It’s been available for pre-order from online retailers for a while (I reserved mine on May 15), but Warner Home Video made it official this morning — a 1080p version of Citizen Kane is being released September 13 on Blu-ray Disc. The new transfer is based on “a 4K scan from a 1941 composite fine-grain positive master,” said WB Motion Picture Imaging colorist Janet Wilson in a prepared statement. Sadly, the camera negative for Kane was destroyed by fire in the 1970s.
(The images I’ve chosen to illustrate this posting are frame grabs from the 2001 Warner Home Video DVD, not the forthcoming Blu-ray.)
The new HD release is significant for a couple of reasons. One of them is that the 1941 debut by director Orson Welles is generally considered a high point (and sometimes the high point) in Hollywood filmmaking history. I hasten to point out that Welles had plenty of help from credited co-screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (the issue of the film’s co-authorship has been fiercely disputed by those who claim Welles didn’t really write any of the screenplay) and cinematographer Gregg Toland, who gave Welles a crash course in working behind the camera, not to mention film editor Robert Wise.
It’s probably best known for its aggressive use of deep-focus techniques (exactly the opposite of the “cinematic” bokeh effect that people prize in today’s large-sensor cameras) and odd camera angles, sometimes requiring that trenches be dug for camera placement, as well as some very imaginative special-effects work. The complete behind-the-scenes story is contained in Robert Carringer’s definitive but currently out of print study The Making of Citizen Kane.
Another reason is that the 2001 Warner Home Video Region 1 DVD release of Citizen Kane was a bit controversial in cinephile circles, with some experts claiming the picture was over-brightened compared to 35mm prints. In one early scene set in a dark projection room, Welles is said to have had more or less his entire cast — and perhaps Alan Ladd, as well — doubling as journalists, confident that the predominance of shadow would obscure their identities. Suffice it to say that the DVD made it easier than it had ever been to try and figure out who was who in those shots.
Also discussed were the effects of grain-reduction techniques, which some critics said unduly altered the look of the film. In a famous scene set in the office of the character Bernstein, splashes of rain hitting the windows (you can see them on the Criterion Collection’s laserdisc, which was the best home-video version of the film available before the DVD) seem to have been digitally erased, probably interpreted as film grain by aggressive noise-reduction algorithms that smoothed out the raindrops along with the rest of the picture. (Can we call it a rain-reduction technique?)
It will be interesting to see how Warner chooses to address the disagreement over brightness — neither the film’s director nor its cinematographer are available to settle the issue — but the case of the missing raindrops will almost certainly be solved in this updated iteration of Kane for home viewing. The package will also include audio commentary tracks by Peter Bogdanovich and Roger Ebert (apparently recycled from DVD) along with other extras that include, tantalizingly, “deleted scenes.” The box also includes second and third discs (unclear from the studio press release whether these are BDs or DVDs) with the documentary The Battle over Citizen Kane and the HBO movie about the film’s making, RKO 281.
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