Archive for Herman J Mankiewicz

Mondo Kane #8: Xanadu #2

Posted in FILM, Radio with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 16, 2013 by dcairns

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Let’s talk about the script. There’s been an EC Comics horror-retribution thing going on with perception of it. First, we are told, Welles tried to bribe Herman Mankiewicz into giving up credit. Despite H.M. very properly retaining his name on the film, critical discourse tended to favour the genius and ignore the man perceived as a hack, or at best, someone with the status of a Buster Keaton co-director, performing a technical function to support the true creative work,

Then Kael wrote her essay, Raising Kane, and quoted Mankiewicz’s secretary who said Welles didn’t write a word. The idea of shining a light on Toland, Mankiewicz and other collaborators was a perfectly noble one, but this didn’t have to be at Welles’ expense — at any rate, had Kael spoken to Welles, or Welles’ secretary, or even Houseman (a Welles enemy by this time, but one who was always willing to concede Welles’ script role), or studied the various drafts, she could have discovered for herself Welles’ sizable contribution.

Welles, in his later years, would also say that John Houseman also deserved co-writer status.

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Now, things have swung around a bit — Welles is the one people are mostly interested in, and the lingering effect of all this intrigue is the stain on his character concerning his attempt to “rob” Mankiewicz of credit (really an attempt to BUY the credit, but still a bit disreputable). It’s something that rankled — when Welles asked a commercials director to annoy him, so he could have the correct emotion for a scene, the guy teased him about his weight to no effect, but the question “Why did you try to steal Herman J. Mankiewicz’s writing credit?” apparently provoked a colossal strop — he had GONE TOO FAR.

Simon Callow, in The Road to Xanadu, observes that Mankiewicz’s contract explicitly stated that for legal purposes the author of any screenplay would be Mercury Productions, with Mank as a mere employee. I expect that was fairly standard practice, because the industry has never been comfortable granting screenwriters the kind of moral rights artists normally have — if they did, an objection from some ink-stained wretch could hold up the whole titanic machinery of production.

He also observes that Welles was in the midst of a savage game of telegram tennis with a man who wanted to publish the script of the War of the Worlds broadcast, and credit Howard Koch as writer. Koch, in his own memoir, describes the writing process for the radio shows as something like (a) He would work all day and all night to adapt the chosen literary source for that week’s broadcast (b) Houseman would edit (c) an assistant would begin rehearsals (d) Welles would come in, take over, and breathe his magic into it.

But he also admits that Welles would be involved at the start of the process, too — War of the Worlds came with an instruction to dramatize it in the form of news bulletins.

Koch, receiving just seventy-five dollars a week, was happy to cede credit — for the first time in his life, he could call himself a professional writer. Mankiewicz, understandably, at his time in life, preferred a substantial credit to a substantial cheque. But considering his previous working practices, and his reputation, and his own contract which stated he was to write, produce, direct and star in a film for RKO, Welles’ rather shady action becomes at least understandable. Like many directors (John Ford: “A screenplay is dialogue, and I hate dialogue,”) Welles possibly undervalued the work of the screenwriter. Yet those who want to give Mankiewicz all of the credit for KANE have to willfully overlook or trash the other films Welles undoubtedly DID co-write or write entirely.

And check out the credit Welles finally DID give Mank (top).

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And so to another shifty character, Paul Stewart as the shifty butler is introduced via an abrupt dissolve to the big K sign (Herrmann accompanies it with what sounds like an anvil strike) and then an equally quick dissolve to Stewart just as a match light his face and his cigarette. Then we’re plunged into shadow again, as if Stewart was trying to out-silhouette our intrepid boy reporter Mr Thompson.

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These speedy cross-fades have been leading up a real quick mix to the screeching parrot — as if Robert Wise wanted to invent direct cutting twenty years before the nouvelle vague pretended they did, but couldn’t quite bring himself to go there. So what should be a shock cut as jarring as the one to the lighting-bolt-lit Susie Kane poster, is instead a dissolve of just a few frames, with the sudden whiteness of the parakeet, the jolt of its squawk, and the peculiar quirk of superimposition that’s robbed it of an eye, all compensating for the unwanted gentleness which the lack of a hard cut tends to produce. It also helps, in a perverse way, that the parrot appears frames ahead of its background, as if it were teleporting in from Long John Silver’s shoulder.

I guess because a bird’s eye is very dark, effectively black in a monochrome film, it came out transparent while the rest of the parakeet, being white, bleaches out the background. They should have jammed that damn snowglobe into the empty socket.

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The squawker was never scripted, and no record that I know of exists explaining how it came to flutter into the film — seemingly an edit room afterthought like the statue of Thatcher. What it obscure is an atypically planimetric composition with an unconvincing rear-pro beachfront. The weird Xanadu mix of architectural styles is nice here, but I can imagine Welles rejecting the stable, flat, full stop of a shot and grasping around for some way to jazz it up. A shrieking jungle bird fit the bill nicely.

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The following shot, though equally rigid, is a stunner, with the kind of smashing perspective Welles liked. Can a lateral view be vertiginous?

Welles trashes Susie’s room, the only scene obviously filmed with two cameras, to minimize re-takes. It may even have been a one-take wonder, since re-setting and repairing the bedroom would have been quite an operation. John Houseman suggests that Kane’s tantrum was based on Welles’ own furious reaction to Houseman’s dissolution of their partnership, in which case the scene may be part of Houseman’s amorphous but widely-acknowledged contribution to the script (although his script work on the radio shows was more editorial than creative). Welles for his part reported feeling genuine emotion as he smashed up the set, a rare occurrence for him. And yet, the real emotion doesn’t actually photograph, and Kane appears more the lumbering automaton than ever. This works fine, don’t get me wrong — it just may not be what was intended.

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“Rosebud.” Not the snowglobe’s first appearance — it can be seen, prominently positioned, in Susie’s love nest during the Leland flashbacks. So it’s Susie’s trashy taste, but it has an emotional effect on Kane greater than all of his art collection — it reminds him, during this moment of loss, of the original loss, his mother who sent him away to be educated.

Suzie’s ceiling beams have their own menagerie — the The Birds of the Air! The fish of the sea! But no sign of an unconvincing octopus or flamingo-pterodactyl.

Kane pockets the snowglobe, absently, as he wanders off, and presumably installs it by his bedside from now until his death as a constant and painful reminder that he can’t have what he really wants. As he walks past his startled staff, he disappears from frame and is replaced by his own reflection. A walking shadow. And then he’s fragmented into an infinity of reflections, as if lost in a maze of illusions or in the shards of the snowglobe that shatters at the instant of his death.

“Sentimental fellow, aren’t you?”
“Mmm, yes and no.”

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This is the only flashback sequence that opens out into a whole other scene, the dismantling of Xanadu (like a movie set being taken down after the production is over). And that will form the subject of our final installment…

“You can keep on asking questions if you want to.”

Citizen Kane – Screenplay formatted for Kindle
Citizen Kane – Screenplay formatted for Kindle

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

Woman Error

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 6, 2011 by dcairns


There’s a blogathon going on! Tony Dayoub’s Cinema Viewfinder Nicholas Ray celebration was a welcome incentive to return to a favourite filmmaker’s oeuvre — I leapt at the chance to view and write about the only Ray film I’d never watched at all, the reputedly minor opus known as A WOMAN’S SECRET.

I went in expecting little — programmers like KNOCK ON ANY DOOR, RUN FOR COVER and BORN TO BE BAD are perfectlyenjoyable, but don’t let Ray flex his cinematic muscles much — as with the very different Von Sternberg, for whom Ray subbed on MACAO, he didn’t seem to commit fully to films that didn’t excite him. But I enjoyed this one: the titular SECRET is ambiguous, the tone uncertain, the structure wobbly, but all that adds a kind of intrigue and unpredictability to a first viewing. I’d never call this a major film, but it’s pleasingly flaky, and it doesn’t give up its mysteries.

Ray is at RKO, where he did some good work, and he’s in the hands of fellow tippler Herman J. Mankiewicz, as producer and screenwriter, which must’ve been interesting, if Ray’s fraught experience with Budd Schulberg on WIND ACROSS THE EVERGLADES is anything to go by. It looks as if Mankiewicz had noticed that CITIZEN KANE’s flashback-investigation structure was becoming popular in films like THE KILLERS and LAURA, and resolved to swipe it himself (well, he helped invent it in the first place) — so the movie begins with a near-fatal shooting and proceeds to examine the lead-up through the eyes of various interested parties.

Sorta funny/sick the way Gloria Grahame is left unattended on the floor with a bullet in her for long stretches of dialogue.

Mankiewicz can’t quite make up his mind who his main character is, which creates a stimulating muddle: first we get ex-singer Maureen O’Hara, who claims to have fired the shot (which perforated protege Gloria Graham), but the investigation is taken up by their pal, Melvyn Douglas. he’s playing a popular radio personality and music expert / musician, of the temperamental genius/wit variety, so in theory it’s like having Oscar Levant as a detective, which is a wonderful idea. Melv’s casting smooths off some of the gloriously absurd edges of that premise, but it’s still good for some entertainment value.

And so the story moves on, with Douglas narrating his experiences to detective Jay C. Flippen, the man with the face of a tick, then a variety of characters giving their part of the story. Bill Williams figures in as a bullish ex-serviceman somehow mixed up with the ladies’ past, and then Flippen’s wife (Mary Philips) weirdly hijacks the narrative, an armchair detective and mystery fan who can’t resist getting mixed up in her husband’s cases.  It doesn’t make any sense for this comedy character to turn up, stealing fire from our other novelty investigator (both Melvyn and Mary deserve a series of their own!) and cracking the case with a mixture of idiocy, intuition and boundless self-confidence.

One thing this movie helps with is clearing up the CITIZEN KANE authorship debate (if anyone’s still in doubt). See, this movie is Mankiewicz’s baby, with Ray a hired gun brought in to execute it. Mank wrote and produced it. He did a perfectly good job, with even the weird lacunae and ambiguities adding interest. But there’s absolutely no artistic ambition at work: all he wants is a nice little melodrama. Without Welles’ drive and imagination and will to achieve the impossible, Mankiewicz was little more than a heap of kindling without a spark.

And a slow sapphic subtext builds nicely –

Y’see, not only do Maureen and Gloria live together, but they took a trip to Paris together and Maureen says she regards Gloria as an extension of herself. It’s all a bit suggestive, although the scene where Grahame first demonstrates her singing ability is carefully played — she sings to Melvyn, who looks at Maureen, who looks at Gloria.

Another scene, at a cafe in Algiers, has an ambiguous reaction from two old duffers when Melvyn embraces Grahame. Are they dismayed that she’s got a man, or dismayed that he’s got a woman? These are two gentlemen vacationing together in North Africa, so I wondered. The reaction made is a sort of expulsion of air through the lips — not a razz, but something looser. here, I’ll do it for you. Like that, you understand?

And this is how Jay C Flippen reacts to Melvyn Douglas’s lunch invitation.

Of course, these actresses, though not devoid of camp value, certainly don’t strongly suggest lesbian vibes, but anything that makes a film more interesting is a worthwhile reading, no? And the film has a certain shambolic quality that encourages one to look between the lines, because the gaps there are pretty huge. For one thing, it’s not 100% certain which woman it is who has the secret, and the movie never actually explains why O’Hara has told a self-incriminating lie. Her abrupt romantic feelings for Douglas at the end certainly seem like a classic Hollywood dash away from incriminating material.

Still, Ray is in full control of his mise-en-scene, even if he doesn’t have the opportunity to really push it into the neurotic and intense terrain that suited him best. My friend Chris “Chainsaw” Bourton once pointed out to me how Ray will do anything to avoid shooting straight shot-reverse-shot dialogue scenes, and there’s a good example of that in the first scene here — in this argument prior to the shooting, Grahame moves up and down a flight of stairs, followed by the panning camera. This means that while all of her lines are covered by one set-up (with a changing composition), each of the cutaways back to O’Hara is taken from a different camera position to make the eye-lines match.

Since this means shooting more angles (on one character) than a static scene, and angles = time which = money, you have to know that Ray really wanted this effect and thought it worth spending the studio’s money on.

Little things like this aren’t the secret (that word again) of Ray’s brilliance. But they do point to the care he took and his desire to avoid the predictable patterns of shot-reverse-shot, where the audience can settle into being subconsciously confident that they know what they’re going to see next. With Ray, you never know.

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