his second film, The Magnificent Ambersons, beyond his control; a DVD copy of Amerbersons comes as an exclusive with copies of the Kane boxed set purchased at Amazon.com).

Who at the time could possibly foresee that Welles, who started so eager and ambitious, would end his career voicing a robotic planet in The Transformers: The Movie, an animated adaptation of a 1980s toy line. But oh, what a magnificent planet he was.

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