William Randoph Hearst

Mank

04/12/20

Netflix

It seems I’ve been waiting for this film for just about forever. Director David Fincher first mentioned it as a possible follow up to Alien3 way back in 1992. With a screenplay by his father, Jack, it would focus on the creation of Citizen Kane. It would provide an answer to how much involvement Orson Welles actually had in the writing of that Oscar-winning screenplay and it would, of course, look into the allegations that the film was besmirched by the machinations of powerful newspaper tycoon, William Randolph Hearst.

Was I up for this? Yes, big time, because this is a story that has fascinated me since my youth. But, as it turned out, I was going to have to be patient…

And now, in one of the bleakest years in human history, it finally turns up, virtually unannounced on Netflix. Needless to say, I don’t allow a great deal of time to elapse before I tune in.

And it’s worth the wait. This is absolutely sumptuous, oozing class from every beautiful monochromatic frame, courtesy of cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt. Here is a faultless recreation of an era, right down to the visible scene descriptions, written clickety-clackety on a manual typewriter. From the opening credits onwards, Mank puts the viewer slap-bang in the early 1940s and keeps them immersed in that turbulent era right up until the final credits.

Washed-up screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) finds himself installed in a remote desert location, shortly after suffering serious injuries in a car crash. Sternly monitored by John Houseman (Sam Troughton) and ably assisted by English secretary, Rita Alexander (Lily Collins), he has been given the daunting task of writing the debut motion picture for Mercury Theatre’s Wunderkind, Orson Welles (Tom Burke). And he has just sixty days in which to do it.

It doesn’t help that Mank (as he is known to his friends) is an alcoholic. But he sets about the task with as much vigour as he can muster and, as he writes, his mind skips back and forth (rather like the screenplay he’s working on) over his changing fortunes in the Hollywood film industry.

We encounter Mank’s hostile relationship with muck-raking press baron, Hearst (Charles Dance), his platonic friendship with Hearst’s wife, Marion Davies (an almost luminous Amanda Seyfried), and his pugilistic dealings with the extremely unlikable Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard). There’s more – much more – in a packed two hours and eleven minutes; indeed, it’s probably fair to say that this is a story as rich and multi-layered as Kane itself. It’s also surprisingly prescient. The realisation that a super-rich newspaper proprietor can exert a powerful influence over the politics of a country, even going so far as to film fake news items to help steal an election, seems like a decidedly contemporary notion… but clearly that kind of thing has been going on for decades.

The film isn’t quite perfect. A scene where Mank goes on a (very long) drunken diatribe at one of Hearst’s lavish parties stretches credulity, and there are a few leaden missteps around the middle section, but these are minor blips in something that’s a giant step up from much of the so-so fodder that gets made. Fincher has created a warm, and moving testimonial to his late father’s memory, one that deserves to stand alongside the infamous movie it commemorates. Of course, it helps if you’re a fan of Kane in the first place, but it’s by no means essential.

If you’ve a couple of hours to spare, why not spoil yourselves? This is a superb piece of cinema.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Touch of Evil

29/09/19

Orson Welles is one of the most enigmatic filmmakers in history. His cinematic career began spectacularly with Citizen Kane in 1941, a film that has consistantly featured in critics ‘best of’ lists down the years. But – largely because of the malign influence of William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper tycoon on whom Kane was allegedly based – Welles’ subsequent endeavours consisted mostly of ducking and diving, scrambling around to try to scratch up enough money to back his features. Despite the inevitable low budget, his 1958 noir classic, Touch of Evil is always a joy to watch, particularly in this version, which reinstates footage cut from the original theatrical release – and the opportunity to see it once again on the big screen is simply too enticing to pass up.

Dazzingly shot in black and white by Russell Metty, the film stars Welles as veteran cop Hank Quinlan, who operates in a small town on the Mexican border. Quinlan is a man who never lets little technicalites (such as a suspect’s innocence) get in the way of a successful conviction. When a local building contracter is blown to pieces by a bomb placed in the boot of his car, Quinlan sets about finding the killer, but the investigation is compromised by the presence of Mexican cop, Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston – yes, really), who is celebrating his marriage to Susan (Janet Leigh), and who just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Okay so, Heston (and also Marlene Dietrich) wear brownface to play Mexicans, which definitely wouldn’t fly in these more enlightened times, but there’s plenty here to enthrall, not least Welles’ audacious performance as the grotesque, racist police officer.

The film feels strangely ‘modern’ in its approach and it’s interesting to note that it was realised a full two years before Hitchcock’s Psycho would once again have Janet Leigh checking in to a terrifying motel. From the infamous twelve-minute tracking shot, depicting the planting of the bomb, to the final act where Vargas struggles to get Quinlan’s unwitting confession on tape, this is undoubtedly a B-movie masterpiece and one that stands up really well after all these years. It’s always sad to consider where Welles might have gone if Hollywood had been welcoming to his post-Kane projects, rather than repeatedly slamming the door in his face.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney