Heart of Darkness “was going to be a film in the first person: the camera was going to be Marlow, which is ideal for that particular kind of story… It would have worked, I think.” The script began with an elaborate sequence in which Welles, appropriating the style and even some of the same language of his radio introductions (“Ladies and gentlemen, this is Orson Welles”) would introduce and explain the notion of the subjective camera, by which the audience would take on the POV of a canary in a cage, a convict going to the electric chair, and an unfortunate somebody on the business end of a gunshot. “You’re not going to see this picture — this picture is going to see you,” his narration promised, with the flamboyance typical of this quintessential showman.
Alas, such technical wizardry costs money — especially as Welles not only wanted to use the subjective camera technique, but to replicate the fluidity of human vision by using dollies and feather wiping to create a series of long takes that seemed to flow in and out of each other without interruption (paging Birdman). When all the costs were tallied — the camera tricks along with the production design, the costumes, the cast, and thousands of extras — Welles and RKO couldn’t get the budget below $1,057,761, which was more than twice the $500K ceiling afforded by his deal with the studio.
Welles suggested putting the project on hold so he could rework the script, reconfigure the special effects, and try to get it down to a more reasonable number; he even proposed making a thriller called The Smiler With a Knife, which could be done quickly and cheaply, in the interim. But that plan was ultimately dismissed, as RKO wanted Welles’ debut picture to be something big and impressive — something like Heart of Darkness, but, y’know, cheaper. In casting about for a suitable replacement picture while still wrestling with Heart, he started batting around ideas with Herman J. Mankiewicz, the gifted screenwriter who’d been picking up some extra coin banging out radio scripts for Welles. Together, they worked up the idea of, per Callow, “a film about some larger-than-life American figure ” —and with that vague notion of an almost-idea, Citizen Kane was born.
Heart of Darkness went on the RKO shelves, and stayed there. Aside from a streamlined 1958 TV adaptation for Playhouse 90, no filmmaker would successfully bring the book to the screen until 1979, when Francis Ford Coppola used Darkness as the loose inspiration for Apocalypse Now, a production even more challenging than Welles’ presumably would’ve been. As for the innovative “first person” technique, actor/director Robert Montgomery used a subjective camera (showing himself in mirror shots) to adapt Raymond Chandler’s Lady in the Lake for the screen in 1947; more recent examples have included Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void and Franck Khalfoun’s Maniac remake (to say nothing of the variation seen in countless “found footage” movies). Leave it to Welles to devise a storytelling tool that would still be seen as innovative and groundbreaking, three-quarters of a century later.