Mank

*****

Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

Mank
"This is a film that lets words sizzle more than anything." | Photo: Netflix

From the first shots, in glorious black-and-white (cinematography by Erik Messerschmidt) on the road through the California desert, music swelling (by Gone Girl composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, ominous and comforting, like an overture), we enter the territory of Film Noir. Mank, directed by David Fincher with a screenplay by his father, Jack Fincher (who died in 2003), tells the story of Herman J Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), co-screenwriter of Orson Welles' Citizen Kane. Mank arrives at North Verde Ranch to write, recover from injury, and sober up. With him are John Houseman (Sam Troughton), his German nurse Fräulein Frieda (Monika Gossmann), and Rita Alexander (Lily Collins), who will take dictation.

The set-up with Mank and Rita resembles that of Richard Quine’s fabulous 1964 Paris When It Sizzles, a comedy about the strenuous task of writing a movie. William Holden plays a frequently inebriated Hollywood screenwriter with a deadline fast approaching and nothing on the page. Holed up in his Paris apartment, hounded by phone calls from his producer Alexander Meyerheim (Noël Coward), he is aided by his new temp secretary played by Audrey Hepburn who turns out to be an invaluable creative force. I wouldn’t be surprised if Fincher had Oldman and Collins watch it.

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“Write hard! Aim low!” is Houseman’s advice. “60 days is two weeks from now” and it is crunch time to come up with a snappy script to please the “Wunderkind” (Orson Welles) for whose Mercury Productions Mank had been hired in the first place. You expect there to be witty dialogue and cocktails and dames, guns and tough talk and the war, convictions and failure and triumph. And Hollywood lore, of course, made clear by the typing onto the screen that locates us in the script of Mank.

EXT. VICTORVILLE - GUEST RANCH - DAY - 1940. Mank barely able to walk with crutches after a car accident is stranded in his bed on the ranch, taking calls from Orson. Welles is played by Tom Burke (Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir) with just the right amount of menacing charisma and he is a good match for Oldman in exchanging exquisitely cultivated naughtily fatigued quips. Orson has to hang up the phone and run, tests for Heart of Darkness. “Oh, little that, lesser Joe Conrad!” Mank always has the right line. Welles will turn 24 years old, his contract for his debut feature film includes no studio notes, and he has final cut.

Mank swats at flies while dictating to Rita. She recognises the “emperor of newsprint”, William Randolph Hearst, and his paramour, Marion Davies, barely disguised in the script that she is hired to type. He scolds her for replacing valuable brain space that could be used to remember the Norman Conquest’s Battle of Hastings, with swooning over movie gossip. She counters with “1066, 14 October.”

Fincher beautifully illuminates the long-ingrained gender gambits at play in motion picture land. Collins as Rita wears lovely tailored jackets and knits (note the shoulder details; costumes by Trish Summerville) and fabulous T-strap heels. She is also smart and perceptive and has a history. As does Fräulein Frieda, who at one point mentions that Mank helped rescue her entire village from the Nazis. Yet, the picture he wrote about the Nazis could never be made.

The first of many flashbacks (the structure in homage to Citizen Kane) plops us into the Mankiewicz household during a night a few weeks prior. Mank is drunk in the bedroom, his wife Sara (Tuppence Middleton), known as “Poor Sara” by his colleagues and friends, perplexingly called “Schnutz” by her husband (is he combining the endearment “Schatz” = treasure with “Schmutz” = dirt?) helps him undress.

He rages on that “even the dog’s name is awful”. That would be Toto, we can surmise, as he predicts that The Wizard Of Oz “will sink the studio”, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The real Herman Mankiewicz actually was the first of ten screenwriters to work on it. He never received credit for his idea to have the Kansas sequences shot in black-and-white.

Back in time we go to Paramount Studios in 1930. The Hollywoodland sign looms large in the background, while Gary Cooper in Victor Fleming’s The Virginian and the “It Girl” Clara Bow were the big hits. It is during scenes like this when you may wonder - who is the audience for Mank? At the start of the film, plenty of well-known signposts are planted. Those who know a bit about the Hollywood of the Thirties and Forties, may find them a little conspicuous, whereas those who don’t know anything won’t get the references anyway. Alas, that sentiment dissipates soon enough as we are getting immersed in the silver screen goings on.

Fincher takes off on a spree with the who’s who of movie land and how they are all interconnected. There’s Mank’s baby brother Joe, aka the Joseph L Mankiewicz (Tom Pelphrey) who produced the Katharine Hepburn hits The Philadelphia Story and Woman of the Year for MGM, and later for 20th Century Fox directed many marvellous pictures such as The Ghost And Mrs. Muir and All About Eve. In one of the most vivacious moments of dialogue in the film, the Mankiewicz brothers have a chat outside the ranch, looking at the Mojave desert (“the perfect place to dry out”). From the “posterity, my ass” quip, Joe segues into the story of how his “French pun” about Mervyn LeRoy (producer of The Wizard of Oz) s’amuse cost him dearly. As wittily as these words are delivered, Oldman as Mank shows the despair underneath the bravado.

There is Charlie Lederer (Joseph Cross), the “Algonquin cabin boy”, cousin to William Randolph Hearst’s (Charles Dance) girlfriend Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried). Fincher stages Mank’s first fateful conversation with Davies on a set. “Boy genius” Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley) introduces Mank to Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), as “just a writer”, while Brooklynite Davies, dressed in a long white silky dress and cape, sporting her hair in a delicious, perfectly set marcel wave, is about to be burned at the stakes for an absurdly fictitious movie that also includes cowboys and Indians.

Hearst is circling around the location. “How many families are like the Marx Brothers?” Hearst asks. Mank’s answer to the newspaper tycoon’s rhetorical question seals the deal. “You mean besides my own?” The Marx Brothers, who legendarily grilled hot dogs in Thalberg’s office, become intermittently responsible for Mank’s invite to dinner at San Simeon and so the tale of the inspiration behind Citizen Kane commences.

Seyfried is very good at playing an actress who is smarter than she is allowed to be. You can see on her face how she attempts to balance what she feels and how she is supposed to act. She takes a stroll with Mank, outside in the moonlight to a pavilion, as though they were in Disney’s Cinderella in the future, or maybe it is Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People. Mank and Marion saunter by the private zoo where monkeys screech, elephants linger, and giraffes stick their necks out.

A meeting to discuss the future for Paramount includes Sid Perelman (Jack Romano), George S. Kaufman (Adam Shapiro), Charles MacArthur (John Churchill), Ben Hecht (Jeff Harms), David Selznick (Toby Leonard Moore), “Joe” von Sternberg (Paul Fox), and a predominantly nude young woman who is not given the courtesy to be named. This is no criticism of Fincher, he is the one clearly making that point. Emil Jannings smiles down on all of them from a poster of his film Betrayal as they deliberate about Charlie (Lederer)’s brainstorming idea of concluding a project (a vague Faustian bargain “mit torches”) in a hailstorm with a weeping priest and the monster entombed in solid ice, which would keep the doors open for an almighty sequel. Dead panning everyone else in the room is key. Selznick asks the assembled wits for help. “We’ve got to get people into the theatres, but how?” Mank knows “Show movies in the streets.”

This is a film that lets words sizzle more than anything. Back at the ranch in 1940, the first draft of the script for Citizen Kane, which is at this point called The Americans, is, according to editor Houseman “a bit of a jumble” with a story “so scattered” that it provokes the question: Would he consider simplifying? Well, Mank quotes Blaise Pascal’s Lettres Provinciales in response: “If only I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” (Pascal has a moment right now - Rebecca Zlotowski starts her film An Easy Girl with a Pascal quote).

The flashbacks become more and more intricate. The assembly room at Hearst’s San Simeon is the location for a party in 1933. There is a Fourth of July cake with sparklers to celebrate a “birthday”. Irving Thalberg has just returned from Europe. Marion Davies has seen the newsreels of Hitler kissing babies and asks, provocatively paraphrasing a coffee ad, “Can 40 million Nazis all be wrong?” This is the year Hitler came to power. Germany is a huge market for American movies. The powerful in Hollywood seem to be more concerned with Upton Sinclair than they are with the rise of fascism in Europe. Germany being blind in the right eye, might as well be applicable in the Hollywood of the Thirties and frightfully closer to the present as well. Overlooking the threats from the right and blowing up the spectre of socialism has a long tradition. “If you keep telling people something untrue loud and long enough they’re apt to believe it.” In Mank, they know they are quoting Goebbels.

The 1934 campaign for Governor of California by Upton Sinclair against the studio backed Frank Merriam is now more relevant than ever. His End Poverty in California movement (EPIC) influenced FDR’s New Deal and what we hear in Mank sounds eerily familiar. When Sinclair (Bill Nye) at a nighttime rally talks about how “fruit rots on the ground and vegetables are dumped into the ocean because there are no markets for them,” while people are starving, who doesn’t think of the bean and potato harvests that were destroyed instead of being distributed to those in need in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic?

As Mank progresses, three narrative strands are braided ever more tightly: There is the revolutionary script for Citizen Kane, Mank’s Lear, a masterpiece for which he will change his mind and want screen credit. There is the parable of the organ grinder’s monkey. And, there are the 1934 campaign ads against Sinclair, using fake testimonies and abominable fear-mongering to sway the voters. “It isn’t news and it isn’t real” Mank knows. But also that anything goes, and responsibility is not a part of the playbook. “You can make the world swear King Kong is ten stories tall and Mary Pickford a virgin at 40,” a line Mank shall repeat twice, is followed by a rebuttal to Thalberg in his office. “Yet, you can’t convince starving voters that a turncoat socialist is a menace to everything Californians hold dear? You’re barely trying.”

Louis B. Mayer shows his true nature with the following cynical appraisal: “This is a business where the buyer gets nothing for his money but his memory. What he bought still belongs to the man who sold it. That’s the real magic of the movies and don’t let anybody tell you different.”

“True love on the big screen, as we all know, is blind”, says Mank the man. Voluntary blindness is what Mank, the movie, is all about. The film ends with the 1942 Oscars, where Welles and Mankiewicz shared the Academy Award for Best Writing, Original Screenplay. Neither one of them attended. RKO Radio Pictures President George Schaeffer accepted the honour on their behalf.

Reviewed on: 08 Dec 2020
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Mank packshot
1930s Hollywood is re-evaluated through the eyes of scathing social critic and alcoholic screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz as he races to finish the screenplay of Citizen Kane for Orson Welles.

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