The First of the Few (1942)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 3 January (12.30 pm)
Channel: Spike
IMDb Link

The First of the Few was retitled as Spitfire for its release in some territories outside Britain, notably America. The suggestion is that US viewers knew of the British fighter plane well enough, but were less familiar with the film’s original name, a play on Winston Churchill’s famous ‘Never has so much been owed by so many to so few‘ comment about the RAF pilots who fought and won the Battle of Britain. The ‘first’ of the title refers to R. J. Mitchell, the aeronautical engineer who designed racing seaplanes and was ultimately responsible for developing the Spitfire itself.

Returning to Britain after World War Two erupted, Leslie Howard shrugged off the matinee image that had been crafted for him in Hollywood to become quite the emotional figurehead. The diffident figure he cut in Gone with the Wind, by some distance the least memorable of the principal players in that epic, was suddenly an active participant in propagandist and morale-boosting efforts. He appeared in movies, made many public appearances, all to defy the Nazis and defend his realm. Howard became so prominent that no less a figure than Lord Haw-Haw denounced him over the airwaves. Increasingly the actor was taking fuller roles in his productions. He shared directorial duties on 1938’s Pygmalion and made Pimpernel Smith in 1941. The First of the Few followed in 1942.

The film was supported by no less a figure than Churchill, who asked the RAF to give the production unprecedented access to its planes and airfields. This seal of approval ensured The First of the Few would fulfil its positive image of both Mitchell and his cause, albeit in romanticising his story. Howard played Mitchell as a softly spoken English gentleman, really a stylised version of himself, whereas in reality the engineer was a tough, working class Potteries man, given to bouts of barely controlled rage and torrents of abusive language. This might not have suited the image Howard wanted to project, though he did seize on Mitchell’s work ethic, the fact he’d driven himself into an early grave when he continued to work on the Spitfire despite the ravages of rectal cancer. In the film, the nature of Mitchell’s illness is never disclosed, but his determination to get the Spitfire finished rather than take a long break for his own health is shown, and adds a suitable heroic note to the man’s efforts. More importantly, the film gave this then rather obscure figure a platform, bringing him to public acclaim as an unsung champion, which given the success of the fighter plane was no less than he deserved.

Mitchell’s story is told in flashback. A squadron of pilots is taking a short break in between shooting down German attackers. They’re met by David Niven’s Geoffrey Crisp, who begins telling them Mitchell’s story, the implication being that it’s one few people knew. Crisp was an invention of the film, an amalgamation of a number of test pilots who worked alongside him during the years, most notably Jeffrey Quill who made an uncredited cameo as the pilot performing those acrobatic leaps and daring dives in the test of the Spitfire. Crisp, a ‘lifelong friend’ of Mitchell’s, works as his pilot during the 1920s, a period of growing success in the development of seaplanes that came to regularly win competitions and break speed records. Taking a holiday to Germany in the early 1930s, the pair meet Nazis, who unsubtly prophesise that the Fatherland will one day dominate Europe. Mitchell and Crisp see the obvious danger, and return home to work flat out on a fighter plane that will eventually be capable of defending the island. As his bouts of sickness increase, Mitchell sacrifices himself for the cause. Told by his doctor that he can last no longer than eight months without a significant rest, Mitchell declares that it’s time enough and carries on.

Though embellished, the story manages to take in Mitchell’s struggle to get his plane worked on in spite of a government more focused on appeasement and saving money, which strikes a true note about the period. He’s supported financially by Lady Houston (Toni Edgar-Bruce), an aristocratic patriot who like Mitchell can see the threat posed by the fascists, and believes in his dream. The film’s dig at the ostrich-like government of the pre-war years reflects Britain’s own withering attitude towards its officials, who only come to appreciate where things are heading at the last minute, when it’s almost too late to make effective plans to counter Germany, along with the vision of people like Mitchell, who ‘got it’ early enough.

There’s a temptation with films like this to mock it, in particular the perception it creates of some misty-eyed, half remembered past when pipe-smoking Professorial types could be heroes, imbued with the traditional ‘make do and mend’ mentality that is exhorted as a uniquely British virtue.  In contrast the Germans, depicted in the film’s entirely fictionalised episode, are shown as megalomaniac villains, determined to break the Treaty of Versailles and make their country great again, no matter who suffers in the process. It’s a cartoonish representation and a bit of a false step, as elsewhere the film attempts to strike an authentic note in recounting Mitchell’s story, and rather carefully builds his image as a dedicated and quietly resolute engineer. He’s shown as possessing that vanguard British virtue, getting to where he does thanks to years of hard work and an inventive mind. The concept that will eventually blossom into the Spitfire is inspired by birds, Mitchell’s aim to develop planes that are based on their natural, physical ‘engineering’ at a time when everyone else was a long way behind technically.

The First of the Few is directed in semi-documentary style, opening with a narration about Germany before depicting Mitchell’s life, his achievements and pitfalls, in episodic snapshots. Crisp appears to have been created as a more easily digestible cinematic character and Niven plays him just right, giving him personality and a winning charm as he makes to woo a succession of ladies, most of whom turn out to be already married.

But it’s Howard’s film, even if he plays Mitchell as a rather typically British one-noter of determination and bluff. It’s an encapsulation of the English ideal, the sort celebrated by the Daily Mail and efficiently performed, Howard’s traditional ‘under playing’ transforming him into the embodiment of pluck and virtue.

It’s easy enough, watching this, to see the reasons for his success during this period, and his status as someone Germany might want to see out of the way. Less than a year after its release and several days before it debuted in American theatres, Howard was dead, most likely shot down by Nazi Junkers while on a flight from Portugal to Britain. Rumours about this persisted. One conspiracy theory suggested he was sacrificed as Churchill was on a plane at the same time and British Intelligence deliberately leaked that Howard’s flight was carrying a VIP. Another speculated that Enigma messages intercepted by code-breakers revealed the Nazi plan to take Howard down, and the difficult decision was taken to let it happen so that Britain’s ability to decode the machine would not be revealed to the enemy. Most likely it was down to an error of judgement, a fateful act that would normally have involved Howard’s plane being escorted to France and its occupants taken as prisoners.

The First of the Few: ***

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Scarlet Street (1945)

When it’s on: Friday, 29 December (8.55 am)
Channel: Talking Pictures
IMDb Link

Some time ago on these pages, I covered Ms Joan Bennett and her luminous starring role in Max Ophuls’s The Reckless Moment. Both in real life and on screen, Bennett was a compelling and fascinating lady, capable of adapting her talents to various guises just as her world away from film spun through a series of controversies and scandals. You can imagine her acting ability being put to good use as she switched from delicate victim to femme fatale, always with her survival instinct present and correct.

Before Ophuls cast her as a compromised middle class housewife in his 1949 movie, Bennett was perhaps best known for the two films she made with Fritz Lang in the middle of that decade, The Woman in the Window followed by Scarlet Street. Both feature the same cast members – downtrodden, broken Edward G Robinson and thuggish spiv, Dan Duryea – but it’s Bennett who takes two very different parts. In the earlier film she’s classy, but in Scarlet Street she plays Kitty, a low rent tramp, tied to petty conman Johnny (Duryea), who she loves despite suffering physical abuse from him. Though the script never states it Kitty is almost certainly a prostitute, or at least ‘fallen’ enough to use sex casually, and as a consequence she’s beautiful, brassy and in her manner and speech as pure as the driven slush. It would take a true sap to see anything in her beyond irredeemable white trash, and into her world slopes Chris Cross (Robinson), middle-aged, subservient, his soul crushed by life, and yet hopeful.

Through Dudley Nichols’s screenplay, Lang’s direction and a top notch performance by Robinson, Chris is one of those characters who appears to have stumbled into the film from bitter reality. He represents everyone’s broken dream. His lowly cashier’s job pays little and offers nothing, and yet he’s just completed 25 years’ service. He’s married to a lady who dotes on her former late husband, his portrait hanging in pride of place within the parlour to put Chris squarely in his place. Chris works and does the domestic chores while spending his scraps of spare time painting, a release from the dirge that offers him some tiny sense of pleasure. He knows his attempts at art aren’t very good, but that isn’t the point – he loves doing it, despite his harridan wife (Rosalind Ivan) complaining about the smell of paint and threatening to throw all his work away.

In Kitty – who he chances across one night – he sees a chance to turn his life around. She seems to show an interest in him, and that morsel of attention is enough to compel Chris to begin lavishing her with money and gifts, but the entire relationship is based on misconceptions and assumptions. He refuses to let the shades fall away and see her for what she really is, choosing to ignore shady Johnny who always appears to be around while claiming to be just a friend. As for Kitty, her initial meeting with Chris happens when he’s returning from a night out – he’s dressed opulently and is taking about £50,000 art purchases, which suggests to her he’s loaded, a big shot. Johnny tells her to exploit this, which she does half-heartedly. She doesn’t want to take their plan of swindling Chris out of his money too far, but it isn’t long before she’s in over her head. While Johnny starts selling Chris’s paintings to make a bit on the side, the pair have no idea that his largesse is coming from robbing the work safe, that he thinks it will all be worth it because it will ultimately lead to marriage with Kitty and some half grasped happily ever after.

The result of all this scheming and dreaming is an inevitable spiral towards destruction and doom for Chris, Kitty and even Johnny. Each character is punished in some poetic fashion, and while The Woman in the Window came with a final twist that suggested redemption and lessons learned, there’s no such optimistic coda to be found here. It’s as though Lang was robbed of taking his earlier feature to its natural conclusion by a studio fearful of such downbeat storytelling, but was allowed free rein on Scarlet Street and seized the opportunity, handing his characters their just desserts in various degrees of bleakness. As a cruel irony, Chris’s paintings happen to be spotted by a prestigious studio and go on to sell for thousands, though thanks to Johnny’s machinations by then the pictures bear someone else’s name. It’s a satirical note, a comment perhaps on the whims of fate, or a wink back in time to the director’s own early years as a struggling artist before entering the German film industry and becoming part of the Expressionist movement. In any event it shows the possible ‘happy ending’ Chris wishes for, but has long since pulled it from beneath him.

Scarlet Street builds to one of the most pessimistic and indeed depressing finishes I remember seeing on film, certainly where romantic Hollywood cinema is concerned. It brings a European ethos to bear, the sensibility that stories in which people do bad things won’t necessarily lead to an ending where the characters are compensated but instead face ruin, whether through death or forced to live, destroyed morally and haunted by the ghosts of the past.  It isn’t an easy film to stomach, but it successfully holds a mirror to the attitudes of the period, the Noir ethic reflecting society’s sense of uncertainty as the horrors of war and endings that held no satisfactory note were all too real. There’s a hint of unfairness about Chris’s fate, that his only real mistake was to fall in with a ‘bad crowd’ and allow himself to be duped, but hey, bad things happen to people who don’t necessarily deserve it and Chris, who lets himself be manipulated and has no right to imagine a future with Kitty, sort of has it coming. While Lang does offer a note of pity in his instance, it doesn’t really amount to much and the character, shattered and in the grip of a complete mental breakdown, is left to shuffle off into the void of his own making.

So why watch it at all? The reality is Scarlet Street is masterly film making and that ought to be reason enough. Lang was a perfectionist, slave driving his cast and crew to put his personal vision onto the screen, and in this film he spared no effort in capturing it. Milton Krasner, the cinematographer who would be rewarded with an Academy Award for Three Coins in a Fountain a decade later, applied Lang’s visual language with some stunning imagery. The way Chris sees Kitty, bathed in white and angelic, utterly at odds with reality but emphasising his ironic perception, is bathed in soft white light. Later, as our ‘hero’ embarks on his walk of ruin, the shadows creep into the frame more. He’s living in a pathetic hovel, light offered harshly by a neon sign outside the window, which leaves most of his room shrouded in darkness. Chris hears the voices of Kitty and Johnny, his ‘Hello, Lazy Legs‘ and her whispered, sexy ‘Jeepers Johnny, I love you‘ taunting him, presumably for the rest of his days, and the camera all but suggests that those black corners contain their spirits.

Robinson is absolutely believable as the film’s victim, to such an extent in fact that when I picture him it’s as this character, all those years playing hoodlums and the likes of Keyes in Double Indemnity playing support to his role in Scarlet Street. The same with Bennett. Lang saw in her the beautiful woman who has lived and those years of blows, bad choices and bitterness have created the jaded character of Kitty, in her own way every bit as pathetic as Chris, trapped within a destructive relationship and heading in just one direction. There aren’t very many film roles, especially for females, from the classic period that hinted at such a complicated back story for their characters, honing them into the people they are in the movie, but Scarlet Street suggests exactly that and without slapping minutes of exposition onto the screen. The result is a pessimistic work, but a masterpiece in the telling and execution.

Scarlet Street: *****

Holiday Inn (1942)

When it’s on: Thursday, 28 December (5.40 am)
Channel: Channel 4
IMDb Link

There are several reasons why they don’t make films like Holiday Inn anymore. First, let’s get this out of the way – the Abraham song, performed on Lincoln’s Birthday (a Bank Holiday in Connecticut, where the film’s largely set) by Bing Crosby and his band in blackface, adding a ‘comedy’ black intonation to his lyrics. I don’t want to dwell on it because of the time when the film was made, but it’s there and unavoidable. Second, consider the big musical movie hit of the last twelve months, La La Land, its plot focusing on the rather chaste and sweet-natured romance and relationship between two characters, who then suffer the strain of their professions taking them in separate directions. Now, here’s a summary of Holiday Inn’s story:

Bing Crosby is engaged to Virginia Dale, his singing partner. However, the third member of the act, Fred Astaire, steals her away, leaving Bing to move to his farm in Connecticut alone. Recovering from his broken heart and turning the farm he’s unsuited to running into the eponymous Holiday Inn (so called because it’s only open on public holidays), Bing begins experiencing success again and sparks a cautious romance with Marjorie Reynolds, who he employs to sing with him. But then Fred turns up, having lost Virginia to a millionaire, likes the look of the winsome Marjorie and spends the rest of the film trying to snatch her away for marriage and the formation of a new dancing partnership…

That Fred Astaire – what a bastard, right? Some pal he turned out to be! Of course, in a plot that serves to link the songs together it’s all portrayed as innocent, knockabout fun, all’s fair in love and war, etc, and while Astaire essentially destroyed Crosby’s life in the opening act the pair remain friends. With the focus more on the talents involved in the picture, it’s up there with the best of them. Irving Berlin’s songs, 14 of which are used, are exquisite. Crosby and Astaire are both in top form, their abilities as the pinnacle of their individual crafts shown off to stunning effect, and there’s a chocolate box sheen to it that’s never less than warm and fuzzy. Holiday Inn itself, frequently shown wreathed in pristine, virgin snow, is the sort of venue you dream of staying at, and indeed inspired Kemmons Wilson to start his own chain of ‘Holiday Inn’ hotels – there are now over 1,000 of them worldwide. There’s even an oblique breaking of the fourth wall, when Crosby goes to Hollywood to see the production of the film based on his little hotel being shot, and discovers in a studio the perfect replica of it. It’s a wink to the audience, an acknowledgement of Holiday Inn’s sense of artifice, but without overstating the point it’s a nice little touch that’s only there if you want it to be.

Holiday Inn was directed by Mark Sandrich, best remembered for the hit movies he made with Astaire for RKO in the previous decade. Sandrich knew how to work with a supreme talent like Mr ‘Can’t sing. Can’t act. Balding. Can dance a little‘ and how to create the confectionery worlds of their films, which ever projected untroubled fantasies and emphasised the showcasing of Astaire’s act over the drama. Consider Top Hat, their best known and probably best collaboration, and its aim to dazzle viewers with Astaire’s dancing genius and make them forget about the Depression era taking place outside the cinema, and you get why these films were such a hit and changed the face of the Hollywood musical. Sandrich insisted on hiring Astaire for Holiday Inn, despite Paramount’s misgivings over the film’s rising production costs, though the director appreciated the obvious – that having Astaire and Crosby performing Berlin’s musical waxings was a direct translation into beautiful cinema. Watching it now, it’s near impossible to argue against this.

The studio saved a little money on using a relative unknown like Reynolds as its female lead. The ‘Saddle Cinderella’ was little known outside Westerns produced by Poverty Row studios and represented a cheap hire over Sandrich’s casting suggestions of Rita Hayworth and even Ginger Rogers, both of course prior on-screen dance partners for Astaire. Reynolds never used her appearance in Holiday Inn as a springboard to real stardom, but she’s perfectly sweet and charming in the film, holding her own against her male partners. One sequence really shows off her abilities. Performing a dance number with Astaire, the pair’s brief is to minuet romantically for Washington’s Birthday. But Crosby, aware and fearful of the spark of romance between them, sabotages the moments when they pause to kiss by changing the tempo to a frenetic jazz number, prompting the pair to switch to a faster paced dance routine, before reverting to the original music. It’s a complicated scene that must have been hell to film, and your eyes are on Astaire as he has to both switch seamlessly between dancing style while scowling his rising exasperation to Crosby, but Reynolds has to perform it also and never falters.

Astaire’s work was designed to stretch his talent, the product of an admirable work ethic that insisted he pulled off multi-layered turns that had never been seen before, when of course he could have produced more of the same to earn his money. This is displayed to best effect in the firecracker dance. Reynolds has failed to show for a number the pair are meant to perform for the Independence Day celebration, so Astaire is told to ‘improvise’ a solo routine, which he does with an energetic number that features him setting off firecrackers exploding in time with the beat. It took two days and multiple takes to get the sequence right, which makes it a real salute to Astaire’s sheer dedication to his craft.

Next to it, the best known moment is almost certainly Crosby’s performance of the song White Christmas, as a trivial side note written for this film rather than the more obvious White Christmas. Crosby plays it with absolute simplicity, sat at his piano within the snowbound confines of his charming hotel, and that combination of the setting, the lovely sentiments of the lyrics and naturally the star’s velvet vocals are more than enough to transform it into a classic, indeed the song has gone on to join an exclusive club of the 13 singles that have sold 15 million or more copies worldwide.

As cinema, Holiday Inn is the equivalent of comfort food, the dramatic tensions suggested by its plot never amounting to more than the next song and dance number, the inimitable winning qualities of Louise Beavers’s house servant, the many screwball comic moments, the warm hug of Berlin’s music. Certain elements ensure that it’s utterly of its time, such as the tribute Crosby performs to America’s armed forces as the country entered World War Two. Ultimately Holiday Inn is rooted in a more innocent and less knowing cinematic era, but even now there’s little here that isn’t simply enjoyable. The two main stars are at the height of their powers, and the talent they bring to the film make it a real joy to watch.

Holiday Inn: ****

The Red Shoes (1948)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 27 December (12.10 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

These days we just get to enjoy the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who seemed to spend their working lives together crafting esoteric, whimsical and often fantastic British movies that were spinning off on tangents all of their own. The rest of the world did its thing while the pair ploughed their own creative furrow, resulting in a unique body of work that includes some of the most interesting films made at the time. There’s the love letter to England that is A Canterbury Tale. Forces from the afterlife debate the future of David Niven’s soul in A Matter of Life and Death. In The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, British attitudes to war are covered, to unsparing and cynical, yet ultimately celebratory, effect.

At the time audience reactions to their films were a mixed bag – some were loved unreservedly, others had an alienating effect on viewers, and it’s only with the passing of time that we have learned to appreciate fully their dreamlike wonders, and to be grateful that they were allowed to get away with it again and again. Churchill famously loathed Blimp. People were baffled by A Canterbury Tale. And The Red Shoes, which was criticised for choosing a topic no one wanted to see on the screen, took some time to really find commercial favour. Once it did then it really did, becoming a major hit and claiming a couple of Oscars, but the initial feeling was less than fulsome, and you can imagine the public wondering what the hell all this was about.

Certainly, there are elements of The Red Shoes that are very daring, especially for the time it was made. Gene Kelly made a success of the in-film sequence where the plot is put to one side in favour of an extended dance sequence, yet it was a fresh idea when Powell and Pressburger inserted a 17 minute ballet sequence into the middle of their movie. Imagine the dream scenes from Hitchcock’s Spellbound being left uncut by the disparaging, controlling hand of Selznick, so that you see the full, disturbing vision instead of a short highlights reel, and you come close to what was committed to the final cut here. Essentially, we get a vision of The Red Shoes as envisioned by ballet impresario Boris Lermontov, and brought to life by Julian Craster’s bewildering score and the dancing of Victoria Page. The ballet is an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale and teases out the nightmarish, psycho-sexual overtones of the girl who gets the red shoes she wants, but can’t control them and the shoes keep dancing long after she’s reached the point of exhaustion. As the shoemaker is portrayed in increasingly Guignolian tones, Page is still dancing as her pretty dress turns into dirty rags and the community turns her away, ignoring her plight. The painted backdrops take on a more sinister edge. The set dressings become elaborate, impossible to really be there on the stage and you realise it’s as much the product of someone’s imagination – Page’s own? The audience’s? – as it is clever stage design, Jack Cardiff’s cinematography and the production design work of Hein Heckroth building a bizarre and unsettling claustrophobia of limited space, through which Page pirouettes in ever more desperate and frantic circles, the need to rid herself of the shoes urgent and yet impossible.

The Red Shoes is the sad tale of Page (Moira Shearer), the dancer who gets her opportunity to shine when the company’s prima ballerina announces her marriage. To impresario Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), there is no room for love in the life of a ballerina. ‘The music is all that matters‘ he tells her, a fateful warning as she beings a romance with the composer, Craster (Marius Goring) and this threatens her dancing future. Page ultimately is forced to choose – a career in Lermontov’s company, which is demanding yet professionally rewarding, or ‘earthly’ happiness with Craster, a dilemma that has tragic consequences.

As the single-minded Lermontov, Walbrook plays a monster. Dismissive of anyone who doesn’t share his vision and enforcing a work ethic that is nothing short of punishing, Lermontov is at his worst when Page’s relationship with Craster means she will never be fully his and his mood spills over into rage, a professional resentment as he found his muse and has had her snatched away. Goring, impressive in A Matter of Life and Death, gets the more straight role as Craster, asserting his musical talents and coming to love Victoria. Much of the cast was filled with real ballet dancers, which is how Moira Shearer came to the role. She had little love for the demands of working on film and would go on to make fleeting future appearances, though there’s little doubting her impact on The Red Shoes, notably in the signature ballet sequence that lays all her talent bare on the screen, the emotion and longing expressed through sheer movement. It took Powell a year to entice Shearer for the part, and she was unimpressed with his efforts to direct her and her fellow dancers, feeling he didn’t ‘get it’ and tried to treat them like any normal actor.

The picture has an overall dreamlike feel. This is partly achieved through some incredible use of Technicolor, lending everything a lush, glossy sheen. Much of the action takes place in Monte Carlo, which adds to its fleshy air of romance. Craster and Page are shown chatting on their hotel veranda; a train passes below, blowing plumes of  smoke that surround them, as though enveloping them in cloud. It’s a mirror held to the conceits of ballet, the artifice and implied sexuality displayed through dance. Shearer might have been right in sensing Powell and Pressburger were not qualified to work with dancers, but they knew how to create a mood, and the ethereal one they generated for The Red Shoes – made, lest we forget, during the difficult, lean years following World War Two – is powerful indeed.

To modern viewers, it’s impossible to ignore parallels with Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 entry about Natalie Portman’s dancer working to earn the lead role in a prestigious production of Swan Lake and the toll it takes on her very sanity. The similarities are easy enough to see. Both films are about the strains made on ballerinas, their efforts to reach the heights of performance clashing with the other demands on their lives, but the newer film has more obvious leanings in the horror genre, the obliquely expressed challenges for Victoria Page made frighteningly stark in Portman’s case. I know which of the two I prefer. The Red Shoes is powerful, beautiful and its sense of longing present yet elusive. In many ways it’s a companion piece to Black Narcissus, one of my favourite Powell and Pressburger productions, another story of earthly pleasures encroaching on a world where they have no place. By the film’s close, Victoria has become the real life wearer of the red shoes, compelled by them to dance, and dance, and dance to destruction, and watching her do so has an absurd and enchanting quality that makes the film hopelessly compelling. By the finish, just like Victoria I have surrendered to the power of the red shoes.

The Red Shoes: *****

The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

When it’s on: Saturday, 23 December (6.45 am)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

I posted a comment about The Bishop’s Wife as part of an extended ramble last Christmas on these pages. It was the first time I had seen the film, which felt like an enormous oversight because it came across as almost a perfect seasonal offering, and I was happily swept along with it. That said, in the UK at least there’s one classic slice of Hollywood melodrama that beats all others when it comes to Christmas films, so looking beyond It’s a Wonderful Life can be difficult. The Miracle on 34th Street gets a look in, though the number of people who think the Attenborough remake is the definitive version is a concern, but there’s little attention paid to the likes of The Shop Around the Corner, which is a beautiful piece of work that deserves more love, while the charm of Bing Crosby tends to sidelined into the ‘Musicals’ category rather than celebrated for its seasonal cheer. So then you get the various adaptations of A Christmas Carol, and a gem like The Bishop’s Wife is relegated to the early hours of a Yuletide schedule as opposed to the frequent theatrical exhibitions of It’s a Wonderful Life that show the extent to which it’s celebrated.

The Bishop’s Wife was an RKO picture made on the back of The Best Years of Our Lives, a box office bonanza and Oscar winner for Samuel Goldwyn, who ordered a Christmas movie for 1947. At the time, It’s a Wonderful Life was a commercial failure, so the project was something of a gamble, and things got worse as the A-List cast of David Niven, Loretta Young and Cary Grant clashed on set. Part of the trouble was resolved when its male stars swapped roles, and watching the film it’s tough to picture Niven in any other part than that of the troubled bishop, a soul-troubled character whose personal demons too well reflected the recent real-life bereavement he had suffered. Young and Grant took umbrage against each other all too often, falling out over the latter’s perfectionism that slowed down the filming and the fact both preferred to be shot from the same side, making a challenge of the many scenes when they were facing each other. It’s a credit to both performers that the chemistry between their characters was intact throughout, indeed the sparks possibly helped the jarring, ‘not quite right’ on-screen relationship that depicted his romantic overtures she was unwilling to reciprocate.

In the film, Grant plays Dudley, an angel who gets assigned to help a young bishop, Henry Brougham (Niven). The bishop is striving to have a cathedral built in his town, a task that depends on the patronage of the local matriarch (Gladys Cooper), but her interest depends on his agreement that it will be an edifice to her late husband. This troubles his pure motives for building the cathedral, but the bigger issue for him is the time he’s spending on the planning, which is distancing him from his wife Julia (Young) and their daughter. Dudley reveals himself to Henry, who has natural doubts about his angelic status but nevertheless agrees to take him on as an assistant. This introduces Dudley to Henry’s entire world, not just his project but all the people in it, including his family and house staff, as well as their friends within the community. Increasingly, while the bishop attends endless meetings Dudley’s role becomes that of companion to Julia, and the pair grow closer, much to Henry’s dislike who can see the effect on his wife all this attention is having.

The romantic triangle at he heart of the film isn’t its most interesting dimension. As enchanted as Julia is by Dudley’s attentions, her heart very clearly belongs to Henry, who is portrayed as having lost his way, and then not in a way that leads him to committing any evil. He certainly doesn’t deserve to lose his wife, who gives every impression of understanding his preoccupation with the cathedral, and as a result the hints of Dudley’s efforts being to do more than ease Henry’s soul don’t really amount to much. Of far greater value is the effect his presence has on everybody else. Monty Woolley’s broken History Professor, a kindly man who has for years been devoid of inspiration for writing his book about Ancient Rome, regains his impetus thanks to Dudley’s gentle prodding. Cooper’s status in the film as its potential ‘Mr Potter’ is unmasked when the angel intervenes and gives her a glimpse of the humanity in her life that its been lacking. His interaction with the staff at the bishop’s house, notably Elsa Lanchester’s blousey maid, is quite heartwarming, and in the film’s most touching scene, he persuades cabbie Sylvester (James Gleason) to join Julia and himself in an impromptu ice dancing adventure. The scene is intended to hint at the developing feelings between the stars, but it’s Sylvester, recapturing a joie de vivre through his moment of sheer childlike joy, which leaves the most lasting impression.  It’s lovely, innocent stuff.

Of course, by the movie’s end everyone is in ‘happily ever after mode, just as they should be, and Dudley leaves having completed his mission, albeit after almost undermining it at the climax. For me, it’s a note that jars ever so slightly, the idea that an angel would gain feelings for a ‘mortal’ just because he’s played by classic romantic lead Cary Grant and he has to have that storyline, but it’s not enough to ruin the overall sentiment that’s been created. If The Bishop’s Wife has a core message, it is that everything will turn out all right in the end, and I think a Christmas picture can have no better one. It was directed by Henry Koster, who replaced the original choice and pretty much restarted the shoot from scratch, capturing the whimsical tone that had been missing from its initial filming. Whether this or 1950’s Harvey is the better of his light fantasies is entirely up to the individual viewer, but both have unmistakable charm and never fail to entertain.

The Bishop’s Wife: ****

A Canterbury Tale (1944)

When it’s on: Friday, 14 April (11.05 am)
Channel: London Live
IMDb Link

Over the years A Canterbury Tale is perhaps the Powell and Pressburger film I’ve returned to most often. It’s like a guilty secret, an enigmatic little entry from their catalogue that has wormed its way into my affections against more celebrated works like The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and The Thief of Bagdad… Not to mention A Matter of Life and Death, I Know Where I’m Going!, Ill Met by Moonlight, and oh you know. All those titles mentioned are fine films, in some instances bloody wonderful slices of cinema magic, and rightly they are revered. And yet there’s something about the unassuming wistfulness of A Canterbury Tale that has made it essential. I think possibly it’s something to do with entering middle age, a time when it becomes permissible to stop looking forward all the time, to reminisce fondly, sometimes about things that never even happened, and engage with the film’s sense of nostalgic whimsy. Or maybe it’s simply top drawer movie making, the brief to make a propaganda piece and instead turning out something altogether more esoteric, a story that explores the links between the present and an eternal past, a love letter to England, albeit one that barely existed at the time it was made. Either way, talking about A Canterbury Tale and what makes it great isn’t easy. I know how it makes me feel, however, and I’ll try and get that across…

It opens with a scene of medieval pilgrims making their way across the countryside towards Canterbury Cathedral. One member of the party lets loose his falcon. He watches it fly, high into the sky, where it suddenly turns into a Spitfire, and when we next see the Falconer he’s become an air raid warden. We’re in wartime England, joining three young people as their train enters the little Kentish village of Chillingbourne. There’s English sergeant Peter Gibbs (Dennis Price), also a Londoner who’s taking work as a Land Girl, Alison Smith (Sheila Sim), and Bob Johnson (John Sweet), a GI who mishears the station announcer and alights, thinking he’s in Canterbury and off to his posting. Alison falls foul of the ‘glueman’, an impish local troublemaker who pours glue into the hair of English girls who are caught fraternising with American soldiers while their sweethearts are away fighting the good fight. The unlikely trio team up and resolve to discover who the glueman is.

What’s set up as a crime mystery of sorts then takes several swerves to the left. Our three heroes start making friends in the village, from a group of kids who stage war games in the woods through to local workers who find common ground with Bob because carpentry techniques in Kent turn out to be the same as in Oregon. The local JP is Thomas Colpeper (Eric Portman), who lives in a house filled with antiquities and takes an active interest in uncovering artifacts from the days of the Pilgrim Road. The trio’s suspicion that the glueman is none other than Colpeper himself becomes mired in the reasons for the criminal’s existence, an ignoble effort to preserve Englishness at a time when the country is invaded by friendly soldiers.

And in the end that’s really what A Canterbury Tale is. In terms of plotting, it isn’t about very much and no less a figure than its director, Michael Powell, had concerns about Emeric Pressburger’s script, which he thought was too loose and freewheeling. But that isn’t the point. The film concerns itself primarily with an England that is close to being lost, not from a foreign threat but rather the necessary advance of technology and industry. As Britain modernised rapidly in order to be able to stay in the war, the green and pleasant land eulogised by Shakespeare was being compromised, Kent’s ‘Garden of England’ cut down the middle by a railtrack. Everyone knew this had to happen yet it came at a price. A Canterbury Tale takes place in a rural setting that in reality had all but gone. Chillingbourne, its main setting, was a fictional and wholly romanticised village, various places filling in to provide its pastoral idyll.

Then there are its semi-mystical elements. The Pilgrim Road is mythologised as a place on the hillside that still has links to its past. Alison walks up there one day and hears – or thinks she hears – the distant sounds of hooves, of laughter, and a lute playing. The moment might be a fantasy but the message is clear enough – the route to Canterbury still retains its power. People went there to receive penance and occasionally a miracle, and sometimes it still pulls through for the right people. Sure enough, the trio end up there too, walking the streets (much of it filmed in the real Canterbury, prominently the Westgate that formed the medieval city’s entrance, though the cathedral interiors were shot in a cleverly designed studio due to the real cathedral’s stained glasses having been removed during the war) and finding their own miracles. These range in emotional power and I won’t spoil them here, though the denouement for Price’s Gibbs touched me most. Though it’s never stated, the film suggests that soldiers enter Canterbury because it’s a waypoint before they embark for the frontline. Many of them won’t return. The cathedral thus bestows its beneficence on those who deserve it. Or at least that’s how I choose to see it.

A Canterbury Tale can put people off. It’s unashamedly twee and romantic; like Ealing’s Passport to Pimlico it takes place in a version of England that suits the film rather than reflects reality. I see it as a love letter, one to an undying sense of place no matter what time it happens in, because it endures and so do the people, and to my mind there’s nothing wrong with that. 

A Canterbury Tale: *****

The Man from Colorado (1948)

When it’s on: Thursday, 8 September (4.55 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

The Man from Colorado is set at the close of the American Civil War. Glenn Ford plays Owen Devereaux, a Union Colonel who is appointed Judge for his region in Colorado. His right hand man in the army, Del Stewart (William Holden), becomes Marshal and his second in command. Justice under Judge Devereaux is swift and brutal. He orders hangings on the flimsiest of evidence. Death is pronounced as a matter of course and with a straight, unscrupulous face, but Stewart knows better. He remembers an episode shortly before the war ended, when Devereaux’s detachment trapped a Confederate force into offering terms of surrender and, despite waving the white flag, the Colonel gunned them down. Devereaux gives instances of insight into his own condition, writing after the slaughter that he has no idea what’s happening to him, but the rough justice continues and drives an irreconcilable wedge between Stewart and himself.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder has existed for as long as human beings. Since ancient times there have been investigations taken into the psychological effects of war, clearly one of the most stress-inducing human experiences, and as long ago as the Civil War formal medical studies into the condition were undertaken. PTSD as a consequence of World War One, especially the experience of living for weeks in trenches, was known as ‘shell shock’, a term redefined as ‘battle fatigue’ in the global war that followed. The shattered mental states of soldiers returning from Germany and Japan in 1945 spilled over into popular culture, notably in Film Noir, in which PTSD became a prominent player in attempting to explain the rationale of its damaged heroes and their struggles to adjust to civilian living. Westerns too chose contemporary issues for storylines transposed into the Old West, and in The Man from Colorado Devereaux is an obvious sufferer. One of the film’s neater themes is that lack of understanding from other people to his psychological state. Stewart recognises his friend’s ‘sickness’ and urges him to take a break from his duties, but his is a lone voice and otherwise everyone is unaware of the particulars of Devereaux’s malaise. You can imagine it really being like that, a PTSD sufferer resorting to almost psychopathic levels of violence without the realisation from him or anyone else of the reasons for his behaviour.

The best thing about Ford in his performance is that Devereaux’s countenance is precisely the same as in his heroic roles – resolute, fixed, always with that undercurrent of violence behind the eyes but maintaining a sense of control. It’s terrifying at times, the sense that to some degree Devereaux thinks he’s dong the right thing, the part of his personality that caused him to question himself eradicated and leaving those around him to challenge his behaviour. The real-life friendship between Ford and Holden spills over into their acting, their ease in each other’s company and the latter’s air of disillusionment as he finds Devereaux taking a path he can’t follow. The clash and split between these two veterans who we are led to believe have been through the horrors of war together and survived should be devastating enough, yet the film adds an unnecessary extra dimension in Ellen Drew’s Caroline, the love interest for both men. Drew’s fine in the part, but the plotline seems thrown in to add a conventional layer of romantic added tension, which isn’t needed. The exploration of PTSD and its effects is enough.

A cool $1 million was lavished on The Man from Colorado, the sum showing in the film’s sprawling township set, part of which was destroyed in the climactic fire scene. Production problems were reflected in the recycling of directors, Charles Vidor being replaced by Henry Levin, which caused the shoot to be extended and costs escalating as a consequence. Whereas the former carried the more celebrated body of work, turning out the classic thriller Gilda two years earlier (which also starred Ford), the latter was a sure hand and developed the film as a Western with Noir themes, helping to show the genre as a format for reflecting prevalent issues within contemporary America. The result is a fine, tense drama, perhaps not quite all it could have been yet well paced and certainly entertaining.

The Man from Colorado: ***

Crossfire (1947)

When it’s on: Thursday, 3 March (7.10 am)
Channel: Movies4Men
IMDb Link

Edward Dmytrk’s 1947 B-movie, Crossfire, is about as ‘Film Noir’ as cinema can get. Forget for a moment the plot. The action focuses on a group of men, two of whom are played by Robert Mitchum and Robert Ryan. They’re ex-servicemen, recently returned from the war. We catch them playing card games, loitering in bars, drifting through their days. They’re bored, dealing badly with feelings of frustration and resentment, whether it’s Mitchell (George Cooper) wondering how he can possibly go home to his wife and lead a normal life, or Montgomery (Ryan), spilling over into hatred and bigotry. Those who have attempted to define the appeal and rise of the ‘Noir’ style suggest that it’s all down to men coming back home after serving in World War Two, struggling to readjust after their horrific experiences whilst on duty, and few films convey that sentiment quite as succinctly as Crossfire.

Ostensibly, it’s about a murder investigation. A Jewish man is killed in the opening act and the trail leads directly to a group of soldiers who joined him for a drink in his apartment. Initially, the finger of suspicion falls on Mitchell who’s gone missing. His room mate Keeley (Mitchum) catches up with him and hears his version of events – sozzled and morose, Mitchell left the man’s place and walked out into the night, eventually coming across a barfly (Gloria Grahame) with whom he shared a ‘moment’ before she handed him the keys to her flat and he fell asleep there. The key fact from his account is told almost as a side note – as he was exiting the Jew’s place, Montgomery was already getting handy with the man, slapping him around and calling him names. So clearly the imposing Montgomery is the killer, but how to link him to the crime?

That isn’t a a spoiler. Montgomery’s guilt is made clear fairly early, the rest of the plot centering on Detective Finlay’s (Robert Young) efforts to unravel the mystery and catch his man. Young leads a brilliant cast, one of those happy circumstances when even relatively minor roles happen to fall into the laps of great performers. By this stage in his career, Young was taking on more challenging parts than the comedies in which he’d appeared countless times, and Finlay is an excellent example – endlessly patient and possessing a cool intellect. He can also identify the murder for the hate crime it is and gets a fantastic soliloquy when discussing the fate of his Irish immigrant grandfather who came across prejudice when he arrived in America. The speech transforms his character from a smart detective and into a sort of crusader, bent on rooting out bigotry, which gives his task of finding the killer a personal dimension. Cooper is good as the innocent Mitchell, clearly damaged emotionally as a consequence of his experiences and representative of the mixed up messes many of the men in similar situations must have found themselves in. By his usual standards, Mitchum turns out to be a bit on the wasted side, playing the main link to Mitchell and coming to help Finlay in his search for answers. In truth, he was still on his way to the top but added enough layers of ‘seen it all’ cynicism to his performance to be memorable in a support role.

The film is stolen by Ryan’s Montgomery, a hulking psychopath who kills from senseless hate and then kills again to cover up his crime. The scenes where he’s delivering alibis to Finlay are cool, too cool, which add a chilling edge to his character. He’s beautifully shot also, especially in his moments with Leroy (William Phipps), another serviceman who’s from Tennessee and like others has clearly been the subject of Montgomery’s bullying ways. Ryan is photographed as though constantly towering over Phipps; a perspective shot when the two men are shaving cast him as a giant compared with the much slighter Leroy.

But then, there’s even time in Crossfire’s slim running time to explore its minor characters. Grahame is a revelation as the good time girl who takes pity on Mitchell, in turns gutsy, jaded and vulnerable in the part of a ruined woman who still has enough room in her broken heart for his sob story. The appearance of her ex-husband (Paul Kelly) offers a fascinating insight into their dysfunctional relationship, which clearly goes on long after the action has moved elsewhere. His exhortations to help Finlay with his investigation, which doesn’t merit a response, indicate just another ruined and pathetic life, which has no more use to anybody.

Crossfire is fine and clever film making, which thanks to its subject matter was nominated for five Academy Awards, including supporting acting nods for Ryan (who was so effective that he would try desperately to steer clear of similar roles) and Grahame. Dmytryk was close to being ostracised by Hollywood for refusing to testify to the House of Un-American Activities Committee, at around the same time as he was Oscar nominated for directing Crossfire. I watch the film now and think that it was just a waste of sheer talent. It’s a title bristling with invention and ideas, and to think of a career that was stifled when he was capable of producing work of this calibre seems very wrong.

Crossfire: ****

The Reckless Moment (1949)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 5 January (2.25 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Recently, I’ve taken the opportunity to watch a couple of Max Ophuls’s films from his American period. He reminds me a lot of Douglas Sirk, his fellow German director who came to the USA and, in his work, showed a mirror up to society and found it wanting. There was Caught, Ophuls’s study of the capitalist American dream, Barbara Bel Geddes achieving it when she marries Robert Ryan’s millionaire. It quickly becomes apparent that Ryan’s a rich asshole, a megalomaniac who’s surrounded himself with sycophants on the payroll and, in his eyes, Bel Geddes carries exactly the same status. So she runs away, into the arms of James Mason’s kindly and understanding doctor, and the film’s dilemma becomes one of choosing true happiness on modest means or an empty life of wealth.

Mason’s services were retained for The Reckless Moment, a title that makes better use of his talents as it was frustrating to see an actor of his intensity and range taking on a straight role in Caught. In this entry, the character he plays is complicated and interesting, a blackmailer who falls in love with the victim because she is from a level of society to which he can never aspire. The romantic undertones between him and Joan Bennett are palpable, but I’m not sure ‘romance’ is the appropriate word; instead Mason’s character slips from turning up on her doorstep with the aim of extorting money from her to helping around the house, carrying her groceries and interacting socially with her family. His effort to impress himself on a middle class family is quietly heartbreaking. You wonder what he’s experienced previously to give up on his lot in chasing a clearly lost cause.

And that’s just one element of a great thriller that takes a step into nightmarish Noir territory, presenting viewers with the sort of unresolvable dilemma that keeps the suspense ticking until its close. The central plot hook is familiar territory to Joan Bennett, who starred in The Woman in the Window five years earlier. When not walking around in daring see-through blouses, Bennett’s character became embroiled with Edward G Robinson when the pair accidentally murder someone and then attempt to cover their tracks, something you know will be a hopeless exercise because in these films, crime never pays. Just like in The Reckless Moment, she’s blackmailed for $5,000, five gees, an impossible quandary that feels like the start of a slide into despair and ruin.

The character Bennett plays in The Reckless Moment is very different from her glamorous role in Fritz Lang’s entry. Here she’s Lucia Harper, a respectable housewife living in the quiet Los Angeles suburb of Balboa. It’s a typical 1940s small community, where everyone knows each other and added to that each other’s business. The world is presented as idyllic, though the Harper family, once you peer beneath the surface, is dysfunctional and far from perfect. Mr Harper works away from home, in West Berlin, and won’t be home for Christmas. While Lucia’s son, Tom (Henry O’Neill), is just an over-exuberant teenage lad, her daughter, Geraldine Brooks’s Bea, is a different prospect altogether. She’s chosen art school over going to college and here she has hooked up with older man Ted Darby (Shepperd Strudwick). Believing the age gap between Darby and Bea is intolerable, Lucia goes into the city to tell him to stop seeing her, only to get an insight into his true character when he says it will cost her, five gees to be precise. Lucia refuses and returns home, but Darby follows her and meets Bea in the boathouse. Bea’s been clued in by Lucia about his blackmail attempt and brushes him off, but a tussle ensues and only finishes when she runs off and Darby is inadvertently killed. Early the following morning, Lucia discovers the body and the anchor he’s collapsed upon. You or I might contact the authorities at that point, but instead she tries to spare her daughter and the family’s reputation and dumps the corpse in some nearby swamps.

End of the matter? Yeah, course it is. The body’s discovered and the police start searching, though it’s clear that only a staggering leap of logic would lead them to the Harper’s door. Unwisely though, Darby’s loose and fast lifestyle led him into building a string of debts. He owed money to Nagel and Donnelly (Mason), and in collateral they possess a number of love letters Bea had written to Darby. The letters are incriminating, evidence of the link between the Harper family and Darby, and Donnelly turns up to see Lucia and demand five gees for their return, or he’ll take them to the authorities. Lucia flusters; she doesn’t have that kind of money. Her inability to just get rid of Donnelly is horrifying. When other family members show up and invite him for dinner or some chatter about the ‘old country’ (he’s Irish, like Lucia’s father), two things become transparent – the easy sociability of the household, in which people can only ever be there if they’re friendly, and Lucia’s rising sense of shame. And then something else – Donnelly responds. At first it feels like a ploy, as though he knows he’s an embarrassment to her and plays up to the family’s good-natured attention in order to turn the screw, but as the days pass it transpires his feelings run deeper than that. He buys her a gift when they meet at the shop. He pays and serves coffee to her at a moment of tension. Donnelly steadily becomes the husband figure in her life, ostensibly protecting her from the tougher partner, Nagel (Roy Roberts), but in truth serving as surrogate in the absence of Mr Harper. The lengths he goes to in order to protect her become pivotal when Nagel shows up and he’s forced to decide between the racket and Lucia.

It’s a fascinating study, part affection (Lucia’s a beautiful woman) but almost certainly more to do with the world she represents, a cosy and friendly environment that is obviously alien to the hard knock life he knows. This was early in Mason’s career as an American film star (he was a major British player, with certain wartime titles going on to be among the country’s most profitable at the domestic box office), but already he was establishing himself as a mature actor, lending credibility to his character and the relationship he establishes with Lucia. What could have been a straight melodrama gains heft as the dilemma they share is dealt with, as far as possible, in a relatable, adult fashion.

But it takes two, and Bennett as Lucia is simply electrifying. Having enjoyed some delicious femme fatale roles earlier in the decade (the character she plays in Lang’s Scarlet Street, again opposite Edward G Robinson, ranks among the screen’s ultimate honey traps; it’s very dark) as well as dominating the gossip columns with endless details about her private life, this role was a real gift. As a housewife for whom the family means everything, she readily shoulders responsibility for disposing of Darby’s body, deals exclusively with the blackmail levelled against her daughter (about which Bea knows nothing), maintains a busy and disorganised home, and frets over the household bills. Knowing she has to raise the five gees, she take it upon herself to visit pawn shops and loan offices, the latter almost a comic situation as she’s shoved inside a glass booth, this respectable woman, whilst in other booths we can see little episodes of anonymous financial desperation play out. She does it all practically, just because that’s her role and it what she does. There’s no collapsing under the strain; the only time we see her cry is at the film’s close when she’s been released from her predicament. Incidentally, there’s a great piece on Bennett’s real-life shenanigans over at Shadows and Satin; it’s well worth a read, particularly as it makes a refreshing change to find that she had the last laugh.

The Reckless Moment was not a success upon its release, and there’s a sense of it being hopelessly ahead of its time, its psychology too sophisticated for the audiences to whom it played. Ophuls responded by returning to Europe (he was a Jew who fled his native Germany when the Nazis arrived, and then moved across the Atlantic when his new home in France fell in 1940) and enjoyed arguably his most impressive creative period, certainly the most celebrated. The tendency to sidetrack the four films he directed in America is natural enough, but wrong. The Reckless Moment is brilliant cinema.

The Reckless Moment: ****

The Third Man (1949)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 22 December (11.00 pm)
Channel: BBC4
IMDb Link

Scheduled to mark one hundred years since Orson Welles bounded onto Planet Earth (though he was in fact a May child), it’s always refreshing to catch up with The Third Man again. This has to be a strong contender for my favourite film of all time, an exquisite treat to get to see it in its restored form in the cinema this year and a title I revisit regularly. Despite the fact Welles is in it so little, the artwork and enduring images from the film feature him prominently, and in many ways it was a perfect role for him – enigmatic, complicated, and allowing him lots of time off from the shoot. I think it’s just wonderful, from the astonishing black and white photography in post-war Vienna, to the unique Anton Karas score and its dense plotting that never feels forced, indeed it’s a miracle of economical film making from the peerless Carol Reed. I blame this one for getting me hooked into classic cinema in the first place – yes, in my eyes it’s that good.

A few months ago, I wrote a retrospective on The Third Man for Multitude of Movies, and the editors have been kind enough to allow me to use the article again here. If you’ve never read the magazine or visited their excellent website, you are encouraged to stop what you’re doing and head over there right away. In the meantime, here’s 2,000 words on why the film is essential…

The Third Man is one of the best films of all time. Its genius lies in the fact that not only does it hit all the right notes artistically but it’s also very entertaining. There are no bum notes, and the 104 minutes it occupies fly by. In researching this, I’ve read various books and articles, and re-watched The Third Man several times, including a visit to Home in Manchester to see the glorious 4K restoration on the big screen. It still dazzles, just as much as it did when I first came across it, aged 16, ready to have my mind opened to classic cinema and unwittingly catching one of its highlights. Writing these words, the melancholic stylings of Anton Karas’s lonely zither are playing in my head, and on Spotify. I can’t ever imagine being bored of The Third Man.

Karas seems as good a place as any to start. The film’s score is one of the elements that makes it unique. At a time when releases were soundtracked by an orchestra as a matter of course, the decision to use a single zither for The Third Man was an inspired gamble that paid off. Its director, Carol Reed, chanced upon Karas when he’d been employed to supply background music for a welcome party to the production crew in Vienna. Reed was haunted by the sound and tracked down the little musician, recording hours of material. Determined to find space for it in the film, Reed used his zither footage initially to accompany the rough edits of the film, realisation dawning that it was the perfect musical background. A reluctant and homesick Karas was persuaded to travel to England and record what would become the full score. The idiosyncratic music became a massive hit, Karas’s title track ‘The Harry Lime Theme’ turning into a bestseller among record buyers. It prompted the Austrian to embark on tours of Britain and America, and earned him enough of a windfall to pay for his Vienna bar, appropriately named Der Dritte Mann, the showpiece being Karas playing the Harry Lime Theme to awestruck patrons.

The Third Man is ostensibly a thriller, based on real-life black market racketeering in impoverished, post-war Vienna. It was written by Graham Greene, who had produced the screenplay for Reed’s previous film, The Fallen Idol, and was dispatched to Vienna by the head of London Films, Alexander Korda, to come up with a new story. Greene had already come up with the hook, that of a dead man inexplicably seen alive and well, and now applied it to a tale set in the Austrian capital. Wandering the streets with Korda’s assistant, Elizabeth Montagu, Greene was struck by the state of Vienna, ‘bombed about a bit’, jagged ruins of buildings, also the way it was managed by representatives of the four victorious powers from World War Two. Amidst the ensuing confusion, there was little wonder that criminal activity thrived, desperate people scratching out a survival by any means possible, and a meeting with The Times correspondent, Peter Smollett, introduced Greene to the victims of illegal antibiotic usage, a hospital filled with children who were dying from taking it.

The story came together, telling of an amoral character who took advantage of the poverty and city under divided rule to smuggle diluted medicine to the people. In The Third Man, military officials from Britain, France, the USA and USSR do their best to maintain control, despite the lack of mutual understanding. Vienna lies shattered, grand examples of its former glamour now faded, other buildings bombed into rubble, whilst the people remain passive onlookers, pinched and prematurely aged faces looking on as the action takes place around them. It’s the perfect environment for Harry Lime to operate in, living in the Russian sector to evade his British pursuers and using the extensive sewer system beneath Vienna to move around. When he ‘dies’, knocked over by a car, it seems the case against him is closed and he can continue his trade from the shadows, an elusive ghost who can never be caught because he no longer officially exists. But he makes one mistake, when he invites his childhood friend, Holly Martins, to travel over and work with him.

In the film, Martins is played by Joseph Cotten, a major American star who was loaned to the production by the Selznick Releasing Organisation. The Third Man was made by a collaboration of Korda and David O Selznick, who worked together to distribute it to audiences in Britain and America. The latter supplied investment, talent, and also the lengthy interference of Selznick himself. A notorious dabbler in films in which he was involved, Selznick had already earned for himself the bitter enmity of Alfred Hitchcock. The British director had been contracted to him during the forties and grew increasingly sickened by the endless string of memos issued that attempted to overrule and control him. Selznick tried the same strategy with Korda, a worthy rival who was every bit as domineering. The to and fro between the pair would go on to dog the entire production. It was Korda, a Hungarian émigré now established as a key figure in the British film industry, who came up with the idea of a film set in Vienna, seeing the creative potential of a yarn set in the defeated city that was split into four zones. Yet Selznick was equally involved, for example encouraging what became the film’s ending, Anna’s refusal to finish up with Martins because her love for Harry is too powerful and ultimately destructive. It’s moments like these that make The Third Man such a poignant experience. Anna (Aida Valli) is Harry’s former girlfriend. He sells her out to the Russians as a Czech citizen carrying false papers that he had previously made for her, yet the extent to which he’s stolen her heart makes her unfailingly loyal to him. Even when it’s clearly established that Holly has fallen for her and makes a deal to get her smuggled out of the country by the British, she refuses, preferring to face her own ruin rather than betray Harry. In the closing scene, after Holly and Anna have attended Harry’s real funeral, he waits for her, only to watch Anna walk defiantly past him and into a ruined future.

The majority of The Third Man follows Holly’s efforts to investigate the circumstances of Harry’s ‘death’.  That he’s unqualified for the assignment is never in much doubt. Cotten’s character is a writer of pulp fiction, a ‘scribbler with too much drink inside him’, falling foul of the authorities, most often the exasperated Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) and his dogged Sergeant, Paine (Bernard Lee). Calloway has been trying to catch up with Harry for some time and places little faith in Holly’s attempts to clear his friend’s name, but steadily the American turns up some unusual clues. Meetings with Harry’s friends produce inconsistencies about his final moments. A chat with the porter of Harry’s building reveals that an extra person turned up to help move his body after it had been hit by the car, which turns the search into a hunt for the identity of this ‘third man’, who of course turns out to be Harry himself. Cotten plays Holly as a self-pitying drunk, filled with bad memories and ruminating on personal failings. His character was based on Greene, himself bullied during his years at boarding school and scarred by the experience.

As Holly padfoots the streets, he takes in the full spectacle of Vienna’s ruined splendour in much the same way as Greene did. Extensive shooting took place in the city, though more footage was filmed in Surrey’s Shepperton Studios than is apparent. All the same, there’s little getting away from Vienna’s shattered beauty as it appears in the film, indeed the location is more or less a character in its own right, a wrecked, once thriving metropolis ‘with its easy charm’ that is the sublime backdrop for the black and white photography. Once beautiful buildings, many of which still survive in the film, now project long and eerie shadows, and those shadows contain its citizens, rifling through bins and scrabbling for succour. Reed manipulated Vienna to get the ambience just right, carefully choosing shots that would contain some evocative Gothic structure in the background and soaking the streets prior to filming in order to lend it a cold, wintry sheen. Thousands of feet of film depicting the Viennese were taken, depicting the people peering in baleful curiousity, showing the stark reality of life in this place.

At Shepperton, the sewers were recreated and filmed for the scenes featuring Harry Lime running for his life through the labyrinthine passages. These were then spliced with footage of the actual sewers to make the effect appear seamless. Orson Welles, who portrayed Harry in probably his most famous acting role, refused to work in the real thing on health grounds, leaving the production with no choice but to reproduce them. The extent of Welles’s involvement in The Third Man has always been mythologised and distorted, fans of the auteur going with the suggestion that he scripted and indeed directed all his own scenes. In reality, Welles was in the cast as part of a contract with Korda, which was initially signed to fund a number of directorial efforts but by 1949 had turned sour. Welles believed he’d been messed around with and became a problem for the production, being chased around Italy largely on expenses that were met by the studio before he was finally tracked down and dragged to Vienna. The level of Welles’s chicanery was such that much of his performance was produced by other members of the crew. That isn’t his shadow being chased down the streets by Holly. Those aren’t his fingers reaching forlornly through the sewer grid.

His main contribution was the scene in which Harry and Holly finally meet at the big wheel. It’s one of cinema’s iconic moments, bookended by the famous ‘cuckoo clock’ speech, which Welles ad-libbed from an 1885 lecture by James McNeill Whistler. But the nervous energy Harry displays in this scene had little to do with keeping in character and was in fact a product of Welles’s worries about playing alongside the more accomplished actor, Cotten. The pair had a long association, stretching back to their Mercury Theatre days, and Welles knew full well how talented his collaborator was.

For all that, Welles’s glorified cameo undeniably stole the movie. His face features in all The Third Man’s artwork, despite the little time during which he actually appears in the picture. Perhaps it’s the case of an actor perfectly complementing his role, and what a role it is. Lime’s a villain, more or less psychopathic, but he’s also charming and charismatic, and it’s easy to see why Anna would fall for him so hard. Welles turned out to be ideally cast, with his ironic smile and sense of humour, and there’s no surprise that in the wake of The Third Man, the spin-off radio series followed the adventures of Harry rather than any of the other characters. By all accounts, Welles had great fun reprising his role for the wireless, writing a number of episodes as well as delivering lines and, along the way, transforming the character into something of a rogueish hero.

Many great films only become recognised further down the line, long after their initial release. One thinks of Vertigo, locked away for decades before it was re-evaluated and deemed a masterpiece. Not so with The Third Man, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and went on to be one of the biggest box office hits of the year. Critics fell over themselves to praise the filming, the cast, and especially Carol Reed, the director who overcame the battles between Korda and Selznick, the wiles of Orson Welles, the complaints from Joseph Cotton as the production ran beyond its scheduled limit. Reed had a vision for what The Third Man should be, and realised it. We can all enjoy the results.

The Third Man: *****