I’m sorry, but this is a review of Citizen Kane; it’s the law that you have to start off any article about it with that word. A word that’s so famous in the history of cinema, that if I were to say what it meant, it probably won’t be much of a spoiler for most people reading this.
It’s hard to figure out what’s the biggest element of Citizen Kane: the film itself; the character of media mogul and politician Charles Foster Kane; the role of Orson Welles, who not only played the character, but co-wrote and directed the film, having what was then unheard of total control over making the film; the stories about the film at the time it was made; how it was supposedly partly based on real-life media tycoon William Randolph Hurst to such an extent that Hurst banned all coverage of it in his own papers; or the fact that so many people consider it to be the greatest film ever to be made in all history, even though it famously never won the Oscar for “Best Film”. It only won one of the nine Oscars it was nominated for, “Best Original Screenplay”, which Welles reluctantly shared with his co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz.
The level of affection towards Citizen Kane and the references people make to it is so great it’s hard to take it all in, whether it be constantly topping polls of the greatest films, or it being parodied in shows like The Simpsons, or the title simply being referenced in other programmes like the BBC One sitcom Citizen Khan (not a high point for Citizen Kane fans I suspect). However, in this Blu-Ray 75th anniversary collection released by Warner Bros., which is actually a re-mastered version of the American 70th anniversary collection, there’s much that helps to put everything into focus.
Concerning the film itself, I don’t think I can meaningfully add anything that hasn’t been said before about Citizen Kane. I would just repeating what people have written a million times: about the use of flashbacks, the innovative camerawork, the lighting, the montage sequences, the themes; comparisons to real-life figures at the time such as Hurst and Welles himself; comparisons to modern day figures like Rupert Murdoch (at times I kept watching the film, wondering how come no-one has done a full-on Citizen Murdoch parody). The only thing I think I can truly say about Citizen Kane itself as a viewer is that it’s best to watch it on your own. The first time I ever watched it was at university, and the pleasure was partly spoilt by the atmosphere created by my lecturer, who was one of the smuggest people I ever met and thus it put a damper on whole thing. By controlling the atmosphere yourself, you can make the film what you want it to be, without any outside interference, and it becomes truly enjoyable.
When it comes to arguing about whether Citizen Kane really is the greatest film ever, I would agree with the late Roger Ebert (misspelt “Robert Ebert” in the display packaging) in his audio commentary of the film, which in my view’s the best extra in this collection, which is that it’s pointless to argue about such things, to create such lists of the “Greatest Films of All Time” for example. My view on such things tends to be: “No, this is just the greatest films that you are likely to have heard off.” Nobody has seen all the films ever made. As Ebert says in his commentary, the 20th century was the first century to be entirely filmed. It’s impossible to go through every single film made in that period alone. Similarly, it’s pointless to say what’s the greatest TV show, radio show, play, actor, comedian, politician or whatever ever made, because there’s no way to be completely comprehensive. I’m all for people arguing about it and debating it, but there’s no way you could ever come up with a solid answer.
I suppose the best thing to do, and again I agree with Ebert’s commentary, is to encourage people of a younger generation to watch it, because if you’re my age and you only have experienced Citizen Kane via those times The Simpsons parodied it, then you’re somewhat short-changed. In order to understand the great films of the present and recent past, you need to watch the films from the more distant past and even further.
It’s the same with any art form. If you want to understand great modern literature, you should read Dickens and Shakespeare. If you want to understand modern comedy, you should look at the work of 1980s alternative comedians, Monty Python, and Charlie Chaplin. If, like me, your passion is Japanese anime, to understand the shows currently on air, you have to go back to the works of Osamu Tezuka and even older works (a task made difficult by the lack of pre-Tezuka anime released in English). An architect needs a solid foundation to build their work on.
Concerning the rest of this collection, aside from Ebert’s commentary there’s also another commentary from Peter Bogdanovich, which appears to deal more with the making of the film and doesn’t seem as engaging as Ebert’s commentary, which not only deals with the technical, but with other aspects of the film historically, socially and critically. There are also archive news footage and the original trailer (in which you only heard Welles rather than see him, who was at the time better known for radio with his War of the Worlds broadcast); interviews with Ruth Warrick, the actress who plays Kane’s first wife, and the film’s editor Robert Wise; and photo galleries featuring storyboards, correspondence, advertising posters and more, including some added Ebert commentary. These images are also reproduced in print, with a selection of miniaturised printouts and a reproduced souvenir programme. Lastly, there’s a 48-page hardback booklet accompanying the film, containing an overview of the film and extra information.
The best thing to say about Citizen Kane is this – if you haven’t watched it, then do so.
Citizen Kane: 75th Anniversary Collector’s Edition, is available on Blu-Ray from Warner Bros.