Citizen Kane appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.33:1 on this Blu-Ray Disc. Though not a total slam-dunk, I thought the transfer offered a fine reproduction of the source photography.
The challenging source photography, I should say. Gregg Toland’s legendary cinematography offered unusually expanded depth of field so that even in many wide shots, all elements remained in focus. This worked wonderfully well for the movie but created potential difficulties for the transfer, especially in darker interiors. When seen in brighter shots, Toland’s work looked crisp and detailed, but with those dimmer scenes, the images could seem a little more tentative.
But not soft, per se. While the movie’s definition depended a lot on lighting, it still always seemed more than adequate. Not every movie is supposed to demonstrate tight detail at all times, so the sharpness on display here was solid and seemed like an accurate representation of the original photography.
Print flaws looked almost miraculously absent. Really, the only time I saw them occurred during the “March of Time” newsreel viewed at the start of the film, and those instances appeared to be intentional. I thought these defects were oddly inconsistent; they seemed very heavy in some scenes but they were pretty much absent in others, which made me wonder how much of them were intentional and how many had cropped up over the years.
Nonetheless, all segments that didn’t use newsreel footage were clean. I didn’t discern any defects once we left the opening sequence; if any specks or marks appeared, I didn’t notice them.
Edge haloes were a minor nuisance and one that I have come to suspect resulted from the original photography. I noted some of these when I reviewed the original DVD, and they persisted on occasion, though to a lesser degree than what I saw on that 2001 release. A few high-contrast shots demonstrated light haloes, but these weren’t a substantial distraction.
The Blu-ray came without obvious signs of noise reduction. Grain appeared natural and suitable for a film of this one’s age and visual aspirations. I thought grain was always appropriate.
Black levels looked nicely deep and rich, and contrast was clean and distinct. Shadow detail also looked fine. As I noted, some low-light interiors could seem a smidgen soft, but that was an apparent artifact of the original photography; within the dark scenes, the elements appeared appropriately visible. In the end, this was a strong take on the film’s complicated visuals.
The monaural soundtrack of Citizen Kane hasn’t held up as well as the picture, but it still seemed solid for its age. Dialogue sounded reasonably distinct and accurate, without notable edginess. While I’d not describe the lines as especially natural, they always seemed totally intelligible and lacked any concerns.
The rest of the mix seemed to be fairly clear and relatively robust for the era. Music and effects sounded reasonably lively and bright, and they showed pretty nice depth considering their age. The track lacked any discernible background noise, as I detected no popping, hiss, crackling or other issues. Ultimately, the audio appeared to be quite good and represented the material well.
How did the picture and sound of this Blu-Ray compare with those of the original DVD from 2001? Both fared better here. The audio wasn’t a huge improvement, but I thought the Blu-ray’s lossless mix showed greater clarity, especially in terms of dialogue, which I felt lacked the brittle qualities I heard on the DVD.
Visuals also gave up the expected improvements, though the extra resolution came with a “price”, as I thought the movie’s occasional softness became more apparent on Blu-ray. The lower resolution of the SD-DVD format meant that these tendencies weren’t obvious, but the Blu-ray demonstrated a more obvious distinction between the movie’s sharpest and softest scenes. Of course, this meant that the film’s least distinctive scenes were still tighter than their SD-DVD counterparts, and the best shots were a huge upgrade. Blacks also seemed richer and shadows were clearer.
Other aspects of the image worked better due to a superior transfer. The 2001 DVD sometimes offered excessive use of digital scrubbing techniques; in the most infamous example of this, the rain on the window seen at 32:30 or so became erased as “noise”. It’s something you might not notice at first, especially since the rain came in the background, but when you pay attention, you’ll see the DVD’s rain stopped at the top of the screen, while the Blu-ray showed the water as it pelted and cascaded the rest of the window. The Blu-ray opted for less intrusive methods and looked more natural.
This became true for all aspects of the movie. At first glance, some parts of the SD-DVD might actually seem more attractive than the same shots from the Blu-ray, as they’re cleaner and peppier. But they represent an artificial view of the film. The SD-DVD transfer scrubbed away virtually all grain and bolstered the brightness. Sure, it looked more vivid in a sense, but it didn’t come across like film, and it took on an impression that made it seem oddly synthetic. The Blu-ray gave us a more accurate – and substantially more appealing – rendition of Kane.
The Blu-ray includes most of the DVD’s extras plus some new materials. On Disc One, the package highlights two separate audio commentaries. First we find a track from film critic Roger Ebert, who provides a running, fairly screen-specific piece. At times Ebert tended to repeat himself, which he recognized; for example, he frequently told us about the technique in which the observer of each sequence sat in the lower right corner of the frame.
Despite some redundant information, Ebert’s obvious enthusiasm for the subject helped make the piece vivid, and he added a lot of solid interpretation and insight for those of us relatively new to the details of the film. Ebert mixed technical details with background information and his thoughts about the techniques. It wasn’t the most illuminating track I’ve heard, but it helped flesh out the movie for me and I enjoyed the experience.
I did note one curious aspect of the Ebert commentary, though. At times he espoused the notion that Rosebud was nothing more than a gimmick and a red herring, but on other occasions he seemed to concur with the notion that Rosebud represented Kane’s lost childhood, and he appeared to go along with the same thoughts I mentioned earlier. In any case, I’m sticking with my own interpretation, darn it!
In addition, we get a second audio commentary from filmmaker/Welles biographer Peter Bogdanovich. He also added a running, screen-specific piece, but I thought it was less compelling than the effort provided by Ebert. I can’t blame Bogdanovich totally for the decline, as some of my disenchantment occurred due to the order in which I listed to the two tracks. Bogdanovich echoed many of the same remarks offered by Ebert, but this redundancy could have worked in the opposite direction had I screened the Ebert commentary initially.
Bogdanovich also tended to simply describe the onscreen action to a certain degree; some directorial insight occurred, but not a tremendous amount. However, Bogdanovich was able to inject some good information, mainly via anecdotes that related to his discussions with Welles. This contributed greater depth to the subject and brought some intimacy to the subject.
Bogdanovich inserts some insight not found during Ebert’s track, though I thought Roger’s was superior in that regard. Ebert also filled his time better, as Bogdanovich’s piece suffered from a few too many blank spots, and a modicum of his statements seemed obvious descriptions of the action on screen. Nonetheless, this was a fairly interesting commentary, as Bogdanovich added enough good information to make the track worth a listen.
Interestingly, unlike Ebert, Bogdanovich doesn’t think that Kane was the best movie ever made, or even Welles’ greatest film. At one point he discusses this subject. Unfortunately, he doesn’t go into depth about the flicks he thinks top Kane, but I thought this was a very interesting revelation, especially since it goes against the common opinion.
While the two commentaries provide Disc One’s most significant extras, we also discover a number of minor pieces. The Opening: World Premiere of Citizen Kane shows a 68-second newsreel clip from that event. Unfortunately, all we see are some plain shots from the theater and we hear no commentary about the action. Also, the actual premiere footage only fills the second half of the brief piece, so it’s not very valuable.
Much more interesting is the film’s theatrical trailer. This three-minute and 46-second ad featured material created exclusively for the promo, and it’s very entertaining. Welles remained off-camera but narrated the piece and made it wonderfully snide and mocking. I think it’s a clever and provocative trailer.
Presented as Easter eggs on the 2001 DVD, we get two interviews. The first gives us a 1997 interview with actress Ruth Warrick. During this five-minute and 40-second piece, Warrick discusses issues such as the atmosphere on the Kane set, her interactions with Welles, and a few other interesting topics. It’s a neat little addition.
We also find a 1994 interview snippet with editor Robert Wise. During this three-minute, four-second piece, Wise reveals how he got the job, and he also talks about the uproar that greeted its take on Hearst. It’s also a minor addition, but it’s fun to get.
A slew of text and stillframe materials make up the rest of Disc One’s extras. These are split into two areas: “The Production” and “Post Production”.
The Production includes three subsections. Storyboards consists of 24 frames of information, though it’s presented as a three-minute, 20-second running montage through which you can use the “chapter skip” button to maneuver. In addition to some boards - which depict the scene in which we go from Kane’s political campaign to the confrontation at Susan’s apartment - we see some production art and shots from the film. These were interesting to see, though they didn’t reveal a great deal of nuance about the production.
Call Sheets (0:48) takes up five frames. These are modestly useful historical pieces, as they show some day-to-day details of the production.
More interesting are the images in the Still Gallery (10:53). Actually, those photos are nothing special, but they’re rendered more compelling because they come with commentary from Roger Ebert. All of these stillframe archives can be viewed either picture-by-picture or as running video pieces, but only the “Still Gallery” comes with audio accompaniment. Ebert adds a decent overview of the production and some thoughts about the movie. The photos only last for the first five and a half minutes of the program; Ebert’s remarks continue for the remaining time.
Post Production includes four subsections. Deleted Scenes (1:12) contains eight screens. These give us a little information about two sequences that didn’t make the film. Ad Campaigns (1:36) gives us 11 screens of posters and other materials. Most interesting is a note that discusses the reactions to Kane of various demographics.
Press Book (0:48) tosses in five images from a program offered at the film’s New York and Los Angeles premieres, while Opening Night (1:36) adds 11 frames that also related to the premiere and other areas. Most compelling in that section were some fan letters that praised the flick, notes from RKO president George Schaefer, and a premiere-related guest list. This section was one of the most intriguing of the bunch.
Discs Two and Three offer SD-DVDs, not Blu-rays, and replicate previously released platters. Disc Two provides only one significant extra: 1995’s The Battle Over Citizen Kane. A one-hour, 53-minute, 25-second documentary that examines the controversy encountered by the flick, the film includes interviews with a myriad of folks. In addition to 1982 footage with Orson Welles, we hear comments from Kane participants editor Robert Wise plus actors Ruth Warrick and William Alland.
The show also includes Bogdanovich, Hearst biographer David Nasaw, actors Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Thomas Anderson, William Herz, and Norman Lloyd, Macbeth choral director Leonard DePaul, set designer Sam Leve, writer Richard France, Frank Mankiewicz (the son of screenwriter Herman), newspaper men Jimmy Breslin and Vern Whaley, witnesses to the War of the Worlds debacle Louetta Santucci and Gloria Widelock, and historians John Tebbel and Nancy Loe. Richard Ben Cramer narrates the package, which appeared as part of the PBS series “The American Experience”.
If you want to learn a great deal of information about the making of Kane, you’ll leave “Battle” disappointed. In fact, very little of the documentary discusses the film itself. Most of the program consists of parallel biographies of Hearst and Welles; the documentary intercut between the lives of these two men; we briefly learn about Marion Davies - the partial inspiration for Kane’s Susan Alexander - as well. These progress in chronological order, so by the time we reach the production of Kane, the program is much more than half-finished.
Even when we get to the movie, we find out very little about it. The filmmaking process is covered quickly, and we then learn more about the reactions it engendered, especially as Hearst tried to suppress its release. However, those aspects of the show were also fairly minor; for the most part, “Battle” acts as a general biography of the two men central to Kane.
In that regard, I found much to enjoy about “Battle”. It was interesting to learn the ways in which Kane mirrored Hearst’s life and how it presented aspects of Welles’ own history. It was also good to get a quick overview of their lives so we could better understand the men they were by 1941 when Kane appeared.
However, the show felt excessively ambitious. It tried to pack in biographies of two legendary men and a successful woman, the making of an exceedingly famous film, and the controversy that surrounded that flick. Any one of these topics could have filled an entire two-hour piece; to cram all of them into that time frame meant many sacrifices needed to be made, and the overall result seemed superficial.
That didn’t mean that I didn’t find the material to be valuable, as some background beats none. However, I thought that “Battle” failed to achieve most of its goals, and its broad overview philosophy made it less satisfying than it could have been. I liked much of the program and felt it added to my knowledge and understanding of Kane, but it came across as an hors d’oeuvre; it left me intrigued but hungry for something more substantial.
Amusingly, the show appears just as it did when broadcast on PBS. That means we find all the same ads - such as the ones for Scott’s lawn care - and other materials that accompanied its airing. Hey, this is a good thing, for we learn how to order a videotape of “Battle” for only $29.95!
A few very minor bits complete the second disc. We find an Orson Welles filmography, a Weblink to the official “Battle” site, “Other DVDs of Interest” - a listing of additional programs offered by WGBH - and “Request a Catalog”, another way to buy more WGBH product. “Battle” originally hit DVD on its own in the fall of 2000, and this disc exactly replicates that one; Warner Bros. clearly just took the same master and slapped it onto their own package, as nothing has been changed between the two.
Over on Disc Three, one major attraction awaits: 1999’s RKO 281. A 1999 film that aired on HBO, it runs one hour, 26 minutes and 42 seconds. Liev Schreiber plays Orson Welles in this dramatization of the events that surrounded the creation of Kane. Mostly this means it concentrates on how the life of William Randolph Hearst (James Cromwell) influenced Welles – and how Hearst tried desperately to quash the film.
While 281 undoubtedly takes many liberties with the facts of the matter, it does create an entertaining piece. The movie boasts a nice cast and moves at a good pace, so it keeps us interested. I certainly wouldn’t want to use the film as a source of information, but it’s an enjoyable take on the subject matter.
In addition to the movie itself, Disc Three provides some cast and crew bios. Because the RKO 281 DVD found here is exactly the same DVD that came out in 2000, none of these tell us anything about the participants since that year.
The Blu-ray drops some text production notes from the 2001 DVD, but it compensates with the non-disc-based materials. A 48-Page Book includes a good essay about the film’s origins, creation and release as well as various photos, trivia, storyboards and some other movie-related text. I’m not sure why they decided to color the storyboards red, but this is a nice addition to the package anyway.
The remaining elements recreate materials from the movie’s release. An Original 1941 Souvenir Program Reproduction fills 20 pages and touts various aspects of the film. It’s all quite giddy and promotional, of course, but it’s cool to be able to see this piece that moviegoers would’ve read at the time.
Finally, we get 10 Reproductions of Studio Memos and Correspondence as well as five One-Sheet/Lobby Card Reproductions. The latter offer a high-quality view of the movie’s publicity, while the former allow a neat glimpse behind the scenes. Among other items, we see two actor contracts – for Agnes Moorehead and Joseph Cotten – as well as a “pre-budget estimate” and a Schwab’s Pharmacy receipt for “Orson Wells” to supply the studio party. It lists only lighters and Scotch. That must’ve been one weird bash! I like this kind of documentation, so it’s fun to examine these additions.
Possibly the most praised film in history, Citizen Kane remains an excellent flick 70 years after its initial release. The movie has aged quite well, and its stylistic techniques seem dynamic and compelling to this day. Kane opens up neatly through repeated viewings and reveals additional layers, just like a great work should. I can’t argue it’s the best movie ever made, but I can’t argue strongly that it’s not, either.
As for the Blu-ray, it does the great film justice. It improves over the 2001 DVD with superior visuals and audio as well as an expanded roster of supplements. The new bonus materials are nice, but the fact the movie looks and sounds so much better than the DVD is what makes this such an upgrade.
Unfortunately for fans, that upgrade currently comes at a pretty steep price. As initially released, the Kane Blu-ray exists only as the “Ultimate Collector’s Edition” detailed in this review. If you want to get the movie on its own without all the bells and whistles – and this set’s nearly $65 list price – you’ll have to wait.
How long will you wait? That I can’t say, but I suspect a cheaper Kane Blu-ray will eventually emerge. Casablanca also debuted on Blu-ray as a UCE; the standalone Blu-ray came out a bit less than a year later, so I’d guess that’s probably the same timetable for a cheaper Kane.
I do really like the Blu-ray Ultimate Collector’s Edition, but I understand that it’s pretty expensive, especially since it doesn’t add many new supplements to the party; other than RKO 281 - available on its own for less than $10 – and the paper materials, everything here appeared on the original Kane DVD. If you’re a serious Kane fanatic or you just can’t stand to wait indefinitely for a standalone Blu-ray, go for the UCE. Otherwise, I suspect your wallet will be happier to hold off until a less pricey version hits the shelves.
To rate this film, visit the 60th Anniversary Edition review of CITIZEN KANE