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Tag Archives: British Cinema

The Third Man (Aug. 31, 1949)

The Third Man
The Third Man (1949)
Directed by Carol Reed
London Film Productions

OK. True confessions time.

I don’t really like the music in The Third Man.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s catchy as hell and does a good job of establishing the post-war Vienna setting, but I find it wildly at odds with the mood of some of the dramatic scenes. After the first couple of reels I was sick of it. Not because it’s a bad tune, but because of the way it was used in the film.

I know I’m in the minority with this opinion. The music is one of the most commonly praised aspects of the film. The simple zither melodies in The Third Man made the previously unknown Viennese musician Anton Karas internationally famous. After the film’s release, “The Harry Lime Theme” — which recurs throughout the picture — sold half a million copies and worldwide sales of zithers reportedly skyrocketed (from their previous sales position of “next to nothing,” one presumes).

I first saw The Third Man about a decade ago. I liked it, but I didn’t think it was a masterpiece.

Recently, I’ve seen more films by the director, Carol Reed, and better come to appreciate his talent. Three years ago I reviewed Odd Man Out (1947) and said that I thought it was better than The Third Man. I wrote, “[James] Mason is a more compelling central presence than any of the actors are in The Third Man, and the music, cinematography, editing, and direction are all tighter in Odd Man Out.”

Last year I reviewed The Fallen Idol (1948). With that review I didn’t take another swipe at The Third Man, and simply said that Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol, and The Third Man are “as brilliant a trio of films as any director has ever made.”

I stand by that statement, and I liked The Third Man a lot more this time than the first time I watched it. I don’t like it quite as much as The Fallen Idol, which had more personal resonance for me, but it’s a brilliant film.

Three films in a row that are as good as Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol, and The Third Man is an extremely rare feat, and only the greatest of directors have ever pulled it off (like Billy Wilder, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Akira Kurosawa, Alfred Hitchcock, and Stanley Kubrick).

Cotten on the stairs

Like The Fallen Idol, The Third Man is a collaboration between Reed and writer Graham Greene. It stars Joseph Cotten as Holly Martins, an American writer of popular western novels. Holly Martins arrives in Vienna, looking for his old friend Harry Lime, only to find out that Harry Lime was hit by a car and died a few days before his arrival.

At Harry’s funeral, Holly Martins meets a pair of British Army Police, the stiff-upper-lipped Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) and the more rough-and-tumble Sergeant Paine (Bernard Lee). (Incidentally, if you’ve ever seen a James Bond film from the ’60s or ’70s, you’ll recognize Lee as Bond’s superior, “M.”)

Holly Martins also meets Harry Lime’s girlfriend, the beautiful actress Anna Schmidt, who is played by Alida Valli — she’s listed in the credits as simply “Valli,” as she was in Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case (1947) and the Frank Sinatra shmaltz-fest The Miracle of the Bells (1948).

Eyewitness reports of Harry Lime’s death don’t add up — did only two men spirit his body away from the scene of the accident, or was there a “third man”? Holly Martins begins to suspect that there is more to the story than he’s been told.

Cotten at the fairgrounds

Joseph Cotten has the most screen time in The Third Man, but the presence of the mysterious Harry Lime and the character of postwar Vienna both dominate the film.

Like Germany and Berlin, Austria and Vienna were broken into zones after World War II — British, American, French, and Russian. And just like in Berlin, the black market was booming.

Harry Lime was deeply involved in the black market, and in the worst way possible. He sold penicillin, which was desperately needed, but he diluted it to make more money, and many children and adults died as a result.

Orson Welles shows up late in the film to explicate Harry Lime’s philosophy to Holly Martins, and it’s these lines that are some of the film’s most enduring.

Look down there. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax — the only way you can save money nowadays.

Welles is a magnetic presence, and his nihilistic philosophy in The Third Man is seductive. I’ve even heard his words quoted as a celebration of death and destruction. (I suppose that like all great art, his speech is what you make of it.)

Third Man sewers

You know what? I take back what I said about the music. I started writing this review last night, and woke up with “The Harry Lime Theme” in my head. I’ve been listening to the soundtrack all morning while finishing this review.

I still find it at odds with the mood of the film, but perhaps a delicious sense of irony was Reed’s intention.

The Third Man is a brilliantly shot, brilliantly acted, and wonderfully involving film.

After three amazing films in a row, I’m really looking forward to seeing Carol Reed’s next picture, Outcast of the Islands (1951), which no one ever talks about.

Kind Hearts and Coronets (June 21, 1949)

Kind Hearts and Coronets
Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)
Directed by Robert Hamer
Ealing Studios

Alec Guinness isn’t the star of Kind Hearts and Coronets. Not exactly. Dennis Price plays the protagonist, a ruthless social climber who attempts to murder his way to a dukedom, but Guinness dominates the film by playing eight different characters of vastly different ages (including one who is a woman).

If the opening credits of the film didn’t clearly show that Guinness plays multiple characters, I’m sure a few viewers would miss that fact, since he disappears into each role.

Greenwood and Guinness

The film tells the story of Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price), whose mother was disowned by her aristocratic family, the D’Ascoynes, when she married an Italian organ grinder. (Guinness isn’t the only actor in the film who plays multiple parts. Price plays his own father in a short flashback, sporting a thick black mustache.) Mazzini’s father died when he was a baby, leaving his mother penniless.

Mazzini vows revenge on the D’Ascoynes. He keeps careful track of all the noblemen and noblewomen who stand in the way of his Dukedom. Sometimes the death notices bring good news. Sometimes the birth column brings bad news.

After a chance encounter with his playboy cousin, Ascoyne D’Ascoyne, leads to Mazzini losing his job, he decides that waiting for everyone who stands in his way to die of natural causes will take too long, and he coolly takes to plotting murder.

Alec Guinness

Kind Hearts and Coronets is based on Roy Horniman’s 1907 novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal. I haven’t read the novel, but by all accounts the film improves on it. The dry, acerbic voiceover by Price apparently owes a lot to its literary source, but the comedic tone of the murders is amped up for the film. In the book, Israel Rank mostly disposes of his victims with poison, but in the film they meet their ends in wildly varied ways; drowning, explosion, falling from the sky, and a well-placed shotgun blast. And yes, a little poison.

Another difference between the film and the book is that the novel’s protagonist has a Jewish father. I think the name “Israel Rank” is a trifle too obvious for a half-Jewish man who attempts to improve his station through murder. And in any case, “Rank” was out of the question as the surname in the film since Ealing Studios’ films were distributed by J. Arthur Rank and most of Kind Hearts and Coronets was shot at Rank’s studios at Pinewood. The scale of the film was simply too large for the Ealing studio.

Price and Greenwood

Guinness is a comedic juggernaut in Kind Hearts and Coronets and Price ranks with Hannibal Lecter as one of the most charming serial murderers in cinematic history, but the film also features two great performances by women: Valerie Hobson as Edith, the noblewoman whom Mazzini schemes to marry, and Joan Greenwood as Sibella, the seductive coquette who rejected him in favor of a boring, wealthy man, but with whom he carries on an extramarital affair for most of the film.

Kind Hearts and Coronets is one of the most pitch-black comedies I’ve ever seen, but it never devolves into mere gruesomeness. The witty and irony-laden script is one reason, but the fact that Guinness plays all of the murder victims is another. It adds a layer of theatricality to the proceedings that makes it difficult to take any of the homicides too seriously.

Ealing scored a real one-two punch in 1949 with Whisky Galore and Kind Hearts and Coronets. One is warmly human and the other is cold and biting, but they both rank among the best comedies ever made.

Incidentally, the title of the film is taken from one of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poems, “Kind hearts are more than coronets / And simple faith than Norman blood.”

Kind Hearts and Coronets will be shown on TCM on April 2, 2014.

Whisky Galore! (June 16, 1949)

Whisky Galore
Whisky Galore! (1949)
Directed by Alexander Mackendrick
Ealing Studios

I first saw Whisky Galore back in college. It wasn’t part of a class, it was just a Saturday-night feature shown in the film department.

I went to Bard College, which is in a beautiful, rural part of New York State. Procuring booze wasn’t exactly difficult, but it could be a challenge, especially if you didn’t have a car. So this rollicking tale of whisky drinkers on an isolated island suddenly facing the prospect of living without “the water of life” resonated with more than a few audience members. Hell, some of us were probably only there because we couldn’t find any booze.

I enjoyed Whisky Galore the first time I saw it, but I didn’t find it uproariously funny. This time around was different. I now think it’s one of the best comedies ever made.

Except for a few sight gags here and there — like a straight line of footsteps leading into a cave where whisky is hidden and a weaving, curving line of footsteps leading out — most of the humor is subtle and tongue-in-cheek. I realized that I’d completely missed some of the funniest bits of the movie on my first viewing. (If you have even the slightest difficulty understanding English or Scottish accents — or if you’re at all hard of hearing — you’re going to want to watch this film with subtitles. The DVD currently available to rent from Netflix has no closed captioning, and there are several reviews written solely to complain about that fact.)

Whisky Galore is based on the novel by Compton MacKenzie, which was inspired by the sinking of the S.S. Politician in 1941. The screenplay is by MacKenzie and Angus MacPhail.

The film takes place in 1943 in the Outer Hebrides, on the fictional island of Todday. The Second World War is raging, but far from Todday. The Home Guard goes on maneuvers and set up roadblocks that would be ridiculous even without the benefit of hindsight. The Home Guard in Todday is commanded by the puffed-up Captain Paul Waggett (Basil Radford), who is English, and frequently mystified by the peculiarities of the Scottish natives of this far-flung island.

One day, disaster strikes. Not famine or pestilence, but something far, far worse. No whisky.

But then, one foggy night, the S.S. Cabinet Minister, a freighter carrying 50,000 cases of whisky, runs aground on the shoals.

When Waggett gets wind of the locals’ plan to “liberate” as much whisky as they can from the ship before it sinks, he jumps into action. Waggett feels strongly that order must be maintained. Allow a little looting, and anarchy will follow.

Basil Radford

Whisky Galore wrings humor out of more than just forced sobriety and drunken revelry. It’s an extremely well-crafted film about small-town life.

Todday seems to contain just two small villages, Snorvaig and Garryboo. The insularity of Todday is personified by the young schoolteacher George Campbell (Gordon Jackson), who assigns his students a composition assignment, “Why I like living in Garryboo.”

One of his pupils reads his essay aloud: “There are more people in Snorvaig. But they are not so nice as the people in Garryboo.”

Even though Campbell is an adult with a real job, he lives with his mother (played by Jean Cadell), who still treats him like a child. She doesn’t let him use the telephone on the Sabbath, and when he protests, she scolds and punishes him. “Go to your room, George Campbell! There’ll be no church for you in Snorvaig today!” And he sheepishly complies.

All the actors in this film are wonderful, and perfectly cast. Besides the pitch-perfect performances by Radford and Cadell (who have the funniest exchange of the picture when he tries to convince her to let her son out of his room because he needs his Home Guard second-in-command), I especially liked the lovely Joan Greenwood and the stalwart Bruce Seton as the man who loves her.

But, as I said, all the actors are wonderful. And this is a wonderful film. Even the ending, which seems to have been forced on the filmmakers by the censors, is hilarious.

The Fallen Idol (Sept. 30, 1948)

The Fallen Idol
The Fallen Idol (1948)
Directed by Carol Reed
London Film Productions / British Lion Film Corporation

When producer Alexander Korda introduced director Carol Reed to writer Graham Greene, it was the beginning of a fruitful collaboration that would produce Reed’s most enduring film, The Third Man (1949).

But before they made that classic, Greene and Reed collaborated on an equally masterful film, The Fallen Idol, which Greene adapted from his short story “The Basement Room.” (Lesley Storm and William Templeton contributed additional dialogue to the script.)

The Fallen Idol is a tale of lies, deception, and half-truths as seen through the eyes of a young boy named Phillipe who lives in the French Embassy in London.

Phillipe — or “Phile,” as he’s more commonly called (it’s pronounced the same as the name Phil) — is played by Bobby Henrey, a nonprofessional actor who was 8 or 9 years old during filming.

This was the first time I’d seen The Fallen Idol, and while I was watching it I was struck by what an unaffected and natural performance Henrey delivered. The events of the film are seen mostly from Phile’s perspective, and his performance is central to the movie’s effectiveness.

So I was surprised when I watched the 2006 documentary short A Sense of Carol Reed and learned that Henrey’s “performance” was largely created by Reed and his editor, Oswald Hafenrichter.

In the documentary, Guy Hamilton, the assistant director of The Fallen Idol, recalled of Henrey, “He couldn’t act his way out of a paper bag. Much worse was his attention span, which was of a demented flea.” According to Hamilton, they’d sometimes shoot thousands of feet of film to get just one line from Henrey.

Bobby Henrey

Reed was patient and had a tremendous facility for directing actors of all ages. He never humiliated actors or cut them down in front of the crew. If he was unhappy with a take, he’d rarely yell “Cut!” until the actor had left the frame. On the occasions that he did, he’d do it in a tricky fashion, such as taking a nail from his pocket, dropping it on the floor, then calling out, “Cut! Can we have quiet, please?” Then he’d quietly say something to the actor like, “Since we have to start over anyway, perhaps you could…” — and get the performance he wanted that way.

I don’t think The Fallen Idol would be as brilliant as it is had it starred a seasoned child actor capable of memorizing pages of dialogue. Henrey may have been frustrating to work with, but all that matters is what’s up on screen. Phile seems like a real child, not an adorable singing-and-dancing moppet with a studio contract.

Phile’s parents spend very little time with him, and his only friend in the embassy is his father’s butler, Baines (Ralph Richardson).

Phile’s nemesis is Baines’s wife, Mrs. Baines (Sonia Dresdel), a strict, cruel woman who has no patience for Phile’s antics or his little pet snake, MacGregor.

One day, Phile follows his father figure to a café, where Baines is meeting a young French woman named Julie (Michèle Morgan). And just like that, Phile becomes an accomplice to his hero Baines’s infidelity. He doesn’t fully realize what’s going on — he believes that Julie is Baines’s niece and Baines doesn’t disabuse him of the notion — but any time a child is told by an adult, “No one needs to know about this,” the child will realize that something isn’t quite right.

The film continues in this vein, and the layers of secrecy and deception build until Phile finally believes he has seen Baines do something truly horrid, and he clumsily tries to help his friend by lying to the police for him.

Ralph Richardson

The Fallen Idol is a great film. Vincent Korda’s set design is marvelous, and the spacious interiors of the embassy are as much a character in the film as any of the actors. Georges Périnal’s cinematography is full of unsettling Dutch angles and gorgeous chiaroscuro lighting. All the actors are wonderful, but Ralph Richardson’s performance is pitch perfect — he’s so kind and charming that we can easily see why Phile idolizes him, and when we begin to see the small, tragic man beneath the warm exterior, it’s heart-breaking.

The Fallen Idol is tragic and moving in parts, but Reed and Grahame also have a very light, wry touch, and there’s a great deal of humor and irony in the film. If you’ve never seen it, by all means do so. If you want to make a triple bill of it, first watch Odd Man Out (1947), then The Fallen Idol (1948), and finally The Third Man (1949). They’re as brilliant a trio of films as any director has ever made.

The Red Shoes (Sept. 6, 1948)

The Red ShoesMichael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes was inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s 19th-century fairy tale about a girl who can’t stop dancing after she puts on a pair of magical red shoes. An angel appears and tells her she will continue to dance after death as a warning to vain children everywhere. Her feet keep dancing in the red shoes even after they are amputated.

It’s a potentially wonderful parable for the way ballet dancers suffer for their art, but as a cinematic experience, The Red Shoes left me wanting. I’ve been hearing for most of my life about how wonderful this film is, but for me it was the most disappointing production from Powell and Pressburger that I’ve seen so far.

That’s not to say that I didn’t like it, but I had very high expectations, and I felt let down.

In terms of Powell and Pressburger’s filmography, The Red Shoes lacks the warm, human drama of I Know Where I’m Going (1945) and the sublime comedy of a film like A Matter of Life and Death (1946). It’s most similar to Black Narcissus (1947), in which lush visuals eroticized a slight story.

The Red Shoes is beautiful to look at, and the dancing is marvelous, but the story never completely captured my interest, and I found the performances of the actors campy and overblown.

The intense, youthful-looking 51-year-old Austrian actor Anton Walbrook plays composer and ballet impresario Boris Lermontov, the head of the Ballet Lermontov. For him, dance is a religion, and when Lady Neston (Irene Brown) tries to get him to watch her niece dance at a party, he witheringly replies that he doesn’t care to see his religion practiced “in an atmosphere such as this.”

Her niece has real talent, however, and she soon becomes one of Lermontov’s principal dancers. Her name is Victoria Page (“Vicky” for short), and she’s played by the beautiful red-haired ballerina Moira Shearer.

Shearer

Powell and Pressburger wisely chose to cast real ballet dancers who could act a little, rather than actors who could do a little ballet. For the most part it works, but except for Shearer — whose performance in The Red Shoes I find quite wonderful — the ballet dancers don’t have a lot of range as actors.

When there’s no dancing going on in The Red Shoes, things feel a little lifeless. The film is ostensibly about Vicky being torn between her love for the “attractive brute” Lermontov and her love for the young composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring), whose creativity is burgeoning as Lermontov’s is failing. I never felt compelled by either of these relationships, however, and it didn’t help that I found Goring utterly devoid of charisma. It also doesn’t help that this plot device kicks in too late in the film to feel authentic.

The Red Shoes is a visual feast with some wonderful ballet sequences, but dramatically, I found it sodden and overlong.

Blanche Fury (Feb. 19, 1948)

Marc Allégret’s Blanche Fury is a brilliantly made bodice-ripper. It’s based on the 1939 historical romance by Marjorie Bowen (published under Bowen’s pseudonym “Joseph Shearing”), and it strikes the perfect balance between high-minded Victorian drama and tawdry escapism.

The attractive and imperious English actress Valerie Hobson is perfectly cast as Blanche, a proud young woman forced to labor as a servant after the deaths of her parents.

When the film begins, it is 1853, and Blanche Fuller is continually being sacked from her domestic positions for her acid tongue and independent manner. She is 25 years old, ambitious, and has no desire to live the rest of her life as a paid companion to bedridden old ladies.

So when she accepts a position at Clare Hall from her uncle, Simon Fury (Walter Fitzgerald), she has her sights set on bigger things than room, board, and a small salary.

Her uncle Simon’s son, Laurence Fury (Michael Gough), is a widower with a young daughter, Lavinia (Susanne Gibbs), who has had neither suitable companionship nor adequate tuition since her mother’s death.

Blanche and the young girl have an easy rapport and grow to love each other. The same cannot be said of Blanche and Laurence, even though Blanche marries him to secure her position as an aristocratic lady.

The viewer gets the sense that there wouldn’t be much of an erotic spark between them even without the presence of Philip Thorn (Stewart Granger), the illegitimate offspring of the late Adam Thorn and an Italian woman.

Thorn is the squire of Clare Hall, and a servant, but he is as desperate to take his “rightful place” as Blanche is to take hers.

Still photographs don’t fully convey Stewart Granger’s erotic power in this film. His performance as Thorn is as pitch-perfect as Hobson’s performance as Blanche. He perfectly captures Thorn’s ambition and seductive power, as well as the violence and malevolence that swirls below his icy surface.

Blanche Fury has a faster pace than a lot of historical melodramas. There are fires, murders, dastardly schemes, and even dangerous bands of Gypsies. Clifton Parker’s music is full of drama and passion. The Technicolor cinematography is gorgeous. Victorian romances aren’t always to my liking, but it didn’t take long for Blanche Fury to completely engross me.

It’s currently streaming on Netflix. The color looks a little washed out and the print is a little softer than I’d like, but it’s a decent copy. There’s also — at least for the time being — a full version of the film on YouTube, which you can watch below:

Brighton Rock (December 1947)

John Boulting’s Brighton Rock is an indelible portrait of evil. Richard Attenborough’s portrayal of 17-year-old gangster Pinkie Brown is one of the nastiest and coldest characterizations I’ve ever seen on film.

While Pinkie Brown’s crimes may pale in comparison with cinematic bogeymen like Hannibal Lecter — Pinkie is a garden-variety murderer, schemer, racketeer, and despoiler of women — Attenborough’s uncompromisingly nasty performance has no equal.

Brighton Rock is based on the novel by Graham Greene. It takes place during the interwar years in the seaside resort town of Brighton, home of the Brighton Racecourse, where Pinkie and his crew ply their protection racket.

Before seeing this film, my only image of Attenborough was as the middle-aged, pouchy-eyed RAF Squadron Leader of The Great Escape (1963) and as the grandfatherly CEO of Jurassic Park (1993). If I’d missed the credits, I never would have recognized him. He was 23 or 24 when he appeared in Brighton Rock, a little older than the 17-year-old hoodlum he was playing, but nevertheless he was perfectly cast.

Attenborough has the smooth, angelic face of a choirboy, but his eyes are cold and malevolent. Pinkie is a young man with no past and no future. There is no real explanation of how he came to be the way he is, and his homicidal impulses and poor planning guarantee that he is not long for this world.

The film begins with the choice Pinkie makes that will seal his downfall. It’s fitting that it’s a murder committed not out of necessity, but in retaliation for a perceived slight. Pinkie blames a newspaper writer named Fred Hale (Alan Wheatley) for the death of his gang’s leader, so when Hale is in Brighton for a day, Pinkie sets his sights on him.

After threatening Hale in a pub, Pinkie and his henchmen — the happy-go-lucky ne’er-do-well Cubitt (Nigel Stock) and the coldly efficient Dallow (William Hartnell) — pursue Hale through the throngs of summertime beachgoers in a pulse-pounding sequence. Pinkie finally corners Hale and murders him on a carnival ride.

It’s appropriate that it’s a fun-house ride to hell, with painted demons and cartoonish monsters flying toward the riders, since Pinkie is himself headed to hell, and Brighton Rock is the chronicle of his dissolution.

His murder of Hale piques the interest of Ida Arnold (Hermione Baddeley), a brassy music-hall singer who spent some time with Hale on the day of his death. However, Pinkie’s attempt to create an alibi for himself only creates a second possible witness — a shy waitress named Rose (Carol Marsh) — after Pinkie’s elderly henchman Spicer (Wylie Watson) bungles the job of trying to create a false trail for the police to follow.

Pinkie’s interest in Rose causes her to become deeply attached to Pinkie. She falls in love with him, even though she knows how wicked he is.

Pinkie’s evil is inextricably tied to his Catholicism. He’s not a psychopath who doesn’t understand the difference between right and wrong. His rejection of goodness is a conscious decision. As he tells Rose, “These atheists don’t know nothing. Of course there’s a hell, flames, damnations, torments.”

Pinkie knows he is damned. He just doesn’t care.

Rose is his diametrical opposite. Modern viewers might have trouble swallowing how deeply devoted Rose is to Pinkie, despite his clear disdain of her, but her love of Pinkie is a mirror of her devotion to God. It’s the kind of devotion that asks nothing in return.

When Pinkie tries to convince her they should enter into a suicide pact (which he calls a “suicide pax” — as a Catholic he knows that “pax” means “peace”), she weepingly protests that it’s a mortal sin. He responds, “Just one more.”

If you care for the character of Rose, Brighton Rock can be a difficult film to watch. While the ending of the film is an ironic demonstration of “the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God,” watching Pinkie systematically attempt to destroy such a simple, sweet-natured young woman is appalling.

On the other hand, it’s his unblinking awfulness that makes Brighton Rock such a powerful film. Most film villains have something that makes them likable or fun to watch — a sardonic sense of humor, a glimmer of goodness, a tragic origin story. Pinkie has none of these things. He is a nasty piece of work, through and through.

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