So ends what might be the greatest film of all time, Citizen Kane.
Readers of this blog know that a week or so ago, I picked up the 70th Anniversary boxed edition of Citizen Kane, and described its contents at length. I also proclaimed it to be well worth the money. Now that I’ve watched all the DVDs, I can easily say my proclamation was correct. It’s a great buy.
The film itself was digitally remastered frame-by-frame. I can’t even imagine how long that must have taken, or the skill involved. And it’s even more remarkable when you realize the original negative to the film no longer exists. The final result is breathtaking in its beauty. Welles’ long shots, with their now-famous depth-of-field innovations spring to life in sharp clarity.
Another thing Welles pulled off in the film was many long, no-cut takes. He would later become famous for this technique in the opening scene of his later film, Touch Of Evil,Â but in Citizen Kane, he used them to great advantage. You could make the case that Welles was really a stage actor, accustomed to long scenes, so he brought this sensibility with him to the Kane set. These scenes, in the hands of a lesser “stage actor”, might have made the whole film look like a photographed stage play, certain to put the audience to sleep.
Instead, as Peter Bogdanovich pointed out in his outstanding commentary to the film, Welles used unusual camera angles and movement, along with lighting techniques never before tried. When you see these scenes after Bogdanovich’s explanations, it dawns on you what an incredible imagination Welles possessed.
There’s a DVD documentary included in this set called The Battle For Citizen Kane,Â which outlines the trouble and controversy Welles faced once it got out that the film was a thinly-veiled biography of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst. The documentary traces the lives of both Welles and Hearst from their childhoods, transforming them into breathing humans. Their egos were enormous, and Welles, even at 26, was clearly not cowed by the much older, more powerful Hearst.
RKO executives, who were not even allowed on the secretiveÂ KaneÂ set, were furious once they learned the truth. Hearst threatened to refuse all advertising for RKO films, a move which might have put the studio under. He also leaned hard on the other studios, promising to plaster the country with newspaper headlines about how the Jews really ran the movie business, a fact not generally known outside Hollywood at the time. Fearing Hearst and his power to singlehandedly damage their industry, a consortium of studio heads, led by Louis B Mayer of MGM, approached RKO, offering more than $800,000 in exchange for the negative and all existing prints of Citizen Kane, for the purpose of burning them. This amount would have covered all RKO’s expenses in the shooting of the film, plus added a little profit for the studio. I shudder when I think about what we would have missed, what the movie world would have missed, had RKO accepted the offer. Seventy years later, filmmakers are still learning from Welles’ masterpiece.
Another thing I learned from this great boxed set is that Welles wanted to make Citizen KaneÂ with actors who had never previously appeared in movies. In Bogdanovich’s commentary, he mentions that Welles almost succeeded. There was a scene with two waiters, and it seems that one of them didn’t make the call, so Welles had to hire a studio extra who had appeared in many other films, mostly as a waiter. Welles was very upset with this despoiling of his “perfect” cast.
A third DVD in the set contained the HBO film, RKO 281, with Liev Schreiber as a very convincing Welles. It chronicled Welles’ tribulations in making the film and its aftermath. John Malkovich as screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz is a standout.
There are other little extras in the set, which I mentioned in my previous blog, such as a slim hardcover book about the film and poster repros, but one final thing I want to say here is a tribute to Dorothy Comingore, who played Suzan Alexander, Kane’s mistress. A tragic character, she was molded by Kane as an opera singer, down to the last detail. Her lack of singing talent quickly became apparent, and she became the one thing Kane could not create with his will and his money.
Comingore turns in what is arguably the best performance of the entire film, topping even Welles himself. At first glance, it looks like she doesn’t do much except sit around and work jigsaw puzzles, but at second glance, you begin to realize she’s a powerhouse actress, bringing this complex character to life in a very original way. As one might expect, Comingore was offered many choice parts after Kane, but she turned them all down, thinking none of them were good enough, and her career soon faded. She died an alcoholic in 1971 at 58.