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Tag Archives: Alida Valli

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.

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The Miracle of the Bells (March 16, 1948)

How do you like your schmaltz? Extra fatty, thick, and glopped all over the place?

You do? Well, Irving Pichel’s The Miracle of the Bells should satisfy your appetite, provided you don’t require nauseating Technicolor or weepy musical numbers. Everything else is in place; soft-focus feel-good spirituality, a tragic love story, and a town coming together for the greater good.

Fred MacMurray plays Hollywood press agent extraordinaire Bill Dunnigan, an affable regular guy with a killer instinct when it comes to a promotional angle. One day he meets a struggling actress named Olga Treskovna (played by Italian actress Alida Valli, who’s credited as just “Valli”) and helps her get a break in a low-rent chorus line.

A year later, they meet again in a small town on Christmas Eve. They have a warm and romantic meal at a Chinese restaurant run by a venerable wise man named Ming Gow (Philip Ahn). Olga coughs when Dunnigan gets up to put some Christmas carols on the jukebox, which — if you’re a connoisseur of movie clichés — means you’ve already figured out that she will die of tuberculosis.

I’m not giving anything away, since the film begins with Dunnigan transporting Olga’s coffin back to her hometown of Coaltown, PA, and the rest of the film recounts her life and death through his eyes. She literally killed herself playing Joan of Arc in her first starring role, refusing to drop out even though she had TB, and her dying wish was to be buried on a hill in St. Michael’s Cathedral in Coaltown, next to her parents.

To thicken the plot, Marcus Harris (Lee J. Cobb), the big-time Hollywood producer of Olga’s star turn as Joan of Arc, doesn’t want to release the film because it stars a dead woman no one’s ever heard of. Too morbid, Harris declares.

Dunnigan has a reputation as a press agent who pulls stunts to put over crummy shows and lousy movies, so when he arranges all the bells in Coaltown to ring for three days for Olga, people think it’s a cheap ploy to get her final picture released. (It is, but Dunnigan’s motives are pure.)

Dunnigan also has to fight to have her body interred in St. Michael’s Cathedral, which is the smaller, poorer Catholic church in Coaltown, and the more popular his PR campaign becomes, the more pressure there is to have Olga’s funeral services held in the larger cathedral.

Frank Sinatra plays Father Paul, the young priest who presides over St. Michael’s, and it’s tempting to draw comparisons with another crooner who famously played a priest — Bing Crosby in Going My Way (1944) and The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) — but Sinatra’s performance is more understated. In The Miracle of the Bells he plays a character, not a song-and-dance version of himself.

Despite its overwhelming sentimentality, I didn’t hate The Miracle of the Bells. It’s OK for what it is, and it could have been much worse. (The great Ben Hecht wrote the screenplay with Quentin Reynolds, adapting Russell Janney’s best-selling novel. I haven’t read it, but the review in the September 16, 1946, issue of Time said that “as a novel, The Miracle of the Bells is one of the worst ever published.”)

The Paradine Case (Dec. 29, 1947)

The Paradine Case
The Paradine Case (1947)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Selznick Releasing Organization

The Paradine Case was the last film Alfred Hitchcock directed while toiling under the heavy yoke of his contract with David O. Selznick.

Even though The Paradine Case was filmed entirely on sets in Selznick’s studio in Culver City, it ended up costing nearly as much as Gone With the Wind (1939), partly because Selznick insisted on extensive reshoots and constantly rewrote the script. Selznick even took over the postproduction work, editing and scoring the film without Hitchcock’s assistance.

Some of the money shows up on screen, though. The set used for the courtroom scenes that dominate the second half of the film was a perfect facsimile of London’s Old Bailey. It cost Selznick about $80,000 and took 85 days to construct.

The Paradine Case is a talky, slow-moving courtroom drama, and it’s rarely on lists of people’s favorite Hitchcock films, so I had pretty low expectations going in, and was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I probably shouldn’t have been surprised, though. No matter how static the setting or how garrulous the script, Hitchcock always found a way to make the proceedings fun to watch.

He doesn’t go to the lengths he would later go to in set-bound pictures like Rope (1948), with its takes that last an entire reel, or Dial M for Murder (1954), which was shot in 3D to create a sense of immediacy and intimacy, but The Paradine Case contains a lot of long takes and subtle dolly movements at critical moments to keep things interesting.

I think the biggest problem with The Paradine Case is the performance of Italian actress Alida Valli as the accused murderer Mrs. Maddalena Anna Paradine. Valli was touted as the “next big thing” when she appeared in The Paradine Case. She was known professionally as just “Valli,” and her name even appeared in the credits (and on the poster above) in a different font than the other actors’ names.

Grant and Valli

The central conceit of the film is that the sober, level-headed, married barrister Anthony Keane (Gregory Peck) falls instantly in love with Mrs. Paradine, convincing himself not only that she is innocent of the crime of poisoning her husband, but that he knows who is really guilty — Colonel Paradine’s valet, Andre Latour (Louis Jourdan).

The problem, for me at least, is that Valli is too cold and distant to be believable as an irresistible femme fatale. On the other hand, it does lend her character an air of impenetrable mystery.

Sparks don’t exactly fly when Valli and Peck share the screen, and Ann Todd is pretty bland as Keane’s too-understanding wife Gay, so I especially enjoyed Charles Laughton’s performance as the mildly sadistic judge who presides over the Paradine case, Lord Thomas Horfield.

The Paradine Case is not a film I’ll be championing as “misunderstood” or “underrated,” and it will never be in a list of my favorite Hitchcock films, but I still thought it was really good. Peck’s accent is a little weird for a London barrister, but the acting in the film is excellent, the story is involving, and the direction is assured.