Near the end of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, a weary Marlene Dietrich greets a bloated Welles: “You should lay off the candy bars … You’re a mess, Honey.” He was, and the film itself was a marvelous and flamboyant noir mess and great fun, but David Fincher’s Mank is simply a melancholy and slightly grubby mess and no fun at all..

Fincher mounts an obscured refutation of Welles’ singular role in the filming of Citizen Kane, shooting this film in rough, very rough, approximation of Kane’s distinctive vocabulary. It’s not a shot-for-shot imitation, but similar enough in its many gestures to Kane and so disturbingly visually inferior to the original that ironically, Fincher’s film makes the case for Welles’ genius, illustrating the distance between the screenplay, however strong, and Welles’ film. It is difficult to find a segment in Kane that does not contain at least one stunning image; virtually every scene can be brought to mind simply by referencing a particular shot, the more effective for having been shot in black and white. None springs to mind from Mank, although cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt shot the film with an intended echo of Greg Toland’s work on Kane.

Toland was an extraordinary cinematographer, but there are a number of masterworks filmed by others to great effect in black and white including Welles’ Magnificent Ambersons, The Lady from Shanghai, and Touch of Evil. Stanley Cortez shot Ambersons, Russell Metty Touch of Evil, and three cinematographers shot The Lady From Shanghai. The sensibility behind each of those films is Welles’. It is the composition of the shot which evokes the script; even a casual admirer of Citizen Kane can reference a scene or sequence by summoning an image which returns unbidden with perfect clarity.

Take for example the stentorian newsreel voiceover as the headline crawls across an electronic billboard — “Then, last week, as it must to all men, death came to Charles Foster Kane”. Those are Mankiewicz’ words and they fit the cinematic moment perfectly as the words land following a montage of found footage, simultaneously evoking the passing of a great man and drawing attention to itself as a joke the audience might share with Welles. There is a great celebration of Mankiewicz’ words in Mank, many of them very clever, but they may not live in memory; no sequence is vivid enough to bring the words back to life.

Mank’s flatness comes in part from its expectation that gesture is enough. In a long shot of a car leaving the ranch, we are meant, perhaps, to recognize the isolation Mankiewicz might feel trapped in the desert, but the car is small, the shot held too long, and the impression unremarkable; a comparison springs to mind of the shots of Kane’s incongruous procession of picnicking automobiles driving on the beach or in the same sequence, of Kane and Susan Alexander jammed into the rear seat of their limousine, Alexander wrapped in the pelt of a small animal, Kane decked out in a ridiculous striped blazer.

A Hollywood biopic is an odd eruption of industry chutzpah, a period piece obliged to reflect the sensibilities of a by-gone era while inevitably bearing the weight of intervening years. It frequently offers an actor a defining role. At its best the performance is an artful, slightly terrifying occupation of a character’s persona, at its worst a painfully shallow and poorly conceived aping of the subject’s mannerisms. Tour de force or tour de farce. Oscar bait or career death knell.

Mank occupies a slightly more complicated space, presenting Herman Mankiewicz as a lightly tortured genius, a rascal, eminently decent despite his dependence on alcohol and, in a pinch, a flagon of Seconal, while simultaneously chipping away at the Welles’ reputation as auteur. As played by Gary Oldman, Mankiewicz is a brilliant wisecracking screenwriter, a relentlessly self destructive lush, a world-weary cynic with a heart of gold, the victim of heartless studio hacks taken hostage by the soul crushing egoism of Orson Welles. There is some pleasure in seeing Oldman, an actor capable of summoning dark menace, limp through the film with the self-effacing hubris of a an accomplished wordsmith committing suicide in slow motion. Oldman brings some bloat to the role, and sloppy elan, but in what must have been intended as his cinematic moment, Oldman is left to stumble through an incoherent diatribe against Hearst without much help from Fincher. The takes are too long, the lighting too obscure, the reaction shots banal, and the pace painfully slow. Mank is not a career role for Oldman, but Hollywood takes itself seriously, and as might have been expected, he’s a nominee for Best Actor in this season of pandemic productions.

Mank owes whatever punch it can summon to Pauline Kael’s 50,000 word essay, “Raising Kane”, published in two parts by the New Yorker in 1971 and taken as an incendiary reassessment of Orson Welles authorship of Citizen Kane, by 1971 at the top of the pantheon of great films. The article begins with Kael’s recognition of the freshness of Citizen Kane’s appeal in the years following its disappointing release, agrees that the film is a masterpiece, but in recognizing the familiar elements of popular narrative at work in the film, respectfully refers to Kane as a “shallow masterpiece”, owing much of its peculiar impact to the work of Herman Mankiewicz.

“It is difficult to explain what makes any great work great, and particularly difficult with movies, and maybe more so with “Citizen Kane” than with other great movies, because it isn’t a work of special depth or a work of subtle beauty.”

That assessment acknowledges the particular voice Mankiewicz and other talented writers brought to film in the 30’s and 40’s, sharp, clever, and breezy. Kael presented a detailed account of the migration of brilliant, caustically cynical, and breathtakingly witty writers from New York to Hollywood, among them Herman Mankiewicz, hired after years in the studio writing assembly line by Welles and RKO to produce the screenplay which arrived on screen as Citizen Kane. The identification of Mankiewicz as purported author and co-auteur sent Wellesians into a frenzied and often ugly counter-attack on Kael, taking her to task for inaccuracies in her account of the period and accusing her of having plagiarized much of the Kane material from the work done by Howard Suber with whom Kael had worked at UCLA. Suber had done extensive research on Kane, interviewing many of the principals involved in its development; Kael had not. Critics leapt on what they took to be fabrication and appropriation although Kael split her advance from Bantam Books and Suber abandoned his own book on the film, mailing his essay to Kael.

Today, at a distance from the fury the article provoked, even a casual reading of “Raising Kane’’ reinforces the dictum “no good deed goes unpunished”. The article does document Mankiewicz’s dictation of the script and does compare Welles to Charles Foster Kane and Hearst, but is essentially a love letter to movies, as were many of Kael’s reviews. She wrote in an era in which “serious” films were taken seriously by critics, most notably films made outside the United States: the Neo-Realist films made by Italian directors De Sica,Visconti, Rossellini, Fellini, and the French New Wave as cataloged in the Cahiers du Cinema, Goddard, Truffaut, Chabrol. Movies were silly; cinema was important.

Kael was a champion of American films recognizing the work of directors and actors, but also the collaborative contributions of writers, cameramen, production designers, costume designers, choreographers, and editors. Much of the first half of “Raising Kane” is an unrestrained, almost giddy appreciation of the distinctly American style of popular American films in the transition from silent films to sound, as a desperate industry brought (bought) a cadre of writers with a background in theater and journalism, many of whom, like Mankiewicz, were jaded survivors of the “Vicious Circle”, the relentlessly caustic wits sitting, drinking, and jousting at the Algonquin Hotel’s round table. Kael’s columns for the New Yorker were collected in I Lost It At The Movies, a title simultaneously suggesting her fall from innocence and her complete devotion to American film. She wrote about “movies” as Sarris dissected “cinema”.

Writing at the same time as Andrew Sarris, the principal defender of the “auteur theory”, Kael gave directors their share of the credit for the explosion of delightful screwball comedies, but understood that much of the energy in the films came from the exuberant talent of writers at play. She describes their glee in turning out script after script with a “Look, no hands attitude”. Mankiewicz was among the most prolific, credited and uncredited writer on seventy-five films between 1928 and 1939. A studio system made use of an assembly line of writers, a “bullpen”, which allowed rapid production and which rewarded the writers handsomely. Kael reported that Mankiewicz’ base pay was $56,000 a year during the Great Depression, just over a million in today’s dollars. “Hollywood destroyed them” the round table wits Kael suggested, “but they did wonders for the movies.” What they brought was what Kael called “the wisecracking, fast-talking, cynical-sentimental” voice from Broadway to the movies.

Mank gives us Mankiewicz in decline, the script for Kane his last hurrah. Fincher adds a manufactured crisis of conscience attached to the election of a Republican hack over political activist Upton Sinclair in the 1934 gubernatorial race in California. Hearst and the studio bosses did oppose Sinclair and did bully their minions into supporting his opponent, but Mankiewicz played no real part in the seedy enterprise. Fincher gives the campaign considerable screen time in order to suggest that it is in retribution for Hearst’s anti-democratic and heavy handed attack on Sinclair that Mankiewicz lampoons him in Citizen Kane, allowing a principled Mankiewicz to turn on Hearst, who had befriended him, and on Marion Davies, with whom he had a long-standing friendship. The film softens the cruelty with which Mankiewicz depicts Davies in the pathetic character of Susan Alexander, Kane’s mistress, his Marionette.

Amanda Seyfried’s unexpectedly compelling performance as Davies almost redeems the Academy’s wholesale endorsement of Fincher’s misbegotten imitation of Welles’ craft.

Almost.

Welle’s defenders in attacking Kael missed one of the most salient of Kael’s observations with regard to the studio system, studio moguls, and writers. The fear of Hearst’s reprisal was widespread in Hollywood. The Hearst machine was ready to destroy RKO by any means, including devastating legal battles and rumors linking studios to communist sympathizers. The Hearst papers suggested that RKO had hired immigrants, many of them politically suspect, to do work Americans might have done. The extent of Hearst’s threats are difficult to track down; one story indicates that a 14 year old girl had been hidden in a closet in Welles’ hotel room in an attempt to destroy his career. The film was released to modest success but without the impact it might have had on filmmakers of the era. .Kael’s observation was that the storm surrounding the film undercut Welles’ stature as a director, preventing him from taking his place among the best directors in the last years of studio production. Kael lamented the loss of Welles’ impact as a mainstream director.

So, Fincher? He is among the most successful of directors working today with a string of films that have a devoted following. His interest in slightly skewed psychological noir subjects has served him well, and he and Messerschmidt have developed a distinctive visual style, generally using diffused color, expressing Fincher’s contention that bright lighting makes human skin look unnatural. Dim lighting and subtle palette work well in creating a noir film in color, but in Mank, in black and white, a film about words called for sharpness of image to sustain sharpness of wit.

I’m the author of four novels and America’s Best Kept College Secrets, a retired teacher of the humanities, eclectic reader, and prisoner of popular culture.

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