Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Carol Reed - The Third Man (1949) and Odd Man Out (1947)

The Third Man (1949) has it’s place amongst the most beloved films of all time - it appeared in the Sight and Sound 2012 Critics Poll at number 73 and in the Directors Poll at number 107. I must say, given the affection there is for the film, I was surprised to learn it was not considerably higher on these lists. 22 critics voted for the film and 6 directors also voted for the film.

Compare this with Carol Reed’s earlier masterpiece Odd Man Out (1947) – the film featured at number 546 in the Sight and Sound 2012 Directors Poll – it only received one submission from director Agnieszka Holland. The film received no vote from any critic. In the 2002 poll again no critic voted for this film and only 2 directors voted for it.

I  have just watched both the Third Man (Criterion DVD) and Odd Man Out (Network BluRay) twice in the last 3 weeks on my home theatre.

Both films are masterpieces – works of art! And yet they affect me very differently at an emotional level.

The Third Man - the story line should have considerable emotional impact: Holly Martins, a lifelong friend of Harry Lime, comes to stay with him in post-War Vienna only to discover that Harry has just died. Furthermore he begins to suspect that Harry has been murdered. Holly himself becomes a target for murder by dangerous criminals. We learn that Harry’s criminal business, involving  penicillin, has killed or deformed  adults and children – we even see a scene in a children’s hospital. Towards the end of the film Holly shoots dead at point blank range his lifelong friend Harry. In the final scene Holly is coldly rejected by Anna.  

And despite this storyline I come away from the film feeling  light - what lingers with me is a kind of thrill and delight at what I have watched. How does Carol Reed achieve this?

Carol Reed managed to produce a film where nothing is black and white – instead there are only endless shades and nuances of greys.

Even the world we are looking at is slightly off-balance and fairy-tale-like: the wonderful use of the camera at various angles!

As Steven Soderburgh says in his brilliant commentary for Criterion, it is impossible to think of the film without the score. Carol Reed only decided to score the entire film to Anton Karas’ zither music after the film had been shot. Hollywood thrillers had orchestral scores during this period and so the zither music makes The Third Man utterly unique. The quality of the music is light, cartoonish, playful, childlike, innocent. This film score demonstrates how music can so profoundly direct how we respond to a film. 

Watch Anna early in the film when she first speaks to Holly saying that she also has considered that maybe Harry’s death was not an accident – the music that follows a close-up on Holly is comic and light! When the porter closes the window and turns around to discover someone in his apartment ready to murder him the music is the very opposite of threatening or dark! When the mob pursue Holly through Vienna the music is cartoonish! When Harry (remember he has been revealed at this point as a callous murderer through his criminal business activity) appears the Harry Lime theme that welcomes him is playful – like an introduction to Bugs Bunny! Interestingly the sewer chase is devoid of music – this adds to the drama of the chase – until Holly confronts the wounded Harry and the cheeky and playful Harry Lime theme comes out of the air – when we hear the sound that means Holly has put his friend to rest it is like a gunshot in a cartoon!   

Holly Martins is an oddly comedic character and he also lightens the tone of the film- he does not grieve for Harry – he appears unconcerned by the fact that dangerous criminals are chasing him – a parrot nips his finger when he runs into a room to escape from mobsters - he is blankly rejected by Anna at the end in a scene that is like a scene from a comedic silent film! 

All  the supporting actors are perfect and even small characters are given memorable lines - one of my favourite is the French soldier who is part of the Allied police sent to Anna's house to bring her in for questioning - when she is leaving he says "mademoiselle, your lipstick" - it is such a funny line exploiting national stereotypes. Dr.Winkle's name being pronounced like a V instead of a W to reflect German pronounciation is a wonderful comedic touch that also manages to be quite threatening in tone due to the perfect acting by Erich Ponto.     

Harry Lime (Orson Welles) only has about 8 minutes on screen. Even when I rewatch the film, and I know about Harry’s dark crimes, I am thrilled when he appears on screen and I am charmed by his speech at the fairground. I have spoken about how the music plays a part in this but how else did Carol Reed (and contributors of course) achieve this?

For me Harry’s reputation is gilded mostly through Anna – I have an instant liking and respect for Anna. Harry must have been a good man for her to have loved him so much – her loyalty to him is shocking but strangely admirable – it seems to come from a place of kindness and affection despite the fact that it is an insult to Harry’s victims.  Also I think Alida Valli is an outstanding actress. Have you seen her in Antonioni’s Il Grido (Masters of Cinema UK release) – she tears up the screen with her powerful performance.

Baron Kurtz, Dr. Winkel and Mr. Popescau  are sinister characters but in a stroke of genius Carol Reed never films Harry Lime with them (I am ignoring the bridge scene where they are just dots on the screen) – imagine how our view of Harry would have changed had we seen him in scenes together with them in their house in the Russian Zone?

Orson Welles – Orson had an endearing childlike quality to him throughout his life. Look at his late interview with Leslie Mahoganey for the BBC – in his bow tie he looks like a grown up child who is just waiting for someone to pass him an ice cream! Orson knew how to act with his eyes - look at the Harry Lime reveal shot in this film, look at the final scenes of this film before his death, look at Othello. 

Orson’s famous speech in the ferris wheel is every bit as good as people say it is. He gets the performance just right – he manages to have hints of darkness in his speech that he then effortlessly brushes away with a smile. The Cuckoo Clock speech leaves us thrilled and lightens all that has gone before. He then skips away with a smile across the fairground! Performance of real genius!

Remember the only person worthy of the love of the cute and adorable cat was Harry Lime!

Odd Man Out (1947) 

I consider the film to be a masterpiece and I am saddened that the reputation of the film is not stronger than it currently is. Where the Third Man is light, evasive and thrilling Odd Man Out feels profound, sincere and deeply moving.  

It could almost be said that the soundtracks for the two films highlight the differences between these masterpieces:
William Alwyn worked closely with Carol Reed to understand the emotion behind the story and his music was sometimes played live on set (for exmple James Mason walking wounded and the final scene) and the characters acted to the rhythm of the music and responded to the feelings it gave them.  The music has great depth of emotion, dignity and sincerity – when I first heard the theme music on the BluRay menu I felt in the presence of greatness even before the film had started. The music brings us on a profoundly emotional experience as it accompanies the characters throughout the film.

Where Alwyn’s score engages us to empathise with the characters Anton Karas’ score often distances us from the characters and softens the emotional weight of the film.

In both films a man is being pursued by the police through a city (Belfast and Vienna respectively). Carol Reed had the streets soaked wet in order to add a particular atmosphere to both films. Both films were shot beautifully in Black and White by Robert Kraskar.

Whereas Harry Lime is a mystery Johnny McQueen is a real character from the opening scene - his voice is gentle and he has real affection for his comrades and they reciprocate that affection. Dennis is a wonderful character - loyal and a true friend. We feel immedietly that Johnny is a good man whose soul is in danger - we feel his dignity and the inner reluctance that he feels (he brought this feeling again so memorably as Brutus in Julius Caesar where for my money he matches Brando in his performance) - he is a gentlemen born into a troubled time (the British occupation of Ireland).

James Mason is one of my favourite actors and to many this is his best role - he himself seems to have preferred this film to any other he made. The opening scene is a brief set-up to the tragedy that will unfold - once he is wounded early in the film his performance becomes almost silent for the rest of the film. Wounded, he is condemned to walk the streets hunted by the police. 

It is a powerful testament to the character and James Mason that he emerges as the central character despite the fact that he has so little dialogue and that his performance is essentially that of a man walking wounded. I found his limped-walk to be incredibly moving - his face shows how the times have betrayed him - resistance against occupied (and, in the case of the British in Ireland, a violent and oppressive occupation) forces is an area of extreme moral ambiguity - is it terrorism or bravery? - often these young men were misguided - sacrifical lambs.   

As in The Third Man a woman loves the main character - but here her love seems entirely justified. She is kind, strong, courageous and street-wise - her love for Johnny makes us admire and feel more compassion towards him. Kathleen Ryan gives a wonderful, heart-felt performance.

Carol Reed uses so many characters, through their interactions with Johnny, to deepen our respect for this man as he is hunted through the streets of Belfast.

There is a wonderful scene when the two British ladies bring him into their house thinking he has been been knocked down by a passing vehicule. When they gradually realise that he is Johnny McQueen who is at large wanted for murder they show tremendous dignity of character. They will not touch the reward offered for him. Furthermore their sense of humanity results in compassion towards Johnny. It is a scene that always brings a tear to my eyes. The acting by these women is superb.

There are so many memorable scenes in the film - the policeman confronting Kathleen/the policeman talking to Father Tom/Tereasa - the warm welcome that disguises her true intentions/the publican who has business responsibilities/Lukey who is a tragic-alcoholic painter.

The character of Shell seems somewhat overacted to me - he becomes too much of a caricature for my liking.

The ending of the film is extremely moving - Kathleen is reunited with Johnny and she instigates the police to fire and shoot herself and Johnny dead. The tragedy becomes apparent - the times Johnny lived in trapped him and now he lies dead together with Kathleen.

The film has real poetry in it - Johnny's martyrdom begins in the morning, passes through the harsh winter evening with wind and rainfall and ends in the falling snow at the stroke of midnight!

The Region B Network BluRay has an excellent transfer and a fabulous informative booklet on the film.

 The Criterion Third Man release is unfortunately out of print.

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