Orson Welles… the quest for perfection

“A film is never really good unless the camera is an eye in the head of a poet” – Orson Welles

Of course I’m sure you’ve heard the news this month that the latest Sight And Sound Magazine poll unseated Orson Welles’ first movie 1941’s ‘Citizen Kane’ from it’s half-century as the semi-official “Greatest film of all time”Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 film ‘Vertigo’ now sits at the top and I’m looking forward to its imminent re-release at the cinema and onto Blu-Ray but for me ‘Citizen Kane’ still stands far above it.  For one thing I’d rate Orson’s own ‘Touch Of Evil’ as a better film from 1958 and for another ‘Citizen Kane’ is a film where every sound, every edit, every angle and every composition invented a new cinematic language.  Where as in comparison Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’ is just one great thriller in a career heaving with such great thrillers.

I’m a little saddened by ‘Citizen Kane’s fall to second place because Welles’ filmography still needs attention focused on it.  All but the most obscure of Hitchcock’s films are widely available in every high street in superior editions (With a Hi-Def box set in the pipeline) but to obtain even sub-mediocre versions of Welles’ films requires time, money and dedication.  Some of his work like the still unreleased 1976 film ‘The Other Side Of The Wind’ remain stuck in legal limbo and unless fans around the world keep on shouting… it may never be released.  The rest of his work is unavailable to the average shopper, even his acknowledged masterpiece ‘Citizen Kane’ is only sporadically available in a extremely poor quality bargain-basement edition.

So for Welles’ collectors like myself obtaining his complete filmography for home viewing is an ongoing quest for perfection.  A quest that requires lengthy research, reading of reviews, weighing up of opinion and then searches of the catalogues of many distributors and the sites of Amazon and Ebay.  I’ve already traded up or double purchased several of his films as newer and better versions become available.  So it was the other week that I decided to place an order with Amazon for three of the latest versions of Welles’ first three films on import from the US:

The Warner 70th Anniversary Blu-Ray Boxset Of Citizen Kane – A truly astonishing set packaged with postcards, replica telegrams, two feature-length films about the making of ‘Citizen Kane’, a hardback book and even a facsimile of the budget report.  The level of detail on the screen is simply gorgeous, click on the comparison shot I’ve done below to see the upgrade from my Special Edition Universal UK DVD.  I’ve noticed new things like the snowglobe being in the background of Susan’s apartment the first time she meets Kane or the reflection of the Rain in the marble desk of Mr Bernstein.  Like Eureka! Video’s Blu-Ray of ‘Touch Of Evil’, this is only the second Welles’ release that I cannot imagine looking any better.

The Film Chest ‘Remastered’ Blu-Ray Of The Stranger – Of my three new imports the Blu-Ray of ‘The Stranger’ has the greatest increase in quality but also is the weakest looking, which says it all about the shoddy way Welles’ films are often released (Click image below for comparison).  The image has more detail, clarity, stability and contrast but looks like digital smoothing has been used to excess in a misplaced effort to reduce some of the pops and scratches.  I adore the noirish thrills of ‘The Stranger’ but it’s not held in the same critical esteem as Welles’ other works, so this will probably be the best it’s gonna look for a long while.

The Warner Restored DVD Of The Magnificent Ambersons – I first saw ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ at The BFI and sat open-mouthed at the visual beauty of their pristine 35mm print so naturally I had to get a copy to watch at home.  When I purchased the Universal DVD I was so disappointed by the blurry image quality that I just couldn’t bring myself to sit through it.  So the new Warner restoration comes as a revelation and a godsend allowing me to enjoy this film any time I like.  In particular I was struck anew by the gliding poetry of Welles’ camera work during the party scene.  I was unable to capture a still comparison that really showed the huge upgrade in picture quality as my original was not only blurry but unstable (Look at the detail in the dress in the lower right).  It’s only a shame that it comes unaccompanied by any features or that it wasn’t a Blu-Ray.

I thought it might be helpful to other Welles’ fans out there to publish what is in my opinion the best editions available throughout the world of his movies (By ‘Best’ I mean best, which is not the same as good!).  I’ve included Amazon links for your convenience:

1941 Citizen Kane (Warner 70th Anniversary US Blu-Ray Boxset + UK Universal DVD (Great special features))
1942 The Magnificent Ambersons (Warner US DVD)
1946 The Stranger (Film Chest US Blu-Ray)
1947 The Lady From Shanghai (Universal UK DVD)
1948 Macbeth (Second Sight UK DVD)
1952 Othello (Leevision Korean DVD)
1955 Mr. Arkadin (Criterion US DVD Boxset)
1958 Touch Of Evil (Eureka UK Blu-Ray + Universal 50th Anniversary US DVD (Great special features))
1962 The Trial (Studio Canal UK Blu-Ray… coming soon)
1965 Chimes At Midnight (Mr Bongo UK DVD)
1974 F For Fake (Eureka! UK DVD)

As it stands the available releases of Orson’s two mid-career ingenious shoestring Shakespeare adaptations ‘Macbeth’ and ‘Othello’ are most in need of serious restoration.  I’m sure there are others out there that will gladly part with the cash if only they could be made available.  Of course my collection will never be complete without a copy of the legendary ‘The Other Side Of The Wind’ or perhaps the ultimate cinematic holy grail… the lost original Welles cut of ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’.  But really what I want to see is for Welles films to be widely available in every high street so new generations can enjoy his work.  Hopefully this day will come but then again, remember what the fellow said…

“I think an artist has always to be out of step with his time” – Orson Welles

(Finally, click below to watch the award winning feature length documentary ‘The Battle Over Citizen Kane’)

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