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Category Archives: Orson Welles

The Third Man

Don’t be so gloomy. After all it’s not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long Holly.

And there we have one of the most impish, mischievous pieces of cynicism ever spoken to the camera, essentially a throwaway moment in a movie yet the one that’s most fondly remembered and perhaps best sums up the nature of the character who delivers it. The Third Man (1949) has come to be regarded not only as a classic film noir but one of the true high points of post-war British filmmaking. It remains a dazzling piece of work, urgent, energetic, inventive and beguiling. I’m of the opinion that the greatest films all share one common characteristic: they can be revisited time and again and still manage to reveal different aspects of themselves to the viewer. There’s either a richness of theme or a subtle shading of the characters that allows for a shift in perspective, meaning that as our moods or feelings change over time the films are capable of addressing or coping with that. That’s what struck me as I watched The Third Man for the umpteenth time the other day, the way I found myself responding to the characters in a different light on that occasion.

The story unfolds over a couple of days in Vienna, a city whose Hapsburg splendor has been stripped naked and ravaged by the obscenity of war. Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), a writer of pulp westerns, arrives in the city breezy and brimming with confidence having been promised a job by an old friend. Holly’s friend is Harry Lime (Orson Welles) and it appears that he’s going to be some kind of publicist for a vaguely defined medical charity. And yet no sooner has Holly set foot in Vienna than he discovers that instead of coming to praise Harry, he’s come to bury him. It appears that Harry met with a sudden accident: crossing the street to speak to a friend he happened to see, Harry is run over by a truck driven by his own chauffeur before being pronounced dead by his personal physician who was passing that way by chance. All very tragic and all very convenient. But coincidence is the preserve of fiction, and it’s not long before Holly realizes that the Harry he knew was really a work of fiction too. Full of righteous indignation, Holly first believes that Calloway (Trevor Howard), the British major, is besmirching his friend’s reputation before changing tack and coming to the conclusion that Harry was actually murdered. It’s during his blundering but well-meaning “investigation” of the circumstances of Harry’s mysterious end that Holly meets his friend’s lover. Anna (Alida Valli) is an actress, beautiful, tragic and enigmatic, almost a metaphor for post-war Europe itself. With his doubts about Harry’s life and death growing larger all the time, Holly begins to fall under the brittle spell cast by Anna. As he becomes more smitten by her charms, he undergoes another change, the ultimate one. The combination of his love for Anna and his understanding of the true character of Harry leads Holly to a betrayal that’s justifiable, perhaps even desirable, on a moral level yet somehow wrong on a human level.

Much has been written about The Third Man over the years, more scholarly and in-depth analysis than I could hope to achieve so I’m not going to attempt to compete with that. The unique locations, the driven direction of Carol Reed, the iconic photography of Robert Krasker and Anton Karas’ distinctive score all blend together to create a masterpiece of unease. Visually the film captures the fragmented nature of the era where everything felt a little skewed and off-center, a hard to define sense that something isn’t quite right, that all is not really what it seems. Of course all this technical and artistic brilliance is immediately apparent the first time one sees the film, and subsequent viewings only serve to underline that quality. However, as I said at the beginning, repeated viewings have drawn my attention to other aspects of the film, namely the characterization. This comes down to the skilful writing of Graham Greene and the performances of Welles, Cotten and Valli in particular. The shadow of Welles and Harry Lime loom large over the whole production, both the character and his interpretation by Welles. For a long time I was very taken by the Harry Lime character, I guess I still am to an extent, and the fact he inspired both a radio show and a TV series proves how widespread that feeling was. But let’s be honest here, Lime was a rotten and reprehensible character, a self-absorbed sociopath without a shred of pity or decency. It’s Welles’ brilliant portrayal – the modulation of voice, the expressiveness of his features and the fleeting twinkle in the eye – that transcends all that. Had anyone else played that role, it wouldn’t have worked. At all.

However, let’s return to those shifting perspectives I alluded to earlier. While Welles and Lime dominate the movie, I’ve found myself paying more attention to the characters of Holly and Anna. Holly is, I suppose, the nominal hero, the everyman through whose eyes we see the story develop. I came to sympathize with him, with Cotten’s no-nonsense portrayal of a guy who has his illusions gradually pared away until he sees things in the cold, clear light of day. I was rooting for him, wanting him to come out on top and get the girl in the end. That masterful long shot that ends the movie used to break my heart. I could imagine myself as the poor schmo getting out of the jeep and waiting for the girl I loved to approach, and then she just walks straight on, eyes fixed ahead and indifferent. And there was Holly, alone and empty, standing awkwardly on an empty road leading to a cemetery. As I watched the film a couple of days ago I caught myself looking at it from a different angle though. This time I was thinking about Anna and the way she is actually the only one of the central trio who displays honor and true integrity. She’s come to understand that her love for Harry was misplaced, even wasted, yet that realization doesn’t invalidate its truth. It was her loyalty right to the bitter end, her implacable refusal to betray her love, both the man and the ideal, that impressed me deeply. So as I say, it’s a film of many layers and every time I see it I seem to peel away another one.

Fortunately, The Third Man is a film which is very easy to see for anyone unfamiliar with it. There are lots of editions available and most of them are attractive. I have the old 2-DVD set released in the UK some years ago which has a very strong transfer and plenty of good extra features to boot. I’ve thought about maybe upgrading to the Blu-ray as it’s a title that gives me a lot of pleasure but I remain undecided. I have a kind of unwritten rule for myself that I won’t upgrade unless I’m honestly dissatisfied with some aspect of the presentation I already own. Watching this one again, I can’t really say that I am particularly dissatisfied, so we’ll see. Anyway, we’re talking about a bona fide classic here, a film which you can return to many times and it never loses any of its freshness. If you haven’t seen it before, then do so at the earliest opportunity. And if you have, watch it again and see what grabs you this time.

 

 

 
 

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Man in the Shadow

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Another modern western, and another message film. Man in the Shadow (1957) treads a similar path to Bad Day at Black Rock by having a lone individual take a stand against a racially motivated murder. The main difference is that this time the hero is not an outsider who’s swooped down on an alien world seeking justice. In this movie our protagonist is a familiar face in his small community but whose sense of personal and professional honour bring him into direct conflict with with those he’s known all his life.

Ben Sadler (Jeff Chandler) is the sheriff of a sleepy western town. The routine and mundane nature of his job is highlighted early on when he opens up the cells to release the town drunk who’s been sleeping off a heavy one. He hands him a stern warning, which we know is really only for show, and then bids the old timer good day. That’s the kind of town we’re in – one where crime is generally confined to manageable, petty affairs that tend not to represent a major threat to the community. Within moments however, a much more serious matter is to be laid before Sadler, one which is not only reprehensible in itself but also, as a result of what any investigation will entail, poses a threat to the finances and, by extension, the very viability of this small backwater. Sitting huddled and almost forgotten in the office is an old Mexican with a story to tell that’s about to present the sheriff with a moral and professional dilemma. The old man has witnessed the murder of a young friend by two cowboys at a nearby ranch. He doesn’t really expect anyone to take his tale seriously, partly because of his lowly immigrant status and partly due to the identity of his employer. Virgil Renchler (Orson Welles) is a big man, both physically and financially, and his ranch is the life blood of the town. Without the patronage of his sprawling ranch the businesses would quickly wither and even the railroad stop might fall into disuse. Sadler is aware of the clout wielded by Renchler but, unlike his slovenly and skulking deputy, he’s also conscious of his duties as the representative of the law. So, it’s with some reluctance that he gives his word to the old man and begins to tentatively look into the allegations. Renchler, though, is a throwback to the old cattle barons, a man whose self-sufficiency and power has led him to believe in his own infallibility. When he tells Sadler that he has no business asking questions of him and dismisses the killing as nothing more than an insignificance, the sheriff’s indignation is aroused. Thus we have one of those perennial western themes, the clash between the laws of civilization and the moneyed big shots who see themselves as being above such naive concerns. The thing is though that Sadler isn’t merely up against a powerful rancher, the influence and fear that Renchler inspires in the country is such that virtually the entire population of the town turns against their lawman. Sadler’s only allies are Renchler’s disgruntled daughter, Skippy (Colleen Miller), and the Italian immigrant barber – not exactly a pair of heavy hitters. Still, in spite of the enmity of his former friends, an attempt on his life and a public humiliation, Sadler presses ahead with the investigation that nobody wants.

Orson Welles - Man in the Shadow.

Although the racism implicit in the murder is acknowledged and explored, that’s not the real issue of the movie. The primary concern is the corrupting influence of business and how entire communities can be effectively blackmailed into abandoning their awareness of right and wrong for the sake of financial gain. While this moral issue remains at the forefront throughout, Jack Arnold’s direction ensures that it’s conveyed dramatically rather than by means of noble speeches and the like. The pace is brisk and the development direct so there’s not much room for complex characterisation; we know where we stand as regards the principals right from the beginning and that doesn’t change much by the close. Welles does manage to elicit some slight sympathy as the man whose blustering independence has painted himself into a corner. That’s one of the things about Welles as an actor – even when he played villains it was hard not to feel a little for him. He does lay it on a little thick at times, but complaining about Welles’ tendency to ham it up is akin to decrying John Wayne for his machismo – it’s part of the package and you know that when you go in. Jeff Chandler is pretty good too as the isolated sheriff who knows full well that he’s probably biting off more than he can chew, but whose own personal code precludes his backing down. The main weakness lies in the script, not that it’s poorly executed but that it’s themes are too familiar. There’s nothing especially new or groundbreaking in the plot and although it’s carried off professionally there is a certain unavoidable staleness to it all.

Man in the Shadow is available on DVD from a number of sources: from Germany, France and a recent DVD-R from Universal in the US. I have the German release from Koch Media and it’s a very nice presentation. The movie is in anamorphic scope with very crisp black and white images and obviously came from a clean, strong print. There are no forced subtitles on the English track and there are some attractive extras too. Apart from the trailer and gallery, there’s a 14 minute interview with Jack Arnold where he talks about his memories of working within the studio system and the changes in filmmaking he observed down the years. The movie is an entertaining and pacy one that has a point to make. I found the performances and direction all up to scratch, and the only problem was the lack of originality in the story. Still, it’s not a bad way to spend an hour and a quarter or so – and anything that involves Orson Welles’ participation has to be considered worthwhile.

 
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Posted by on December 15, 2011 in 1950s, Jack Arnold, Jeff Chandler, Orson Welles, Westerns

 

Journey into Fear

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I mentioned recently how films set on trains or in creepy old houses are some of my favourites, I should have also included ships and boats while I was at it. Mysteries and thrillers benefit enormously from these confined settings: the sense of claustrophobia is heightened, and then there’s the knowledge that the hero can only run so far. Journey into Fear (1943) has its hero boxed up on a decaying old freighter in the middle of the Black Sea, surrounded by a gallery of grotesques and living in fear of his life. For a film that runs only a little over an hour it’s packed full of memorable scenes, images and characters that tap into a strong noir vibe.

Howard Graham (Joseph Cotten), an engineer employed by an American armaments company, is in wartime Turkey on business. He’s a typical everyman character and, by his own admission, not a very exciting person. When the company’s local rep decides to take him out for a night on the town, Graham finds himself abruptly swept away into a world of intrigue, assassination and terror. It all begins in a night club where Graham narrowly avoids death. The local man, a fawning and obsequious type by the name of Kopeikin (Everett Sloane), has dragged the reluctant Graham into this slightly seedy cabaret, plying him with liquor and women. During an illusionist’s act, for which he has ‘volunteered’, a shot rings out in the darkness and the magician takes the bullet surely meant for Graham. Before the outraged and confused engineer even has time to draw breath he’s hauled off to a meeting with the chief of the Secret Police, Colonel Haki (Orson Welles), who has him bundled aboard a stinking old tub to spirit him safely out of the country. This is the pattern the movie follows, there’s always someone else making decisions for the increasingly bewildered Graham. Of course he tries to wrest the initiative but, in classic noir fashion, he’s always a victim of fate rather than a master of his own destiny. The scenes aboard the ship are full of menace, emphasised by the low angle shots and the deep, dark shadows that seem to follow Graham everywhere. The threat looms even larger when a short stopover allows the assassin Banat (Jack Moss) to come aboard. This character hasn’t one line of dialogue throughout the film but it’s that chilling silence and the bland countenance masked by pebble glasses and a vaguely ludicrous hat that add to his creepiness. When Graham finally disembarks he makes a break for freedom, but fails to get very far. This does, however, set up a thrilling climax atop a hotel ledge in the pouring rain that ties up most of the loose ends.

Joseph Cotten making another unwelcome discovery in Journey into Fear.

Journey into Fear is an adaptation of one of Eric Ambler’s finest novels with the screenplay credited to Joseph Cotten. Being a huge and unashamed admirer of Ambler I’m always pleased to see his work represented on the screen, and this movie retains much of the flavour of his writing. Aside from the scripting credit, Joseph Cotten turns in a good performance as the baffled engineer who’s always on his guard but never quite sure who to trust. His plight is one that’s frankly hard to swallow, and there’s a nice little scene where he tries to convince the ship’s captain of the danger he’s in only to have the grizzled old codger laugh in his face. Dolores del Rio (who had a relationship with Welles) first appears as a leopardskin clad dancer in the early night club scene and maintains that feline aura throughout as she slinks around sexily in pursuit of our hero. The rest of the cast (largely drawn from the Mercury players) mainly turn in small but memorable cameo roles. In particular, Jack Moss, who was in fact Welles’ accountant, turns the blood cold every time his ungainly bulk lumbers into the frame and his impassive assassin remains one of the highlights of the movie. Orson Welles plays another of those larger than life figures that seemed an extension of his own personality to great effect in the few scenes where he appears. His trademark slow-quick-slow delivery and the darting eyes that twinkle mischief one minute and glower thunderously the next are ideal for the shady yet menacing Colonel Haki – incidentally, the character of Colonel Haki is one that showed up again in Ambler’s The Mask of Dimitrios. In truth, Welles’ massive presence dominates the film and his fingerprints are to be found all over the production. Although Norman Foster is credited as director it’s clear to anyone familiar with his work that Welles, at the very least, exerted a huge influence over the shooting. For example, the climactic chase along the slick hotel ledge in the storm uses the kind of dizzying overhead angles that Welles was fond of.

For a number of years now Warners have been promising that a DVD with a restored print of Journey into Fear is on the way in the US, however it still remains a no show. The French company Montparnasse have released the movie in R2 though, and there’s really not much wrong with that edition. The print used is actually in pretty fair shape with good contrast and sharpness, sure there’s the odd scratch and speckle here and there but nothing to fret over. There aren’t any extras save a brief introduction (in French naturally), but if it’s a good print of the movie itself you’re after then the Montparnasse release is very definitely acceptable. Journey into Fear is a stylish little noir film that benefits from the Welles touch and has the quirkiness that’s often found in films he graced with his presence. The pace may feel a little rushed at times but I prefer to think of that as emphasising the urgency of the situation and the danger the hero finds himself in. It certainly gets my recommendation.

 
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Posted by on December 12, 2011 in 1940s, Film Noir, Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles

 
 
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