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Tag Archives: London Film Productions

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.

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.

Anna Karenina (April 27, 1948)

Julien Duvivier’s Anna Karenina was the second non-silent film adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s novel. It premiered in the U.K. on January 22, 1948, and in New York City on April 27, 1948.

I originally put off watching it because I started reading the novel late last year and wanted to finish it before I saw any film versions.

Alas, I am a slow reader. After pushing Anna Karenina from its January U.K. release date to its April U.S. release date on my “to watch” list, I finally gave up on trying to finish reading Tolstoy’s novel before watching any film versions. (It’s not as if I don’t how the novel ends, and besides, caring too much about “spoilers” is a foolish preoccupation.)

As I mentioned, this was the second adaptation of the novel for sound film, but there were numerous silent versions that preceded both. The first was director Maurice Maître’s 1911 Russian version, which starred M. Sorochtina as Anna Karenina. The second was Vladimir Gardin’s 1914 Russian version, which starred Mariya Germanova. The third was J. Gordon Edwards’s 1915 American version, which starred Betty Nansen. The fourth was Márton Garas’s 1918 Hungarian version, which starred Irén Varsányi. The fifth was Frederic Zelnik’s 1919 German version.

Finally, there was Edmund Goulding’s 1927 silent film, entitled simply Love, which starred Greta Garbo as Anna and John Gilbert as her illicit lover, Count Vronsky.

The first sound version, Clarence Brown’s Anna Karenina (1935), again starred Garbo as Anna and Fredric March as Vronsky. I haven’t seen any of the silent versions, but I recently watched the 1935 version.

There seems to be a general consensus that the 1935 film is the more definitive version, while the 1948 version is well-made but essentially flawed. For me, the 1935 version played like filmed Cliffs Notes. For the first hour of the film, I recognized all the major plot points and important bits of dialogue, enacted in more or less the manner I pictured them, neither failing to meet nor exceeding my expectations. (The next 30 minutes or so went past the point I’ve read up to in the novel, so I can’t speak to them.)

The 1948 version is a less slavishly faithful adaptation of the novel, but I found it a much more satisfying overall film experience.

The music, lighting, cinematography, set design, and costumes are all passable in the 1935 version, but they’re really stellar in the 1948 version. Duvivier’s film evokes 19th-century Czarist Russia in a more powerful and magical way than Brown’s film did. The wintry, nighttime scenes in train stations — so important in the novel — are dark, snow-swept, and full of portent. The interiors are richly appointed and realistically lighted.

Where Duvivier’s version can’t always compete with the earlier version is in the choice of actors. Fredric March, who played Vronsky in the 1935 version, was for me the most interesting character in the film, while Kieron Moore just doesn’t make as strong an impression in the same role. He’s tall and handsome, but in the end he’s little more than a perfectly coiffed mustache in search of a personality. And Sally Ann Howes, who plays the pretty young Kitty Scherbatsky in the 1948 version, just isn’t as appealing or as good an actress as Maureen O’Sullivan.

Whether or not Vivien Leigh is as good as Greta Garbo, however, is a more difficult question. Garbo casts a long shadow, and is in some sense “untouchable.” For my money, though, Leigh gives a much more interesting performance as Anna. Garbo’s beautiful face is a sort of blank canvas onto which viewers can project their own desires, but Leigh crafts a fully realized character, whether one cares for her or not. In this sense, I think the casting of Moore as Vronsky — the man she falls in love with and destroys her marriage for — actually works quite well. Anna Karenina is not a simplistic novel in which a woman in an unhappy marriage finds true love but is constrained by rigid societal rules. Anna’s essential flaw is that she falls in love with a man who is handsome and charming, but essentially weak, and not worthy of everything she gives up for him. (I’ll still take March over Moore any day, but Moore’s uninteresting performance doesn’t really detract from the greatness of Duvivier’s film for me.)

In the 1935 version, Basil Rathbone gave a terrific performance as Anna’s cuckolded husband, Alexei Karenin, but terrific as it was, it was a one-note performance. Ralph Richardson, however, is just as officious and unlikable in the early going, but he evolves, allowing the viewer to see his pain and anguish despite the fact that Anna is a more natural point of identification.

Of course, what no film can convey is the novel’s epic scope or its meticulously crafted evocation of everyday life. Anna Karenina was published in serial fashion over the course of nearly four years, so characters with whom we spend days, weeks, months, and even years in the novel appear in the film for a few minutes here and there, giving the viewer no real sense of their importance in the grand scheme of the narrative.

But that’s how it goes in the dirty business of film adaptations of great novels.

I liked Clarence Brown’s 1935 version, and I’m glad I saw it, but Julien Duvivier’s 1948 version wove a spell over me. There are certain scenes I can’t stop thinking about, and I loved Vivien Leigh’s performance as Anna. It’s a movie I’m looking forward to seeing again some day. There are many, many film adaptations of Anna Karenina out there competing for your entertainment dollars, and I’ve only seen two of them, but of the two, I much prefer this one.