The Living Room Bijou: A Primer on “Citizen Kane” and the Problems with “Mank.”

In which I try to answer the question, “Should I watch Mank?”

Citizen Kane: The Real Thing, a Great Work of Art

So, there you are, feet up, thumbing through the Netflix menu one evening, when up pops a movie called Mank. You read the capsule — the fictionalized story about the writing of an old black-and-white movie called Citizen Kane — and then see the names David Fincher and Gary Oldman, reputable names for sure. Your thumb crawls toward the OK button — but wait! First, I have an important question!

Have you ever seen Citizen Kane? If you haven’t, I absolutely urge you to not watch Mank. If you do, I guarantee you’ll find it baffling, irrelevant, and dull. If you’re unacquainted with the Golden Age of Hollywood, it might seem as odd and alien to you as Star Wars is to those whose favorite science fiction movie remains Forbidden Planet. Most horrible of all, it might even put you off watching Citizen Kane, an intolerable thought.

So, what is this Citizen Kane? I‘m not speaking as one of those provincial fanboys who demand that you see all forty films in the DC/MCU universe before you even deign to snicker at Captain Spandex: Monsters from Turlock. (Oh, for the days when B movies were cheap, unpretentious, and fun.)

Watching Citizen Kane before watching any movie won’t take up much time. And you won’t regret one second of one minute. Even if you don’t love it as much as the rest of us, those two hours will not be wasted.

There are no sequels and no prequels to worry about. And almost no equals. There’s just Citizen Kane, called by hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of critics and viewers — me, among them — the greatest film ever made. Greatest not, it’s the real thing, a Great Work of Art.

Citizen Kane was released in 1941 by the lost and lamented RKO Radio Pictures, one of Golden Age Hollywood’s smallest but best-remembered studios — where Kong was King; the House of Noir; the palace where Cary Grant cavorted while Fred and Ginger danced; and where producer Val Lewton found the dark Art lurking in the horror genre.

Citizen Kane was the debut film of Orson Welles as co-writer, producer, director, and star. Welles was an authentic boy wonder of both his time and ours. He was born a genius. By the time he was ten, he was writing poetry, going on grand lecture tours, and smoking cigars. His early life seems one of those prodigal child stunts, like those five-year-olds who play Mozart blindfolded.

Child prodigies often vanish in adulthood, but Orson Welles kept streaking across the sky. By the time he was twenty, he was one of live theatre’s most innovative and popular actors and showmen. He kicked open a small hornet’s nest with his Mercury Theatre radio dramatization of War of the Worlds, which inadvertently panicked some careless listeners into believing Martians had landed in New Jersey (an ominous portent for us now).

After that, Welles was invited to Hollywood, where he declared movie making “the greatest electric train set any boy ever had.” With his lifelong love for stage magic and his epic imagination, no one could’ve been more suited for moviemaking.

Citizen Kane tells, with dazzling energy and captivating invention, the rise and fall of a wealthy media tycoon by the name of Charles Foster Kane (a strutting confident performance by Welles). The story unreels in elliptical fashion, opening with a long tracking shot up a steel fence to reveal a Gothic landscape, inspired by both German Expressionism and, in turn, Universal horror films. The camera slowly glides across a lavish but decaying world toward a huge castle that rises in the stormy distance like Sauron’s redoubt — here lives a monster.

And then we meet the monster with a startling close-up of Kane’s bearded mouth breathing his last word through a snow globe, which then rolls free of his dying hand, shattering on the floor, its contents spilling out, along with the old man’s life. Both the word and the snow globe provide clues to all that follows. From there, the film becomes a detective story, but the mystery isn’t who killed Charles Foster Kane — the soul long dead before the body — but who was he?

An investigative reporter (William Alland) gets on the trail, searching for the meaning of Kane’s enigmatic last word. We see Kane through the eyes of those who loved and hated him throughout his tumultuous life. Narratively, and visually, the film swims in and away from Kane as he travels from triumph to tragedy, finally ending as a grotesque glowworm wandering alone through his noirish castle, a cynical butler (Paul Stewart, deliciously unctuous) a last witness.

Every shot of every scene shimmers, jumps, and dances with life, with a joy of cinema not seen since the Silent Era and seldom seen since. Like the narrative, the camera swoops and swirls, dodging in and out of inky shadows, in concert with a great cast of performers. The production, up against the studio’s tight budget, manages to look as though they’d spent Kane’s entire fortune.

Welles brought along his ensemble from his Mercury Theatre team, some of whom would go on to successful Hollywood careers. Among them were Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead, Ray Collins, Everett Sloane, and, among my favorites, George Coulouris as young Kane’s cruel guardian and financier, Walter Parks Thatcher. (“ I THINK it would be FUN to run a NEWSpaper!”) One notable outsider was Dorothy Comingore, who, as Kane’s second wife, Susan Alexander, brings a brittle sadness with her portrayal of a young woman of minor talent who becomes a caged bird in a powerful man’s menagerie.

Citizen Kane is where Art fuses with Entertainment. It’s funny, dramatic, tragic, and sad, expressing a remarkable range of tones without ever being patchy or disjointed. Despite its stylistic ambitions, with its swooping sure-footed camera work and high-contrast lighting, the film has a surreal buoyance and never feels heavy. This may be because, thematically, the film’s main message is the simplest and sanest one of all: fame and riches can’t buy happiness, can’t ever retrieve what’s lost..

But all great works have more than one current flowing underneath, another idea. With Kane, it’s that no individual can ever be fully known. In the end, none of us quite add up and we remain mysteries, even to ourselves. It never says any of this. It shows it, eloquently.

And that’s all the messages this movie needs. It’s true that it’s “shallow,” but any more significance and the film would be as ponderous a ruin as Kane’s estate. Citizen Kane is what Alfred Hitchcock called “pure cinema.” It’s very much Art for Art’s sake. Cinema for the joy of Cinema.

When I first saw it on TV in the early 1970s on a Sunday afternoon in Oshkosh, Wisconsin (on WLUK, channel 11), I first thought the station manager had fumbled, running a horror film I’d never seen — but then the film took a sudden leap from Gothic art to newsreel. And that was just the beginning.

Before Kane, my notions of “Art” were pretty dim. Though I loved many films (some of them seriously trashy, better known as “movies”), I was an indiscriminate teenager with little idea of what I was loving and why. A movie was boring or it was exciting.

Citizen Kane was exciting in a way new to me. After Kane, I understood a little more what it meant to call something a work of Art. I clearly remember thinking, this movie was made thirty years ago, but feels as new as yesterday. Sure, it was in black and white with no cussing, no blood, and only bare-shouldered nudity. But there was nothing creaky, stiff or old-fashioned about it. Now, fifty years later, it still looks new. Film has been technically polished to a sterile CG’d digital gleam, but the spirit of the new is harder than ever to find. Citizen Kane remains as fresh as most any film you can name.

Kane ignited furious controversy in its day, due mostly to Kane’s close resemblance to one of the towering Americans of his era, media tycoon William Randolph Hearst (a bully ancestor to Rupert Murdoch). Hearst, along with his newspapers and allies, once they got wind of the project (whose production was kept under wraps), did everything they could sink it, even lining up investors to buy RKO Studios so they could destroy the film in toto. RKO, led by its president, George Schaefer, one of the production’s unsung heroes, bravely withstood the onslaught (though Schaefer’s courage cost him his job).

Hearst succeeded in pressuring the studios’ major theatre chains not to show it, but Kane managed to score nine Oscar nominations, though it won only one. It made no money and was finally sent to the vaults. Meanwhile, its camera work and high-contrast lighting inspired film-noir style while its multiple viewpoints inspired Kurosawa’s Rashomon.

In the 1950s, RKO sold the broadcast rights of its unique library, including Citizen Kane, to TV, among the very early joiners with the new medium. But even the tiny box of television failed to dim Kane’s magic and its influence and reputation rose again and spread further.

In the 1960s, it reached number one on Sight and Sound’s once-a-decade list of greatest films ever made, a ranking it kept until Hitchcock’s Vertigo knocked it to second place in 2000 (an arguable move, but no matter, given the inherent fluidity of these rankings).

The story behind Citizen Kane is as multifaceted as Kane himself. Orson Welles signed with RKO in 1938 for a two-picture deal. The deal gave him complete control of almost all facets of the production (excepting story approval and budget), right down to final cut. No other Hollywood director, not even John Ford, Frank Capra or William Wyler, three veteran major directors of the time, had it so good. The deal sparked great resentment, making both Welles and the studio sitting ducks. Expectations were already high for Welles — the man was declaring himself a Great Auteur after all — and with them raised even higher, failure of some kind to some degree was guaranteed.

Sometime in 1939, with two of Welles’ proposed projects abandoned (including what sounds like an insanely chilling adaptation of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness), Welles met Herman J. Mankiewicz, a beloved and notoriously hard-drinking veteran of the Hollywood screenwriting colony and its most slashing wit. Mankiewicz had already worked on a couple of radio projects for Welles and provided the experience the young tyro lacked. The pair sat down to conjure up ideas like the magicians they were.

The rise and fall of the great and powerful has been a subject for storytellers since Gilgamesh, so the story that Welles and Mankiewicz finally settled on was nothing new. Welles had been bandying a “great man” story about since the 1930s, perhaps pondering his own youthful grandiosity. The non-chronological structure was inspired by 1933’s The Power and the Glory, the story of another tycoon, written by Preston Sturges.

Herman J. Mankiewicz played a major role as co-architect in the blueprint for Kane. Along with his experience, his years of gallivanting about as Hollywood’s most successful screenwriter, legendary boozer, and sharpest wit had landed him at the dinner table of William Randolph Hearst at the tycoon’s gargantuan San Simeon castle on the California coast. There, while keeping Hearst and his dinner guests in stitches, he struck up a friendship with Hearst’s mistress, actress Marion Davies. His drunken antics wore out the patience of the abstemious Hearst until, as the story goes, Mankiewicz woke up one morning, opened his bedroom door and found his bags packed and ready in the hallway.

So, in part at least, Mankiewicz’s script for Citizen Kane is both a riff on his years as a Hearst dinner guest and as an act of revenge. While Kane’s certainly a composite of other moguls, Hearst lies at the core.

Welles, his student collaborator, was only twenty-three, an outsider in Hollywood, the kid from out of town, floating on an ego filled with helium. Just how aware of the dangerous waters he was wading into isn’t clear but calling him “naïve” would be accurate. Hearst’s power was fading nationally but in Hollywood he remained a dangerous character to cross. Meanwhile, along comes Welles, a relative nobody rushing to be the biggest somebody of all.

Welles and Mankiewicz went to work. After awhile, the room became too small for these two giant personalities. Welles was aggressive and commanding and Mankiewicz may have lacked the deft patience for dealing with this thundering tyro. Finally, Welles wisely bowed to Mankiewicz’s greater experience and left the writer, recovering from a car accident, to work alone. As Welles collaborator John Houseman and secretary Rita Alexander hovered about, one to keep him sober, the other to take dictation, Mankiewicz finished the first draft, called The American, in a three-month period. Coming in at around 270 hundred pages, it was a brilliant mess, typical of a first draft.

Welles took over from there, rewriting, cutting and rearranging, a routine process that is the bane of screenwriters but almost unavoidable in a work involving hundreds of people and a half-million dollar budget. Among the most important changes Welles made was to deepen and enrich Kane’s character, drawn by Mankiewicz in broad, almost cartoonish strokes. Welles imbued the monster with pathos.

The Making of Citizen Kane, Revised Edition by Robert Carringer (U.C. Press Berkeley 1996) maps the Byzantine path the film took once the (Third Revised) final script was completed in July 1940. Each chapter of Carringer’s book approaches the production from different aspects, including writing, art direction, cinematography, postproduction and release in fine, if dry, detail (though, unfortunately, he leaves out the casting). As he makes it clear, Orson Welles is an auteur, but it was Orson Welles and company (including art director Perry Ferguson and the Mercury Theatre ensemble) who took Mankiewicz’s architecture and refashioned it into Citizen Kane.

Given Welles’ imagination and ambition, the production was a complex weave, leading to extensive script revisions and some genuine innovations. Corner-cutting and censor-dodging drove some of the production’s ingenious adaptations, including new ways to shoot within enclosed rooms and creating the illusion of vast spaces on small sets. (Kane’s main dining hall become even more stunning once you realize those inky vast shadows are but black velvet draping.)

Cinematographer Gregg Toland and composer Bernard Hermann, two genuine innovators, made essential contributions. Toland, already a successful independent within the studio system, provided his own cameras and lenses, some of which he’d developed himself. He was the perfect collaborator and mentor the inexperienced Welles needed as they kept topping each other with one innovation after another without losing sight of the larger canvas. They shot most of the film with a single camera with little or no coverage.

Bernard Hermann had composed scores for Welles’ Mercury Theatre radio broadcasts and brought the same musical style to the film, as did the sound design. The film sounds like a radio drama with its intense narrative passages and dialogue, leaps in time and spare scoring. Hermann (to me, a forerunner to Ennio Morricone) mostly avoided the Germanic Romanticism typical of film scores then and now with their leitmotifs and swelling strings. In its place, he wrote music that is often spare, sometimes playful, sometimes sinister, always in touch with the style and drama of the film.

More often than we realize, it’s the film editor who rides in with his scissors to finally save the day, but Robert Wise (later one of Hollywood’s most successful directors) was handed a collection of footage that was already pretty complete: “ . . . it was a very carefully thought out and planned picture.”

Even after was Wise was done, editing continued after the “Hays Office,” the production code censors, made their usual fuss. RKO and its legal department, already facing looming libel threats from Hearst, made further contributions. Meanwhile, RKO head Schaefer fought on the front lines against the rising protests. Orson Welles had kicked open another hornet’s nest.

Finally, Mankiewicz and Welles duked it out over screenwriting credit. Welles’ original contract with RKO stipulated that he would receive sole screenwriting credit. Mankiewicz despised movies and screenwriting as bastard arts, but once it became clear that Citizen Kane might actually be great, he rightfully called for his name on the roster. Welles resisted for awhile then gave in. (One account has it that he personally wrote in Mankiewicz’s name over his own. But Mankiewicz, like so many in Hollywood, never forgave Welles, while Welles often praised Mankiewicz for his groundwork.)

The film finally opened in New York, on May 1, 1941, just over a year after Welles and Mankiewicz sat down to work. Urban critics danced and swooned but the reaction elsewhere, especially in rural areas, was muted and hostile. Thanks to pressure from Hearst media, the big studios, who each ran their own theatre chains, refused to show it, leaving it to independent chains. According to RKO, Citizen Kane lost $150,000. While the controversy played a role in its poor showing, it was also, as Carringer says, “not a film for an ordinary commercial audience.”

Hollywood reacted with mixed feelings. Director George Cukor, no small talent, thought it was rather overblown, a fair critique. Others blamed Welles’ admittedly large ego but large egos are endemic throughout showbiz. But to Hollywood, RKO had allowed Welles’ ego to run off the leash. Despite the nine Oscars nominations, Academy members snubbed Welles completely, awarding the only statue to the screenplay, a gift for Mankiewicz, not Welles. It proves a point I’ve made elsewhere — internal politics is what often wins Academy Awards.

The next year, RKO sent Citizen Kane to the vaults. Of its celebrated cast, Joseph Cotten starred in two more classics, Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt and The Third Man, with a prosperous career lasting into the 1980s. Agnes Moorehead, as Kane’s cruel mother, went on to win numerous awards and became the first woman to host the Oscars ceremony. Ray Collins, Everett Sloane, and George Coulouris would all become adored members of that hallowed tribe of character actors.

The great cameraman Gregg Toland would triumph again with The Best Years of Our Lives but, sadly and suddenly, died in 1948. Composer Bernard Hermann would join with Alfred Hitchcock, Ray Harryhausen and many others for some of the greatest film scores ever.

Dorothy Comingore also failed to rise as she deserved. It’s said she became too finicky after Kane, turning down too many roles to keep working. But she also faced accusations that her role as Susan Alexander too closely resembled Marion Davies, Hearst’s mistress and a star in her own right. Herman Mankiewicz firmly and credibly denied the accusation, but as Kane so closely resembled Hearst, Comingore was judged guilty by association. Due to this, and to her liberal activism, she wound up a victim of the Hollywood blacklist and retired from film acting for good.

Sadly, for Herman Mankiewicz, Citizen Kane was about his last success. Along with his alcoholism, his contempt for the film medium remained. His only significant script afterward was Pride of the Yankees. He died in 1953 at age fifty-five.

Finally, there’s Orson Welles. After Kane, he met the twin disasters of the documentary It’s All True and The Magnificent Ambersons. It’s All True was never finished but The Magnificent Ambersons was. There’s much greatness in it, but here both Welles’ showman’s vision and brash temperament crashed head-on into the realities of studio moviemaking. To Hollywood, it was “All’s well that ends Welles.” The ultimate stubborn individualist, Welles couldn’t adapt to Hollywood’s industrial demands. Big-budget moviemaking is not like writing a novel or play all alone in a garret and Welles seems not to have been cagey or supple enough to work the obstacles.

Orson Welles became the great gypsy of cinema, making films good, bad, and great (Macbeth, Othello, Touch of Evil), sometimes on time and on budget, often with money he’d raised himself from any acting job he could find. The best of them were grand marriages of experiment and entertainment. He was a true auteur in a medium where team effort, rightly and wrongly, gets it done. He prized and respected our desire for entertainment but also strove to raise our sights a little higher, to open up our imaginations. But Hollywood’s stereotype of him as an impulsive spendthrift kept him a frustrated exile. But regardless of the heart break, he never gave up, until he died at his typewriter in 1985.

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And so, now that you’ve read all that, David Fincher’s Mank should no longer be baffling and no longer irrelevant. As for dull, well, let’s say Mank is no Citizen Kane. Not even close.

It’s impeccably made, as fastidious as other Fincher films. Much was made over shooting it with Monaural sound in black-and-white, even adding reel-change marks as was done back in celluloid days. In the end, these tricks seems pointless, as the film was shot digitally in 2:20–1 widescreen aspect instead of the traditional 1:37–1 ratio used for Kane. For a director as exacting as Fincher, why be so half-hearted? Considering its inspiration, Mank is a weirdly conservative film.

Factual history always rides the caboose when it comes to the movies. Jack Fincher’s script takes its share of liberties regarding the making of Citizen Kane, using as its thesis Pauline Kael’s discredited claim that the screenplay was all due to Mankiewicz. (As Mankiewicz took revenge on Hearst, perhaps the script is a screenwriter’s revenge on auteur directors. If so, I think they picked the wrong target.)

But I’ll leave that there, except to beef about the portrayal of Welles as an ogre and nothing but. Actor Tom Burke does about the best job portraying Welles you could hope for, capturing his bigger-than-life stentorian voice and manner. But the film rushes Welles in to bellow like a six-foot-tall, two-year old and then rushes him out again, leaving us bedded down for a nice snooze with co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz.

We writers are mostly sedentary animals, more observers than actors, which is why there are so few films that focus on us and none that I know that turn out especially good. “INT: CLOSE-UP: Writer shoos Binky off his keyboard as he sits down” fails the test of exciting cinema.

Mank faces a bigger problem than just a guy at his desk. Just before he signed on to write Kane, Mankiewicz broke his leg in a car accident that left him bedridden during the entire time he worked on the script. Mank is about a guy writing in bed. Dramatically, the film bed right down with him. It becomes a narrative post around which to spin Mankiewicz’s Hollywood-and-Hearst memories.

It looks lovely and everyone involved deserves credit. Gary Oldman is good as Mankiewicz but I didn’t get much spark from him while Amanda Seyfried is excellent as Marion Davies. Even when political intrigue, both in Hollywood and in the world at large, raises its dark visage, the film never dazzles like the great work that inspired it.

The writing is only the opening chapter of the story of Citizen Kane. Its making is the real story, a suspense story, one as multifaceted as its subject. Fincher might have broadened his story beyond its screenplay, to capture the whole story of Kane — how the troubled Welles may have seen himself in it, the quest to destroy the film, and George Schaefer’s brave fight to save it — with much the same panache with which Mankiewicz, Welles and a group of enormously talented artisans and technicians told the story of Charles Foster Kane.

(Re-edited 2/4/21 to change “using as its thesis Pauline Kael’s discredited claim that the film was all due to Mankiewicz.” She actually claimed that Mankiewicz was solely responsible for the screenplay. Thanks to Michael Sragow.)

Thomas Burchfield’s short story “Lucky Day” is in the anthology Berkeley Noir (Akashic Press, May 2020), now available in bookstores everywhere. “Visconti Noir” a look at the surprising film noir of Italian cinematic grandmaster Luchino Visconti is in the November 2020 issue of Noir City e-mag. Another story “What Now, Masked Man?” is in issue #1 of Hello Goodbye Apocalypse. He’s also the author of Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster thriller and the award-winning contemporary vampire novel Dragon’s Ark. His original screenplays Whackers, The Uglies, Now Speaks the Devil and Dracula: Endless Night are available in e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, all are available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powell’s Books, and other retailers. His reviews and essays have appeared in Swing Time Magazine, Posthoc.com, Bright Lights Film Journal, The Strand Magazine, and Filmfax. He also posts essays on Medium and his own webpage, A Curious Man. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

The author of BUTCHERTOWN, a 1920s gangster thriller and DRAGON’S ARK, a contemporary Dracula tale, both published through Ambler House Publishing.

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