We gave it a C-
It sure looks like Turner Home Entertainment has done right by Citizen Kane. For the 50th anniversary of the film often cited as the peak of Hollywood art, the company hired Kane editor Robert Wise to oversee new prints ”with a thorough rebalancing of light,” according to publicity materials. Turner then rereleased the film to theaters for a surprisingly successful run. Now Orson Welles’ restored brainchild about the rise and rot of a Hearst-like newspaper baron comes to home video in no fewer than three different packages, all of which also include Reflections on Citizen Kane, a 23-minute documentary produced by T.H.E. You can get the video alone, for about $20. You can get the ”Gift Set,” which includes an excellent coffee-table book, Citizen Kane: The Fiftieth-Anniversary Album, by Harlan Lebo, for about $50. Or you can pony up $100 for the massive ”Limited Collector’s Edition”: the cassette, the book, a poster, three black-and-white stills, and copies of the original script and publicity materials from the 1941 theatrical release.
There’s only one thing these configurations have in common: The movie looks terrible in all of them.
How do we know? Because we took two copies of Citizen Kane — the 50th- anniversary edition and the ”unrestored” version that Turner released in 1988 as part of the RKO Collection — and watched them simultaneously, side by side. The verdict is clear: To appreciate the visual dazzle of Citizen Kane — and thus its thematic depth — the 1988 release is the tape to watch.
It turns out that the only major new print elements for the 50th-anniversary edition were used in the film’s first reel, and, yes, the long approach to Xanadu that ends with the dying Kane’s exhaled ”Rosebud” looks great: deep, inexorable, full of revealed detail. The scenes in the News on the March screening room, with their dramatic shards of light and shadow, also seem freshly minted.
But where did Turner get the rest of this print? From the first scene at Susan Alexander Kane’s nightclub, the ”restored” Kane plunges into a dim, murky world that no amount of fiddling with the contrast knob will fix. The dynamic, crisp visual lines — painstakingly worked out by Welles with cinematographer Gregg Toland — are exchanged for a soft-edged fuzziness that destroys one of Kane‘s most striking features: its sense of texture.
View any scene in the 1988 cassette and you’ll see the pattern in Jed Leland’s college tie, the ornate wallpaper designs, the expensive, valueless knickknacks in the corners of Xanadu — the entire psychic universe that Welles created for his doomed antihero. Watch the 50th-anniversary cassette and you’ll see a dark muddle. You can hardly even make out the name of the newspaper the first Mrs. Kane (Ruth Warrick) scans at the end of the famous breakfast-table sequence — and so miss the joke that it’s her husband’s paper’s rival she’s reading. C-