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A Tribute To: Carol Reed

Posted on April 4, 2012 at 4:00 AM

A Tribute To: Sir Carol Reed

Though I've never been a fan of such questions, if I were asked "Can you give me a list of great movies to begin my own exploration of film?" one would easily make the list without me even thinking about it. It would be in the same breath of Citizen Kane, Lawrence of Arabia and The Godfather. It's just a film that rolls out of the head like a simple mannerism you don't notice until someone points it out.

In that same breath would be another answer to a question often asked: "Who are some of the greatest, and most underappreciated directors of film?" Carol Reed always rolls off the tongue.

Of course, Reed's masterpiece being that of The Third Man, a film that I don't think has a single detractor, might seem as though it would simply go hand-in-hand. Thinking of The Third Man naturally brings out thoughts of Reed. Yet, I almost look at The Third Man as a curse more than anything. It's such a popular, well known film that it seems to overshadow everything else Reed accomplished during his career. Yes, The Third Man is a spectacular film, but it's one of many.

Perhaps it's because of the film's notoriety that I looked into more of Reed's oeuvre years ago when still in college. The Third Man, at that time, had just received a splendid Criterion Collection release. Having just seen it while studying film noir in class, I immediately had to pick it up. It is, in my mind, a flawless film. Oh, sure, you could nit-pick it to death, just as you could anything. Yet, I always had the mindset that if you have to sink to nit-picking, you simply just want to try to find a fault because you can't admit to yourself something is that damn good.

Well, The Third Man is that damn good. Its script is already in place to make it good, the screenplay being the beating heart of any film, with its pitch-perfect sense of mood and pacing and a spectacular climax and dialogue delivered by some of the best actors of their time. However, it was Reed that really gave it character. The angles, the lighting, the use of distant shadows on walls and pitter-patter of running feet down rain-soaked Vienna streets.

Carol Reed's directorial eye and storytelling ability is one of the reasons why his films have aged so well. They're also always beautifully shot, another element of making a film so palpable for many generations, with The Third Man winning best cinematography for Robert Krasker (who was also cinematographer on Reed's Odd Man Out and The Ballad of the Running Man).

Yet, this perfection is simultaneously unfair. Take, for example, Reed's The Fallen Idol (also written by The Third Man's writer, Graham Greene as the two had a close working relationship). A year before The Third Man, Reed was making himself known for complex melodramas and morality plays and there's no better example than this 1948 masterpiece. In it we have a story unraveling through the eyes of a young boy. As a film entirely from his perspective, things are intentionally left out of the audience's knowledge. We only know what the boy knows and witnesses, however we, older, perceive it all much differently. So when the falling of his idol, his father's butler who he looks at as a hero, begins and he starts to contemplate it all, we can't help but feel such sadness as we witness him come to understand the world is far less innocent than he is.

Perspective is something Reed played around with a lot. His films tend to keep information at arms-length when it comes to what the audience and characters know or don't know. The Third Man also utilized this, keeping us and the main character Holly (played wonderfully by the equally wonderful Joseph Cotten) always guessing about what we see, hear and know. We and him are given crucial information, but the transition of that information from witness to story to assumption is never quite what it seems.

The same goes for many other of Reed's films. In Odd Man Out, a film told entirely from the perspective of an injured man as he journey's through Belfast. He becomes increasingly frightened, paranoid and uncertain of his surroundings in, what I can been describe, as a "surrealist odyssey of redemption." In The Running Man, no not the satirical Schwarzenegger film from the 1980s, Reed plays with perspective again by having a man fake his death and the investigation that sends him on the run. A story like that might be told from the investigator's view, but it's switched around and we end up with the view of the man trying to fool everyone into thinking he died.

On left. Reed (left) sits with author, critic, playwright and screenwriter Graham Greene. Greene wrote the scripts for Reed's two most famous and popular films, The Fallen Idol and The Third Man (and one of his not quite as well known, Our Man in Havana). On right, Reed (standing) works with actor James Mason on the set of Odd Man Out

Now you might have noticed that those films I've been listing thus far seem to be after World War II. Though I could just chalk it up to the resurgence of British filmmaking after the war, it's also because it really shows Reed at his very best and dealing with subject matter that was complex and artistic. Before the war, he made decent and overall entertaining films (Night Train to Munich, an unofficial sequel to Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes being a favorite of mine and The Stars Look Down being lauded a great deal) but he didn't receive an ounce of acclaim until years after the bombs stopped. His films began to shift. Become richer with depth and contemporary issues and, certainly, becoming more political.

That's not political in the sense of agendas, but more political in commenting on the elements of politics itself in various forms. This is because of experience of life. World War II changed many things for artists. Many of this time period have their careers sectioned off in "pre war" and "post war" factions.

In the case of Reed, it was certainly more direct. During World War II the man served in the war itself and directed and produced The True Glory a year after the war ended. That documentary earned him an Oscar as a producer, and you can see the results in his later films when he began to use that notoriety for more control of his projects. He was more daring. Creative. Taking risks and being a bit more pessimistic when it came to those questions of rights and wrongs. With an Oscar under your belt, you can pretty much many any films you wanted to. Reed did that and ended up making some of the best films to come out of Britain in that, or any, era. Not merely creatively, but business-wise as well as he always tended to come in on time, be efficient and often under-budget. Many of his contemporaries considered him the perfect producer/director. I suppose that's why he became only the second film director to receive knighthood in 1953 when you're setting such a high example for your peers.

It wasn't clinical, though, which is what really defined Reed's work outside of his work ethic. You could see the passion on screen and the emotion of every minute of running time. Reed deal with complexity through the human condition, not in spite of it. As Graham Greene, a longtime collaborator of Reed's and writer of his most acclaimed pictures, said, "the only director I know with that particular warmth of human sympathy, the extraordinary feeling for the right face in the right part, the exactitude of cutting, and not least important the power of sympathizing with an author's worries and an ability to guide him."

Reed would bounce around by the 1950s,and 60s dabbling in a few failed US films (and walking away from the Brando-starrer Mutiny on the Bounty), but came back to working with Graham Greene whom he had tremendous success with on The Fallen Idol and The Third Man. That movie was Our Man in Havana in 1959 and starred Sir Alec Guinness who was probably still basking in the glow of the tremendous success of The Bridge on the River Kwai from a few years prior. When it comes to discussing some of the more underappreciated directors, as I said Carol Reed is certainly up there. When it comes to what is one of the most underappreciated director's most underappreciated films, Our Man in Havana would probably be my choice. Webs of intrigue, complex themes and a taught spy-centric thriller of a script are things that showed Reed, if given control over his projects, could pretty much master anything.

Yet, the film is more satire than drama, with an aura of whimsical observations resulting in, of all things, a comedy of errors that I recall comparing to the Kubrick classic Dr. Strangelove more than, say, Hitchcock's Notorious or Foreign Correspondent.  It reunites the team that brought us The Third Man (Reed and Greene) and throws in a great cast and a fantastic cinematographer in Oswald Morris (who would also work with Reed years later on Oliver!). What's interesting is how similar it is to The Third Man in visual style, yet so very different in terms of tone.

Reed worked some of the most brilliant people in Hollywood (no doubt ensuring his films were of the utmost quality). On left, he discusses the climax of The Third Man on set with Orson Welles and on the right he's departing a plane with Sir Alec Guinness in London close to the time Our Man in Havana was released in 1959.

It wasn't until much later when Reed seemed to finally receive world-wide acclaim. He was always regarded as one of Britain's finest directors, but he wasn't necessarily a household name. He took on something he hadn't quite mastered yet: the musical. In 1968, the tail-end of the movie musical's heights, Reed directed the musical Oliver! which pretty much nominated for every Oscar under the sun and won most of them, including Reed's lone Best Director statue.

In the end, though, it call comes back to The Third Man. Even though it might overshadow the rest of Carol Reed's work, it's such a formidable film, it's only natural to see why. The Third Man is one of those movies that film fans can probably recall the first time they saw it. For me, it was sitting in a classroom and watching a few clips - notably the reveal of Harry Lime (Orson Welles) and a later scene that is considered one of the best scenes in cinema history.

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This scene encompasses everything great about The Third Man. Great writing. Dialogue. Acting. Directing. Style. And, of course, music. I especially love the moment when Lime says "There's no proof against me...besides you" and the uncomfortable few seconds of silence that follow it. The Third Man is every bit as poetically subtle as it is visually grandiose.

The Third Man was full of scenes that many might call some of the best in cinema history. From the anticipatory and wonderful reveal of the ending, the comedic moments of Cotten talking about his "work" to a book group, the climatic sewer chase and final images of Harry Lime. It's hard to find a single fault in it that it's not only something that's well made, but it also hits a good, emotional chord on the way as you walk around the shades of gray of post-war Vienna and the world of Harry Lime.

If I were Carol Reed, and I'm not last I checked, I would actually be pretty alright in having that one great film overshadow everything else. I would have to think it would get more people interested in my work, and maybe seek out the other things I've done, most of which is comparably, though debatable equally, wonderful.

That's been the case for me, starting as the movie fan sitting in the back of a history of cinema and watching a few clips of various movies. I was drawn to The Third Man probably more than any other they showed clips of. Then they screened the film in its entirety and I was in awe of its brilliance. I adored it so much I had to seek out the other works of the man who directed it and I wasn't disappointment. Though my watching of Reed's films is often sporadic, I certainly haven't seen everything, I can't say I've been disappointment with any either and always have a nice chunk of my movie-watching backlog set aside to ensure I see another of his films.

That's something I can't say for a lot of filmmakers. Many I'll just gloss over or hit a few here and there, but when you find that one filmmaker whose films you absolutely want to see and look forward to it, it's like a treat to yourself every time you do.

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