Updated: Jul 17, 2021
For most of my lifetime there was near unanimity; Citizen Kane was the greatest film ever made. In 1962 it leapt to the top of the Sight and Sound Poll of the Greatest Films of All Time and remained there for half a century, not toppled into second place until 2012. For most serious-minded movie-goers growing up during the years when Hollywood provided the world's staple diet of dramatic entertainment - (like my father, who first saw it in his mid-teens) - Kane was self-evidently a work of brilliance and audacity, adult and innovative in both theme and style, realised with a technical and artistic assurance that showed what could be achieved when genuine creative talent was given near free run of the dream factory. I suspect that, for a younger generation - people such as myself, who first encountered it on television in the 1970s - the film carried with it such a weight of expectation that it became almost impossible to respond to. Whilst much about it is truly remarkable and exemplary I, for one, am still not sure that I have ever really "enjoyed" it as a total experience. Indeed, I have always struggled to watch it complete in one sitting. Since the advent of home video technology in the 1980s, I have usually consumed it in five segments, each containing one of the testimonies that make up its tortuous narrative. As a whole I find it oddly cruel and alienating - even painfully so. Despite its early moments of levity, I cannot think of a harsher exposure of the vanity of human wishes. Providentially endowed with the material means to pursue any life he chooses, the young Charles Foster Kane encounters disillusionment at every turn, ending up solitary, paranoid and deranged. Public life and politics, marriage and friendship, conspicuous consumption and the accumulation of worldly goods are each in turn found to be hollow and meaningless. No film is more merciless in its presentation of ageing as the ultimate leveller - "the only disease...you don't look forward to being cured of". Yet the tragedy depicted - if tragedy it is - belongs not just to one man, but to all of us. Once his youthful energy has been burned up, Kane is revealed as fundamentally ordinary and unimaginative - as ordinary as the other characters whose lives impinge upon his and whom he variously disappoints and ruins. How on earth could Pauline Kael have described this as more fun than any other great movie she knew?
That, of course, is hardly the most contentious of Kael's assertions about Kane. In her long 1971 New Yorker essay, Raising Kane, she stirred up a maelstrom of outrage by implying that the film was essentially Welles' showy presentation of a superlative, deeply felt and finely polished screenplay by the work's true presiding genius - the gifted, if very dissipated, screenwriter, Herman J. Manciewicz. For myself, I have never been much exercised by this particular authorship controversy. Film is, of its nature, a collaborative art, whose best products seem, nonetheless, possessed of a near miraculous sureness of controlled expression. It is a paradox that all good film critics must grapple with and with which, in Raising Kane, Kael clearly does grapple, however uneasily. To dismiss her study as simply an under-researched and spiteful attempt to rob a great director of his one unarguable triumph - pretty much the standard view - is to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Though consistently playing down the extent and centrality of Welles' contribution, she has many sharp observations about specific details of his direction and perceptive things to say about the rootedness of Kane in the style and techniques of inter-war American theatre - the culture in which both Welles and Mankiewicz first made their mark. Furthermore, Raising Kane can be seen retrospectively as a bold and timely, if reckless and self-defeating, corrective to the cult of "auteurist" cinema influentially advanced by Andrew Sarris in his The American Cinema: Directors and Diections 1929-1968.
Even if several decades of film scholarship have convincingly demonstrated the crucial nature of Welles' influence at all stages of Kane's conception and development, he clearly benefited from the services of an experienced screenwriter and an elite team of technicians - amongst the latter the cinematographer, Greg Toland, the editors Robert Wise and Mark Robson, the designer Perry Ferguson, and the composer Bernard Herrmann (who provides the only participatory link with the movie that succeeded Kane in Sight and Sound's top movie slot - Hitchcock's Vertigo). Kael is surely right to imply that Welles desperately needed such a pool of expertise to translate his ambitious ideas into professional product and that most of his later, independently produced, films are undermined - often fatally - by their ragged technique, lapses of continuity, and air of improvisation. What seems perverse is her insistence upon replacing one imposed hierarchical view of cinematic creativity with another. Far from repudiating the "auteur" theory, the elevation of Mankiewicz to a position of dominance ultimately feels like a naked capitulation to it - at least to the notion that all cinematic masterworks are essentially the vision of a single "master".
Interestingly, the recent deposition of Citizen Kane appears to have brought it new attention, as though it can now be seen afresh, without the viewer's response being overclouded by oppressive knowledge of the film's official enthronement. All the more disappointing then that David Fincher's Mank - the most heavily nominated movie at this year's Oscars though not, I'm pleased to say, a major winner - should revisit the circumstances of Kane's creation in such a drab, underpowered, and ultimately dishonest way, depressingly attempting to reignite the old authorship controversy in a manner so hopelessly one-sided as to be virtually devoid of dramatic interest, whilst ham-fistedly appropriating a dubious political context for it.
Herman Mankiewicz moved from New York to Hollywood in the mid 1920s, initially providing caption cards for silent movies then, as head of Paramount's Scenario Department, becoming responsible for recruiting a brilliant generation of fellow East Coast scribes with backgrounds in theatre or journalism, to provide slangy, idiomatic dialogue for the new-fangled talking pictures that started to appear from 1929. "Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots", he famously telegraphed his friend Ben Hecht, who was quick to take the the bait. Both as supervisor (he produced three of the best Marx Brothers films) and through his own prolific (often uncredited) writing, he certainly played a crucial part in developing the rapid, sophisticated, dialogue-driven style that characterised much of the best Hollywood cinema of the 1930s. He also acquired a dazzling reputation for erudition and wit that saw him admitted to the most exclusive West Coast social circles, including that surrounding the fabulously rich newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst and his young film star wife, Marion Davies.
By 1938, however, he was already on the slide. Though allegedly the most highly paid writer on Earth, heavy addiction to drink and the gaming table had undermined his health and left him permanently in debt, whilst his behaviour became increasingly eccentric and unpredictable, alienating many colleagues and friends. It was at this point that he met the theatrical prodigy, Orson Welles, who offered him work writing radio scripts. In 1939, Welles' and his Mercury Players relocated to Hollywood and, by the end of the year, the two men had started to thrash out the scenario for a film that would tell the life of a prominent American figure - loosely based on Hearst - through the conflicting flashback testimonies of those who had known him.
Mank conveniently overlooks this stage of pre-planning, opening in February, 1940, with Mankiewicz, leg in plaster following a car accident, confined with a nurse and a secretary to a remote Mojave Desert ranch house, periodically checked up on by Welles' assistant, John Houseman. Here, cut off from his steady supply of booze, we are to suppose he drew upon his memories of times spent at Hearst Castle to create a testamentary masterpiece from scratch. (In fact, he was working from a 300 page first draft, entitled John Citizen, USA, roughed out in collaboration the previous year, but no matter.) The amateurish screenplay by Fincher's late father, Jack, cuts listlessly between the 42 year old Mankiewicz at work on Kane and the thirty-something Mankiewicz who, a decade earlier, was the toast of Hollywood and frequent dinner guest of the Hearsts. The 62 year-old Gary Oldman flails haplessly in the role, not just because he is - forgive me - too old a man (after all, at about the same age, Willem Dafoe managed an insightful portrayal of the 37 year-old van Gogh) but because of the unfocussed and under-characterised stuff he is given to work with. Through the fog of witless writing, it is hard to recognize this as a film centering on someone regularly described by acquaintances (including Hecht and Houseman) as one of the most entertaining men alive. Instead we are presented with little more than an exhausted old soak, the director who once patiently (if pointlessly) presided over the prosthetic ageing of Brad Pitt, seemingly indifferent to the fact that his appearance and manner are more or less identical in pomp and decline. (Admittedly, the wardrobe department don't help by giving him what looks like the same crumpled jacket in just about every scene, to match his permanently crumpled expression. The climactic scene, where he drunkenly crashes a Hearst banquet at which he is no longer welcome is both embarrassing and interminable (but not, as Mark Kermode would say, in a good way). If anything, one sympathises with the Hearsts and their fat cat guests being intruded upon by such a tiresome boor. Equally uncomfortable is Tom Burke, presumably cast as Welles on the basis of his success at playing sinister types. There is a half-hearted attempt to present his character as demonic, notably in a moment when his shadow looms threateningly over Mank's sickbed but the notion of the two men's having signed a Faustian pact, like so much else in the movie, it is not followed through. Left, like Oldman, to make bricks without straw, the 39 year old actor doesn't really look or sound like the 24 year old Welles and conveys nothing of his boyish charm.
If this careless casting is dismaying, even more so is Mank's inability to recreate the competitive, fast-paced, smart-talking milieu within which it's characters moved. Scenes such as a script conference attended by the likes of Hecht, Charles Lederer, Charles MacArthur and S. J. Perelman promise a feast of sparkling dialogue but invariably fizzle out in tideless chatter, a problem compounded by poor pointing and pacing. Despite his evident proficiency as a craftsman, Fincher fils has long seemed to me overestimated as a director. All but a couple of his previous films - (Se7en and The Social Network, both grounded by superior screenplays) - end up rambling out of control, their incidental virtues overwhelmed by a lack of attention to overall form, function or even meaning. Here, perhaps out of reluctance to tamper with his father's words, he lets most sequences run on far too long and struggles to establish a unifying tone.
Even the way Mank is dutifully served up as period pastiche seems perfunctory and irrelevant. There is more to recreating classic 30s Hollywood style than simply shooting in black and white and recording in mono (both these retro gestures in any case undermined by the use of modern wide-screen ratio). One particularly dim moment offers a gratuitous visual gloss on the celebrated short speech in Kane where the aged Mr. Bernstein shares his persistent memory of the white-clad girl with a parasol he once saw on a passing ferry. Fincher treats his viewers to a static, long-held shot of a white blur, stranded in the middle of the distended frame on what appears to be some sort of boat. Hardly inspiring, though perhaps it would work better if Erik Messerscmidt's monochrome images were crisper and less flatly textured (he has said in interview that a richer noir lighting would "detract from the story" - if only!). Likewise, the score by regular Fincher collaborators, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, does little more than provide generalised sonic wallpaper - some frantic jazz drumming here, a little melancholy lounge piano there - nothing that helps to shape or animate the drama it accompanies. Throwing off a miniature set of waltz variations to underline the gradual breakup of a marriage, or creating a stunning parody of a Massenet opera aria (highlights of Bernard Herman's score for Kane) would appear to be quite beyond them.
As though dimly aware that they are not rising to the challenge of capturing the mercurial essence of Mankiewicz' personality, or the culture in which he briefly thrived, the Finchers devote much of their film to his elevation as a sort of moral touchstone or sozzled secular saint, an effort that only serves to increase the film's lack of balance. True, Mankiewicz spoke out prophetically against Hitler in the early1930s and personally aided many German Jews in their escape to the USA, a fact the film alludes to but chooses not to elaborate upon. It would have been a more interesting, a truer and a more inspiring portrait if it had. Instead, it involves its hero in a completely fictitious intrigue concerning Hearst and MGM's sabotaging of the socialist writer Upton Sinclair's 1934 bid to become Governor of California. Now, the tale of Sinclair's doomed campaign and Hollywood's determined resistance to it might have made an fascinating movie in its own right. Louis B. Mayer did actually commissioned a series of supposedly neutral documentary reels to accompany his company's features, in which a subtle but unmistakable signal was sent out that the author of Oil! and The Jungle, was the enemy of respectable, God-fearing, middle-class whites. The originals can be found online and, it must be said, Fincher recreates them with some skill. But Mankiewicz played no part in any attempt to have them destroyed and, being no man of the Left, would possibly have approved of them. This political subplot aspires to lend Mankiewicz a certain gravitas; he undergoes a liberal "radicalization", falling out with both Hearst and the studios as a result of his growing unease at their anti-Unionism which, intensified by his feelings of self-disgust at having accepted their hospitality and remorse over not preventing the suicide of a troubled friend, feeds into his hostile depiction of Hearst in Kane. Ultimately, however, this is not only lugubrious in its exposition, but comes across as an unwitting admission of the triviality at the core of Mank's conception. Outside of the critical context that sparked Kael's essay, the question of whether Mankiewicz deserved sole credit for writing Kane could hardly be more nugatory. Both he and Welles walked away with Oscars and - since Welles was denied one for direction - that seems fair. If there were any real dramatic mileage to be extracted from this stale spat, the Finchers would hardly need to bolster it with such flagrant fabrication.
Mank is not entirely without compensations, but these are fewer and smaller than might be imagined and are to be found chiefly in the playing of the supporting cast. If Charles Dance sleepwalks his way through the role of Hearst, Amanda Seyfried does what she can as the likeable Marion. Neither has anything memorable to say. Sam Troughton is anxiously fastidious as Houseman and Tuppence Middleton has poise, presence and a sense of timing as Mankiewicz intelligent, long-suffering wife, Sara (things brighten up a bit during her brief moments on screen). As Mank's more dependably talented younger brother, Joseph (future director of All About Eve), Tom Pelphrey would be perfectly convincing, were he not saddled with some particularly clumsy verbiage - at one point having laboriously to elucidate a literary joke to the elder Mankiewicz, who would surely have got it first time. Arliss Howard's Mayer is comic rather than frightening but Ferdinand Kingsley's Thalberg projects genuine chill. This is MGM's boy wonder as the man many colleagues swore pissed iced-water and the scene where he calmly accuses Mank of feeling superior to his well-remunerated work and hiding his self-loathing behind a mask of sarcastic humour seems to have strayed from a more tartly ironic film.
I don't think too many people were surprised by Mank's failure to convert more than two of its multiple Oscar nominations into wins. As a film concerning the rivalries of dead white males working within a capitalist industry, it was bound to struggle in the current political climate. But, the truth is it would never have deserve to win big. The five of its Best Picture competitors I have seen are not just more timely in their expression of diversity but simply stronger and more engaging. By comparison, Mank comes across as a seedy vanity project, something one could hardly imagine coming before the cameras were it not for Netflix's current campaign to court big-name directors. That it should be such a pile of wreckage, however, is particularly unfortunate at a time when a new online generation has grown up, largely ignorant of the excitements of classic Hollywood. They are most unlikely to be turned on by anything they encounter here.
The 1999 HBO production RKO 180 was not without flaws (notably of casting), but made a creditable attempt to identify and recreate the energies that went into the making of Citizen Kane, giving the impression of having been conceived in a genuine spirit of celebration, with bright colour, plausible detail, and a brisk pace. The busy screenplay was written by the playwright, John Logan, subsequently hired to work on Martin Scorsese's Howard Hughes biopic, The Aviator, a jettisoned first treatment of which was apparently undertaken by none other than Jack Fincher. Could it be that Mank's sour, distinctly un-celebratory tale of authorial frustration has roots more personal and bitter than it will admit to?