Much​ of what Pauline Kael had to say in ‘Raising Kane’ (1971), her long article in the New Yorker, got lost in the controversy it created. One of her aims was to draw attention to Herman Mankiewicz’s role in writing the screenplay for Citizen Kane (1941), and therefore in the success of the film. But, more interestingly, she was also evoking a whole school of New York writers, for whom Mankiewicz could be made to stand representative: a set of wisecracking, worldly figures supposedly attracted to Hollywood by the prospect of copious easy money, who created not a genre of film, but rather a style that prepared the way for Citizen Kane. (It is true, apparently, that Mankiewicz sent a telegram to Ben Hecht saying: ‘Come at once. There are millions to be made and your only competition is idiots.’) Kael said that this style, found everywhere in screwball comedy but also in many other films of the 1930s, ‘felt liberating’, furthered a ‘tradition of comic irreverence’, and offered ‘the kind of fun that keeps one alert and conscious of the enjoyment of … artifices’. In this light she identified Citizen Kane not only as ‘a shallow masterpiece’ – the phrase that provoked the ire of aficionados – but as ‘almost a Gothic comedy’. Mankiewicz, in this context, became the name of a mood.

The actual history of the screenplay is complicated, and it seems clear that Orson Welles, Mankiewicz and John Houseman all had a hand in it. Mankiewicz signed a contract that meant he would receive payment for his work but not get a credit; later, he managed to get his name, along with Welles’s, on screen. The film’s single Oscar went to both of them. They had fallen out by that point, and both were delighted to accept the award in absentia, the absence of the other being the chief pleasure for each. This is where David Fincher’s new film, Mank, briefly in American cinemas last November and now available on Netflix, discreetly ends.

The film was written by Fincher’s father, Jack, who died in 2003. Fincher had been planning to make it right after The Game (1997), one of his most underrated movies, but the deal fell through. If we think of Mank as a film about the mood and style Kael was interested in, a sort of essay on wit and its secret discontents, it’s a very good film indeed. It’s slow, funny, thoughtful, and asks all its questions in delicately indirect ways. When Mank, played by Gary Oldman, first meets the young English woman (Lily Collins) who will type the script at his dictation, she politely says: ‘How do you do?’ He replies: ‘Well, that’s a big question.’ Asked if he knew William Randolph Hearst’s mistress, Marion Davies, he says yes – ‘if anyone did’. When Houseman worries about being fired, Mank says, ‘I’ve never not been fired,’ as if confirming an earlier remark that ‘every moment of my life is treacherous.’ This could all sound self-pitying, but Oldman manages another effect: a certain weariness, arising from exhaustion at never not having something sly to say.

If we are looking for a storyline, for suspense and drama, or information, then we should probably try another film. Here Welles (Tom Burke) becomes a bullying shadow, and Houseman (Sam Troughton) a pompous pain in the neck. Neither of them shows any sign of wit or invention, so it seems obvious that everything good about Citizen Kane must have come from Mankiewicz, whose gags we are hearing the whole time. The present tense of the film’s narration is 1940, when Mank, who has broken his leg in a car accident, is settled in rustic California, with his typist and a nurse, trying to get on with his script. It’s clear from the beginning that he’s writing about Hearst, whom he knows well, and that even if Mank doesn’t think this is a betrayal of their friendship, everyone else will. (The question is why the admired court jester would want to write a sardonic script about the king.)

Mank is supposed to stay off the booze, which isn’t going to happen. He can’t do much gambling in these isolated quarters, but we see plenty of it in flashbacks, and indeed in what is the best of the film’s several set-pieces. The year is 1934 and Upton Sinclair is running as a socialist for governor of California against the Republican Frank Merriam. Merriam is strongly supported by certain sections of Hollywood, led by Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM. Mank, of course, is an old-fashioned leftie – really old-fashioned, the kind that didn’t turn to Stalin. He explains to MGM’s Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley) the differences between the relevant parties: ‘In socialism, everyone shares the wealth. In communism, everyone shares the poverty.’ Mayer’s Hollywood goes out to celebrate Merriam’s anticipated victory at the Trocadero, and Mank decides to place a bet on Sinclair. The stake is $24,000, a debt that Mank owed and Thalberg had kindly cancelled. Mank has drunkenly resumed the liability so he can gamble against Mayer. At this point Fincher gives us an extraordinary montage: shots of Mank’s stubborn, bewildered face; of a clock, a board where votes are counted; of drinks on a table, food, people in the restaurant. It’s a picture of what a world looks like before it falls apart.

Other flashbacks show Mank in 1930, meeting up with Marion Davies, who introduces him to Hearst; dining at the Hearst castle in 1933, where all the other guests agree that Hitler is not a problem and will vanish in time; and at another dinner in the same place where, very drunk, Mank tells a version of his screenplay to its pilloried hero and his guests, and then throws up on the floor. ‘It’s all right,’ he says. ‘The white wine came out with the fish.’ This last scene is meant to be the film’s comic and sentimental finale, but it doesn’t work, and here Oldman doesn’t get beyond a projection of self-pity. It’s sad and sloppy, but in part redeemed by Charles Dance’s performance as Hearst. He sits smiling grimly through Mank’s whole recital as, one by one, the guests, including Davies and Mayer, get up and leave. Then Hearst calmly escorts Mank to the door.

Mank finishes his script, and Houseman collects it. Overcoming his otherwise limitless self-irony, Mank realises the script is good, and thinks he should get a credit after all. His brother and his friends tell him this is the last thing he needs: Hearst will be outraged and only damage can ensue. But maybe Mank wants damage? What else is all the drinking and gambling about? Rather charitably, even romantically, Kael thought the behaviour of the real Mankiewicz ‘probably wasn’t deliberately self-destructive as much as it was a form of innocence inside the worldly, cynical man’. Mank in the film has a more extreme, elegantly despairing view: gambling isn’t gambling unless you can’t afford to lose. I’m not sure anyone in the process of wrecking a life thinks quite so lucidly as that, and in any case Mank survived Citizen Kane, mainly because the industry ganged up against the movie, making it hard to see – it only became a classic much later. Fincher himself has a good take on the whole affair. ‘It was not my interest to make a movie about a posthumous credit arbitration. I was interested in making a movie about a man who agreed not to take any credit. And who then changed his mind.’

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