Descending from the clouds, the camera sets us down on a windswept road in the high desert northeast of LA. Pre-war Buick and Mercury sedans race to a remote destination. They whoosh past us like fateful black bullets. Except for spindly telephone poles and dusty scrub brush, the landscape is barren all the way to the horizon. Whatever these passengers are running from, they’ve made their escape far away from it.
When they arrive at a cluster of Spanish Colonial bungalows, we get our first look at the center of everyone’s attention. He’s either a bigshot or a kidnap victim, too soon to tell. We wonder what they’ve done to him and what more they may plan to do. He’s on crutches. So whoever he is, he’s already broken.
This could easily be the opening of a 1940s crime thriller. (In fact, Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night opens with a car chase framed the same way on the edge of the Mojave.) But it’s David Fincher’s Mank. We’re at a ranch hundreds of miles from Hearst Castle and Culver City, but that won’t be far enough to stay out of trouble.
As for crime, there was enough hard-boiled wrongdoing at San Simeon to keep Philip Marlowe on retainer for years. Mank the man saw it all, but Mank the movie is more concerned with the kind of criminals that rarely get caught in America. The kind of insidious corruption that almost never gets prosecuted.
One thing for sure, since this is Fincher, we know at the outset that no matter what dark turns Mank’s tale will ultimately take, we’re likely to find it’s got a fair share of noir in its heart. Let’s talk about that.
Shot in the Dark
What we notice immediately about Mank is the exquisite look and feel of it. The shimmery crystalline clarity of Erik Messerschmidt’s cinematography brings out every texture and detail of Donald Graham Burt’s production design. Branches and buds of mesquite and ironwood trees catch the light in a way that makes them appear almost frosted. Together with visual effects so seamless that they register as solid reality, the imagery in Mank often seems dreamlike. At times the tactile impression of these velvety blacks and luminescent whites has a downright hallucinatory beauty.
It’s a visual complexity rich enough to match the elegant structural complexity of Jack Fincher’s screenplay. Jack nailed the cadence and snappy vernacular of the era the same way Erik and Donald recreate the noir aesthetic. That aesthetic had itself evolved from the methods of German expressionist filmmakers who had recently fled Germany, bringing all their artistry and anxieties with them.
There’s no shortage of anxiety. Noir chiaroscuro is all about the sharp edges between light and shadow, hope and despair, and Messerschmidt’s cinematography makes that sharpness especially stark. Time and again, we go from blindingly bright white exteriors into rooms so dark that no amount of opulent décor can relieve the sensation of squandered wealth and misguided power. If that aesthetic affects us psychologically (and how could it not) then these visuals constantly remind us that beneath the veneer of Hollywood glamour lies a lot of shady duplicity. Scratch that superficial glitz to find more exploitation, betrayal, and villainy than a wit like Mank can shake a shtick at.
Who’s the villain in this noir? Of course the easy answer is William Randolph Hearst. But Jack and David Fincher aren’t content to settle for easy answers. The more uncomfortable answer is that Mank’s unexpected nemesis was Orson Welles himself.
When Mankiewicz is laid up after his car accident, Welles swoops into the room from a bright white hospital corridor. He’s first a blur in the distance, amorphous, but the closer he gets, the more his presence blocks the light. He wears the theatrical half-cape of an impresario and a wide flat-brimmed hat that’s more bolero than fedora. He leans in like a Mephistopheles Zorro. Back lit, his silhouette unmistakably invokes The Shadow, that fearsome omnipotent specter of radio noir. Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? Mank already knows, and Welles means to find out.
In contrast, we rarely see Marion Davies when she’s not draped in effervescent white. In Messerschmidt’s lens, Marion floats like a fairytale princess, as radiant as sunshine filtered through etched crystal. It’s easy to see why she’s the reason Mank is drawn closer to peril, but she’s not so much the lure that pulled him in as she is his guardian angel to help him navigate through it.
Goes to show that not every film noir needs a femme fatale to lead a man to his doom. Most men don’t need any help when they’re already destined to self-destruct. Often as not, the women in noir are there as companions, or safe havens, or loving accomplices. And every woman we meet in Mank fits the description. (Even the nude beauty with the pasties taking dictation in the Paramount writers’ room. Aside from her obvious ornamental attributes, she appears to be the only one on the payroll who’s getting any actual work done.)
A more clever coiner of phrases than I am once wrote that the flip-side of the femme fatale is the femme vitale, an essential feminine presence whose charms are irresistible without being lethal. They’re the women in noir who are victims of malice, not the source of it. The greatest neo-noir of all time revolves around a woman who had that brand of allure up to her eyeballs. But it was never Evelyn Mulray’s fault that Jake Gittes fell under her spell.
That’s the thing about classic noir devices. Once we get a handle on seeing the patterns, the imagery from one noir can inform and warn us of parallels in other scenarios. Observing a man like Noah Cross makes us all the more wary of a man like Hearst, and vice versa. It’s doubly instructive to remember one of those villains existed. Knowing how to spot a malevolent force is a handy real world skill.
When we’re familiar with noir tropes, we don’t even need to think what they signify. We respond to them almost instinctively. In both Mank and Chinatown, set design and cinematography tap into the noir fetish for window blinds to the fullest atmospheric effect. Curly famously chewed the Venetian scenery in Jake’s office. In Mank the blinds bite back. Again and again, the sliced bars of light and shadows cast by window blinds exploit every slat of noir symbolism: whether those expressionist shadows represent the bars of a cell, being caught in a cage, or feeling trapped by a fence that surrounds us.
The double layer of window blinds surrounding the Paramount writers room feels like a cage within a cage to contain their monkeyshines. The shadows of blinds in Thalberg’s executive suite cut across the wall like a rigidly stylized stars and stripes, while the boy wonder plots to undermine democracy. Most oppressive of all is the night Shelly Metcalf is so guilt-ridden over the propaganda he directed that his only way to find peace is to put a bullet in his brain. The blinds that block his wrap-around view fence him in like he’s confined in a pen, an abused workhorse who’s been tightly corralled for too long.
Jack Fincher imagined all that. David Fincher visualized it. Donald Graham Burt made the form tangible. Erik Messerschmidt captured the images to share with the world.
Bear in mind, I’m not ever saying that my own decoding of a visual scheme is anything that the production designer, cinematographer, writer, or director necessarily intended. At least not consciously. But movies or any other works of art that aspire to complex depth would be flat and sadly lacking in layers of meaning if there weren’t multiple ways to interpret them. That’s as it should be. I can only say what this rich imagery in Mank means to me. Other viewers will see other things. But I’m the guy writing this particular love letter.
Consider this too: Nothing onscreen in a David Fincher film is ever there by accident. If we accept that Mank employs elements of the noir aesthetic as familiar emotional cues, then credit is due to Fincher’s closest collaborators who worked together to achieve that unity of vision. It doesn’t even need to be a conscious choice (though hard for me to imagine it’s not to some extent). Because artists create their imagery instinctively and good attentive collaborators play off of one another’s best ideas.
Movies Are a Team Sport
That’s another message that Fincher, Messerschmidt, and Burt get across visually without saying so explicitly. When it comes time for writers to face a blank page, a half dozen competitive wags in a crowded room all at once are a lot worse than one solitary writer left alone where he can work things out in seclusion.
Ben Hecht, George S Kaufman, S.J. Perlman, Charles MacArthur, Joseph and Herman Mankiewicz. Here we have six of the most illustriousness wits and tale-spinners of the 1930s – each of whom when left alone will conjure up their own individual masterpieces. We know they could because we know they did. But put them all together in dimly lit cage of window blinds with a silver 1923 Peace Dollar they can toss all day, and the only things they’re likely to create are random wisecracks and gambling debts.
Same way they were when they assembled in Selznick’s dark walnut-paneled office to pitch a script to Josef von Sternberg. First of all, they didn’t even have a script to pitch. None of them had anything remotely coherent to describe. When they tossed their ball of nonsense over to Charlie Lederer to wrap things up, he flung in and tried. He concocted a climax off the cuff that was no better but no worse than the rest of it. To von Sternberg’s credit he instantly dismissed the whole mess. “B picture.”
Worth noting that in 1930 when that scene takes place, von Sternberg was about to embark on a string of stunning visual extravaganzas with Marlene Dietrich. Those six movies were made mostly with the same team of visual collaborators. Lee Garmes and James Wong Howe lit Marlene Dietrich like a goddess. Hans Drier ensconced Dietrich surrounded by set designs more lavish than heaven itself.
That’s the same Hans Drier, by the way, who did the art direction for Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard. So if you think I wandered off on a tangent and forgot that I was promoting Mank as noir, think again. This amazing movie careens around from one stunning set piece to another, and it inspires me to careen around too. Albeit less gracefully.
Another recurring trope in film noir is the disorientation often felt by its central figure and, through his eyes, those labyrinths of confusion fill us with subliminal dread. The cool kids at Cahiers du Cinema called it terrain vague. Ambiguous territory. We see these bewildering spaces again and again in Mank, and never more acutely than the first time Herman wakes up in Hearst Castle with no clue where the hell he’s at or how the hell he got there. (Hell is not a bad guess.)
Someone the night before has hung drunk Mank out to dry in the guest wing. The enormous bed where they stashed him looks like it might have come from the Vatican, and for all we know, maybe it did. When he peers out the door, Mank finds a wide hallway filled with more furniture than most antique stores. Décor galore. Arched passageways and mismatched portals veer off in unlikely directions. Mank seems rightly apprehensive to venture forth.
All this is lit by Messerschmidt to emphasize the darkness indoors and blinding brightness streaming in from outside, but for all its obvious opulence, the overall effect is deliberately murky. The sagging tapestries in particular have seen better days. A housemaid sizes up Mank and makes a similar assessment about him. She’s busy dusting a grandfather clock and we can safely assume that dusting off hundreds of clocks is in this pastiche palace is a full-time job.
It Blew My Wig
Midway through Mank, another set piece. Another marvel of dialogue, cinematography, production design, editing, sound and every other branch of filmmaking coming together magically. In this extraordinary sequence Erik Messerschmidt and Donald Graham Burt pull out all the stops and go for baroque.
INT. SAN SIMEON ASSMBLY ROOM – NIGHT – 1933 (FLASHBACK)
All around the room stand bronze figures as big as men and men as small as statuettes. We’re being shown that Hearst has collected them all, men and sculptures alike. In this Assembly Room is where Hearst assembles his flesh and blood investments alongside his other looted artifacts. They’re his acquisitions. Amid the opulent clutter they only manage to diminish each other, so that none of them are nearly as rare or distinguished as they think they are.
While these bigwigs aren’t half the men they wish they were, the women are twice as glamorous as any mortal has a right to be. None is more casually sensational than Marion Davies. In this carefully composed set piece, Fincher and Messerschmidt place Marion’s platinum head precisely in the middle of the screen. She’s the undisputed centerpiece.
For a room so vast, it’s curiously claustrophobic. It’s oppressive. The Tiffany lampshades are heavily leaded and other fixtures are caged in thick iron fretwork. There’s nothing onscreen lit more brightly than Marion except the sparklers on a cake that nobody will eat. A confection not to be touched, not to be tasted, but only rolled out to make a dazzling impression. Marion and the cake both.
There’s another composition that Fincher, Messerschmidt, and Burt have carefully arranged for visual significance. Matching the central position Marion occupies in the room, Hearst takes the best seat in the house. Amid the clutter of his possessions and the clusters of his sycophants, Hearst is the only person framed in strict symmetry. He’s also is situated in a way that erases any doubt about his moral position. Who else do we know who sits on a throne with flames licking all around him?
I had wondered if I would find enough examples to help prove my premise about the noir influence I see in Kane and Mank alike. Now I’m having trouble knowing when to stop. I trust you get my point by now, even if you don’t agree with it.
What I’m saying is that von Sternberg came to Paramount with a singular vision, and he knew how to recruit the talent he needed to turn that vision into reality. Orson Welles did the same at RKO. With Mank, David Fincher has once again done what he always does by assembling an astonishing team of creative individuals—masters of their crafts.
Our main focus here has been to praise Erik Messerschmidt and Donald Graham Burt who both need to be holding Oscars a week from now. But Trish Summerville who designed Mank’s evocative costumes and the special effects teams that magically rebuilt LA’s lost Deco landmarks deserve 3000 words written about them too. Another time.
Lastly, back to our noir premise, here’s how Herman Mankiewicz and the ragged arc of his life are a good fit for film noir. We’re all familiar with classic noir protagonists. They’re often outcasts, cavalier drifters, and down-on-their-luck rascals. They take a look at their dwindling options and grab hold of their last good chance to search for purpose, seek acceptance, find redemption. Not that Mank seems overly concerned about any of that. But make-or-break deadlines can sure be sobering when we don’t want to let anyone down. Herman J. Mankiewicz rose magnificently to that challenge.
Mank came to Kemper Campbell Ranch a broken man on the skids and it took the love and respect of four women to put him back together again. Wasn’t easy but in the end they succeeded. There would be steep prices to pay, but in the bargain American cinema was gifted with a masterpiece.
Citizen Kane would open in limited engagement in a half dozen major cities in May 1941, but would not play nationwide until September 5th. The Maltese Falcon premiered less than a month later. The Falcon would serve as the template for hundreds of private eye classics, and Kane would influence generations of filmmakers. Three of those filmmakers that Mank inspired are family. Jack and David Fincher, and Fincher’s wife, partner, and producer Ceán Chaffin.
Together with their brilliant collaborators they’ve given us a rousing coda to Kane that does Mank proud.