[box cover]

Citizen Kane

Warner Home Video

Starring Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, and Agnes Moorehead

Written by Herman Mankiewicz and Orson Welles
Directed by Orson Welles


Back to Review Index

Back to Quick Reviews


Review by D. K. Holm                    


"He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?"

— Tanya, Touch of Evil

"I've wasted the greater part of my life looking for money and trying to get along, trying to make my work from this terribly expensive paint box. I've spend too much energy on things that have nothing to do with making a movie. It's about two percent movie making and 98 per cent hustling. It's no way to spend a life."

— Orson Welles, quoted at the end of The Battle over Citizen Kane


Thoughts on Citizen Kane, on the Occasion of its 60th Anniversary release on DVD, Considered as a Cinematic Statement on American Values of North v. South, of…

…blah blah blah. Just what we need. Another bloated, self-regarding, possessive, academic essay on Citizen Kane, one more attempt to grapple with the complexities of what is not only arguably the greatest American movie, but one of modern art's great mysteries. Instead, the key thing to say about the appearance of Citizen Kane on DVD is that it's here, and it's great. Warner Home Video (Warner and Ted Turner owning the rights of what was originally an RKO movie) has (finally, some would say) issued a two disc set of Citizen Kane, allowing that perennial list topper (AFI; Sight and Sound's decade poll) to be a part of everyone's DVD library, and doing so in a spectacular new digital transfer that appears flawless.

Personally, this reviewer couldn't even believe how good this transfer is. I doubted it, assumed that I was missing something, not detecting some flaw. So I showed the disc to a close colleague more expert in transfer technology. He, too, was stunned. We compared it to the old Criterion Laserdisc, the 50th anniversary release from 1991, and noted the damage on the source print — but also how truly terrible the sound was for that disc. The improvements were startling. Citizen Kane, in a beautiful transfer, and with what the box calls "revitalized digital video audio from the highest quality surviving elements," has probably never looked or sounded so good.

So go buy it.

But that being said, the occasion of seeing Kane in a format that, mutatis mutandis, presents the film as close to the way it must have looked upon initial release does inspire some reflections on this masterpiece, a film that blends a great American story with the best of European stylistic influences. So protean is Citizen Kane that it is all things to all viewers. To Pauline Kael, it was a "shallow masterpiece," whatever that is (she never explained). To Martin Scorsese, "Kane was a picture that made you think anything was possible in film." To Jorge Luis Borges, it was a "labyrinth without a center." To Laura Mulvey in the BFI series, it's "anti-Hollywood."

What Citizen Kane is, though, is one of the great puzzle kits of 20th century art. Like Ulysses and Pale Fire in literature, or the movies L'avventura, Pulp Fiction, The Usual Suspects, and Memento, Kane is a work of art that though the surface seems clear enough actually contains mysteries, allusions, references, and unexplained or inexplicable moments that turn it into a Chinese box—you can pull it apart yet it stays together. All these works of art bear fascinating cruxes that both keep the academics working overtime and yet also delight us as we experience them.


Citizen Kane as a movie movie

Take the delightful surface of the film, and its tricks and in-jokes. Knowing that director Welles was best known at the time as a radio personality, it is utterly delightful that upon Kane's first physical appearance, within the newsreel at the start of the film, we don't hear his voice. Instead he is presented in an "excerpt" from a silent newsreel. That Welles should withhold his marvelous voice bespeaks a playfulness with the audience that is going to be maintained throughout the rest of the film (and the rest of his career). The first sentence we actually hear Kane speak is in another newsreel excerpt while talking to a young reporter. "Don't believe everything you hear on the radio," he says, which for the informed (and who at the time of the film's release in 1941 couldn't be informed) was a loving jab at the "War of the Worlds" contretemps that got Welles to Hollywood in the first place.

Perhaps Mulvey is right. This is a film that is so unlike typical Hollywood movies that the title character is not actually truly introduced on the screen until 24 minutes into the picture, in a bravura moment climaxing a montage in which Kane, so to speak, steps from behind the curtain of a crushed-up newspaper. And then there are the succession of simply great visual moments, such as the stagehands offering their critique of Susan Alexander's singing at the end of a long (somewhat faked) crane shot. The dark, inky photography of Gregg Toland, which in many ways anticipated the noir look of the rest of the decade, is simply stunning, making the film as rich as ambrosia. As with the works of art listed above, the viewer can experience a delight so intense you don't know what to do with yourself, and you explode with ideas, observations, and emotions.

One of the paradoxes at the center of the film is that Welles and Toland wanted to make a "realistic" film. According to Frank Brady's biography of Welles, "he wanted the audience to see the film as they would 'reality' and not as though they were looking at a movie…He wanted the viewer to enter the film, become a part of it, and remain there to its conclusion." Welles's and Toland's challenge was how to "achieve the realism and intense detail demanded by the probing, relentless camera work within the practicalities of a limited studio budget." The paradox is that, yes, they did create a "more realistic" movie, but one that is heralded as among the most baroque in American film history. What they thought was going to be documentary style realism actually proved to be a cinematic technique that drew attention to itself.

Yet the film is "realistic," much more realistic than any other non-documentary film at the time, and the reason is twofold, first by utilizing all that film can do to create the illusion of taking us into the consciousness of a human being, perhaps the one unique thing that cinema can do, but also by parodying accurately the media of the time (newsreels, radio, movies). The familiar makes us accept the strange.


Who wrote Citizen Kane?

The authorship of Kane has been a subject of academic debate at least since Kael, in her orchestrated surgical strike on the auteur theory, argued that Kane owed more to the snappy, reporter-influenced dialogue-heavy style of credited co-screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz than to Welles. A survey of the various books on Welles and Kane reveals little consensus. The most recent bio, the first of a Welles-hostile two-volume set by actor Simon Callow, takes the Kael line, laughing at the idea that Welles wrote a 300-page rough draft called John Citizen, USA, which Mankiewicz was suppose to work from. Callow notes that no one has ever seen this draft, suggesting that it is part of Welles's self-mythologizing (though it is certainly possible that Welles could have dictated a draft of his ideas for Mankiewicz). The most reliable account appears to be Robert Carringer's The Making of Citizen Kane, which goes into detail about who did what on the film, and notes when and where Welles has ceded authorship of parts of the film to Mankiewicz (the Rosebud trail, for example). And we forget now how much of Kane was taking from what was in the air, and some of the movies that may have influenced Kane that neither Welles nor Mankiewicz had anything to do with include Rebecca, Mad Love, Kitty Foyle (there's a snowball scene), The Power and the Glory, and the play, The Long Christmas Dinner.

But it's likely that Mankiewicz didn't really understand what Welles had in mind for the film. The "solution" to the crux of authorship is really found in the early drafts of the screenplay that Mankiewicz wrote while drying out in the desert, baby-sat by Welles associate John Houseman. In these drafts exists an alternate version of Kane, when it was called American. If this version had been shot, the viewer would have experienced some of the following moments:


Too much! These scenes suggest that Mankiewicz was approaching the story as a conventional, and mediocre, biography, and also settling scores with the figure inspiring Kane, William Randolph Hearst. He seems not to have grasped that Welles was striving for an original shuffling of narrative segments that would rely on visuals more than dialogue, an approach that presented the story in a more condensed format. What seems most missing is the idea that Kane is observed from outside by others, that his story is told, with cunningly compiled distortions, by observers who in some ways didn't really know him at all. Citizen Kane is certainly one of the strangest films to come out of Hollywood. You could argue that it has a cold heart, that there's a lack at the center of the film, a missing female warmth, which we will get to in a second.

However, Mankiewicz did come up with Rosebud. Which, paradoxically, takes us to…


In Defense of Rosebud

On the Criterion Laserdisc, Peter Bogdanovich claims that "Orson didn't like the whole Rosebud thing. He felt it was the one element in the picture that would date it most quickly." Welles called Rosebud "dollar-book Freud." I disagree. The Rosebud theme is much richer, more subtle than anything the Viennese quack could have come up with, and instead of dating the picture, Rosebud glues it together for one generation after another.

One of the key cruxes of the film is the question of what exactly Rosebud means. We ask this question even though we know that Welles & Co. were in part trying to show that you cannot reduce a man's mysteries to one thing. On the other hand, there is a solution to the "problem." It is actually found in Welles's next film, The Magnificent Ambersons. Throughout Welles's radio career, his most moving shows, such as his adaptation of "The Apple Tree," were about loss — loss of a bucolic past, of a domestic happiness, of a quiet life. This theme doesn't seem to have anything to do with Welles's real life. It's just something he liked, though perhaps based on the loss of his mother at an early age. The Magnificent Ambersons is his most poignant realization of this theme in his work. Rosebud leads up to that film. Rosebud is The Magnificent Ambersons. The small-town values and mother's love that the snow-ball evoke — which reminds Kane of his childhood home, and the sled called Rosebud — are all explored in much more detail and presented with an additional dollop of aching loss, in Welles's second film.

Rosebud is not a gimmick. As a narrative device, it is the holy grail of the film, the engine that drives the reporter Thompson to solve the mystery of Kane, and along the way we learn as much about Kane as the characters (and the undermining overvoice of the film itself) can tell us. But when we learn, from our privileged position as viewers of the film, what Rosebud actually is, even as it is being destroyed, we also learn that it is not a hoax, nor is it hokey. As Bernard Herrmann's beautiful music rises in the background, we feel both the unsealing of the envelope and the closing of a life. It's a beautiful moment, one of the most expressive in all cinema. And you know what? In a way, a man's life can be reduced to one thing, if that thing is the rich cluster of images and ideas that Rosebud contains.

But as much as Mankiewicz contributed to the film, both in his screenplay organizing skills and in his knowledge of Hearst and his private life, Citizen Kane bears more in common with other Welles films than it does with other Mankiewicz scripts.


The gay subtext in Citizen Kane

Who wrote Kane? The answer is in the aspect of the film that everyone is afraid to mention, the gay subtext that appears in Kane and in many of Welles's other films. I'm not talking about his private life, in which, according to Simon Callow, Welles had a knack for attracting the support of older gay men such as Houseman, who were smitten with the youth's vivacity. Welles, a heavy drinker, was married three times and, like Marlon Brando and Warren Beatty after him, had ostentatious affairs with many women, among them Dolores Del Rio. None of this seemed to find its way into his films.

Women don't figure that heavily in most of Welles's films, and rarely does sex truly enter. Love and passion are there, but often presented discreetly. Kane offers up something of a Madonna/whore contrast, while his next film shows dedicated woman in a soap-operaish oleo of unrequited, often even unexpressed, love. Although the aborted It's All True celebrated the passionate life of Latin America, Welles was really interested in the politics of the time. Subsequent films dealt with "great men" and their political lives. Welles played Othello as if he were really married to Iago. There is the suggested rape of a newlywed in Touch of Evil, and a nymphomaniac in The Trial. It's a shock to see footage from the unfinished The Other Side of the Wind in which actual lust is realized in the back seat of a car. But the combination of sex and women is not what we carry away from many of these films.

Male friendship and its betrayals interested Welles, from one film to another, starting with Kane and lasting all the way to The Big Brass Ring, a screenplay credited to Welles but finally filmed by someone else. As in many films with a gay subtext, parts of Kane don't make sense unless you view them from a gay perspective. Why, exactly does Jed Leland feel so betrayed by Kane? It can't just be because Kane's political folly "put back the cause of reform 20 years." When Leland, the stooge friend, first learns of the political disgrace, he walks into a bar to drown feelings of... what? Leland, who elsewhere says he took ballet lessons with Kane's first wife and was "very graceful," has no female companions in the film, and his reaction to Kane's political "betrayal" far exceeds its actual weight. There's a love here that dare not speak its name.

This gay subtext provides another indication of Welles's hand in the Kane screenplay. Welles's other great movie, Touch of Evil, has a similar relationship between a powerful man and a stooge, in which the powerful man is the love of the stooge's life: Welles's Quinlan and Joseph Calleia's Pete Menzies; only here, both men betray each other. And the totality of The Trial only makes sense if the film is viewed as really about the persecution of a gay man in a straight society. The gay subtext of Kane only adds to its mysteries and makes it a richer film.


Mistakes in Kane

There are three that I have been able to detect. There is the big one that Kael made famous, i.e., that there is no one in the film actually hears Kane say "Rosebud" on his deathbed. Raymond the butler says that he heard it "the other time," but there is no other time. And finally, Thompson the reporter is ostensibly throughout the film working for a newsreel company, but when he interviews Susan Alexander for the second time he says he works for a weekly magazine.


Disc One: The Movie

See above. Beautiful transfer, with inky blacks and brilliant whites. A remarkably clean soundtrack.


That Pesky Second Disc

In order to fully celebrate the release of Kane on DVD, Warner has added a second disc bearing Thomas Lennon and Michael Epstein's 1996 documentary made for PBS's The American Experience called The Battle over Citizen Kane. It's written by Lennon and Richard Ben Cramer and narrated by Cramer (who seems to be striving to sound like the voice of "News on the March"), and gives an adequate summary of the background of the film. The documentary seems to rely on the Simon Callow bio, and so takes a rather hostile view of Welles, and offers a surprisingly sympathetic (and not unwelcome) view of Hearst. It's skimpy stuff, so that actress Ruth Warrick, who plays Kane's first wife, will tell about arriving on the set to find that Welles and Toland had dug holes in the floor in order to lower the camera, but the film won't go on to say why Welles and Toland did this. Instead, it's just a jolly tale about the crazy nuts making this movie. Part of an anti-Welles backlash that erupted around that time, and which culminated with Tim Robbins's syphilitic Cradle Will Rock, the documentary has moving pictures and flashing lights and so holds the attention but pales in comparison with all the written material about the film. The transfer consists of every aspect of the original broadcast, so we get to see the opening and closing ads for Scotts lawn products. But then, that's the American experience.


The Extras

Not as hot as you'd think from looking at the list on the box. The first disc, single-sided and dual-layered (SS-DL), offers, besides the film, Dolby Digital mono and subtitles in English, Spanish, French, and Portuguese, along with closed-captioning.

There are two audio commentary tracks. The first is by Peter Bogdanovich, who's been dining out on his friendship with Welles for decades. He knows a lot about Welles, and has directed films himself, but strangely does not come across as an expert, just another anecdotalist. The other audio commentary is by Roger Ebert. As a high-profile movie reviewer and practiced public speaker, Ebert seems a likely choice, and his commentary is keyed to the moment by moment experience of the movie, though he does tend to tell you what you are looking at. Sometimes he tells you what you are not looking at, such as in a dissolve associated with Joseph Cotten's Jed Leland in his dotage that is the exact opposite of what Ebert describes it as (he says the background dissolves away at a moment when the foreground of Leland is what's fading out). Ebert's comments are fine for beginners, as far as it goes, especially if the beginner keeps his eyes open, and Ebert does provide the occasional insight, such as noting the repetition of scenes in which Kane's fate is decided by others as he stands helplessly by, but one can't help thinking that there is another Chicago-based critic, named Jonathan Rosenbaum, who is an authority on Welles (and has actually met him) who would have contributed a detailed, Criterion-level track to the disc. But then, Rosenbaum is a noted critic of Hollywood and has a rather unique take on Welles (that Welles should be viewed not as a reckless youth destroyed by show biz but as a truly independent filmmaker bucking the Hollywood machine).

The rest of the extras are fine, it not consistently overwhelming. There's the fascinating four-minute original theatrical trailer with footage different from the film which announces, more or less, how un-Holywood-like the end product is going to be. Also on board is newsreel footage of about one minute in duration from the New York premiere, in May, 1941, without narration. There is about three minutes' worth of a storyboards gallery, as well as a hard-to-read call sheets gallery (50 seconds), an 11-minute stills gallery with commentary by Roger Ebert, a one-minute or so gallery of material relating to a deleted scene set in a brothel called Georgie's, which was apparently filmed but deleted. In addition, there is a 90-second gallery of advertising and poster art, portions of the original press book in a 45-second gallery, and a gallery of stills and materials relating to the film's opening night. Printed material consists of a seven-screen bio of Welles, a 15-screen production history of Kane, six screens of "postscripts" on the post-Kane careers of several participants, two screens listing awards and honors for Kane, and a screen listing the cast and crew of Kane. The good thing about these extras is that they are at least actually about the movie, unlike so many supplements these days. The bad thing is that they are ultimately underwhelming — and anyway, the transfer of the film is so good that half-assed extras really aren't necessary. It's just that DVD consumers demand them.

The second disc doesn't have much on it in the way of supplements, mostly just a bunch of ads. It's a single-sided, single-layered disc (SS-SL) with Dolby Digital English 2.0, and English subtitles and closed-captioning. There's a Welles filmography, a Web link to PBS material about the documentary, an advertisement for a WGBH catalog, and ads for other WGBH documentaries. It all comes in a folding dual-DVD digipack and slipcase.


Closing Thoughts

Citizen Kane is the greatest American movie ever made.

— D. K. Holm

Disc One: "Citizen Kane"

Disc Two: "The Battle Over Citizen Kane"



[Back to Review Index]     [Back to Quick Reviews]     [Back to Main Page]


© 2001, The DVD Journal