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Monday, June 25, 2012


The Blu-Ray copy of Citizen Kane reviewed here was provided by Warner Brothers in conjunction with the Blu-Ray Elite program. To learn more, check out my Blu-Ray reviews of The Matrix, Inception, Contagion, Crazy, Stupid, Love., and J. Edgar.

As the poster so clearly states, it's terrific! But is it the greatest movie ever made?

Regular readers of this space know my answer: "No, goofball, that's 2001!" But Orson Welles' Citizen Kane is so damn good. Even if you don't know the incredible story behind the film—more on that later—it's still cinema at its most compelling.

If movies were drinks, Citizen Kane would be a stiff scotch on the rocks. It's visual storytelling in the purest sense, and the story itself doesn't contain any frills or excess. Its title character's meteoric rise and painful fall add up to a tall tale for the ages, and it all starts with one word. "Rosebud," the old man says, barely audible. "Rosebud." Then, he expires.

It's Charles Foster Kane's (Welles) end, but just the beginning for us, as we traipse through a newsreel of his life's highlights and lowlights—getting taken away from his parents, growing up wealthy and traveling the world, running a newspaper, marrying, an all to brief foray into politics, some tragedy, a second marriage, and a reclusive final chapter.

Still, it's only the beginning for us. Of all the things this titan of a man could have left us with, why "Rosebud?" What does it mean? And why was it so important to him? A reporter for Kane's Inquirer newspaper wants to solve this riddle, so he begins rifling through the man's past—reading his guardian's memoirs, interviewing those who knew Kane best—for any clue to the meaning of Rosebud.

Though the Rosebud mystery has likely been long spoiled for anyone with even the slightest interest in popular culture (Spoiler alert: It's the guy's sled), Citizen Kane remains an essential film. Technically, it was decades ahead of itself, and Gregg Toland's cinematography—particularly his use of deep focus, which sharpens the foreground, middle ground, and background with amazing clarity—is perhaps the finest example of the craft we've ever seen. As far as the story itself goes, it's very personal yet incredibly relatable. Someone like Kubrick, you'd think, would have killed for a crack at Citizen Kane, which is probably something only Welles could have pulled off this spectacularly, but also something so made for the screen that aspects of it have influenced dozens—probably hundreds—of films and filmmakers over the years.

The performances are sensational, and individual scenes still make my jaw drop, even after a sixth or seventh viewing (the way Kane tears up Susan's room after she leaves him is something I'll never shake...it's awkward, but also quite unsettling). But perhaps what's most interesting about this particular Blu-Ray set doesn't have to do with the film proper at all. This package allows you to learn more about William Randolph Hearst and his quest to kill Citizen Kane than any other, with not one, but two feature length films about the making of Welles' classic.

The Battle Over Citizen Kane is a 1996 PBS documentary, while RKO 281 is an 83-minute narrative feature. Both cover roughly the same material—Welles' and Hearst's parallel lives, the director's egomania, the publisher's paranoia, and the studio's troubles—and are solid retellings of Citizen Kane's road to the big screen. Other special features include separate commentaries from director Peter Bogdanovich and critic Roger Ebert, footage of the Citizen Kane premiere, a small book detailing Citizen Kane's history and importance, reproductions of contracts and press releases, and several 5x7-inch promotional posters. All in all, it's everything you'll ever need on Citizen Kane and more.

Just writing about Citizen Kane is a mammoth undertaking. I've been dreading this day a little because no words could really do this film justice after decades of thoughtful discussion and criticism. And so much of Kane's mystique lies in its unbelievable history that simply recanting it can't convey just why, 70 years later, it remains both fascinating and somewhat tragic.

Ultimately, though, this is a review of Warner Brothers' phenomenal Blu-Ray box set, and if you couldn't guess by now, I'd say it's as much a must-own as any package out there. Enjoy the film in hi-def splendor, and dig deeper into the juicy behind-the-scenes story with both The Battle Over Citizen Kane and RKO 281. Decorate your home theater with the awesome promotional art, and enjoy killer commentaries with some of film's most informed and influential voices. Simply put, it's a set worthy of "the greatest film of all-time."

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