The Warner Brothers Blu-ray Elite program is still sending me free Blu-rays, and the latest batch provided an extraordinary treat- the 70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition of Citizen Kane (1941). The film was named the best American movie ever made in 1997 by the American Film Institute. It’s a completely unfair title to give a film because it’s now doomed to a history of backlash from fans who don’t love it as much as ________ (name anyone’s favorite movie). Let’s put that moniker away and instead dive into what makes it such an enduring and amazing film.
I think that any discussion of Citizen Kane has to begin with the phenomenal camerawork. It’s most famous amongst cinephile circles for its use of deep focus cinematography, a technique that brings the foreground, background, and middle-ground all into focus. Citizen Kane wasn’t the first film to use the technique. Jean Renoir had been using it to great effect in the late 1930s. However, Kane provides the most prominent example, and worked as the strongest trend-setter. The technique took mise-en-scene to a completely new level. Cinematographer Gregg Toland used deep focus cinematography along with several other techniques to take a grand story and drag it to the precipice of gothic horror. A great deal of the film looks like it’s right out of the German Expressionist tradition and would fit in with the classic horror films of the 1930s. To amplify the effect, Toland employed high angle shots, low angle shots, and perfect backlighting to create a shadowy, dreamlike retrospective on Charles Foster Kane’s life. All of this wonderful cinematography was punctuated by brilliant editing. Editor Robert Wise used an army of ingenious dissolves and screen wipes to bring the imagery to life. The transitions from scene to scene are phenomenal, and groundbreaking. Here’s a scene that demonstrates deep focus cinematography in action:
The story itself is as American as it can be. I imagine this is a large part of why the AFI latched onto it and placed special importance on the film. To be blunt, it’s a tale that could only be told as effectively if it came from early 20th century America. It focuses on a rags to riches story, materialism, monopoly capitalism, greed, politics, the journalistic ethics of a free press, and the inevitable fall from grace. We Americans love our stories about the wealthy, and the blood sport of seeing them fall from grace in 1941 was only enhanced by a decade’s worth of economic depression. The best part is that the film is a very thinly veiled story about publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst. Hearst was so enraged by the film that he led a smear campaign against it and ultimately hindered Welles’ career. The irony is that in doing so, Hearst had lived up to the characterization of him from the film that had offended him so much. Adding to Welles’ affront to Hearst is that the film’s famous item- “Rosebud”- was allegedly the nickname that Hearst gave to his mistress’ vagina. Imagine Hearst’s rage in discovering that something so private had been splattered onto screens all over the country.
Aside from the cinematography and editing, what makes the story work is a brilliant economy. There is a gargantuan amount of information that we learn about Charles Foster Kane in just two hours, all told from varying points of view. The opening sequence, “News on the March”, gives the audience all that it needs to know about the film’s protagonist and the people in his life in just ten minutes. It also sets the gothic tone for the film, and imprints it with the epic grandeur that Kane’s life deserves by evoking Kubla Khan and the pharaohs of Egypt. The best example I can give of the economy of the story is the sequence in which we see Kane eating breakfast through the years with his first wife. At first, he’s ambitious and starry eyed. Then, clip by clip, we see him degrade and rot into an egotistical, cynical mess right before our very eyes. All that was needed was a few minutes of clips of Kane eating breakfast.
I don’t know, and don’t care, if it’s the best American movie ever made. There’s no denying that it’s a tremendous cinematic achievement. There are many reasons that it’s required viewing for so many film students and cinephiles.
The Bonus Features:
Now, let’s talk about the fun stuff. The bonus features that come with the Warner Brothers Blu-ray of Citizen Kane– the Ultimate Collector’s Edition- are mind-blowing. The transfer itself is sharp. Xanadu has never looked so good. The package includes a 2-hour Oscar-nominated documentary from 1995, The Battle Over Citizen Kane. It also includes the 1999 HBO film, RKO 281, which won three Emmys. The film itself has two commentary tracks- one from Peter Bogdanovich, and the other from Roger Ebert. Rounding out the package are a series of miniaturized reprints of original promotional materials from the film, and a 48-page book featuring behind-the-scenes info and film stills. The Ultimate Collector’s Edition is basically a giant encyclopedia for any and all things Citizen Kane. There aren’t enough superlatives.