Archive for Erskine Sanford

Mondo Kane #5: Chairman of the Board

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 26, 2013 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2013-10-25-22h49m08s59 Whereas George Coulouris’ makeups predicted how he would age with uncanny accuracy, Everett Sloane just shaved his head and that was it. Not a flattering discovery for an actor in his thirties to make. But he gets the benefit of the baldness by being able to expressively wrinkle his scalp all the way up to the crown of his head, unlike Joseph Cotten, whose bald cap cracked every time he raised an eyebrow.

CITIZEN KANE’s middle two interviews/flashback frames are its warmest, with both Everett Sloane and Joseph Cotten playing rather lovely old men. Sloane as Bernstein is affability itself, plus he gets the great monologue about the girl in the white dress, Welles’ favourite thing in the picture, and a piece he was quite happy to credit to its author, Herman Mankiewicz. It’s tempting to assume that Welles at twenty-five didn’t have the life experience to come up with something like that, but it would be a mistake to generalize. All we can be fairly sure of is that Mankiewicz at forty-three DID. That nostalgic and philosophical speech lulls us into liking Bernstein, even though as he’s Kane’s toady we should see him as guilty along with the boss-man of all Kane’s cultural crimes.

Indeed, the flashbacks where we see Kane taking over The Inquirer portray Kane, Cotten and Sloane’s characters as horrible brats, gleefully tormenting the aged editor. Erskine Sanford’s overdone huffing and puffing is arguably a necessary bit of comic distance to stop us empathizing too strongly with the victim of the scenes (just as Kubrick encouraged his supporting players into grotesque mugging in CLOCKWORK ORANGE, thus leaving Malcolm McDowell as the only person on-screen we could identify with, despite his abhorrent actions). Interestingly, in the manic TOO MUCH JOHNSON, just rediscovered, Sanford’s performance is one of the quietest. vlcsnap-2013-10-25-22h51m33s223

Oh, and there’s a very daring cut around the camera axis when Kane and Leland enter the Inquirer office, as Leland swings around a pillar — our eye, drawn to the movement, is able to keep us oriented as the angle suddenly jumps across the line.

The second scene, with Sanford’s office transformed into Welles’ dining room, is the bit where Pauline Kael said that Welles had “obviously” been caught by surprise by the camera in mid-snack and good-naturedly kept the footage in the film. As Peter Bogdanovich observed, this does indeed betray an appalling ignorance of how films are made, and a basic inability to observe — the shot is a minute long, near enough, with several carefully timed reframings as Sanford blusters around the little room. Thinking that a camera crew can do all that on the hoof is a bit like thinking the actors are just making up their own dialogue, and the story, wearing what they like. Kind of makes me glad Kael didn’t usually watch movies more than once, because her observations sure don’t get any more astute when, as presumably she did for her Raising Kane piece, she makes repeat viewings.

The question of how much critics need to know about the actual practice of film-making is, I guess, open to debate. But the trouble with Raising Kane is that it comes on like a piece of film history, even though Kael hadn’t researched it the way any historian would, by talking to all the principles — notoriously, she didn’t speak to Welles, even though he had given the publishers the rights to the script and so was presumably contactable. Kael writing film history is like Wilhelm Reich investigating orgone and cloudbusting — taking an approach which seemed adequate to one discipline and applying it to another where it has no place (Reich, like Freud, makes up shit about how the mind works and calls it science — everyone is duly impressed, until he starts saying why the sky is blue based on the same imaginary evidence ). Anyhow, this is all old stuff, but I think Raising Kane should be dug up and kicked every so often as a warning to others. Kael is perfectly entitled to be wrong or “wrong” about RAGING BULL, that is the domain of the critic, but her guesswork and opinion masquerading as research is indefensible.

Back to the film.


Bernstein, though we love him, is a little shit here.

This time round I’m struck with the ambiguity of Cotten’s performance as he asks to keep the original of Kane’s Declaration of Principles. This could get grotesquely over-earnest as he supposes the piece of paper might become another Constitution, another Declaration if Independence, but he also allows a slight mocking tone to come in, consistent with his status as best pal. Best pals are never over-earnest.

Of course, Leland will eventually throw the D of P back in Kane’s face to shame him as a hypocrite, and is it too much to imagine he already suspects he might have to do this? As with Prince Hal in CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT, maybe the future betrayer already knows on some level that he will betray, in the name of a greater cause. And Cotten’s choice of his own principles over his friendship with his best buddy IS something Welles would presumably regard as a betrayal, given his regular pronouncements on the primacy of friendship (see the second Georgian toast in MR ARKADIN, and remember also that Welles realized, while giving an interview, that he couldn’t wholly sympathize with Joseph Calleia as Menzies betraying Hank Quinlan, despite the pressing moral reasons for doing so).

Check out Kane’s appalling handwriting — as with the “I think it would be fun to run a newspaper” note, it’s a childish scrawl akin to the gnomic pictograms of Graf Orlok’s correspondence in NOSFERATU. I would assume that Kane cultivated that illiterate scratching to annoy Mr. Thatcher.

Most of the flashback sequences in KANE start light and end dark, and Bernstein’s remembrances begin with everything larks — staying up all night to remake the front page four, no five times, seems consistent with Welles’ tireless work in the theatre, as he generously attributes his own virtues and vices to the character he’s playing. It’s of course a gross mistake to conflate Welles and Kane, who is designed as a kind of anti-Welles, but it’s also a mistake to regard them as completely separate. Kane is a stick Welles through out into space, which boomeranged back.


Circulation war! And one of the first of Welles’ artsy reflection shots (good ones in AMBERSONS and TOUCH OF EVIL — further evidence that this is all happening inside the snowglobe) — but wait, Bernstein in his office talking to Thompson casts a nifty image in his shiny desktop.

Snazzy photo-transition and we’re into the musical number — yes, the musical number!  (Why didn’t Herrmann do a musical? JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH originally had songs, it’s true, but Herrmann didn’t get to write them, and so they were un-good and so they were cut from the film…) And here Leland worries that the Chronicle’s staff will change Kane, as if he were such an admirable figure to begin with. Well, sure, he’s been crusading against slum landlords, but he’s also been crusading against poor Mr. Silverstein whose wife has “probably” been murdered.

Note the plethora of cartoonish-extreme camera angles — Welles invents MTV. KANE’s long-take technique is flexible enough to be dropped at a moment’s notice, and Welles can bring a Russian montage influence to bear with the same insouciance and the same monumentality he applies to sequence shots. Fiona spends this scene in hysterics at Welles’ “dancing.” We need a compilation clip of this, Oliver Reed in BEAT GIRL and Ed Harris in CREEPSHOW. The anti-Astaires.

Bernstein is very much the court jester / fawning toady here. And it’s arguable that Leland’s later description of Kane as a man who believes in nothing save himself, is more true of Bernstein. But Bernstein doesn’t even believe in himself — he’s nailed his colours to Kane’s mast. And yet I think we like Bernstein more than we like Kane. Kane buys the world’s biggest diamond for his bride-to-be, neatly anticipating Burton & Taylor.


Kane’s bashful scene — did Welles ever play bashfulness on the screen ever again? There’s that blushing Aw-shucks that Hank Quinlan assumes when his detective’s intuition is praised, but that’s a political pose rather than a sincere emotion. (Quinlan is, among many other things, a great Texas down-home-style bullshitting politician in the tradition of George W. Bush.) Certain aspects of Welles’ performance have drawn too much attention, arguably (his old-age performance perhaps relies too much on Karloffian lumbering) and little moments like this not enough, It’s a beautiful study in an authority figure suddenly way outside his comfort zone and forced to admit humanity.

We leave Bernstein’s memories with a clear romantic cliffhanger, to be taken up again shortly… Back to the framing story, and now it’s dark. The rainstorm arranged outside the window is over, the sky has blackened, and the miniature cityscape is all lit up like fairyland.

Check out the imperceptibly slow creep back from the two figures standing under Kane’s gargantuan portrait. The slow diminution of Mr. Bernstein has something to do with death.

“Just old age. It’s the only disease, Mr. Thompson, that you don’t look forward to being cured of.”

A Blog Possessed

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on March 7, 2008 by dcairns

A blast from the past. I was writing about this movie in an email to my friend, writer and defrocked saint B. Kite, and he suggested I should expand my comments into a “piece”, as I believe they’re called. The finished thing ran in celebrated e-zine The New-York Ghost, and I was inspired to begin this blog. I always intended to run the thing that started it all, and today being a slow news day, here it is!

(Contains spoilers. In fact, one might more accurately say, IS spoilers.)

brack in time 

POSSESSED, directed by Curtis Bernhardt, starring Joan Crawford, takes a long sultry look at the hot topic of what the movie medicos call “skizzo-phrenia”, an affliction prevalent among frustrated career women.

There’s a perhaps-unintended encapsulation of the experience of the mentally unorthodox right at the start as Joan C wanders, with a broken walk, the streets of LA, which are dotted with such things as BRACK SHOPS and another establishment decorated with a sign which reads METAL TAPES REPAIRED. We nodded at this skilled evocation of the world glimpsed through the eyes of the psychically confused.

Wandering into a diner (another sign: C





                                              BURGER    E), Joan is unable to order, her vocabulary being limited to the word “David”. As that doesn’t correspond to anything on the menu, an ambulance is called.


The prostrate diva is rushed, sirens blaring (an emergency mental breakdown?) into what I presume must be the Leon Theremin Memorial Hospital for Melodramatic Diseases(POV looking up at ceiling as she trundles in on a gurney).

She seems unresponsive to the question “How many fingers?” Even Joan senses that “David” is not the right answer here. Snap judgment from doc with pencil moustache: “Look like a coma to me.” So they wheel her to the PSYCHOPATHIC WARD.

Now kindly doctor Erskine Sanford (the huffing puffing editor from CITIZEN KANE) appears, combining the kindliness of Santa Claus with Freud’s magical ability to pull a spurious diagnosis from his ass at the drop of a pipette. “Almost complete nudism,” he pronounces, and we boggle briefly before realising that the word he used was actually “mutism”. He’s so Freudian he causes slips in others.

Pumping the recumbent drama queen full of “synthi-narcosis”, the good doctor soon has her narrating flashbacks, (a positive sign!) and we learn that Joan, a nurse, was fond of “swimming” with a studly young mathematician. This Don Juan of the slide rule is played, preposterously, by Van Heflin, who obviously saw the character as wide-headed. I can picture the personals ad: “Clinging nurse in early stages of psychosis seeks gangling, frog-eyed mathematician for breast stroke and music recitals.”

hyperbolic titling

Van plays Schumann on the piano, or rather he sits in front of it and moves his shoulders as if walking jauntily, while Joan gets dressed after her “swim”. Joan loves Van but he plays it cool, bragging about the new parabola he’s invented (can this be right?), stressing his free-and-easy approach to life and love, and throwing in the phrase “mathematically speaking” every now and then by way of characterisation.

This touching tryst is transacted in the lake house of wealthy industrialist Raymond Massey, who spends much of the film packing Van off to Canada, which shows what a sympathetic man he is. Joan is looking after Mrs Raymond Massey, who is bedridden, offscreen, and suffering from pathological jealousy. Soon she’s being fished from the lake, “much too late”, leaving widower Raymond free to woo Joan after he’s launched Van at the Canucks.

There’s some strife with Ray’s comely daughter, the film’s token female non-lunatic, who resents Joan, having had her ears poisoned by her nutty mom, but this is resolved. But. Joan starts to crack up, hearing scary electronic voices from the buzzer that used to summon her to Mrs Massey’s bedside and forming erroneous memories of murder.

scenery chewing

Van Heflin doesn’t help (when has Van Heflin ever helped?), continually popping back down over the border to irritate us, woo Raymond’s teenage daughter, and continue to deny that he loves Joan. Joan is unable to accept this – “No consideration of his point of view,” diagnoses the doctor, sternly, as we dip out of flashback for a moment. And here the films scores points, as we are genuinely unable to make up our minds about Van. True, he’s smug, oleaginous and intrusive, and fond of talking mathematically, but he’s pretty straightforward about what he’s after, and is the only character with a sense of humour.

Joan’s gradual loss of marbles is also evoked with some skill, and the scene where she pushes Massey’s daughter downstairs, followed by her realisation that she HASN’T pushed anyone downstairs, is an arresting turn of events. Movies back then did not usually lie to their audience in this way, presenting hallucination as fact before revealing the truth. It’s super.

Things come to a head as Joan bananas around the room, drawing the helpless camera after her in a psychotic ellipse, and then pulls a gun on Van. Perhaps unwisely, he sneers. He questions the sincerity of her desire to terminate him (a risky gambit considering that she’s Joan Crawford, for God’s sake, and he’s Van Heflin, for God’s sake) and opines that she has a minimal chance of hitting him (at point blank range?), “mathematically speaking.” Joan’s POV as he ambles into wide-headed close-up and grabs for the gun. Bang. He’s a horrible mathematician, he’s dead, and I bet his parabolas were all crooked.

Van the Man

A hopeful ending: concerned Raymond traces Joan to the Psychopathic Ward, where the doc reassures him that the patient will recover, though it will take months of terrible agony (this is, after all, Joan Crawford we’re speaking of). She will have to be tried for murder, but it is to be hoped that a jury may realise that she was in no way responsible for her actions (and besides, it was only Van Heflin). Raymond nips in to see his nutty wife and we drift off down the antiseptic Corridors of Reason. The End. A Warner Bros Picture.

exciting woman