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Tag Archives: Carol Reed

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 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.

Odd Man Out (Jan. 30, 1947)

Odd Man Out
Odd Man Out (1947)
Directed by Carol Reed
Two Cities Films

Odd Man Out is a terrific film. It might not be — as the lobby card above boasts — “the most exciting motion picture ever made,” but it’s a damned good one, with masterful direction by Carol Reed and a hypnotic lead performance by James Mason.

The film, which is based on a novel by F.L. Green, opens with a disclaimer that it isn’t “concerned with the struggle between the law and an illegal organisation, but only with the conflict in the hearts of the people when they become unexpectedly involved.”

Mason plays a revolutionary leader named Johnny McQueen, fresh out of the clink and planning a big heist. The Irish Republican Army is never mentioned outright — McQueen’s group is simply called “the organisation” — but the film takes place in Belfast, so you can connect the dots, if you care to.

However you choose to interpret the obfuscation of the I.R.A. in Odd Man Out, there’s little denying that it’s an apolitical film, more concerned with one man’s existential journey than with making any kind of political statement.

In the first scene of the film, we see Johnny McQueen holed up in a safehouse, planning a payroll robbery of a textile mill with his boys. Also present is the woman who loves him, Kathleen Sullivan (played by Kathleen Ryan). Things look and sound all right until one of Johnny’s boys approaches him, and tells him he’s concerned about Johnny’s ability to handle the job. Johnny was in prison for several years for blowing up a police station. He’s only been on the lam a little while, and confined to the safehouse the whole time.

Johnny brushes off his lieutenant’s concerns, but as soon as the plan is in motion, we realize that Johnny might have been wrong to lead the robbery. In a subjective sequence, we see the busy streets of Belfast from Johnny’s point of view. Cars whiz past, streetcars with grinding wheels pass by close enough to touch, people hurry to and fro, and the whole smoky mess looks too cramped and too large at the same time.

If you’re a fan of realistic heist movies, the robbery scene in Odd Man Out will meet with your approval. It’s not overly complicated, and it’s accomplished quickly, but it’s full of tension, especially since Johnny seems about to crack at any moment.

He and his boys make it out with the money, but a mill guard tackles Johnny as he hesitates on the front steps of the factory. The two men wrestle, and each takes a bullet. The wounded Johnny falls off the running board of the getaway car, and his boys lose him in the confusion.

Odd Man Out is a tense film. It takes place over the course of the night following the mill robbery, and Reed and his cinematographer, Robert Krasker, box their subjects in. The members of “the organisation” are pursued by police on foot, through dark alleys, over rooftops, and even through middle-class homes. (Reed frequently juxtaposes the activities of the city’s regular citizens with the activities of its criminal underclass.)

James Mason has little dialogue in the film, but his performance is amazing. He feels guilt, remorse, confusion, anger, loneliness, and even suffers hallucinations as he loses blood and seems to always be marching toward death. His performance is sympathetic, but keeps the viewer at a distance. This isn’t a film noir about a regular Joe who’s caught up in circumstances beyond his control. Every move Johnny made in his life has led him to this point, and he knows it.

Aside from Mason, most of the actors in the film were regulars on the stage of the Abbey Theatre (which could be why none of their accents sound quite right — they’re all from the wrong end of the island). Fans of British cinema and television will recognize plenty of them.

Reed’s most famous film is The Third Man, which he made in 1949. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen The Third Man, but I thought Odd Man Out was a stronger picture. 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.

Odd Man Out is a difficult film to classify. It starts out as a straightforward crime picture, but by the end of the film, Johnny’s journey takes on a surreal quality. A scene late in the picture in which he’s sheltered by a mad painter (Robert Newton) has the quality of a lively Samuel Beckett play.

The film was nominated for the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1947, and received the BAFTA award for Best British Film in 1948. Fergus McDonnell was nominated for an Academy Award in 1948 for best editing, but Francis Lyon and Robert Parrish ended up winning for Body and Soul.

The True Glory (Aug. 27, 1945)

TrueGloryThe True Glory, which was released on August 27, 1945 in the United Kingdom and on October 4, 1945 in the United States, is the granddaddy of every World War II documentary you’ve ever seen on the History Channel. Introduced by the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, The True Glory tells the story of America and Great Britain’s war against Germany and Italy, starting with the D-Day invasions of June 6, 1944 and ending with V-E Day, May 8, 1945.

The documentary, which won an Academy Award, was pieced together from hundreds of different war photographers’ footage. Several directors worked on the film, but the most commonly credited are Carol Reed and Garson Kanin.

There is some narration, but the majority of the film is told through first-person accounts in voiceover. There are a myriad of British and American soldiers who tell their stories, but there are also the voices of a Parisian family, nurses, clerical staff, an African-American tank gunner, and a member of the French resistance. If you know your World War II history and keep your eyes peeled, you’ll recognize many prominent figures in the footage, including Gen. Eisenhower and Gen. George S. Patton.

Produced by the British Ministry of Information and the U.S. Office of War Information, The True Glory lacks a certain degree of perspective, coming so soon after the end of the war, and is primarily made to celebrate the accomplishments of the Allied forces, but that doesn’t change the fact that the footage is absolutely stunning, and occasionally horrific. The True Glory is a must-see for even the most casual of history buffs.