Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Citizen Kane: 70th Anniversary Edition DVD

The year was 1941. After conquering Broadway and scaring the living daylights out of America with his “War of the Worlds” broadcast, Orson Welles was busy making his first feature film. Because he was already a celebrity before he arrived in Hollywood, he’d managed to negotiate a contract with an unprecedented measure of freedom. The film, then titled American, was about the spectacular rise and fall of a media mogul called Charles Foster Kane. It cost under a million, starred Welles’s cohorts from Mercury Theatre, and contained every manner of innovation, from overlapping dialogue to Gregg Toland’s stunning depth-of-field camerawork.

It’s been 70 years since then, but Citizen Kane regarded by many as the greatest film ever made – hasn’t aged. One can only envy the uninitiated viewer, encountering, for the first time, Herman J Mankiewicz’s crackling dialogue, with its parodies of “Timespeak” and jabs at Hearst, the audacious, fractured narrative and the lively performances, all the way down from Welles as Kane to Agnes Moorehead’s few odd minutes of screen time. As for those who’ve seen the film enough times to have Bernstein’s speech about the girl in the white dress down verbatim, there are two excellent commentaries by critics Peter Bogdanovich and Roger Ebert included on this DVD.
There are several ghosts hanging over the 70th Anniversary Edition DVD of Citizen Kane. The first is Kane himself, or rather, the person he was based on – William Randolph Hearst, real-life media baron and a pioneer of yellow journalism. The second is Orson Welles, who directed this film at the age of 26, and died 26 years ago, striving till his last days to divert the public’s attention from Kane to his other excellent films. The third, and most obscure, is film critic Pauline Kael’s polarising 1971 article “Raising Kane”, which suggested that Mankiewicz had a major role in shaping the film. The article is mentioned by both commentators: Ebert calls it “lovely” and seems to agree with Kael’s assessment that the “Rosebud” device was a gimmick, while Bogdanovich caustically remarks that it “showed how wild some critical opinions could be”.

Viewers who’ve seen the film but are unfamiliar with the mythos of Kane – Hollywood’s jealousy of wonder boy Welles, the closed sets that concealed the film’s explosive subject matter, the blacklist of the film by the Hearst press – would probably want to hear Ebert’s commentary track, with its nonstop barrage of information, first. Ebert is particularly effective at explaining how Welles created such a grand-looking film on a relatively modest budget. One of his opening gambits is particularly fascinating; he mentions that this movie has as many special effects as Star Wars, it’s just that they’re invisible.

Bogdanovich, on the other hand, uses to his advantage the fact that he was a Welles confidante in the master’s later years (he interviewed him for the book This is Orson Welles). Many of his pronouncements come with the “Orson said” tag, making the track less exhaustive, more intimate. Of the many anecdotes he narrates, one is particularly resonant. Once, when Welles was talking about Greta Garbo, Bogdanovich mentioned what a pity it was that she’d only been in two really great movies. Welles stared at him for a while, and then said, “Well, you only need one.”

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