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: *****

The Stranger (1946)

When it’s on: Thursday, 22 October (7.20 pm)
Channel: Talking Pictures
IMDb Link

A real curiousity of an Orson Welles picture, The Stranger is never talked about as one of the great man’s finest pieces of work. Working under severe studio restrictions and and without his usual freedom of expression, Welles turned in a film that was the closest he ever came to a standard production, hence the lack of love from those who talk about him as one of the great auteurs. And in truth it’s far from the best stuff he directed, but a film by Orson Welles is still a film by Orson Welles, with all the interesting camera angles, moody lighting and multi-faceted characters such a work entails. Would anyone else give such depth to a supporting player like Billy House’s wily old shopkeeper?

Just five years on from Citizen Kane, Welles was increasingly being seen as a pariah in Hollywood, wasteful and indulgent, and accepted the job of directing The Stranger – when John Huston left the production – in order to re-establish his reputation. Challenged to make the film in time and within its budgetary limits, he went one better and under-spent whilst taking on board RKO’s demand that he cast Edward G Robinson as the lead actor over his own preference of Agnes Moorehead. The prospect of Moorehead playing a hunter of escaped Nazi war criminals is a tantalising one, whereas Robinson appears to have stepped out of Walter Neff’s office in Double Indemnity and straight into portraying his character in The Stranger in exactly the same way. By all accounts, Robinson was unhappy with Welles’s direction, claiming he was constantly shot on his bad side, though Welles countered by wondering what his best side was exactly.

The resulting film is a fine, taut thriller shot in the Noir style and remains an absorbing watch. Welles plays Franz Kindler, a war criminal who has surfaced in sleepy Connecticut and now poses as History teacher Charles Rankin. Thoroughly absorbed into his new surroundings, Kindler/Rankin quickly establishes himself as part of the little community of Harper, volunteers to repair the damaged 300-year old church clock, and is even marrying Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young). Hiding in plain sight, Rankin thinks he’s safe, but he’s reckoned without the efforts of Nazi hunter, Mr Wilson (Robinson), who releases compatriot Meinike (Konstantin Shayne) knowing full well he’ll lead him straight to his target. Sure enough, the desperate Meinike turns up in Harper, only to be murdered in the woods by Rankin, who buries him then and there. His nuptials with Mary take place; meanwhile Wilson is ingratiating himself within the town’s circles and the noose around Rankin’s neck slowly tightens.

Robinson is far from the most interesting thing about The Stranger. Whilst the audience’s sympathies are with him from the start, there’s something just so linear about his character – he knows what he wants and gets it, with a dogged, almost ‘Columbo’ sense of right on his side and the townspeople steadily coming round to his point of view. Young’s character is a lot more fun. For the most part, she stands by her man despite the evidence that’s growing against him, almost walking into a death trap due to her blind allegiance. Her crumbling resolve in the face of reality is heartbreaking to watch, the developing signs of guilt in everything she does nicely presaging her turn in The Accused, a great Noir flick from 1949. Even better is Welles himself, the veneer of warmth and rationality that surrounds him turning out to be just that as he realises Wilson is onto him, compelling him to take dramatic and increasingly insane steps in order to protect his identity, even if that means killing Mary, the only person who has any kind of solid clue about who he really is. And then there are the supporting characters, principally House’s Mr Potter. Running the local store feels like a front for his efforts to snoop on everything that’s happening in Hadley. His cheating at checkers, whilst mildly charming and roguish, actually gnaws at the town’s respectable and good natured sheen. You feel that if you chip away at it enough, the people are just as devious and self-serving as the Nazi in their midst.

Throw in some great photography, especially the vertiginous ladder climb up to the church clock on which Rankin works, and you have a very good pot-boiler. A long, long way from the best of Welles, yet efficiently made and with questions, not to mention a mean streak of black humour, bubbling under the surface.

The Stranger has been available in the public domain for some years – I watched it on Amazon Prime – though this does come with the usual health warning. It’s certainly worth a viewing.

The Stranger: ****

A Man for All Seasons (1966)

When it’s on: Monday, 22 June (3.15 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

The BBC is showing two films involving King Henry VIII this week. On Saturday, we had the splendid Henry VIII and his Sixth Wives, which is rollicking good fun though possibly a little too fast paced to give us anything other than a whistle-stop tour of the king and his various spouses. That isn’t an accusation one can level at A Man for All Seasons, the excessively talky Oscar winner that focuses on one character’s downfall. Starting life as a successful West End and Broadway play, its writer Robert Bolt adapted his own script for the screen, whilst its star, Paul Scofield, was chosen to reprise his turn as Sir Thomas More for the cameras, over considered alternatives with the calibre of Richard Burton, Charlton Heston and Laurence Olivier.

Director Fred Zinnemann was attached to the project from the start, and championed its cause against the studio, Colombia, which expressed doubts over the audience’s desire to watch two hours of people in Tudor costumes talking to each other, without the spice of action or love scenes. They needn’t have worried. A Man for All Seasons was a major success both critically and with cinema-goers, earning a massive profit on its $2 million outlay and claiming six Academy Awards. Following it, historical films worried less about supplying thrills and became more literary efforts, including the superior The Lion in Winter.

It isn’t difficult to see the appeal of the subject matter. Henry VIII was clearly a monarch who had an interesting life, with episodes from his life being adapted for the screen even now (with The Tudors and the brilliant Wolf Hall). Larger than life, lavish and sometimes despotic, there’s no end of material to work with, from Charles Laughton enjoying his banquet food without cutlery in The Private Life of Henry VIII, to Sid James playing up the king’s womanising ways in Carry on Henry. In A Man for All Seasons, he’s played by Robert Shaw. He wasn’t the first choice, the studio attempting initially to hire Peter O’Toole, but he was a good one. Shaw plays Henry as a powerhouse, almost a force of nature – More’s first sight of him in the film is when he’s stood before the sun, making the other characters back off and squint. Everything revolves around Henry, and he knows it, whether that’s marching around with court sycophants scurrying in his wake or making demands of people that they need to meet, regardless of personal wishes, because he’s the king.

The film’s plot turns on a single point of principle. Sir Thomas, Lord Chancellor of England after the death of Cardinal Wolsey (Orson Welles), is asked along with everyone else to approve Henry’s resolution to divorce his wife, Catherine, and marry Anne Boleyn. Whereas the rest of the court votes with their heads – their wish to keep them, at any rate – and swallows any personal misgivings to remain in favour, More’s a good Catholic and, conscience stricken, remains silent on the matter. Henry’s furious and storms out of the More home, back to his boat and leaving courtiers in his wake. There’s a sense of Sir Thomas already shifting out of the sunlight, with enemies lining up to attack him, led by an oily Thomas Cromwell (Leo McKern). From here, it’s a steady but inevitable slide to his date with the chopping block.

A Man for All Seasons is a beautifully photographed piece of work. Zinnemann seems obsessed with the English weather to the point it nearly becomes a character in the film, moments like Henry’s anger rising that coincides with a beautiful summer’s day becoming stormy. I love the way people get about on the rivers, Henry on his opulent royal vessel whilst Sir Thomas, like everyone else, has to employ boatmen to ferry him to and from his home.

As this is told from More’s perspective, there’s a skewed characterisation of other figures from the time that’s quite deliberate. McKern’s Cromwell is an opportunistic nasty piece of work, far removed from the considered and thoughtful portrayal by Mark Rylance in Wolf Hall. John Hurt, who sadly has recently been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, appears in an early role as Richard Rich, beginning as Sir Thomas’s man and ultimately betraying him. As the film progresses, there’s a sharp contrast between More’s plain clothes and the rest of the court, all wearing big ‘H’ signs on their attire to make clear their loyalties. Welles as the doomed Wolsey is outstanding in little more than a cameo, looking perfectly the part and conveying the character’s illness with what appears to be visible discomfort and red eyes (which he achieved using eye drops).

At the centre of it all is Paul Scofield of course, putting in one of his infrequent screened acting performances – he preferred the stage – to produce a really convincing example of stoic wisdom. Whereas other characters fall in with Henry instantly, Sir Thomas demurs, which comes across as a reason for the king favouring him, but ultimately does for him. He remains the same throughout, even when he’s imprisoned within the Tower in increasingly cramped cells, losing his books and left with nothing but his thoughts and his wits, which are considerable.

It’s not a favourite of mine; I prefer the aforementioned The Lion in Winter all told, I think because it contains more passion over the staid religious debates of A Man for All Seasons, also perhaps because Henry VIII has been done to death. That said, it’s certainly up there with the best of them, a serious and sober study of the king as a tyrant figure and his principled servant. A Man for all Seasons is on the Vatican’s list of 45 Great Films as an example of Catholic martyrdom. Sir Thomas More became St Thomas More in 1886, and 22 June is celebrated within the General Roman calendar in memory of him and other English martyrs.

A Man for All Seasons: ****

PS. The second edition of Multitude of Movies is out now (use the link to visit its site and hopefully buy a copy). Like the first, it’s stuffed with great pieces, including some articles on films that I really love – the retrospective of The Vikings contains a stack of background information and is brilliant reading for fans of the movie. I contributed to this one, offering some thoughts on Ealing’s superb wartime propaganda picture, Went the Day Well?, and I’ve already committed to the next issue with a look at The Third Man, quite possibly my favourite all-time picture. Finding something fresh and original to say about that one, and not dissolving into a gushing mess, will take some doing. Please support.

Journey into Fear (1943)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 21 August (1.05 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

For me, one of the most interesting aspects of Orson Welles’s career in film is that it’s one big missed opportunity. We have one unimpeachable classic, several really fine works, many pictures suffering from budgetary restraints and, throughout, victims of the editor’s scissors. Just think what his legacy might have been like had he been appreciated at the time in the same way as we love his work now.

Take Journey into Fear, which like The Magnificent Ambersons was cut to such a swingeing extent that footage of the bigger picture simply cannot be found. Whilst Welles claimed to have played no part in the film beyond his supporting role and helping out in both production and script departments, one only has to watch Journey into Fear to see his presence all over it. His excuse was that he was mainly engaged in The Magnificent Ambersons and simply didn’t have the time for anything else, but it’s clear he put a lot into it, mainly working unpaid, in the evenings and in post-production. The scene most cited as having Welles’s signature is the thrilling finale on a dangerous high ledge, I think because it’s the film’s best known, but you get it also in the use of camera angles throughout the shooting, the then unconventional method of filming a character disembarking the ship from below, forcing the perspective of the man descending into peril. Another iconic bit of shooting comes in the opening scenes, the camera floating up into the apartment of a man who’s getting ready to leave. The character’s an assassin, an unlikely tub of lard who doesn’t speak during the film but plays the same record over and over, a disc that has obviously been played many times due to the number of scratches and jumps, something that doesn’t bother him as he goes about his business.

Otherwise, Journey into Fear is credited to Norman Foster, one of those reliable B-movie helmers whose extensive list of credits include a number of Mr Moto and Charlie Chan flicks. Joseph Cotten, also the film’s star, gets the main script writing credit, though Welles had a hand in this also as the pair adapted an Eric Ambler novel for the screen. Journey into Fear clocks in at around the 69 minute mark, satisfying RKO’s demand for a B quickie, and there’s an awful lot packed into the economical running time, but what’s fascinating are the clear signs of a longer and fuller picture. The film’s set in contemporary Turkey. Cotten plays Howard Graham, an American arms engineer who finds himself the target of Nazi agents. To keep him alive, he’s packed onto a ramshackle freighter without his wife but in the company of exotic dancer Josette (Dolores Del Rio). Graham’s neither happy about being separated from his wife, nor clear about what’s going on, indeed Cotten plays essentially the same character as in The Third Man, the near hapless man abroad, picking up on clues and titbits about what’s happening to him and relying – not always correctly – on his instincts for much of the time. What he does know is that the tubby silent man (played by Welles’s real life business manager, Jack Moss) has been hired to kill him, and when he turns up on the boat, trailing Graham  incessantly, danger is never far behind.

The film’s at its finest when tracking Graham on the boat, suddenly cast into a world of peril and utterly swamped by circumstances. Every passenger is a suspect. The captain is a bedridden wreck who can’t speak English and cackles at everything Graham tells him. And then there’s Josette, who Graham fixes on through a sheer need for comfort. His narrative is a letter to his wife that urgently splutters on about his time with Josette meaning nothing and amounting to the same, but the implication of more than just walks along the deck together is strongly implied, and in fairness it’s difficult to blame him. Ruth Warwick brings a stately Americanism to her portrayal of Graham’s socially nailed on spouse, but Del Rio – Welles’s lover at the time – is just so uncontrollably sexy that one can believe how many of her scenes with Cotten wound up on the cutting room floor as RKO toned down a relationship that apparently dominated many of the film’s lost scenes.

What’s left is an uncomfortable and claustrophobic picture that plays best whilst on the boat and there’s nowhere for Graham to run to. It’s not always coherent as the need to trim the film left out some of its narrative tension, but as a minor Welles it’s certainly fine viewing and it helped define the template for film noir that would emerge in the post-War years.

Journey into Fear: ***

Moby Dick (1956)

When it’s on: Monday, 7 May (2.50 pm)
Channel: Channel 5
IMDb Link

I’ll follow him around the Horn, and around the Norway maelstrom, and around perdition’s flames before I give him up.

In preparation for watching Moby Dick, I downloaded Herman Melville’s novel onto my Kindle with the intention of ploughing through it and comparing text with film. Sadly, I’ve only made it to the 10% mark so far, quite enjoying what I’ve read though it’s a tough-going tome in places, pages and pages of nothing much happening yet much in terms of foreboding and whalecraft.

Adapting Melville into a film was always going to be a tall order, though the book’s classic status ensures many have tried. Presumably one of the main problems is the story’s lack of romance, the long passages involving descriptions of life on board the Pequod and the way everything takes place right at the end. John Huston’s 1956 entry is nevertheless a manful effort. The attempt to outline the crew’s relationship with their captain, Ahab, brings to life the occasionally claustrophobic, always mutually dependent world of the nineteenth century whaler. Moby Dick is told from the perspective of Ishmael (Richard Basehart), who’s recounting the tale as the Pequod’s sole survivor. A cypher with the task of describing the characters around him, Ishmael isn’t the most interesting seafarer, but then he’s never meant to be. Much better value are Leo Genn as the Pequod’s first mate, Starbuck, tattooed harpooner Queequeg (Friedrich von Ledebur) and inevitably Ahab himself.

The story opens with the Pequod’s crew steadily assembling in Nantucket. They attend church service before they go, a great scene in which the cameras roams along the pews, picking out plaques dedicated to the dead (all have perished at sea, a warning if ever there was one) before focusing on Orson Welles’s sermon. Welles is as ever brilliant value in his cameo, pontificating from a pulpit that’s dressed up as a masthead – apparently, he took the part in order to fund his own stage version of the book (I always love looking into the reasons for Welles popping up in films; it was always to help finance his own projects).

Soon enough, they’re at sea, searching for whales whilst Ahab glowers in his cabin. Half an hour passes before we get our first proper glimpse of him, all wooden legged and scarred face, played by Gregory Peck. Ahab gets the best speeches in the script (my favourite bit of dialogue heads this entry), driven ever by his desire to get revenge against the enormous white whale, Moby Dick, that took his leg. True to his motivation throughout the story, Ahab clashes with his crew often – they’re in it for profit and have no interest in his vengeance, but he’s the captain and they follow him sullenly, never fully aware of how far he’s prepared to take the men in realising his goal. There’s several marvellous scenes that illustrate the tension – one in which Starbuck prepares for mutiny, another when Ahab refuses to help a boat that’s searching for the captain’s son.

Two aspects stood against Moby Dick, which experienced a troubled shoot and escalating costs. One is the effects work involving the whale. Plenty was invested in getting this right, but Moby often enough looks like what it is – a model – and pre-CGI, it must have been almost impossible to make the thing work. The original model was 75 feet long and floated out to sea, leaving the crew to rely on ‘whale parts’ for the shots where it interacts with actors, and miniatures otherwise. Secondly, Peck’s performance, which earned mixed reactions from audiences used to seeing him as a hero. Generally cast as the romantic lead, Peck toned down his handsome looks with Ahab’s scarring and an unhinged, shouty performance and, whilst there may have been more obvious choices (James Mason springs to mind) he’s actually pretty good, convincing as the captain with terrifying levels of obsession.

Moby Dick: ***