Combustible Celluloid
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With: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Everett Sloane, Dorothy Comingore, Ruth Warrick, Ray Collins, Agnes Moorehead
Written by: Herman J. Mankiewicz, Orson Welles
Directed by: Orson Welles
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 119
Date: 05/01/1941

Citizen Kane (1941)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Model Citizen

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

As probably the 1,000th writer to try and tackle Citizen Kane in print, I have no idea where to start. That this film has been routinely voted as the greatest ever made -- beginning with the 1962 Sight & Sound poll and most recently in the 1998 AFI poll -- has probably put off several viewers who have never seen it. After all, if it's the greatest film ever made, it has to be good for you. And if it's good for you, it probably isn't any fun at all.

So I'd like to begin with a quote from the late Pauline Kael, thoughtfully included on the cover of the new Citizen Kane DVD, which states that this film "may be more fun than any other great movie." Director Orson Welles has made better movies, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and Chimes at Midnight (1966) among them, but Kane stands as the most astonishing model of great filmmaking ever. It's a collection of templates for great scenes. And it's fun. Trust me.

The film tracks the life of Charles Foster Kane, newspaperman extraordinaire, collector of riches, failed politician, husband, father and lover. For his grand first film at age 25, Welles chose a grand story, based in part on the life of William Randolph Hearst (his first choice, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, didn't work out). And he went about filming it in the grandest way possible with the greatest crew imaginable.

Gregg Toland (The Grapes of Wrath) provided the astonishing and still-revolutionary deep-focus photography; Bernard Herrmann (Psycho) composed the score; Robert Wise (West Side Story) edited; and Herman J. Mankiewicz (Dinner at Eight) co-wrote the screenplay with Welles.

Additionally, Welles cast a band of actors who had worked with him on stage in the Mercury Theater but who had never worked in film before. (Agnes Moorhead and Joseph Cotten, at least, went on to memorable careers.) Each artist discarded everything known and practiced in filmmaking up to that point and came up with something new, something amazing.

I could cite all the memorable moments in Kane, and it has more than most films, but that would be a waste of space. However, I still get a charge out of the famous "breakfast" scene, where we see the disintegration of Kane's marriage through a series of breakfasts. But no scene in Kane ever fails to amaze me, and watching it for perhaps the 15th time on this new DVD, I still felt fulfilled and happy afterward.

Warner Brothers' new DVD boasts a beautiful new transfer (perhaps too beautiful -- the "News on the March" newsreel sequence now looks too clean), plus full-length commentary tracks by film Peter Bogdanovich (who wrote the definitive Welles biography) and film critic Roger Ebert.

The second disc contains the Oscar-nominated documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane (1996). Chicago Reader critic and Welles expert Jonathan Rosenbaum informs me that the film doesn't get all its facts right, but I think it still works as an enjoyable tabloid exercise. The DVD set also includes photos from the deleted "brothel" sequence, newsreel footage, theatrical trailer and storyboards.

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