Mank opens at the Rafael on Friday, November 20. Although it is destined for Netflix (starting on December 4), Mank is well worth catching on the big screen while it is still available in theaters. One reason is its spectacular black-and-white cinematography.

Set around 1940, Mank centers on screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) and the writing of Citizen Kane. The narrative also jumps around the 1930s, taking in Mank’s relationships with William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies, who would inspire the fictional Kane. It also concerns the political temperature of the time and the perspectives of Hollywood studios, as represented by MGM’s Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg.

Director David Fincher and cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt emulated Citizen Kane in Mank’s visual style, including the use of “deep focus” photography, in which both the foreground and background are in focus. “Depth of field” was not a given in photography, especially in the ‘30s and ‘40s, when film was “slower” and required much more light than the film stock today.

Citizen Kane director Orson Welles and cinematographer Gregg Toland used “chiaroscuro” effects contrasting light and dark sections across the image. They also employed “Dutch angles” in several shots tilting the camera on its axis. Released in 1941, Kane proved influential on the “films noir” that would proliferate in that decade.   

Back when Kane was made, color was a special facet that adorned relatively few movies. There was The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind, but most movies back then were black and white. Contrast that with today, when color is the standard, and contemporary examples of black and white, such as Roma and Cold War, are very much artistic choices. 

As a matter of fact, contemporary use of black and white is generally assumed to detract from a movie’s commercial prospects. That’s why digital cameras record in color, so that some markets can access the color files for television and other platforms. Based on an original screenplay by his father, Mank has been on David Fincher’s agenda for several years, but he wasn’t able to get it financed because he wanted to film it in pure black and white. The filming is still digital, but the film’s monochromatic state is authentic and fixed forever.

Speaking of which, if you haven’t yet seen Citizen Kane, don’t you think it’s about time?        

– Richard Peterson, Smith Rafael Film Center Director of Programming

“Dutch angle” shot from Citizen Kane