As I’ve argued elsewhere, there are several reasons why Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) could be regarded a distant ancestor of the film noir:i Conrad employs a first-person narration that involves subjective focalization and a good deal of shifting back and forth in time; he calls attention to the narration by dramatizing it in a manner roughly analogous to the first-person openings and closings of movies like Double Indemnity, and Murder My Sweet; and he gives a great deal of attention to a shadowy, somber mood, so that the meaning seems to lie on the atmospheric surface—in Marlow’s famous words, on “the outside, enveloping the tale.” Conrad’s plot has a family resemblance to 19th-century adventure stories about British imperialism, but his style is hallucinated, onieric, greatly concerned with the psychology of the narrator, who says at one point, “It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream.” Hence, no less than any of the classic film noirs, which often contain dream sequences, Heart of Darkness has provoked psychoanalytic interpretation. Perhaps the novella’s most general affinity with noir, however, is that although it belongs to the genre of bloody melodrama, it strives to seem un-melodramatic. It does so through a familiar device of gothic fiction that can be seen in such movies as Laura, Shadow of a Doubt, Strangers on a Train, Blue Steel, and Basic Instinct: everyone is a bit guilty, and the ostensibly “good” character representing reason and ordinary decency is in some ways a double of the manifestly evil or guilty character. This “secret sharer” theme, combined with Conrad’s foregrounding of style and pessimistic view of Western progress, gives Heart of Darkness a liminal position in modern culture: like most noirish fiction and film, it blends popular adventure with certain traits of modernism. As Fredric Jameson says, it belongs in a zone somewhere between Robert Louis Stevenson and Marcel Proust, and it enables us to sense “the emergence of what will be contemporary modernism . . . but also, still tangibly juxtaposed with it, what will variously be called popular culture or mass culture, the commercialized cultural discourse of what, in late capitalism, is often called media society.”ii
Heart of Darkness became a sort of ur-text for Anglo-American modernism, influencing T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men,” Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and the novels of William Faulkner. In the realm of popular fiction it had a similar influence, especially among sophisticated writers of thrillers and their Hollywood adapters. Raymond Chandler’s first-person narrator is named Marlowe; Graham Greene’s “entertainment” novels, all of which became film noirs, were inspired by his reading of Conrad’s novella; and Greene’s script for The Third Man not only borrows its narrative structure from Heart of Darkness but also contains a minor character named “Kurtz.” Where later movies are concerned, the novella also became an intertext for pictures about US imperialism in Vietnam: Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is modeled on Heart of Darkness and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket has distant echoes of the same source. Surprisingly, however, few film makers have been interested in adapting the novella itself. A canonical work known by virtually every college student in the English-speaking world, Heart of Darkness constitutes a “pre-sold” commodity, and by virtue of its brevity might seem to present fewer problems for a screenwriter than the novels of Jane Austen or Charles Dickens, who have been adapted many times. Yet to my knowledge only one film is based directly on the story: Nicholas Roeg’s adaptation for Turner Network Television, starring Tim Roth as Marlow and John Malkovich as Kurtz, which was filmed in Central America and broadcast in the US in 1994. This picture was nominated for a Golden Globe by the international press, but it rarely achieves the haunted, dryly ironic quality of its source, and in most other ways is a disappointment.
Perhaps Heart of Darkness hasn’t been filmed more often because it has no heroic action, not much dialogue, and a great deal of what F. R. Leavis called “adjectival insistence” on horror.iii Leaving aside its racist and patriarchal implications, which create another set of problems, it holds our attention through a kind of spellbinding trickery, the literary equivalent of smoke and mirrors. But I suspect there is also another reason. Any cinematic adaptation of the novella is likely to be overshadowed by a legendary film that was never made: Orson Welles’s 1939 Heart of Darkness, which was developed at RKO, the most noir-like of the Hollywood studios, in the period immediately before Welles began work on Citizen Kane. The very idea of such a project is enough to fascinate cinephiles and create an anxiety of influence in later directors.
We can never know if Welles’s adaptation would have succeeded; nevertheless, Robert Carringer’s The Making of Citizen Kane provides tantalizing details about its, and Jonathan Rosenbaum and Guerric DeBona have each written essays that provide further information. Welles’s script and production-company records have survived, giving us a good sense of his plans. His version of Heart of Darkness would have been an intriguing picture by any measure, of interest not only for its political and aesthetic qualities but also, in secondary ways, for what it suggests about the tension between modern literature and Hollywood, and about the problem of fidelity in adaptation.
In 1938, when Welles was offered a three-picture contract at RKO, a Gallup poll conducted by the studio determined that audiences most wanted him to appear in a “man from Mars” film related to his War of the Worlds broadcast. Welles countered with an offer to film Heart of Darkness and a couple of Hitchcock-style thrillers on contemporary political themes. RKO agreed, and Welles brought most of his Mercury Theater organization to Hollywood to prepare for the Conrad production. He had already directed a moderately successful one-hour radio adaptation of the novella, starring Ray Collins as Marlow and Welles as Kurtz, which aired on CBS only a week after the Mars-invasion show, and he seemed enthusiastic about a film version. His associate, John Houseman, was paid $15,000 to assist in developing a script, but was frustrated by the job. “I never understood why Welles had chosen such a diffuse and difficult subject,” Houseman wrote in his memoirs. “Joseph Conrad had used all sorts of subtle literary devices; the evil that destroyed [Kurtz] was suggested and implied but never shown. In the concrete medium of film no such evasion was possible.”iv Under the circumstances, Houseman grew increasingly frustrated and withdrew from the job.
Welles wrote the script alone, and despite Houseman’s reservations there were several reasons why Heart of Darkness was a logical choice for his initial film. His theatrical reputation was based on spellbinding, somewhat gothic stagecraft; “The Mercury Theater of the Air” was initially subtitled “First Person Singular” and was devoted to experiments in subjective narration; and in the Conrad novella he saw a good opportunity to do something rather like his stage production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, which he had transformed into an anti-fascist parable. Notice also that many of Welles’s most important stage projects, including the Harlem Macbeth in 1936 and Native Son in 1940, were concerned with the theme of racial blackness; indeed one of the actors he planned to use in the Conrad film was Jack Carter, who had played Macbeth in Harlem. Besides all this, Heart of Darkness was well suited to what Michael Denning has identified as the “middlebrow” cultural project of the Mercury Theater—a project shared in slightly different ways in the 1930s by the Book-of-the Month Club, the Modern Library, and NBC’s radio symphonies, all of which attempted “to popularize and to market high culture.”v Denning, somewhat like Pierre Bordieu, mounts an effective defense of middlebrow art, at least where Welles’s Popular-Front activities are concerned, pointing out that under the right circumstances it can serve as a vehicle of class struggle and social progress. Thus, just at the moment when Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer were developing their savage critique the culture industry, Welles tried to use the mass media as a democratic weapon, popularizing high culture on behalf of left interests, mixing Shakespeare with thrillers and science fiction, blurring the boundaries between the classic and the vanguard.
Having caused a nation-wide panic with a radio broadcast, Welles also saw the autobiographical resonance of stories about demagogues who manipulate the masses. Citizen Kane was designed to suggest certain ironic parallels between Welles and Charles Foster Kane, and the film version of Heart of Darkness would have contained similar parallels between Welles and Kurtz. Like Kurtz, he and his voice had recently shown what Marlow calls “the power to frighten rudimentary souls.” An idealist and a liberal, Welles was often regarded by the press as a Byronic type; perhaps for that reason, he was attracted to stories about the Faustian temptations of political power, and he sometimes used these stories as a form of indirect self criticism. In his preliminary notes on the script for Heart of Darkness, he describes Kurtz as “the Byron of a totalitarian state, what Byron would be if he had become president of Greece.” On a more covert level, according to John Houseman, he also considered modeling Kurtz’s fiancée, “the Intended,” on Chicago socialite Virginia Nicholson, to whom he was married. In his notes for the film he names this character “Elsa Gruner” and describes her as a woman with “a tremendously appealing and lovely kind of gravity . . . She is not militantly honest, she is simply without guile. There is probably only one thing she doesn’t know about Kurtz, who is her lover, and that is how little any woman must mean to such a man.”vi
Welles’s method of writing the script was similar to the one he and his staff had used in adaptations for the Mercury Theater radio show: he found a copy of the novella in a pocket-sized anthology, cut out the pages, pasted them onto sheets of typing paper, and began deleting material, retaining a good deal of narration but changing a phrase here and there in marginal notes. On the first few pages he eliminated Marlow’s listening audience--the unnamed narrator of the opening paragraph, the lawyer, the accountant, and the Director—and altered certain lines in Marlow’s opening speech. An important passage in the original reads, “The conquest of the earth, which mostly means taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much, What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretense but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea—something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to.” Welles changed “flatter noses” to “slightly different noses,” to remind his audience of anti-Semitism, and rewrote the last sentence to give it a more skeptical, less imperialistic tone: “What redeems it is the idea at the back of it; sometimes it’s a sentimental pretense, something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to.”
In his book-length interview with Peter Bogdanovich, Welles says he believed his adaptation of Heart of Darkness might have been a success because it made considerable use of Conrad’s language, mostly as off-screen narration. “I haven’t got anything at all against a lot of words in movies,” he explained. “I don’t see how you can do Conrad without all the words.”vii Nevertheless, Welles always took liberties his sources and his adaptations were interesting precisely because they weren’t slavishly faithful. The Magnificent Ambersons transforms Booth Tarkington’s genteel fiction into a Freudian melodrama; Chimes at Midnight is a “digest” of several Shakespeare plays; and The Trial conducts a sort of quarrel with Kafka. Heart of Darkness was no exception. Some of the changes Welles made were motivated by his political aims, some by his desire to make the novel more dramatic or “cinematic,” and others by the need to make a popular Hollywood entertainment. One of his most significant decisions was to set the film in the present day and to make Marlow an American, thereby translating the novella into what he called a “political parable,” an “attack on the Nazi system,” and a “psychological thriller” about a representative man thrown into the midst of “every variety of Fascist mentality and morality.”viii
The screenplay opens in New York on the Hudson river, with Marlow’s voice speaking of a “monstrous town marked ominously on the sky, a brooding gloom in the sunshine, a lurid glare under the stars,” while a series of lap dissolves show lights being turned on across Manhattan at dusk—the bridges, the parkways, the boulevards, the skyscrapers. The camera tours the length of the island accompanied by a montage of sounds—snatches of jazz from the radios of moving taxis; dinner music from the big hotels; a “throb of tom-toms” foreshadowing the jungle music to come; the noodling of orchestras tuning up in the concert halls; and finally, near the Battery, the muted sounds of bell buoys and the hoots of shipping. Next we enter New York harbor, where we find Marlow leaning against the mast of a schooner, smoking a pipe and directly addressing the camera. “And this also,” he says, “has been one of the dark places of the earth.”
In the process of changing Marlow into an American, the script deletes his chauvinistic remark that in the British colonies “some real work is done” and gives his story a more thoroughgoing anti-colonial implication. Marlow’s politically well-positioned aunt is also deleted. Aimless and romantic, Marlow applies for a job in what the script describes as a “Central European seaport town,” at a trading company that occupies a vast building “in the best Bismarck style.” The company doctor examines his cranium in the interests of confirming the superiority of the Aryan race and sends him off to an unnamed, generic “Dark Continent,” where the landscape and tribal customs derive from a mélange of African, Stone Age, and indigenous American cultures, all of which had been elaborately researched by Welles’s staff at RKO. The exploitation and murder of the black population is carried out by obvious proto-fascists. “This shouldn’t surprise you,” one of them says to Marlow. “You’ve seen this kind of thing on city streets.” Kurtz, the most successful of the fascist types, has been installed in the jungle by his political opponents, who want him removed from Europe, and as a result of his unlimited authority and will to power he has become a ruthless demagogue. “I have another world to conquer,” he says when Marlow finally meets him. “Five more continents and then I’ll die.” When Marlow asks, “Is that all you want?” Kurtz replies, “I want everything.”
A good deal of dialog has been invented for the screenplay and its rhythms are carefully stipulated, to the point in many scenes of specifying the precise words on which the actors are supposed to interrupt or speak over another. The result is a distinctive style of rapid, fevered, almost musical overlapping of voices, similar to what we hear in Citizen Kane and most of Welles’s other films. In keeping with the political allegory, the array of characters Marlow meets on his journey along the river has also been altered and elaborated. Most of them join Marlow on the riverboat in search of Kurtz. At the outer station Marlow encounters Eddie (Robert Coote), an effete British citizen who has brought a piano and several cases of champagne to the jungle, where he acts as an ineffectual spy on the European interlopers. “They’d like to own the country, I guess,” Eddie says to Marlow. “It’s ours, you know . . . England’s. That’s why I’m here. To keep my eyes open. Never can tell, you know, when they might take a plebiscite among the cannibals.” At the next station Marlow comes across de Tirpitz (John Emery), a Germanic aristocrat with a club foot, who harbors an intense hatred of Kurtz because, as Welles wrote in background notes for the production, “Kurtz is to him the perfect example of the ascendant lower-middle class which has stolen his inheritance.” Aboard the riverboat, Marlow’s steersman and assistant is called simply “the half-breed” (Jack Carter) and is described as “an expatriate, tragic exile who can’t remember the sound of his own language.”
One of the major differences between the screenplay and Conrad is in the character of Elsa, “the Intended,” who in the novella makes her only appearance in the climactic scene and is presented as a figure on a pedestal--guileless, naïve, and, like most women in Conrad, incapable of facing the stern truths known to men. Partly to give the film the suggestion of a romantic interest, Welles transforms her into a more active woman who goes to the jungle in search of her lover. Marlow meets her at the outer station of the Dark Continent, where she smiles and remarks on a striking physical resemblance between him and Kurtz. While Eddie plays his piano, she uses a pencil and a rough pine board to draw a crude map of the river journey Marlow is about to take, marking all the stations along the way, explaining what he can expect to find, and creating a mood of suspenseful foreboding. Despite everyone’s protestations, she insists on traveling down the river aboard Marlow’s steamer. During the trip she and Marlow have a conversation in the pilot house, and from Marlow’s perspective we see his face and hers partly reflected in the front window, mingled with the changing patterns of the jungle. She explains that she waited in Europe four months without letters from Kurtz: “I was afraid. He was almost too popular. There was no good reason for sending him to the Dark Country—except to get him out of Europe . . . I didn’t like him at first. I thought he was--I don’t know what. Cruel—ruthless. First Impressions. I wasn’t very intelligent or grown up . . . It’s not easy to refuse him anything. He wanted to know me—I got to know him.” She remains on the boat until it almost reaches its destination, but when scores of headless dead bodies are discovered in the jungle Marlow sends her back in a canoe manned by a couple of his crew members. She then reappears in a climactic scene like the one in Conrad’s story, with Kurtz’s ghostly image hovering behind her as Marlow tells her a lie.
In addition to using a great deal of off-screen narration, Welles wanted to create a cinematic analogue for Conrad’s narrative technique, and to this end he planned a radical innovation: the story would be told almost entirely from Marlow’s point of view, with a first-person camera. The device had been used intermittently in previous Hollywood pictures—the first ten minutes of Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932), are told entirely through the eyes of Jekyll—but Welles appears to have been the first director to attempt it for an entire film. Given his unorthodox approach, he intended to begin Heart of Darkness with a brief prologue “designed to acquaint the audience as amusingly as possible with the [subjective camera].” The prologue has been discussed and completely reproduced in Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Discovering Orson Welles, ix so I’ll describe it here only briefly. It opens with Welles’s voice heard over an entirely black screen. “Don’t worry,” he announces, “There’s just nothing to look at for a while. You can close your eyes if you want to.” He explains that he is about to “divide this audience into two parts—you and everybody else in the theater. Now then, open your eyes.” Iris into the subjective viewpoint of a bird looking out of a cage at Welles’s hugely magnified chin and mouth. “You play the part of a canary,” Welles says. “I’m asking you to sing and you refuse. That’s the plot.” Welles’s chin moves down until his fiercely glaring eyes become visible. “Here is a bird’s eye view of me being enraged,” he says. “I threaten you with a gun.” He slides the muzzle of a pistol through the bars of the cage until it looks like Big Bertha. “That’s the way a gun looks to a canary,” he says. “I give you until the count of three to sing.” He then goes on to create a series of other dramatic situations, some of them wish-fulfilling, as when you are granted the ability to fly, others nightmarish, as when you are strapped to the electric chair. Finally, looking straight into the lens, he says, “Now, if you’re doing this right, this is what you ought to look like to me.” Dissolve to the interior of a theater seen from the point of view of the screen: the camera pans around the room and we discover that the audience is made up entirely of motion-picture cameras. “I hope you get the idea,” Welles says. Fade to black. A human eye appears at the left of the screen, an equal sign appears next to the eye, and at the right appears the first-person pronoun. The eye winks and we dissolve to the beginning of the picture.
This witty and sadistically entertaining opening, which would have contained a few shots in color, such as a “blinding red stain” that flows over the lens in the electrocution scene, creates a very different effect from the script proper—more like the “cinema of attractions” than like the immersive, hypnotic experience of Conrad’s story. Running beneath its playful tone is an implicit commentary on the potentially authoritarian nature of the film medium. By putting us in the position of passive subjects, Welles gives us a cinematic analog of the manipulation and demagogic deception practiced by Kurtz; but at the same time he occasionally gratifies our fantasies of power, subtly prefiguring a link the film will later establish between us and a fascist demagogue. As Rosenbaum puts it, “the multiple equations proposed by the introduction, whereby I = eye = camera = screen = spectator, are extended still further in the script proper, so that spectator = Marlow = Kurtz = Welles = dictator” (31).
The equations would have been reinforced by Welles’s plan to play both Marlow and Kurtz. His voice, and by this time his face, were so well known to the public that when the camera came eye to eye with a homicidal dictator in the jungle, a mirror-image effect would have been created. Welles intended to stage the scene in darkly humorous, somewhat anti-climactic fashion: Kurtz is discovered at the shadowy end of a vast wooden temple filled with skulls; as the camera/Marlow/spectator moves in to a close-up of his face, he looks back and asks, “Have you got a cigarette?” (Welles did makeup tests in costume as Kurtz, looking unusually gaunt and wearing a scraggly beard. He told Bogdanovich that just when the film was about to begin shooting he changed his mind and decided to have the character played by someone else, preferably an actor who was cast against type, thereby creating the kind of surprise and irony that the discovery of Kurtz generates in the novella; there is, however, no evidence that he followed through with this idea, and he confirmed to Jonathan Rosenbaum that, had the picture actually gone into production, he would have played the dual role as originally planned.)
One of the most important questions posed by the un-filmed production is whether the subjective camera would have been dramatically effective. Historians often argue that Robert Montgomery’s adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s Lady in the Lake (1946), in which the camera becomes Phillip Marlowe, offers proof positive that the first-person device inhibits identification, eliminating the suturing effect of ordinary continuity editing and making the audience excessively aware of the apparatus. This argument may be correct, but it doesn’t take into account Montgomery’s leaden direction, nor the fact that Chandler’s private eye is a very different sort of character from Conrad’s sailor. Marlow in Heart of Darkness is largely an observer rather than a participant—at any rate he’s never punched in the face or kissed by a beautiful woman—and his narration creates the feeling of a waking dream. Welles’s plan for the subjective camera was therefore more technically and affectively complex than Montgomery’s straightforward literalism. The technique, he explained to Bogdanovich, was ideal for Conrad’s story, which consists largely of a man piloting a boat down a river; the film could minimize “that business of a hand-held camera mooching around pretending to walk like a man” (31). As Jonathan Rosenbaum has pointed out, the screenplay’s more flamboyant or gimmicky uses of the subjective camera are reserved for the early scenes, such as the one in which Marlow has his skull measured by a doctor; elsewhere, the camera seems relatively unobtrusive. Equally important, and despite both Welles’s and the Mercury publicists’ repeated claim that “the audience plays a part in this film,” Welles appears to have wanted to create a tension between identification and estrangement. His script is often moody and hypnotic in the manner of Conrad, but when it describes characters facing the camera, it feels as if Welles wanted to undermine the “keyhole” effect of conventional cinema; in strategic and somewhat Brechtian ways, it turns the audience into guilty participants rather than absorbed viewers.
Photographer Stanley Cortez later used a subjective camera for one of the long sequences in The Magnificent Ambersons, in which George Amberson Minifer walks through every room of the shuttered Amberson mansion and then kneels to pray at his dead mother’s bedside; RKO cut everything but the concluding image from this sequence, but Welles told Bogdanovich that he wasn’t troubled by the cuts because he was unhappy with the results Cortez had obtained. He thought Heart of Darkness was a more suitable story for the technique, and before production he shot one experimental sequence (involving Robert Coote as Eddie) that convinced him he had made a correct decision. “It would have worked, I think,” he said in the Bogdanovich interview. “I did a very elaborate preparation for [Heart of Darkness], such as I’ve never done again—never could. I shot my bolt on preproduction on that picture. We designed every camera setup and everything else” (31).
Welles’s screenplay, which was composed with the technical assistance of RKO script supervisor Amalia Kent, is one of the most camera-specific ever written, containing a detailed plan of the decoupage and even indicating the arrangement of figures in the frame for several of the shots. Only one sequence, involving multiple characters and chaotic action, is left for the director to work out on the set. To photograph a few scenes, Welles proposed that studio engineers equip a camera with one viewfinder for the operator and another for himself; but for many shots he wanted a hand-held Eymo equipped with a gyroscope, rather like the present-day Stedicam—a device he claimed had been employed during the silent era. He planned to construct most of the film out of long takes, the longest of which he estimated would run twelve minutes. This would have required the kind of deep-focus photography later used in Citizen Kane, but with a great deal more tracking, craning and panning. Temporal ellipses would be signaled with dissolves, which would occasionally shift us back to Marlow in New York harbor; but most of the subjective shots would be imperceptibly linked with what Welles described as a “feather wipe.” In shot A, Marlow’s “head” would turn and the camera would a pan across a wall or a stand of trees, ending at a precisely measured spot; in shot B, the camera would be repositioned at the same distance from the designated spot and the panning movement would resume. As Robert Carringer points out, one of the most elaborate and difficult series of these linkages occurs when Marlow arrives at the First Station: “Marlow as the camera was to proceed up the hill from the docks, pass the excavations, discover the dying natives, enter the settlement . . . , go to the British representative’s quarters [where he meets Elsa], have a conversation, retrace his steps through the settlement to the manager’s office, and have another conversation there—all continuously and without an apparent cut.” x
Welles’s experiments with duration and invisible editing would have delighted Andre Bazin, but his camera would also have been highly expressive and self-reflexive. In the script it occasionally shows things from an omniscient perspective, such as brief shots of Marlow’s boat moving down river; and like Conrad’s prose it shifts focalization within a scene, moving without a visible cut from a literal point of view shot to a poetic or symbolic image—as when it tracks backward with Marlow out of the manager’s office at the First Station, tilts down to look at a sick man dying on the floor, passes through the front entrance, cranes over the roof to show the jungle beyond, and tilts up to a starry sky. In many sequences grotesque faces bob in and out of Marlow’s view (one of the most eerie scenes involves a search for Kurtz across a marsh in heavy fog, with faces suddenly looming up out of a white limbo), and disorienting effects are created by off-screen sounds, especially when Marlow hears voices and turns to look at them or when he overhears scraps of heated conversation from another room. Mild shocks are administered whenever any of the characters look at the lens, and, significantly, many of these characters are black. At the First Station Marlow walks past a “big, ridiculous hole in the face of a mud bank, filled with about thirty-five dying savages and a pile of broken drain pipes. . . . Into some of these pipes the natives have crawled, the better to expire. . . . As Marlow looks down, CAMERA PANS DOWN for a moment, registering a MED. CLOSEUP of a Negro face, the eyes staring up at the lens. The CAMERA PANS UP AND AWAY.” Elsewhere, Marlow is confronted by the “half-breed” steersman, by the dark woman who is Kurtz’s lover at the Central Station, and by the anonymous black man who announces, “Mister Kurtz, he dead.” The film as a whole could in fact be described as a hallucinated white dream about blackness (Marlow suffers literal hallucinations toward the end, when he becomes ill with a fever), or, in terms of a Freudian critic such as Norman O. Brown, it could be viewed as a symptom of how white anxiety about blackness is sublimated into artistic discourse. Whatever interpretation we might offer, Welles’s Heart of Darkness would have been the first and only time in the history of classic Hollywood when a white gaze would have been troubled by a returning black gaze.
As plans for the film advanced, Welles had models constructed for the sets in order to determine camera angles, and he screened a number of films so that he could become familiar with technical matters. Studio records indicate that he watched John Ford’s Arrowsmith (1931), which is set in the tropics and which, despite its date, contains several wide-angle, deep focus shots exactly like the ones Welles and Gregg Toland later used in Kane. Welles also viewed Ford’s Stagecoach, Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion (useful for the study of long takes) and Julian Duvivier’s Pepe Le Moko (filled with atmospheric North-African exoticism and grotesquerie). Meanwhile, RKO designers and special-effects technicians began preparatory work on the film. Marlow’s journey was originally designed in six stages involving six different kinds of jungle atmosphere. Welles wanted to send a photographic crew to the Florida Everglades for background imagery, but eventually he decided to use stock footage from jungle movies, with which he planned to create a back-projected collage of increasingly strange scenery. Among the films from which he planned to appropriate images were Chang, Four Feathers, Sanders of the River, Suez, and a couple of low-budget shorts called Congorilla and Baboona. He also screened such oddities as Jungle Madness, Crouching Beast, and Hold that Wild Boar. This may sound risible, but there is every reason to believe he would have used the appropriated material brilliantly. The matte photography in Citizen Kane is consistently fascinating (as in the nocturnal party in a Florida swamp, which involves sinister pre-historic birds from The Son of Kong), and Welles’s other films are noteworthy for the way they employ the process screen as a poetic rather than a realistic device—for example, in the surreal exoticism of the San Francisco aquarium scene in The Lady from Shanghai.
The complex choreography of camera and players required what Welles described in a note to the studio as “absolute perfection of preparation before the camera turns.” He brought composer Bernard Herrmann into the process quite early and wanted the Mercury players to record the entire script so that Herrmann would have a guide for the composition and placement of music. (Besides the actors already mentioned, other members of the cast included John Hoysradt, Vladimir Sokoloff, Gus Schilling, Everett Sloane, George Coulouris, and Erskine Sandford.) In a memo to RKO, he argued that this careful pre-planning would save time and money; but studio executives probably raised their collective eyebrows when he also noted that because of the camera technique he wanted to use, the completed film couldn’t be shortened except by cutting whole sequences. As if in compensation, he offered a great deal of spectacle: a giant snake landing on the deck of the steamboat; cannibal natives firing metal arrows and pinning one character’s hand to the boat rail; a severed head on a pole; hundreds of blacks bowing down to Kurtz and forming long serpentine lines to haul ivory out of the jungle; a temple erected on stilts in the midst of a jungle lake; a cloud of bats scurrying down from the ceiling of the temple; Kurtz’s throne surrounded by a wall of human skulls similar to the bizarre wall of human faces in Welles’s 1938 stage production of George Buchner’s Danton’s Death; Kurtz crawling on all fours into the jungle; Kurtz’s frail body lifted from the ground by servants and silhouetted against a campfire as he murmurs “I was on the verge of great things”; a tremendous conflagration in the jungle; and a climactic lightening and rain storm inspired by Conrad’s Typhoon, during which Kurtz keeps repeating “The horror! The horror!”
One of the most amusing documents in the Mercury files is a somewhat disingenuous list of spectacular elements and enticing “story angles,” probably written by Mercury Theater publicist Herbert Drake, which was intended to be used in selling the film to RKO executives and ultimately in publicity by the studio marketing department:
The story is of a man and a girl in love . . . There is a hell of an adventure going up the river. There is an unhappy ending which we won’t need to mention. . . . There are cannibals, shootings, native dances, a fascinating girl, gorgeous, but black, a real Negro type. She has an inferred, but not definitely stated, jungle love-life with our hero. There is a jungle in flames and heavy storms of a spectacular nature. . . . We don’t know who [will play the white girl] but she is going to be a great beauty . . . sexy without waving her hips around. She is to have a calm, half-smiling face, perhaps over a full bosom, for instance. . . . Theory of the story is two moderns who have a hell of an adventure in the dark places of the earth. The idea is, more or less by implication, that this is the God-damnedest relation between a man and a woman ever put on the screen. . . . Everyone and everything is just a bit off normal, just a little oblique . . . in surroundings not healthy for a white man.
RKO probably had doubts about all this, but it kept faith until December 5, 1939, when a detailed budget and day-to-day production schedule was submitted. The picture would have taken thirty weeks to complete at a cost of approximately $1,058,000, which was considerably more than RKO intended to pay. After a week of intense work, the Mercury organization offered cost-cutting suggestions that reduced the budget to $985,000. This was not beyond the means of the studio (Citizen Kane cost approximately $750,000), but it was too much for a picture that, from their point of view, had other problems. It was still unclear who would play Elsa. (Welles tried to obtain Ingrid Bergman, who had yet to appear in a US film; he eventually decided to cast Dita Parlo, whom he had seen in Grand Illusion, but she encountered difficulty getting out of France). There were few close-ups, no shot/reverse shots, and the director/star would only briefly appear on screen. An even bigger problem for RKO was that Welles wanted to photograph lots of black people. He resisted the studio’s proposal that extras in blackface could be used in crowd scenes and he planned to suggest a sex relation between Kurtz and a black woman--this despite the fact that miscegenation was strictly forbidden by the Production Code.
The end came on January 9, 1940, when Variety reported that Heart of Darkness had given the studio cold feet and that Welles’s organization had been paid $160,000 to shelve it. Conrad’s novella nevertheless remained one of Welles’s preoccupations for long afterward. In1945 he produced a second adaptation for radio and announced during the broadcast that perhaps he would some day be able to make it into a motion picture. It seems to have influenced various aspects of his later work, including the narrative method of Citizen Kane, the Latin-American scenes in The Lady from Shanghai, and the elaborate tracking camera in The Trial.
As important as Conrad was for Welles, however, his attempt to adapt Heart of Darkness for the movies had brought at least three irresolvable contradictions uncomfortably to the fore. First was the contradiction between modernism and mass culture, which became apparent when Welles added expensive spectacle and a love interest to an oblique narrative technique that subsumes adventure within an introspective, serpentine monologue. Second was the potential contradiction between Welles’s democratic idealism and his fascination, even partial identification, with Byronic individualists such as Kurtz. Third, and most significant, was the contradiction between Welles’s often courageous opposition to fascism and racism and his interest in a story that expresses what Chinua Achebe has identified as a conservative and racist ideology.
Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is an implicit attack on Rousseau; although it shows the cruelty of Belgian exploitation in the Congo, it approves of a “good” colonialism that represses Africa’s putative savagery and controls the ancient bestiality in the human heart. As Patrick Brantlinger has observed, it offers “a powerful critique of at least certain manifestations of imperialism and racism, at the same time that it presents that critique in ways that can only be characterized as imperialist and racist.”xi Welles’s adaptation completely rejects colonialism, places the action in a Dark Continent of the mind, and tries to become a commentary on fascism; but it doesn’t avoid Conrad’s primitivism. From the opening moments, when jazz drums in Manhattan foreshadow jungle drums in the “dark places of the earth,” the politics of the film become confused. The effort to retain aspects of Conrad’s rhetoric only adds to the problem. Welles was a liberal activist, but like many white liberals of his era (and our own) he sometimes equated black culture with a kind of atavistic energy. His script seems to take melodramatic relish in Conrad’s references to a “black and incomprehensible frenzy” and a “night of the first ages,” and the film’s treatment of women would have been quite close in spirit to Conrad’s misogyny.
We might recall that in the 1897 preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus, Conrad described art as “a single-minded attempt to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe,” and his own task as “before all, to make you see.” D. W. Griffith adopted that last phrase as a motto, and Welles gave it a potentially subversive implication through his plans for a subjective camera. Welles’s Heart of Darkness was in many ways a brilliant visual experiment, especially when it updated the action of the novella, introduced cinematic effects homologous with Conrad’s prose, and suggested a link between European fascism and US racism. In my own view, however, even had the film reached the screen, it would have been caught on the horns of a dilemma, forced to be either too faithful to Hollywood or too faithful to Conrad. There is of course no reason why fidelity should always be a primary concern in film adaptations; but in this case neither a mass-cultural nor a high-modernist rendition of the original text, no matter how revisionist, could have avoided the ideological contradictions of Conrad’s novella. Any attempt to expurgate, condense, or modernize the narrative is faced with the choice of retaining these contradictions or of becoming some other kind of thing entirely. Orson Welles embraced the contradictions, which were part of his own artistic history. To borrow a metaphor from Conrad’s Lord Jim, we might say that he chose to immerse himself in the potentially destructive element of both Hollywood and Heart of Darkness. The results on screen would likely have been problematic at the level of politics, but there is no doubt they would have been cinematically fascinating.
i James Naremore, More than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts (Berkeley: University of California Press, rev. ed., 2008), pp. 47-48, 237-39.
ii Frederic Jameson, The Political Unconscious (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981), p. 206.
iii F. R. Leavis, The Great Tradition: George Eliot, Henry James, Joseph Conrad (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books: new ed., 1993), p. 119.
iv John Houseman, Run-Through (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972), p. 435.
v Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (London: Verso, 1996), pp. 392-94.
vi Heart of Darkness screenplay (November 30, 1939), Orson Welles collection, Lilly Library, Indiana University, box 14, folder 17. All subsequent quotations of dialog and description are from this screenplay.
vii Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich, This is Orson Welles, ed. Jonathan Rosenbaum (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1992), p. 31. All subsequent references are to this edition, and page numbers are indicated in the text.
viii Orson Welles collection, Lilly Library, Box 14, folder 19.
ix Jonathan Rosenbaum, “The Voice and the Eye: A Commentary on the Heart of Darkness Script,” in Discovering Orson Welles (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), pp 28-48. All further references are to this edition, and page numbers are indicated in the text. For additional commentary on the screenplay, especially on the prologue, see Guerric DeBona, O. S. B., “Into Africa: Orson Welles and Heart of Darkness, Cinema Journal, 33, No. 3 (Spring 1994): 16-34.
x Robert Carringer, The Making of Citizen Kane (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), p. 10.
xi Patrick Brantlinger, “Heart of Darkness: Anti-Imperialism, Racism, or Impressionism?” in Heart of Darkness, ed. Ross C. Murfin (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996), pp. 364-65.