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: *****

Dracula (1958)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 2 December (10.00 pm)
Channel: BBC4
IMDb Link

BBC Four are screening Dracula today, and The Curse of Frankenstein at 11.00 pm tomorrow, and while they are exhibited with reasonable frequency it’s always a pleasure to revisit these old Hammer classics, both responsible to a large extent for the studio’s success and a revolutionising of the entire horror genre. They may look old and slow now (someone I know who teaches A-Level Film Studies told me that her students groaned throughout Dracula), but at the time they were very big deals, cutting edge cinema, and they deserve our respect.

Despite the BBC’s scheduling, it’s worth pointing out that The Curse of Frankenstein came first of the pair, its quick success giving Hammer licence and funding to follow up with their adaptation of Dracula. On the sort of budget that must have made even contemporary producers weep with frustration, they nevertheless turned out a profitable picture, one that looked good and sustained Frankenstein’s use of colour, blood and cleavages. These were innovations within horror cinema at the time; compare Dracula with something like Night of the Demon, which came out the year before, and note the latter’s black and white photography, buttoned down characters and largely gore free thrills. Of course, Jacques Tourneur’s entry has since been hailed as a classic, and rightly so, but it’s important to see that at the time, Dracula looked like a real step forward.

For modern viewers, the good news is that this film plays like a reasonably close adaptation from Bram Stoker’s original novel. I don’t suppose any screen version has stayed entirely true, and this I believe is correct given the book can be a rather stuffy experience in places and never quite gets across the Count’s demonic power; in other words he’s a character made for the screen. Hammer chose Christopher Lee for their vampire, one of those casting decisions that goes down in history as a no-brainer, and yet it was a bit of a leap given the main use of Lee previously as taking advantage of his height to give him the ‘monster’ roles. Made up heavily as the creation in The Curse of Frankenstein, what Dracula brought out was his good looks, dark charisma and presence. His is a Count you can imagine seducing women with a stare, all those suggestive leers that verged on the scandalous in 1958 but from Lee seemed wholly credible. The actor famously attempted to distance himself from the role in later years, understandable as Hammer were churning out sequels of varying quality to order and Dracula became increasingly a classic screen bogeyman rather than a character with motivation, but in truth he was a victim of his own success. As soon as he appears in this film, shaded in subdued colours at the top of the castle staircase, hopelessly eclipsing John Van Eyssen’s Jonathan Harker who can do naught but stare up at him, he kills it. A legend was born.

Speaking of legends, Dracula’s main opponent in this version is Doctor Van Helsing, played by Peter Cushing. I’ve made little secret of my admiration for ‘the Cush’ on these pages, and this performance is a very good reason why I feel that way. Bear in mind that Dracula cost £81,000 to make; it was a relatively small scale production, so it would have been understandable to watch actors going through the motions. Nothing of the kind. Cushing threw himself fully into the part, already capable of exuding great intelligence and authority from his work as Baron Frankenstein, but here adding a physical dimension that makes the climactic scenes between Van Helsing and the Count such an action-packed thrill. Requiring a crucifix to help him in the sequence, it was the actor himself who suggested forming a cross from two candlesticks, which the props department quickly whipped out of storage and onto the set for use in the film.

Cushing had nothing but praise for the professional spirit that turned Dracula into a success, belying its slim budget to produce a slick and racy horror experience. In charge was Terence Fisher, establishing himself as Hammer’s go-to director for its horror releases. The challenge was to make something that played differently to the 1931 Universal film, which Fisher and writer Jimmy Sangster did in various ways. One was to transform the main characters, Dracula and Van Helsing, removing the latter’s stuffy, professorial air as essayed by Edward Van Sloan in the earlier movie, whilst having the Count put in a more physical and sensuous performance than Bela Lugosi’s cape swishing antics. Whereas Universal’s production owed much to Dracula’s run as a Broadway hit, actually filmed in many places as a stage play, this version is far more obviously cinematic, with its heavier emphasis on action and the sight of Lee shown biting his victims, a real shock at the time. The colour is used brilliantly, even if the blood is obviously fake, yet there’s still room for the castle’s gloomy shadows and dark corridors, adding to the place’s claustrophobic sense of foreboding. When Harker is the only human in Castle Dracula, aware that its other occupants are the Count and Valerie Gaunt’s sexy bride, both after what flows in his veins, the cloying air of doom that surrounds him is palpable.

It would be wrong to try and claim that this is the best version of Dracula out there. These days, it looks its age; try watching it after more recent vampire flicks like 30 Days of Night or A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (I’m halfway through this one, it’s good!) and it plays like what it is, a mild horror made for prior generations. Arguably there have even been better Dracula offerings. I’m a fan of the John Badham adaptation from 1979, an altogether glossier affair, though for the sight of a cadaverous Jan Francis stumbling through the sewers rather than Frank Langella’s eponymous Count, who looks and acts like a Dracula for the Dynasty crowd. His vampire retains Lee’s smooth sexuality but fails to bring out the more dangerous side of his character. Gary Oldman tried both in his playing for the 1992 version, and modern effects made him appear as both the old man we first come across in Stoker’s novel and the powerful, apparently younger model when he arrives in England. Another film with lots of money spent on it, and sadly spoiled by an endless cavalcade of visual metaphors, along with heavily nuanced performances as though the actors are begging for attention in the middle of all those expensive special effects.

So whilst this might not be the best Dracula adaptation, something that’s surely up to each viewer to decide, it’s certainly my favourite and I would argue that it marks a milestone within horror cinema.

Dracula: ****

We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

When it’s on: Monday, 25 May (9.00 pm)
Channel: BBC4
IMDb Link

Being a parent isn’t easy, unless perhaps you’re a member of the royal family and your media comments about sleepless nights because of baby are transferred from nanny’s words. Whilst there is a mass of stuff you can read about the process of giving birth, what you can do to help as a new father, etc, I don’t remember finding much to do with how the new arrival affects your family, dealing with the psychology, essentially how to suddenly flip your role from being an adult with your own life to the sudden impact of turning into a carer, and being happy doing so. I don’t know if that makes a lot of sense. When we had our son, I admit I was unprepared for it emotionally and took some time to get used to the idea. I liked the life I had beforehand and felt some resentment at it becoming something else whilst having no one to focus that towards. As I said, not easy.

I expect it’s like that for many new parents, and fortunately there appear to have been few ill effects as our boy has transformed into a fifteen year old with some definite teenage surly qualities but, more importantly, signs of becoming a fully rounded human being that I put down more to good luck than our high quality nurturing skills. But I will confess to feeling many of the insecurities experienced by Eva (Tida Swinton) in We Need to Talk About Kevin, which is where the sense of fortune comes into play. What if our son hadn’t been so good? What if he had shown signs, from a very early age, of being a demon child? What if he had apparently exerted every effort in making my life – or my wife’s – a living hell? What if his behaviour led to the slow break-up of our marriage as we failed to talk about what do do with him? What if all this was building to some awful, tragic event that left me attempting to pick up the pieces afterwards, hated by a community that saw me – as the parent – to blame for what happened?

We Need to Talk About Kevin is about the aftermath of the ‘event’ and Eva’s efforts to deal emotionally with it, more importantly her survival when there’s nothing left that’s worth surviving for. She gets up one morning and finds that someone has splashed red paint all over the front of her house and car. She walks past a couple of people, one of whom strikes her viciously. In the shopping mall, she avoids another shopper and then discovers that all the eggs in her trolley have been broken; she pays for them as they are. It’s a hellish existence, punctuated by sleeping pills, alcohol and of course memories, endless memories, the flashbacks of her life up to this point replayed in a pointless loop in which she tries to find some meaning. She realises that she was happy before she met Franklin (John C Reilly) and happy too for a time after. Then they had Kevin, moved from the city to a mansion in the suburbs. Things start to go wrong. As a baby, Kevin does nothing but cry for her and she stands with the pram by a pneumatic drill to drown out his screams. Later, he refuses to engage with her in any way. Toilet training is a nightmare of non-co-operation and exasperation, leading to a moment when, in a spark of anger, she throws him against a wall, breaking his arm, something he uses against her from then on. The only moment in their entire time together that things improve is when she’s reading him a story about the legend of Robin Hood, which sparks his interest in archery, something you just know will have terrible consequences later. They have another child, Celia, who becomes an object of further dislike and jealousy for Kevin, now a teenager (played by Ezra Miller) whose every comment is a barbed spike of hate and bile. Celia loses her pet hamster, then an eye. Both are put down as accidents.

It’s a difficult film to like, It’s far too uncomfortable for that, just like the book by Lionel Shriver (which I’ve started reading) has a gnawing, compelling quality but isn’t something I can imagine recommending to people who want some good bedtime reading. The project spent some years in gestation, attached to Lynne Ramsay before being made as the novel was seen as pretty much unfilmable (it’s told as a series of letters from Eva to Franklin), though the end results are impressive indeed. The principal cast members are all superb. Swinton, best known for playing icy characters, like her performance in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (and being by some distance the best thing in that surprisingly underwhelming adaptation), knows to put any change in outward emotion at a premium, making Eva the sort of character where everything is happening beneath the surface. A tall actor, Swinton does all she can to recede into the background, avoiding any human contact because she knows that all eyes hate her, making hers a deliberately awkward piece of work. Reilly plays Franklin as the oblivious, ‘good’ husband, having no idea what Kevin’s like because he’s being played by his son all along. It’s a revelatory turn by Miller as Kevin, made to look like the male equivalent of Swinton’s character so that, when he commits his act of hate, it’s as though he’s done it all for her, like she’s his audience, his chip off her old block.

The colour red features prominently throughout, from the Spanish tomato festival Eva enjoys in her pre-marital days, looking like she’s bathing in blood, through to the splashes of red paint on her property and the Ketchup sandwich Kevin fixes for himself, all pre-figuring the deed for which both he and she will become notorious. The use of sound is also noteworthy, screams entering the background soundtrack all too often to outline that what Kevin did is never far from the surface of Eva’s thoughts, also the noise of water sprinklers for reasons that become horribly apparent.

Incidentally, I watched The Babadook for the first time over the weekend. This too is a film about parenting, the difficulties that come with raising a troublesome child, and whilst they’re very different movies in terms of content both focus on the subject and play on the fears of being responsible for a kid. It’s hard. And it can go horribly wrong, often enough through no real fault of your own. After all, we’re all flawed in some way; we just have to hope those flaws don’t transfer into the behaviour of our offspring.

We Need to Talk About Kevin: ****

10 Rillington Place (1971)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 31 March (10.00 pm)
Channel: BBC4
IMDb Link

– I don’t know, Mr Christie.
– Well Tim, if you haven’t got complete confidence in my abilities…
– I trust you, Mr Christie, of course I do.

I think I was seven when we went on a family holiday to London. One of the attractions we visited was Madame Tussaud’s with its Chamber of Horrors, and inside, amidst the medieval torture devices was a gallery of notorious serial killers. One of these was a rather unassuming middle-aged, balding man, alone in a room, paste brush in hand whilst behind him one of the walls was covered with freshly laid wallpaper. This turned out to be John Reginald Christie. The surface over which he’d so recently papered was a covered up alcove, and inside were the bodies of three murdered women.

It was this alcove that ultimately did for Christie. Shortly after concealing his crime, he sub-let his flat and left, living rough and sleeping in doss houses. In the meantime, the new tenants arrived, complained about the smell and discovered the makeshift tomb. When the police turned up, a further corpse, that of Christie’s wife Ethel, was found beneath the floorboards, along with the remains of two further women buried in the garden, a femur bone being used to prop up a fence. Later, Christie would be accused of killing Beryl and Geraldine Evans, the wife and baby daughter of Timothy Evans, who himself had been hanged for the crimes several years earlier whilst occupying the same building. Three years on from Evans’s death, Christie faced the noose.

What struck me about the waxwork model was the apparent ordinariness of the murderer. In films and on television, there’s often some obvious sign that marks someone out as a serial killer, some indefinable thing that marks them out as psychologically unbalanced enough to commit such heinous crimes, but Christie looked so normal, which of course made the whole affair so much more chilling, the idea that you can’t tell, you really can’t tell.

It’s this quality that Richard Attenborough brought to sinister life when he played Christie in 10 Rillington Place, the address of the residence where the murders happened. I’ve always admired Attenborough more as an actor than for his directing. The films he’s helmed too often appear to me to move at a pace slightly slower than stately, whereas on the other side of the camera he can produce really haunting performances across a wide variety of roles. Christie’s one of his best, something he also acknowledged, the murderer who projects a veneer of outward genteel respectability so convincingly that he can get murderously close to women whilst shifting the suspicion onto others. On the surface, his Christie appears to be just another man on the street, nothing to see here, but it’s all in the restless shifting of his eyes, his habit of peering out of a gap in the drapes as though sensing the knot of suspicion closing around him, the soft spoken Yorkshire dialect that comes across as warm and genial.

The story focuses on the murders of Beryl and Geraldine, and the implication of Timothy as their killer, a fabrication weaved by Christie. At the time 10 Rilington Place was made, Evans had already been pardoned for the killing of his wife though not his daughter, the crime for which he had actually been convicted in the first instance. Whilst the matter of police misconduct during the investigation was still undecided, the film based itself on Ludovic Kennedy’s book, Ten Rillington Place, which argued that the investigation had been flawed and Evans innocent. In the film, Evans is played by the BAFTA nominated John Hurt as a working class Welshman with a seriously low IQ, meaning he can be easily influenced by Christie. Judy Geeson plays Beryl, Evans’s pretty young wife, who becomes pregnant for a second time. This is a worry for the couple. They can barely afford to make ends meet and their flat in 10 Rillington Place is small and squalid enough to begin with. Christie, who was able to meet many women during the war as a backstreet abortionist, offers his services to the Evans couple and they agree. What they don’t realise is that it’s an excuse to gas Beryl into a state of unconsciousness and then rape and strangle her, which is exactly what he does. The tools of his trade, the pipes that hook up to the gas supply, supposedly benign medicinal mixture, and rope, are kept under lock and key in a little medicine cabinet, and his retrieval of these items is a sure precursor to murder.

Evans goes to work, comes home and Christie tells him there’s been a complication in the abortion and Beryl’s dead. By simple persuasion, he argues they’re both guilty and offers to get rid of the body if Evans will leave for a while. He even says he knows a couple who’ll take Geraldine in, which seems to solve all the young man’s problems at once. Of course that’s a lie and Evans is no sooner on the train to Merthyr than Christie’s taking his tie upstairs in order to deal with the baby. Back in Wales and racked with guilt, Evans hands himself in to the police. Events start to spiral out of control as the investigation and the ease with which they wring a confession out of him turn the case into a fait accompli. Crucially, Christie distances himself completely from the murders. Ethel (Pat Heywood) backs him up, though there’s a sense she suspects something isn’t right. Evans, unable to read the confession he’s signed, hopelessly out of his depth and only realising at the end that he’s been stitched up, begins repeating ‘Christie’s done it’ but it’s all too late and he has an appointment to keep with the hangman.

It’s a brilliant study by Hurt, the youthful bravado he shows whilst drinking with his mates at the pub falling away once he realises he’s in desperate trouble and relying on entirely the wrong man to help him. It becomes apparent quickly that he’s just the wrong man, in the wrong place at the wrong time, and he doesn’t come close to appreciating the man into whom he’s placed his trust is the wrongest of all the elements. Geeson’s great as the innocent and hopeful Beryl, and there’s a small part for Isobel Black as her best friend, who for her own sake is probably fortunate to vanish from the picture when she does.

10 Rillington Place was directed by Richard Fleischer, a flexible filmmaker whose previous work covered on these pages are a far cry from the subject matter here. Fleischer had made films about real-life serial killers before, notably The Boston Strangler, starring Tony Curtis, but he brought a real documentary sensibility to this project, feeling rightly that the subject matter was horrific enough without the need for added melodrama. As far as it was possible to do so, the script by Clive Exton copied real, recorded speeches from the characters. The scenes at Rillington Place were filmed in Rillington Place (which has since been knocked down and completely remodelled as part of Notting Hill’s subsequent gentrification – this YouTube video speculates on the most likely location); the residents at number 10 wouldn’t allow their home to be used, so the crew worked across the street in number 7 instead, capturing starkly the slum conditions that framed the ghastly events, the poverty of the intransigent residents, the relative ‘four to a room’ destitution within which Christie operated. The murders, when they take place, are shown graphically, and whilst little is made of the killer’s motives, the signs are there in Attenborough’s performance. Most chillingly of all, it’s the ease with which he commits his crimes that are the most shocking element, the absence of guilt as though it’s all a normal part of his working day.

It’s a difficult film to recommend as entertainment, though it’s certainly worth seeing not least as a study into the machinations of a real life killer, told largely without embellishment, also the shaky police work that led to Evans’s hanging. In 1965, several years before 10 Rillington Place was released, the death penalty in the UK was suspended, largely because of the horrible potential of wrongful convictions. There was a large swell of support for its return, before people saw the film and appreciated the consequences of getting it wrong.

10 Rillington Place: ****

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 31 December (11.00 pm)
Channel: BBC4
IMDb Link

I shot an arrow in the air, she fell to earth in Berkeley Square.

1949 was a watershed year for Ealing Studios. After a fine early dip into the waters of comedy with the post-war Hue and Cry, the year heralded an explosion of great work with Whiskey Galore!, Passport to Pimlico and Kind Hearts and Coronets. All three work beautifully. Not only are they very funny films, they’re also consummately British and explore different aspects of life and manners, capturing to sublime effect the mood and spirit of Great Britain in the years following World War Two.

Each film deserves a gushing entry of its own, but my favourite of the golden trio is without doubt Kind Hearts and Coronets, a delicious black comedy about a series of murders. The subject matter is dark indeed; a disinherited young man seeks his fortune, his place as the Duke of Chalfont, by killing all the family members that stand between him and his prestigious position as head of the ennobled family. And yet it’s told with real charm, and the story has such an agreeable lead in the impeccably mannered Dennis Price, that it’s impossible not to fall in love with him, his objective and finding oneself cheering on his efforts, hoping he actually achieves his ghoulish dream.

Price, in reality raised in the kind of privileged upbringing that would no doubt have pleased his character, plays Louis Mancini, the son of a lady from the noble D’Ascoyne clan, who eloped with an itinerant opera singer and for her pains ended up in poverty. The family refuses to acknowledge his existence, so Louis has little choice but to take a humble shop assistant’s job. When his mother dies and the D’Ascoynes deny her a place in the family crypt, Louis’s thoughts on his heritage turn to those of vengeance, the germ of an idea to put himself high in the pecking order for the Dukedom. At the same time, he’s friends from childhood with Lionel (John Penrose) and Sibella (Joan Greenwood). It’s clear he adores the latter, and those feelings are returned, but the flighty Sibella does not see the young Louis with slim prospects as suitable for her, so she chooses to marry Lionel as our hero attempts to improve his outlook by removing the obstacles, one by one…

In a casting stroke of genius, the D’Ascoyne family are all played by the same actor – Alec Guinness. Aged 35 at the time of filming, Guinness’s reputation – gained mainly on the stage – was that of someone who looked anonymous and unmemorable, unlike many of his rather striking thespian peers, such as Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud, and this was played up to great effect with him donning various wigs and prosthetics to fit himself like a chameleon into the skin of each D’Ascoyne, young and old, male and female. A skilled and flexible performer, Guinness was more than capable of breathing life into all his characters, whether the vain and ignorant Young Ascoyne, the more likeable Young Henry, the doddering Parson, the blustering General. What none of his personae sees coming is the spirit of revenge in the shape of Louis, who finds increasingly imaginative ways of doing away with them. The General meets his demise after an encounter with exploding caviar. The Parson drinks poisoned port. An unfortunate drowning ‘accident’ sees off Young Ascoyne.

It could be grim fare, but it’s actually riotously funny thanks to the gregarious narration from Louis, as he recalls how he made it to the top of the family business. Charismatic and effortlessly pithy, there’s no doubt that what he’s doing is wrong and indeed he’s the first to acknowledge it, yet there’s something entirely winning about Louis’s anti-hero as he goes about his grisly work. Structurally, the story is told in flashback, Louis recounting the events that led to the prison where we first meet him, presumably (though not necessarily) having eventually been caught for the string of D’Ascoyne murders and awaiting the hangman’s noose. Even with death before him, however, there’s no crying or worry. He’s the picture of patrician calm, quoting Doctor Johnson to his gaoler with little sign that he has a care in the world.

Kind Hearts and Coronets was directed by Robert Hamer, already an Ealing veteran with the superior working class drama, It Always Rains on Sunday, and he was also responsible for the ‘Haunted Mirror’ segment from Dead of Night, the studio’s quite brilliant portmanteau horror film. Had it not been for the even scarier ‘The Ventriloquist’s Dummy’, Hamer’s deeply unsettling tale is the one you would remember, and perhaps it’s the complicated narrative framing Dead of Night that helped make the equally complex Kind Hearts and Coronets so easy to follow. Hamer’s last directorial effort was 1960’s School for Scoundrels, another saga about bad men turning out to be the film’s unlikely heroes though, much like Louis, Ian Carmichael’s morally mixed up Henry Palfrey would no doubt approve of the sympathetic treatment he receives.

Kind Hearts and Coronets: *****

Thanks to everyone who has visited and supported Films on the Box over the Christmas holiday period. Have a Happy New Year and a sensational 2015!

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

When it’s on: Thursday, 25 December (9.00 pm)
Channel: BBC4
IMDb Link

A library of Alfred Hitchcock thrillers has made its way into the Christmas schedules (two of which will be covered here), and BBC4 have chosen The Lady Vanishes for a primetime slot on the big day itself. A good thing too. With the possible exception of The 39 Steps, it’s the peak of Hitchcock’s career as a British-based director and makes for wonderful entertainment.

As with many of the best Hitchcocks, the success of The Lady Vanishes pivots on a very simple plot twist. A young woman, Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) is travelling on a train that’s crossing Europe. Her companion is a genial middle-aged lady, Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), who disappears after Iris has had a nap. Asking after her whereabouts, Iris is told by her fellow travellers that there was no lady and she must have imagined her entire existence. Having received a blow to the head before joining the train, there are grounds to suggest that may have been exactly the case, particularly as the eminent Doctor Hartz (Paul Lukas) indicates there might be psychological reasons for her ‘creating’ Miss Froy. But Iris isn’t convinced and sets about trying to prove that the lady was on the train; in this she’s helped by a raffish English musicologist, Gilbert (Michael Redgrave).

That’s the central storyline, however there’s so much more to The Lady Vanishes. Iris has come across Gilbert before, when he disturbs her sleep in the hotel where they’re both staying. He’s a cad, a charming cad but a cad all the same, and his offer to assist her on the train carries a delicious undertone of dislike and irritation. There are strong hints that Miss Froy’s disappearance might have something to do with areas of Europe through which they’re travelling falling under Fascist control, suggesting the plain looking lady might be an unlikely secret agent for the British secret services, and that certain passengers on the train may be working for countries that were quickly becoming enemies. Cecil Parker and Linden Travers play fellow travellers Mr and Mrs Todhunter, only they’re an eloping couple, fleeing from their marriages to be together. The pair’s arguments about the need to be discrete and their fluctuating levels of devotion to each other have them making decisions about Miss Froy’s disappearance that help the plot move along.

Best of all, finding great popularity with British audiences and remaining a big draw for the film, are Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne as English tourists Charters and Caldicott. Inserted purely for comedy purposes, the pair are used to poke fun at typically ignorant English attitudes to the dangers of the time; while Europe is collapsing into war and a lady has just gone missing on the train, their only interest is the England Test Match taking place in Manchester and their desire to make it back in time for the final day. Radford and Wayne were such a hit with the public that Charters and Caldicott would go on to appear in a number of further movies; the actors played a very similar pair of characters (obsessed with Golf rather than Cricket) in the later Dead of Night.

Redgrave and Lockwood were both very much up and coming talents at the time, indeed this is the former’s earliest screen credit after some distinguished work in theatre. As thrown together sleuths they have real chemistry together, matching the growing attraction that develops between their characters as the sense of peril rises and they find themselves increasingly depending on each other. The dialogue crackles also. The Lady Vanishes was an unusual Hitchcock film for the relative lack of involvement the director had in the screenplay. Known for working on treatments at their earliest stages as part of pre-production, in this instance he pretty much stuck with the script handed to him by British writers Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, who themselves channelled the source novel by Ethel Lina White, considering the plot to be ready made for a screen adaptation.

The Lady Vanishes starts relatively gently, taking time to introduce its characters and appearing very light in tone. The levels of suspense, however, increases all the while, Lukas’s Doctor emerging as a villain along with various passengers to the extent that Gilbert and Iris have no idea how to tell friend from foe. There’s enough going on to tease at complicated back stories from even minor characters, such as the nun looking after Hartz’s completely bandaged patient who is discovered to be wearing high heels.

A major success upon its release for Gainsborough and Hitchcock, The Lady Vanishes landed him with various awards, including the Best Director accolade from the New York Film Critics.  It helped him to negotiate the best possible deal for himself in America, landing him a contract with David O Selznick. His absolutely best work was still in the future, but this picture was an important keynote in establishing him as a major Hollywood player.

The Lady Vanishes: *****

If anyone has stumbled across FOTB on Christmas Day, may I take this opportunity to wish you the very best of Christmases, and thank you for visiting.

Amadeus (1984)

When it’s on: Sunday, 8 July (9.00 pm)
Channel: BBC4
IMDb Link

I’m not suggesting Amadeus was the first good film I ever watched. That initial viewing was, however, one of those pivotal, ‘growing up’ moments. It absolutely blew me away, captivating me to the extent that, as soon as I could, I rented the video, recorded it off the television, watched and rewatched it at every opportunity. Even now, some years after I last caught it and playing my copy of the Director’s Cut DVD for this piece, I find it to be almost perfect. And again, it returns me to that nostalgic memory of seeing it for the first time and having my eyes opened to the possibilities of cinema. Thinking about it, there are few very genuine times when I have felt this way after watching a film. Normally, I’m entertained and that’s fine, but rarely has a movie left me aching emotionally in the way Amadeus did all those years ago.

For a start, it’s an incredibly entertaining film. A movie poster that proudly displays its status as an Academy Award winner can be a bit of a put off, suggesting some grinding, slow moving drudge intent on lecturing us about the human condition for two hours. No thanks. But Amadeus, whilst it has a message about humanity, sets out from the start to get right into the story, and what a yarn it is. The title might indeed be Wolfgang Mozart’s middle name, but it’s actually the tale of Antonio Salieri, who from humble origins rose to prominence in the court of the Hapsburg Emperor, Joseph II. In reality, Salieri didn’t have a direct role in Mozart’s death, but as he succumbed to a mental breakdown in his later years and was admitted to the General Hospital in Vienna, the rumour began to spread that he blamed himself for the passing of his rival. This led to Alexander Pushkin’s poetic study of envy, Mozart and Salieri, written in 1830, which fed into Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play, Amadeus. A good story is, after all, a good story, and the myth that a jealousy-fuelled Salieri plotted the downfall of Mozart is a juicy one. The suggestion that poison was used was based on the ultimately mysterious causes of Mozart’s death, but this theory is widely considered to be fallacious.

The truth of the matter can be divined from the letters between Mozart and his father, Leopold, in which both men bemoaned the Italian ‘establishment’ at Joseph II’s court that prejudiced against Germans trying to establish themselves within musical circles. Salieri, from the Verona region, had origins that fit. The Salzburg-born Mozart’s didn’t, and no amount of talent could overcome the pomposities of the day.

But the play, and the film, whilst acknowledging this also adds a personal dimension. Salieri, born with a lyrical soul and the yearning for heavenly composition, rises to the role of court composer and has the good fortune to work for ‘the Musical Emperor’, whose patronage of the arts maintains a cabal of Italian musical directors. All seems well, until Mozart’s talents emerge and Salieri, for the first time, encounters real genius. It’s a heartbreaking moment. In the eighteenth century, Salieri blames none other than God for the affliction of being able to appreciate music that appears to have been divinely handed down yet remains incapable of producing it. He sees it as God playing a terrible joke on him, choosing instead for His angelic voice an uncouth, vulgar little Austrian who possesses a love of the high life and women. Salieri, having dedicated his life to one of chastity in exchange for the gift, is utterly outraged. Worse still, more than anyone else he recognises Mozart’s compositions as those of a complete master. He’s astounded to learn that his rival can transfer his thoughts as complete compositions onto paper, and believes the words of God are being channelled through Mozart. Whilst hopelessly in love with every opera and work the Austrian produces, Salieri becomes consumed with envy and spite, and over the course of the narrative resolves to destroy him.

The film weaves its yarn in flashback, from the sanatorium where Salieri spends his dotage and relates his tale to a priest awaiting his confession. We’re introduced to the circumstances of Salieri’s life at court, his witnessing of Mozart’s rise, and his mounting bile over the other man’s abilities. An initial source of his consternation comes with his secret affections for the beautiful opera singer he’s tutoring, only to find her starring in Mozart’s first opera after clearly having slept with him in order to get the part. Salieri quickly learns the truth – Mozart may indeed have none of the mannered, courtly ways cultivated by serious musical types, but people flock to him nonetheless, attracted to his raw charisma and talent. It’s the genius Salieri has always longed for and now knows he will never possess.

In committing such a dark story to celluloid, Amadeus contains a broad degree of humour and, certainly for its first half, is almost a comedy. Salieri, who might very well have simply enjoyed his high status rather than given in to envy, is amused and cynical over Mozart’s progress, whilst much mileage is gained from the whirlwind mind and dirty jokes Wolfgang brings to the Emperor Joseph’s stuffy court. The scene in which a completely guileless Mozart tears apart the workmanlike welcome march Salieri has written for him is uncomfortable in its honesty, yet undeniably hilarious.

Much of this comes from the inspired set of players. The play, once it reached Broadway, attracted an all-star theatrical cast, including Ian McKellen, Tim Curry and Jane Seymour in the lead roles. Yet the film eschewed big names, undergoing a lengthy process to cast purely on who felt right in their parts. More importantly, the principals needed to be American and had to keep their accents in the picture. Whilst this takes a little getting used to within a medium that prefers English accents for any movie set in the past, it’s a surprisingly effective decision, and indeed why not? No one in eighteenth century Vienna spoke with RADA-trained voices, and the lack of them here removes the film’s stage origins to create a working, lived in Austria.

Word on who would be awarded the starring roles in Amadeus spread as the picture seemed, from the start, to be something special. In the ‘Making of’ documentary on my DVD set, I noticed Mick Jagger’s name on the list of subjects for casting, but fortunately that’s where it remained. Tom Hulce, best known back then for his appearance in National Lampoon’s Animal House, was handed the part of Mozart. Nobody’s idea of a classical leading man, nor given the role because of his ability at playing tortured heroes (think Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind), Hulce is perfect because he physically fits the part, looks quite average and is absolutely believable as the dirty stop out party animal who fills every other moment at work. Later in the film, when his father has died and Mozart is racked with emotional guilt, he conveys brilliantly the conflict between someone who’s clearly glad to be rid of Leopold whilst blaming himself. Again, not looking to cast a beauty, Elizabeth Berridge took the role of Constanze Mozart, playing her as lazy yet essentially good hearted and completely devoted.

Jeffrey Jones is delightful as the blank faced, buffoonish Emperor Joseph, but the real triumph is F Murray Abraham as Salieri. Little known beforehand beyond theatrical circles, he walks away with the picture, utterly compelling as the mediocrity who’s both forced and drawn to witness a genius at work and play and sees Mozart’s very existence as a joke on himself. Most important is the audience’s identification with Salieri; after all, by the sheer force of logic we are more likely to be ordinary than great in our chosen fields, and whilst most of us might ultimately content ourselves with that reality, it’s addictive watching a man who simply won’t accept his lot in life.

Salieri’s tragedy is twofold. First, he’s hardly done badly for himself before Mozart’s arrival and his status is largely unthreatened by him. Mozart even attempts to endear himself to Salieri, which ought to satisfy him and at least appeal to his vanity. Second, while he schemes to send Mozart to an early grave by working him to death, appearing irregularly in the fancy dress costume of his dead father to add a chilling edge to his commission of a requiem mass, it becomes clear that he has, at best, an exacerbating influence on the composer’s exhaustion. Mozart’s own lifestyle, working habits and lack of rest whilst obviously suffering some kind of fever are what do for him. Salieri fails in even his attempts at murder.

The Amadeus screenplay was written over a torturous, collaborative series of weeks between Shaffer and director, Milos Forman. The pair clearly weren’t natural writing partners, but the results were brilliant, a script crammed with period detail, bawdy humour, irony and tragedy. The production was fortunate enough to film on location in Prague, then part of Communist Czechoslovakia and rarely seen in the west. Thanks to its Soviet controls and good fortune over the years, ‘Old Prague’ looked as though it had been supplanted straight from the eighteenth century. The lack of advertising present in a Communist city, few electrical cables and indeed scant signs of modern life meant outdoor scenes could virtually be filmed without any trick photography or location dressing. A bonus came in the opera scenes that were shot inside Prague’s Count Nostitz Theatre, which just happened to be the very place where Don Giovanni had debuted two centuries earlier.

Costumes, set design  (those wonderful, creaking wooden floors!) and a wealth of powdered wigs add to the film’s charm and authenticity. And then there’s the music, which needs no introduction here and includes works from both Salieri and Mozart. Whilst this serves to do no more than emphasise the impassable gulf in quality, it has since had the nice side effect of bringing Salieri back to public attention. Regular productions of his operas are run in a theatre named after him in his home town of Legnano, whilst excerpts from his music crop up from time to time in feature films, most notably Iron Man.

Lastly, there’s the truth behind the film. By the intellectual standards of the time, Salieri may very well have seen Mozart’s musical gifts as a blessing from God, though the clear evidence of genius must in reality have been augmented by hours and hours of hard work and learning. In a film about Mozart that would almost certainly have been less entertaining, it’s quite possible to imagine Leopold Mozart as a Joe Jackson of his time, pushing and cajoling his son relentlessly to the top with all the emotional fallout that such an upbringing implies.

Then there’s the film’s shot of Mozart’s corpse being dumped into a mass, communal grave, the consequence of his impoverished lifestyle within a Vienna incapable of appreciating the genius that only achieved real fame and acclaim in retrospect. In reality, whilst his means were modest, Mozart was buried like any other commoner whose family could afford a respectful funeral, and it suited his widow to squeeze more money from the royal purse by claiming poverty in attempting to have his work played. Constanze needn’t have worried. It didn’t take long after Mozart’s death for his reputation to rise to dizzying heights, which must have added further layers of consternation to Salieri, who had another 34 years to go and must have already witnessed the waning of his own star over the same period.

Amadeus: *****

P.S. The version screened on BBC4 is the Director’s Cut, which now seems to be the definitive edition of Amadeus. Personally, I can take or leave the extra 20 minutes of footage; none of it adds anything of great significance, beyond fleshing out Salieri’s longing for even a soupçon of Mozart’s talent and adding a lecherous edge to his character. It also includes a brief nude scene involving the rather magnificently bosomed Berridge that was omitted from the original cut in order to preserve its PG rating.

Dead Poets Society (1989)

When it’s on: Thursday, 28 June (9.00 pm)
Channel: BBC4
IMDb Link

Many moons ago, mine parents seized upon the idea of fast-tracking me into one of the prestigious Universities by sending me to a distinguished boarding school. The place was hateful, filled with traditional values and stuffy professors, but it was the sort of place that fed into the higher levels of academia and from there the stars.

The days were long, boring and uniform. Times for getting up and going to bed were strictly regimented. The lessons were stuffy and lifeless, designed to ‘parrot’ us into getting the best results. Only the English teacher was different. He had been taught at our school, years before, and his every lesson seemed to rebel against the staid uniformity that made up our lives. Ordering us to rip out the pages of our tedious textbooks and taste literature for ourselves, he taught us nothing less than to love life and to express that affection in our use of the English language.

I was a shy boy in those days, but my room-mate was the life and soul of our dorm. He decided to follow in the footsteps of our English teacher by revising his late night poetry reading club, which we held in a cave just outside the school grounds. My room-mate was a good friend and an artist, but his background was even more repressed than mine. His wish was to take part in a play run by a local dramatic society, but his father refused to give the necessary permission. He did it anyway. Another friend fell in love with a girl from a public school who was seeing a member of the football team. He wrote a poem dedicated to her, marched into her class and, in front of all her friends read it out loud. The girl was mortified. In any other story, she might have told him where to go, or passed on to her boyfriend what he’d done. But not this time. In the meantime, my room-mate starred in the play. His dad turned up to watch, took him home afterwards and I learned later that my friend had shot himself rather than face the hell of an education leading to a top University.

We were all made to answer questions about the tragedy later, led in one by one to see the Head Teacher, who looked like an aged version of the saboteur from Saboteur. His aim was to get rid of the English teacher, the one he saw as responsible for inspiring my room-mate to appear in the play and therefore involved in his death. It wasn’t the teacher’s fault. He taught us more than mere English. We might not have learned enough to pass anything as staid as an exam, but we learned something better – that he was our captain…

None of the above actually happened. I made the whole thing up, appropriating the story of Ethan Hawke’s character to poke fun at Dead Poets Society. It’s always fun to catch up once again with films I saw years before and find out if they were as good as I thought back then. This one isn’t. It’s well made (Peter Weir doesn’t direct enough films, and when he does they’re invariably interesting), but it’s highly manipulative and doesn’t make an awful lot of sense. The characters are moved about to satisfy the emotional demands made on the plot. I had no idea what the point of Robin Williams’s classes were, apart from to entertain the boys.

Perhaps I liked it back then because I was roughly the age of the teenagers themselves. I might have dreamed of teachers who used their periods for freewheeling fun and life lessons rather than, you know, the curriculum, but now it all seems slightly ridiculous, with its portrayal of every adult character – save Williams – as an unfeeling monster whose mission is to suppress the vitality of youth.

Dead Poets Society: **