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Tag Archives: Orson Welles

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 Lady From Shanghai (Dec. 24, 1947)

Orson Welles’s The Lady From Shanghai premiered in France on Christmas Eve, 1947, and in the United States nearly half a year later, on June 9, 1948.

The film is something of a minor classic now, but at the time of its release it was generally a disappointment; a disappointment to critics, to the studio, to audiences, and to Welles himself, who had little control over the final product released into theaters.

The Lady From Shanghai was filmed in 1946, and the original cut ran more than two and a half hours. Executives at Columbia Pictures made numerous cuts, and the final musical score was not to Welles’s liking. The litany of complaints from all sides were legion, and are outside the scope of this review.

But before I get into a discussion of the film itself, I need to mention the complaint that I find most mystifying. Welles chose to radically alter the looks of his leading lady, Rita Hayworth (to whom he was married from 1943 to 1948), by chopping her long tresses and dying her hair platinum blond. This decision caused a whirlwind of controversy, and was blamed by some in Hollywood for the dismal box office performance of The Lady From Shanghai.

Was the movie-going public in 1948 composed entirely of people whose tonsorial proclivities were identical to the Son of Sam’s? I think that Rita Hayworth is stunningly beautiful and alluring no matter what her hairstyle, and The Lady From Shanghai is all the proof I need.

The Lady From Shanghai stars Welles as a “black Irish” rascal and drifter named Michael O’Hara who saves a beautiful young woman named Elsa Bannister (Hayworth) from a group of muggers in Central Park, and then becomes embroiled in a byzantine scheme that involves a faked death.

The plan is hatched by her husband’s law partner, George Grisby (Glenn Anders), who wants O’Hara to confess to murdering him after Grisby leaves the country, never to return. The rub is that without a body, the authorities won’t be able to convict O’Hara, and he’ll pocket a lump sum of cash for his trouble while Grisby pockets the insurance money. But Elsa’s husband, Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane), has noticed the way Elsa and O’Hara make eyes at each other, and he’s got his own wild scheme.

Even for a movie that was hacked down from 155 minutes to just 87, The Lady From Shanghai covers a lot of ground, and much of it is crazy. O’Hara accompanies the Bannisters and their entourage on a yacht tour of Mexico on their way from New York to San Francisco before the plot really gets rolling. Then, after the triple-cross scheme plays out, there’s a farcical courtroom scene that is genuinely funny and truly bizarre. Finally, there is a wild and phantasmagoric journey through San Francisco’s Chinatown that culminates in a chase through an abandoned fairground, and the film’s famous climax in the hall of mirrors of The Crazy House.

Given the studio-imposed cuts in the film’s running time, it’s probably not Welles’s fault that the plot is full of holes. But it’s hard to imagine any additional footage or story elements that would make the wild shifts in tone and byzantine plot any more digestible.

Ultimately, though, it really doesn’t matter. If you can get over Welles’s bad Irish accent and the general confusion of ideas in The Lady From Shanghai, it’s a brilliant, engrossing film that’s a joy to watch. Besides the gorgeous black and white cinematography and wonderful performances from Sloane, Hayworth, and Anders (and Welles, more or less), Welles is a director who was decades ahead of his time in terms of action and pacing. The slightly sped-up camerawork during fight scenes and the rapid editing isn’t like anything else you’ll see from the mid- to late-’40s.

There are a lot of things about The Lady From Shanghai that are totally unlike anything else in cinema at the time of its release. Welles’s reach usually exceeded his grasp, but as a director I think he was without parallel. The Lady From Shanghai may not be a perfectly formed work of art like Citizen Kane (1941), but it’s a fascinating and incredibly entertaining film.

Monsieur Verdoux (April 11, 1947)

Monsieur Verdoux
Monsieur Verdoux (1947)
Directed by Charles Chaplin
United Artists

Monsieur Verdoux, “a comedy of murders,” is a product of Charles Chaplin’s Frantic One-Man Band. Besides starring in the film, Chaplin is credited with directing the picture, writing the screenplay, producing the film, and writing the music. Orson Welles wrote the original script and was slated to direct Chaplin in the picture, but at the last minute, Chaplin decided that he didn’t want to be directed by someone else — he’d always been his own director in the past — and bought the script from Welles, crediting him with the “idea” for the film.

The film is based on the career of real-life murderer Henri Désiré Landru, who between 1914 and 1918 seduced a number of women and murdered them after gaining access to their assets. He burned their dismembered bodies in his oven, disposing of them completely, which made prosecuting him a challenge after he was caught. A trail of paperwork and other evidence was enough to eventually convict him of 11 counts of murder (10 women and one of their teenaged sons), and he was executed on the guillotine in 1922.

In Monsieur Verdoux, Chaplin plays a man named Henri Verdoux, who describes himself as an “honest bank clerk.” Honest, that is, until the Depression of 1930, at which point he began his new career, “liquidating members of the opposite sex.” He claims that he began his career as a Bluebeard strictly as a business proposition. This is utter claptrap, as is nearly every other word out of M. Verdoux’s mouth that isn’t plot-advancing dialogue, but we’ll get to that later.

The film takes place in 1932. M. Verdoux had a 30-year career in banking before he began his new career as a murderer, and with his dainty, foppish clothes he looks like a relic of another time. When the film begins, he is living in a villa in the south of France. He’s a tidy little man who loves to garden, but whose incinerator has been going full-blast for the past three days. He’s kind to animals, moving a caterpillar out of his way in the garden path and feeding a cat on the street. M. Verdoux is even a vegetarian.

He is also a lothario with an insatiable appetite for well-heeled widows. But this, M. Verdoux assures us, is just his day job. His heart belongs to his wheelchair-bound wife Mona (Mady Correll) and adorable little boy Peter (Allison Roddan). At home, M. Verdoux lectures Peter when he catches him pulling the cat’s tail that “violence begets violence.” He also tells his son that he has a mean streak. “I don’t know where you get it!” he exclaims.

Aside from the saintly Mme. Verdoux, nearly everyone in the film is a grotesque and obnoxious caricature. In this way, Monsieur Verdoux is a distillation of Chaplin’s career-long vacillation between sentimentality and cruelty. A perfect example of this is the scene in which M. Verdoux brings a girl in off the street to poison her, but thinks better of it after she speaks of how wonderful life can be, and how she loved her husband, crippled in the war. (The girl is played by 20-year-old ingenue Marilyn Nash.)

The few bits of physical comedy in the film are funny, but they’re mostly either too brief or out of character with the rest of the scene in which they take place. Several comedic scenes — such as when M. Verdoux and another man start slapping each other with rapid-fire speed, or when M. Verdoux is romancing the older woman who was going to buy his villa in the beginning of the film, and he’s moving ever closer to her on the couch — fade to black in a quick, unsatisfying way.

When Monsieur Verdoux was released, Chaplin’s reputation was severely tarnished. He hadn’t made a film since The Great Dictator (1940), and he was under attack for both his Leftist political sympathies and his morals (he was the subject of a sensational paternity suit, and was a serial seducer of young women, many of them underage).

Chaplin and Nash

Monsieur Verdoux can be seen as a defiant stand against his critics. It’s the blackest of black comedies, and was a box office disaster in the United States when it was first released (it fared a bit better in Europe), but has built up quite a cult since it was re-released to receptive audiences in the ’60s and ’70s. At the time of its release, however, it polarized critics. James Agee crowned it a masterpiece, and the National Board of Review named it the best English-language film of 1947. Others were less enthusiastic.

I think that Monsieur Verdoux is a deeply flawed film. Chaplin was the preeminent clown of the silent era. He wasn’t quite the master technician of hijinks that Buster Keaton was, but he was able to convey a panoply of emotions through his face and body. His films are not only some of the funniest of the silent era, but are emotionally affecting, too. The ending of City Lights (1931) is still one of the most powerful I have seen in any film.

When he was able to speak onscreen, however, Chaplin was a tedious hack who only thought he was profound. Monsieur Verdoux isn’t as crushingly pretentious and boring as his later film Limelight (1952), but it has its moments.

The end of Monsieur Verdoux is especially problematic. Speaking on his own behalf in court, M. Verdoux says, “I was forced to go into business for myself. As for being a mass killer, does not the world encourage it? Is it not building weapons of destruction for the sole purpose of mass killing? Has it not blown unsuspecting women and little children to pieces? And done it very scientifically? As a mass killer, I am an amateur by comparison. However, I do not wish to lose my temper, because very shortly, I shall lose my head. Nevertheless, upon leaving this spark of earthly existence, I have this to say: I shall see you all… very soon… very soon.”

The problem with this is that the murders of dowdy and grotesque women that we’ve seen M. Verdoux carry out in the film are very different from the mass mechanized killing of the Great War or the genocidal horrors of World War II. They’re intimate crimes, carried out for personal gain, and occasionally hilarious, such as the sequence in which M. Verdoux is repeatedly foiled while attempting to drop a noose around one of his wives’ necks while they are out fishing. It would be one thing if Chaplin were presenting M. Verdoux’s crimes as symptoms of a sick society, but what he seems to be doing is using a sick society as a justification for M. Verdoux’s crimes.

Is M. Verdoux meant to be an unreliable narrator? Perhaps, but he never comes across that way. I think that Chaplin was simply too infatuated with himself to present M. Verdoux as anything but a lovable cad, which makes the entire film uncomfortable and off-putting in ways I’m not sure Chaplin ever intended.

The Stranger (May 25, 1946)

The Stranger isn’t most people’s favorite Orson Welles film, and a lot of people even consider it his worst. (Welles did.) It’s the third film he directed, and as far as Oscar bait goes, it certainly pales in comparison with Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), but I think a lot of the criticism heaped upon it is unfair. The Stranger is a crackerjack thriller with tension and suspense to spare. I was drawn in by the first scene, and was completely involved throughout the film’s 95-minute running time.

Despite its sometimes hackneyed script and implausible situations, The Stranger shows a master in complete control of his craft. The first 15 minutes of the film are some of the most perfect cinematic storytelling I’ve ever seen. Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson), an investigator for the Allied Commission for the Punishment of War Criminals, sets free a Nazi war criminal named Konrad Meinike (Konstantin Shayne) and has him tailed, believing that he will lead them to the secret architect of the Holocaust, Franz Kindler (Welles). Kindler is living in the idyllic little town of Harper, Connecticut, under the name “Charles Rankin” and is a professor at a boy’s school.

Meinike’s journey to find Kindler is an object lesson in how to tell a story with a minimum of dialogue and a maximum of tension. The shots are visually arresting, the editing is rapid without ever being confusing, and the pacing is fast. As openings go, it’s not quite the bravura performance Welles would later put on with his single crane shot that opens Touch of Evil (1958), but it’s just as good in its own way. The disconnect only appears during the first lengthy stretch of dialogue. Once Meinike tracks down Prof. Rankin, the clumsy exposition that Welles grumbles through — which explains who his character is, whom he is marrying, and who his father-in-law will be — sticks out like a sore thumb.

Meinike will prove to be just the beginning of Rankin’s troubles. The noose tightens around his neck as soon as Wilson arrives in town, posing as a dealer in antiques. Robinson plays his role well, in an understated fashion that contrasts nicely with Welles’s bug-eyed histrionics. After a few extreme close-ups of Rankin’s sweaty face as he tells lies to convince his new wife, Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), that he is an innocent hounded by nefarious forces, there is no doubt about the depths of his villainy.

Not that there every really was any doubt, since Rankin behaves in such a despicable fashion throughout the picture. It’s not just his dinnertime conversation — in which he explicates the warlike soul of the German people and denies that Karl Marx was a German because he was a Jew — it’s his willingness to engage in wet work, killing a troublesome character without a second thought and later beating his new wife’s dog when it attempts to dig up the corpse.

In his review of The Stranger in the July 11, 1946, edition of the NY Times, Bosley Crowther wrote that Welles’s performance “gave no illusion of the sort of depraved and heartless creatures that the Nazi mass-murderers were. He is just Mr. Welles, a young actor, doing a boyishly bad acting job in a role which is highly incredible — another weak feature of the film.” Again, I think this is unfair. Welles got his start in the theater, and as a thespian, he never really grew out of it. His acting was always highly theatrical. He was a man who played to the back row, with grand gestures and a booming voice, but he did so extremely effectively. Not every film performance has to be subtle and understated.

It’s his work behind the camera, however, that really shows Welles in top form. The fast cutting in a scene in a diner, for instance, creates a tense subtext beneath Loretta Young’s seemingly casual banter with Edward G. Robinson by showing each character’s motivations by the looks on their faces. Mary is hiding something, Rankin is coercing her into doing so, and Wilson knows exactly what is going on. Director Welles and editor Ernest J. Nims make it all look easy, but it’s not, or more films would be this well-made.

The film also brilliantly uses sound. For instance, the tolling of the clock in the village square (which the clock-obsessed Rankin has fixed) underscores the tension in the film’s final half hour. The bonging of the clock has a peculiar timbre, and sounds more like incidental music from a ’70s or ’80s suspense or horror flick than any soundtrack from the ’40s I’ve ever heard before. The score itself, by Bronislau Kaper, is quite good, too, and is reminiscent of the work of Bernard Herrmann.

The screenplay, by Anthony Veiller, from a story by Victor Trivas, was imposed on Welles by the studio. The studio and the producer, Sam Spiegel (listed in the credits as “S.P. Eagle”), made plenty of other decisions Welles didn’t like. For instance, Welles wanted Agnes Moorehead to play the part of Wilson, but they forced him to go with Robinson. As far as the studio was concerned, however, everything worked out for the best, since The Stranger was the only film Welles directed that ever made a profit during its initial theatrical run.

The Stranger is a potboiler, to be sure, but it’s such a brilliantly edited, directed, and acted potboiler that it’s remarkable. This is one of those rare movies that I looked forward to seeing again as soon as it was over.

Tomorrow Is Forever (Feb. 20, 1946)

Tomorrow Is Forever
Tomorrow Is Forever (1946)
Directed by Irving Pichel
International Pictures / RKO Radio Pictures

Irving Pichel’s weepy wartime melodrama Tomorrow Is Forever premiered in London on January 18, 1946, and premiered in New York City a month later, on February 20th. If you can suspend your disbelief and accept the convoluted, coincidence-laden plot, it’s quite a fine movie, with excellent performances and a moving story.

The film begins on November 11, 1918, as the First World War is drawing to a close. Charles Hamilton (Douglas Wood), the head of the Hamilton Chemical Works, Inc., in Baltimore, is joined by his son Lawrence (George Brent) and other members of the company in toasting their success. He raises a glass to the part the company played in winning the war, as well as their contribution to the nation’s victories in the Spanish-American War and the Civil War. Lawrence Hamilton walks over to a pretty woman named Elizabeth MacDonald (Claudette Colbert) who is sitting by herself, and offers her a glass. Charles Hamilton drinks to peace and prosperity, and declares the rest of the day a holiday. Lawrence talks to Elizabeth, a research librarian at the chemical works, and learns that her husband, John, who went to war as an officer just four months earlier, is coming home soon. Elizabeth is elated.

A little time passes. Presumably it’s a little more than a month, since there’s snow on the ground, Max Steiner’s lissome score breaks into an orchestral interpretation of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” and Elizabeth is carrying a little Christmas tree. When she get home, however, she receives devastating news; a telegram informing her that her husband, Lt. John Andrew MacDonald, was killed in action on November 5th. She goes to their bedroom, stands in front of the dresser, and he appears behind her in the mirror like a ghost. He’s played by Orson Welles, and he and Colbert play out a touching scene. They were clearly very much in love, and seeing him go away to war was difficult for her. In the end, he holds her tightly and promises her he will come back. (Return he does, and that’s where the audience’s suspension of disbelief will come into play, but more on that later.)

Not only has Elizabeth lost her husband, she learns that she is pregnant with his child. Lawrence Hamilton takes her in, and cares for her and her son, who is named John Andrew after his father. Elizabeth and Lawrence marry, and while it is a marriage based on friendship and respect rather than passionate love, it is also a successful marriage, and they have another son of their own, Brian (Sonny Howe). John Andrew Hamilton grows into a strapping young man (played by Richard Long), whom his parents call “Drew.” They never tell Drew, however, that Lawrence is not his biological father.

Meanwhile, we learn that John didn’t actually die in the war, but he was so badly injured that he didn’t want to live, and refused to identify himself to his attending physician, Dr. Ludwig (John Wengraf). In their scenes together, only Welles’s left eye can be seen through his mass of bandages, and he begs Dr. Ludwig to put him out of his misery. Dr. Ludwig refuses, and tells him that with extensive reconstructive surgery and physical conditioning, he can be made well again. It’s not entirely clear why John wants to be allowed to die and never see his wife again, although it seemed to me that “shattered body” was code for “irrevocably damaged genitals.”

Twenty years pass, and war again conspires to destroy Elizabeth’s happiness. Germany invades Poland, and Drew and his fraternity friends, including his best friend, “Pudge” Davis (Tom Wirick), make up their minds to go to Canada to join the R.A.F. and train as pilots. Drew is a few months away from his 21st birthday, however, and Elizabeth refuses to give her consent. Drew is the image of his father, a man she loved with a passionate intensity, and to lose him to battle would be like losing John all over again.

At this point, an Austrian chemist named Erik Kessler enters the United States as a refugee, along with a little blond girl named Margaret (Natalie Wood). Kessler is played by Orson Welles, and it soon becomes clear that he is John A. MacDonald, even though he has an Austrian accent, a beard, glasses, and walks with a limp. He goes to work for the Hamilton Chemical Works, and enters the lives of the Hamiltons.

It’s at this point that the film began to seem ludicrous to me. Kessler immediately recognizes Elizabeth when he meets her, but she does not recognize him. Welles certainly looks and speaks differently as Kessler, but he was less recognizable in his old-age makeup in Citizen Kane (1941) than he is here. How can she not recognize him? A willing suspension of disbelief is required, as well as an appreciation of the conventions of the stage. It is enough to know that Kessler received a great deal of plastic surgery to reconstruct his face, so while the audience can recognize Welles in his new guise, they have to accept that no one else in the film can. Was I able to do this? Well … sort of.

Tomorrow Is Forever is a story about loss and letting go. The performances in the film are excellent, especially Welles and Wood. Their scenes together were my favorite in the film. Just seven years old when she made this film, her first credited role, Wood was able to project a wide range of emotions and even delivered her lines in German relatively convincingly. Long was also very good in his first film role, even though his performance is pitched mostly at a single tone; earnestness. It was clearly made as a star vehicle for Colbert, however, and it’s her emotional journey that drives the film. As I said, you have to accept all the coincidences in the story and the idea that Elizabeth is not able to recognize who Kessler really is to go along for the ride, but if you can, Tomorrow Is Forever is a pretty good film.