I have been dragging my feet to watch Mank. The reason being, I didn’t want to be dragged into the old debate: who wrote Citizen Kane. Debate, which has been settled some years ago. It’s interesting that people on the side of Herman Mankiewicz are the ones that keep bringing it up. Maybe because they don’t like what the researchers have found. By the end of this post you will know the pre-existing situation and the facts about the script that are missing from the movie Mank.
Herman Mankiewicz agreed to write the screenplay without a credit. Later he changed his mind. When Orson tried to hold him to the terms they agreed on, all hell broke loose. Not because what Orson wanted was unjust, but it was because of who Orson was. In any other situation, if a party changes their mind on agreed terms, well - too darn bad, you should not have agreed on them in the first place. But Orson came to Hollywood with the contract that all directors had been fighting for, but not been able to achieve for decades. The Contract gave him full creative freedom and the right to the final cut of the film. This alone created a hostile environment against the boy genius. In addition, Orson was a newcomer to Hollywood and was unaware of movie politics or cinema rules. This ignorance added gallons of fuel to the fire and Hollywood royals united to fight for Mankiewicz. These members of the Hollywood establishment were joined by many other wanna-bees that were eager to join the cinema gravy train. Last but not least, Orson Welles was 23.
Anybody that has been involved in directing or producing a film knows that the director and the writer work together prior to writing the screenplay. They discuss the plot, the plot points, the narrative drive and the characters, among other things. It's preposterous to think that Herman Mankiewicz just went to the desert and started writing the screenplay without prior consultation and with no agreement from Orson Welles. Further, Orson wrote a play called Marching Song 6 years prior; this play investigates a prominent figure’s life through the recollections of his friends. In other words, Marching Song utilizes the same structure as Citizen Kane. Although, Mankiewicz had the same idea - to write a script about a prominent and controversial figure through the memories of the people around him. So, it's fair to say that the revolutionary structure of the screenplay was a product of both their visions.
Mank correctly shows that the script written by Herman Mankiewicz was 327 pages. For those of you who don’t know, a usual script length is about 120 pages. So Mankiewicz sent Welles a script for 2 films and then some. Furthermore, there was a 58 page gap between pages 212 and 271 for the development of the relationship between Susan Alexander and Charles Foster Kane. The gap occurs after Kane fires Leland and gives him the $25,000 dollar check. What I’m trying to say is; the script written by Herman Mankiewicz lacked focus.
After receiving the script Orson Welles not only revised it, but he deleted entire sections, and added substantial new material while refining the plot. I’m going to elaborate on this point, because is important.The initial script was called American and there are many elements that you don’t find in the finished film:
- A subplot involving Charles Kane and the president of the USA and a subsequent assassination attempt on the president
- Susan’s affair with young lover, Jerry Martin. Kane and the butler Raymond see them. Then Kane has the lover killed, apparently by Raymond.
- Oil scandal
- A meeting, at the theater, between Charles Foster Kane and his father, accompanied by his young wife
- Funeral of Kane’s son. The son was a member of a fascist organization. They raided an armory in Washington and he was killed.
- Kane’s palace in Rome and Italy and being visited by Thatcher on his 25th birthday
After Herman Mankiewicz returned to LA he gave Orson another 44 pages that was supposed to fill in the 58 page gap referenced earlier. These 44 pages of Mank’s dialogue were drastically edited and re-written by Welles. The condensed final product showing years of a declining marriage, is the masterful and brief 2 minute breakfast table montage sequence. This sequence is in every film textbook.
Orson edited two-thirds (2/3) of the script in the first part of June, 1940, alone. The severe cutting and revisions of the script improved Charles personality and Orson added other personal elements from his life. Bernstein was named after Dr. Maurice Bernstein, who was not only his personal physician but also a father figure to Orson, as well as his mother's lover. Susan Alexander was named after Rita Alexander, the secretary that typed the script. Jed Leland was named after the theatrical producer Jed Harris and the agent Leland Hayward.
The shooting script went through several revisions. Scenes are written by Orson literally before shooting them. One of those scenes is the take-over of the newspaper from Thatcher. Welles did not like the scene during shooting so he re-wrote the entire scene overnight and re-shot it the next day. The witty dialogue here, revealing Kane’s character, is all Welles, not Mankiewicz. We have a similar situation during the confrontation between Leland and Kane after the election loss. The first part of the scene is written by Mank, but the last part where Leland relentlessly attacks Kane about “love on his own terms” is written by Welles.
The Big Picture
Let’s step back and look at two aspects of the “big picture” (no pun intended), in particular, both author's film careers. Herman Mankiewicz has some 95 writer credits on his IMDb page. Can you name five films that he wrote that are in the pantheon of film history? I doubt you could. I would challenge you to name two. Regardless, take Citizen Kane out and the name of Herman Mankiewicz is widely irrelevant.
Orson Welles’ entire film career is making films about a king like figure that falls from grace. This is evident in almost all of his films - Touch of Evil, Chimes at midnight, Confidential report, Othello, Macbeth, F for Fake, The other side of the wind, Don Quixote, The immortal story, and The Magnificent Ambersons.
Furthermore his screenplays contain scenes or lines of dialogue that are not only recognized, but widely copied, plagiarized, and cited. “His comeupance” from The Magnificent Ambersons, “Your future is all used up” from Touch of Evil, “Human nature is eternal. Therefore one who follows his nature keeps his original nature in the end” from The Lady from Shanghai, “Life and money both behave like loose quicksilver in a nest of cracks” from The Magnificent Ambersons, “A fool is a man who pays for the same thing twice” from Confidential Report, “To be in chains is sometimes safer than to be free” from The Trial, “But even without an appetite I learned its quite amazing how much a fool like me can swallow” from The Lady from Shanghai, “Art is a lie. A lie that makes us realize the truth” from F for Fake, and finally his famous cuckoo clock monologue from The Third man. Orson did not direct this film, but was allowed by Carol Reed to add lines in his scenes. This is just a partial list, the quotes go on and on.
If one examines the concrete evidence by comparing the 327 page script and the final film the conclusion of who wrote Citizen Kane is clear to the ones that care to investigate it in depth - Herman Mankiewicz provided the background, Orson Welles provided the genius.
Residue and Conclusion
Another aspect of Mank that I find odd. David Fincher’s position on who wrote the script is obvious not only by making a movie about Herman Mankiewicz, but also ending it with Mank’s famous line. Being a supporter of Mank, I find it hypocritical of Fincher to copy shots from Citizen Kane. One can argue that Fincher was paying homage, or that he likes the cinematography of Citizen Kane, even though that he doesn’t think that Orson contributed to the writing of the script. I would counter it - if Fincher takes such a concrete stance then he should have projected it to the whole movie. Instead of taking aspects of Citizen Kane that have changed the face of film since its release in 1941, Fincher should have invented his own cinematographic grammar that does the same.
On the other side, I totally understand him. It's hard for a mainstream director struggling to leave his lasting mark in film to keep silent. If he attacks an icon that changed the face of radio, staged innovated theater plays, and audaciously altered the way films are made at age of 24, then maybe, maybe the name of Fincher would be associated with greatness. Only if it was that easy.
I'm aware that my opinion is subjective, but I feel that it's necessary to address it since the movie Mank did not show the other side of the argument. As viewers and a readers, people need to hear both sides to form an educated opinion. This blog post brings to light the other half of the truth that isn't shown in the movie.
2 / 5
Director: David Fincher
Starring: Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins