The Third Man (1949)

The iconic chase scene.

It’s been a while since I’ve written about a mystery (or anything, I know). But this last weekend, I saw what I may very well call one of the greatest mystery films ever made. To tell the truth, there were only a handful of pre-1950s mystery/film-noir movies I had seen before this one; and, with the exception of Citizen Kane and a few others, all of them had been made by Alfred Hitchcock. And although I can’t get enough of Hitch, I thought it might be nice to try out some other mysteries.

Normally, I enjoy ’40s mystery/film-noir films and films with political thriller overtones, such as The Maltese Falcon (1941) or Foreign Correspondent (1941), but I rarely have the urge to watch them multiple times. There are certainly some standout films from this genre, like the ones mentioned above (and Sabotage (1936) and Secret Agent (1936) with Sir John Gielgud), but, at the risk of sounding very rude, there are many that don’t seem very great at all. Good, certainly, and most of them better than what comes out regularly these days. But nothing too terribly special. The Third Man is not that way. It is incredibly watchable. It’s not hackneyed or cliched, not very dated at all. Following are some of the reasons this movie is truly enjoyable.

The actors. The performances in this film are spectacular.

I’ve always liked Joseph Cotten. He seems to me like a somewhat tougher, more callous Joel McCrea. In The Third Man, he plays a moderately alcoholic writer of run-of-the-mill Western novels, and he plays it to perfection. He is suspicious, uneasy, sarcastic, vulnerable.

Then comes the beautiful, exotic, mysterious Alida Valli who plays Anna Schmidt. With a career that spanned nearly 70 years, this woman knew what she was doing. She brings all of the elegance and class she possessed to this role, making a memorable movie human and beautiful.

Trevor Howard, who, rather than being a popular leading man, mainly made his way in movie history as a supporting actor. In The Third Man, he plays Major Calloway, a man of business and of principle. In his job, he must not have emotion or personal involvement; he must be stoic and unshakable, yet understanding and efficient. That’s precisely how Howard plays it.

But the most important actor, perhaps, of this film is one of the greatest geniuses of cinema history: Orson Welles. His character, like Welles himself, is an utter enigma, without certainty or explanation. Without Orson playing this part, the film would perhaps not be a mystery.

The direction. This will be very short, because I’m at a loss for words. Very dynamic, innovative direction by Mr. Reed. He has done an untouchable job. Mystery-movie-makers take note.

The music. Oh, the music. This film boasts what is, in my opinion, the best score EVER in a motion picture. I’d say it’s even better than the score of Chaplin’s Limelight (1950), my other favorite.

It’s odd, certainly, and it seems unfitting to some. But, in my opinion, it’s eerie, brisk, full of mystery, and it reflects the story and the complex emotions of the characters with perfection.

On what is it played? you may ask. Anton Karas played the film’s remarkable theme on a fairly rare (as in, not heard too often nowadays; just making sure Harper understands the context) string instrument called a zither. To me, it’s beyond words. You just have to hear it for yourself. Sorry I couldn’t be more poetic.

The end scene. I judge the greatness of end scenes by their ability to leave me silent in thought, confusion, or shock for at least a minute after the film ends. Some of my favorite end scenes include those of Dr. Strangelove: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), Last Year at Marienbad (1961), and The Third Man. The end of Dr. Strangelove caught me off-guard and left me shocked that anyone would dare to end a movie that way. Last Year at Marienbad’s ending, like the rest of the film, confused me more than any other movie ever has. The ending of The Third Man, with the silence of its protagonists, the moving zither music, the emotion… It left me silent. Pondering. Reflecting. Comprehending.

(A Very Brief) Synopsis

(CONTAINS MODERATE SPOILERS)

An American writer of pulp fiction named Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) travels to post-war Vienna to visit an old friend, Harry Lime, only to find that Lime has mysteriously died. After some digging, Martins meets his deceased friend’s intimate, Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli). Together, they begin to investigate what really happened to Harry Lime.

Information

Directed by Carol Reed;

Written by Graham Greene (screenplay), Alexander Korda (story, uncredited), Carol Reed (uncredited), and Orson Welles (uncredited);

Starring Joseph Cotten as Holly Martins, Alida Valli as Anna Schmidt, Orson Welles as Harry Lime, and Trevor Howard as Major Calloway;

Produced by Hugh Perceval (associate producer), Carol Reed (producer), Alexander Korda (producer, uncredited), David O. Selznick (producer, uncredited);

Music by Anton Karas.

(Because of copyright issues, the Criterion Collection DVD of this film is now, sadly, out of print. However, as of now, it is available in its entirety for free on YouTube. Watch it there while it lasts. Everyone should be able to see this incredible piece of filmmaking.)

-luke

Mon Oncle (1958)

The charming, pre-modernized streets of France.

In the list of most beautiful comedies, Mon Oncle may very well steal first place. This is simply one of the most imaginative, feel-good films I have ever seen. It is not only a feast of ingenious physical comedy, but it is also a statement against modernization and its overwhelming subsequent effects.

Now, usually, when I watch a comedy, I do not expect an abstract philosophical observation. If I do expect something of that sort, I usually enter the viewing a bit wary. But this satire is brilliantly executed; the statement is wrapped up in good-hearted humor, sublime music, and fantastic set pieces (all of which I’ll explain in detail below).

Jacques Tati, the film’s writer, director, producer, and starring actor, is often regarded as France’s comedy master. An obvious precursor to Rowan Atkinson’s memorable Mr. Bean character, Jacques Tati created the unforgettable Monsieur Hulot: a bumbling, lovable, trench coat-wearing fellow who causes accidental catastrophe as he tries to mold to the ever-changing modern world. After his first feature film, Jour de Fete in 1949 (in which Tati played Francois, not Hulot), the Monsieur Hulot series started in 1953 with Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot, and continued with Mon Oncle, PlayTime (1967), and Trafic (1971).

In Mon Oncle, the statement about modernization is instantly evident. The credits appear on signs at a construction site. The sounds of the engines of various construction vehicles are almost unbearably loud and obnoxious–then comes the antithesis. The film switches immediately from the loud, raw atmosphere of the construction site to an quaint, unmolested French neighborhood. The contrast is beautiful and sad; it forces one to realize that, although modernization has led to several inventions that are beneficial to mankind, too much modernist reconstruction can lead to the loss of meaning for existence.

If this was the sole purpose of the movie, it would perhaps be quite a drag. But this is not the case. This statement is not presented in the stark, dramatic form one would expect, but rather in a superbly choreographed comedy of errors. Tati, as Monsieur Hulot, is endearing and hilarious, conducting himself with silent whimsy and subtle naivete. His smile is sweet and sad, especially near the end of the film, and his awkward way of walking is absurd yet irreplaceable. No one can recreate Hulot. Jacques Tati, to put it simply, IS Monsieur Hulot. Inseperable and one.

Now, for the sets. Mon Oncle boasts some of the most brilliant, fantastic set pieces ever made for a film. The only sets I can think of that would rival the Arpel family’s ultra-modern abode are the buildings (made expressly for the film) in Tati’s PlayTime (1967) and the apartment complex in Rear Window (1954). As if this movie marvel wasn’t enough, Hulot’s own apartment building is one of the most beautiful, unbelievable film sets ever made. These are phenomena which mere words cannot effectively describe; they must be seen.

To hear the score of Mon Oncle is to have your heart warmed. The gently plinking piano is soon accompanied by a quintessentially French accordion. The visual partners to this piece are shots of mischievous canines rummaging their way through trashcans (the crashing of the can’s lid is synchronized with the music, and acts as a brief drum solo), and eventually moving from the lovely, unadorned streets of Old France to the coldly modern neighborhoods, where we meet the Arpel family and their neoteric residence.

On a side note…  For those who prefer newer comedy, I will say that the sight gags in Mon Oncle rival those in, say, Airplane (1980) and Hot Shots! (1991). They’re not as blatant, no, but (in my opinion) just as funny.

If you want to feel good, watch this movie. I will warn you, this film does not belong to the “Instant Gratification” class of comedy. The jokes are subtle; the humor is in the whole. That said, it is possibly the most heartwarming movie (to me) that I have ever seen. It helps us to remember that “old-fashioned” is not a dirty word.

Summary

The Arpel family is the epitome of ultra-modern. Their house is a fully automated, avant-garde, highly polished prison–that is, to their son, Gerard. He does not enjoy living in this glimmering steel cage; thus, he spends most of his time with his uncle, Monsieur Hulot, who leads a simpler existence than Gerard’s parents. However, Gerard’s parents believe the naive Hulot to be a bad influence on young Gerard. Thus, they attempt to make Hulot one of their own. Monsieur Arpel gets Hulot a job at his plastic factory, and Madame Arpel hosts a garden party (one of the funniest scenes in film history) in attempts to mold the bumbling Hulot into a person of order and class. After many failed attempts, the Arpels seem to have given up. But Monsieur Hulot may have a more positive effect on them than they’d like to think.

Information

Directed by Jacques Tati;

Written by Jacques Tati (written by), Jacques Lagrange (artistic collaboration), Jean L’Hôte (artistic collaboration);

Starring Jacques Tati as Monsieur Hulot, Alain Bécourt as Gerard Arpel, Jean-Pierre Zola as Charles Arpel, Adrienne Servantie as Madame Arpel, and Betty Schneider as Betty, Landlord’s Daughter;

Produced by Jacques Tati (producer), Fred Orain (producer, uncredited), Alain Térouanne (associate producer), Louis Dolivet (co-producer);

Music by Alain Romans, Franck Barcellini, Norbert Glanzberg (uncredited).

-luke

A Night at the Opera (1935)

One of the most brilliant comic scenes of film history. Not for the claustrophobic.

“And now, on with the opera. Let joy be unconfined. Let there be dancing in the streets, drinking in the saloons, and necking in the parlor!”

First, let me say that I am terribly sorry for taking so long to post another review. Studies interfere. I don’t want you to feel that I’ve let you down, though I know I have. I don’t expect your forgiveness. Well, I kinda do, and I expect you to keep reading. Thanks!

***

Ah, the opera. Never has the supercilious establishment been lampooned with such comic genius. One of the best comedies of the ’30s, A Night at the Opera is a 92-minute guffaw. Ingenious farce, thy name is Marx! That rhymed. Kinda.

If you’ve never seen a Marx Brothers movie, this film is a perfect place to start. I, being the novice that I am, instead started with The Big Store (an excuse to have Tony Martin croon in a movie, basically). This left a temporarily unpleasant taste in my mouth regarding the Brothers. However, watching this film was like brushing my teeth. In a metaphorical sense. It made me realize that everyone was telling the truth when they called the Brothers one of the greatest comedy teams ever, and when they said this film was one of their best.

Although the film as a whole is a riot, there are several notable bits, including the contract (“You can’t fool me… There ain’t no Sanity Clause!”), the stateroom scene (pictured above), and, of course, an opportunity for Chico (pronounced “Chick-o”) to play piano and Harpo to play, well, harp. The musical scenes with Chico and Harpo provide the calm in the middle of the storm, the order and beauty among the chaos and anarchy of their zany humor. Harpo can nearly bring tears to one’s eyes one second and the next second have one rolling on the floor with hysterical laughter. That’s the charm of the Marx Brothers.

Surprisingly, this film steers mostly clear of dated humor. I don’t necessarily mind dated humor, because I understand most of it after spending so much time absorbing the entertainment of that time. But except for a reference to the Dionne Quintuplets, and the mention of *gasp* phonograph records, there’s not very much at all that would confuse a modern viewer. This is just one of the reasons it’s lasted so long.

Something else that made the movie so endlessly enjoyable for me was Groucho’s shtick. Even in less funny films such as The Big Store and Go West, Groucho was one of the quickest-witted comedians in the history of movies. In A Night at the Opera, he utters several quick lines that scarcely slipped by the Hays Code (which had begun to be enforced in 1934). He had an uncanny knack for a beautifully timed punchline or sarcastic comment. For instance, while filming A Night at the Opera, director Sam Wood was exasperated after trying to get Groucho to read a line “just right”. To express his displeasure, he lamented, “I guess you just can’t make an actor out of clay.” Groucho flung back, “Nor a director out of Wood.”

Harpo Marx was the antithesis to his brother Groucho; he was funny without words, without witty repartee. He was one of the kings of physical comedy, saying all he wished to say with his over-the-top actions and his wonderful facial expressions. Chico was also consistently funny; his hilariously exaggerated Italian accent is music to my ears.

This film is, in my opinion, the best Marx Brothers film and the best ’30s comedy to start with. The humor is rapid-fire, the story is sweet, the film as a whole is exceedingly satisfying. Spend A Night at the Opera; you’ll get your money’s worth.

Summary

Impresario Herman Gottlieb (Sig Ruman) convinces millionairess Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont) to hire a tenor named Rudolfo Lassparri (Walter King) for his New York opera company. Lassparri is a truly unlikable character, what with beating his dresser, Tomasso (Harpo Marx), and trying to enchant soprano Rosa (Kitty Carlisle) who loves the handsome underdog, Ricardo (Allan Jones). After Tomasso, and Tomasso’s old friend Fiorello (Chico Marx) learn that Rosa is bound for America without Ricardo, the two devise a plan. They take Ricardo, and the three of them stow away in Driftwood’s trunk. In America, everyone is set to perform Giuseppe Verdi’s Il Trovatore–except Lassparri. He doesn’t want to perform if Rosa won’t accept his advances. The Marx Brothers then cause chaos after the show has begun, and the only way it can be saved is if Ricardo will take Lassparri’s place.

Information

Directed by Sam Wood;

Written by James Kevin McGuinness (from a story by), George S. Kaufman (screenplay), Morrie Ryskind (screenplay), Buster Keaton (uncredited);

Starring Groucho Marx as Otis B. Driftwood, Chico Marx as Fiorello, Harpo Marx as Tomasso, Allan Jones as Ricardo, Kitty Carlisle as Rosa, Margaret Dumont as Mrs. Claypool, Sig Ruman as Herman Gottlieb, and Walter King as Rudolfo Lassparri;

Produced by Irving Thalberg (executive producer, uncredited);

Music by Herbert Stothart (music score by), Ruggero Leoncavallo (“Pagliacci”), and Giuseppe Verdi (“Il Trovatore”).

Facts

Harpo did most of his own stunts.

A Night at the Opera is the Brothers’ first film with MGM.

It is also their first movie without other brother Zeppo Marx.

In 2007, A Night at the Opera was named by the American Film Institute as the 85th Greatest American Film of All Time.

Kitty Carlisle originally refused to accept the part when she learned her voice would not be used in the film. She won the argument, and “Alone” (the song she sings in the film) later became her signature song.

Executive producer Irving Thalberg was notorious for calling people to meetings and then leaving them waiting for hours. One day, during pre-production, an instant of just this sort happened to the Marx Brothers. They sat in the secretary’s office for several hours, before finally deciding to blockade Thalberg’s door with as much furniture as they could get their hands on. He never delayed a meeting with the Brothers again. However, he would often interrupt their meetings to meet with someone else. One time, after having done this, Thalberg returned to his office to find the Marx Brothers in his office, sitting around the fireplace completely naked, roasting potatoes on sticks. Thalberg sat down, had a potato, and never interrupted another meeting with the Marx Brothers.

-luke

Farewell, Tony Curtis (1925-2010)

The legend, the mystery.

We must very reluctantly bid farewell to a true movie legend, Tony Curtis. He passed away today in his Las Vegas home on Thursday, at the age of 85.

With a career spanning a full seven decades, Curtis made his indelible mark on Hollywood history. He was the definition of playboy and he ultimately redefined suavity. He played dramatic and comedic roles with equal mastery in such films as Some Like It Hot (1959), Spartacus (1960), and Sex and the Single Girl (1964), and The Great Race (1965).  Read another farewell message and Curtis’s GQ interview on The Kitty Packard Pictorial.

Farewell, Mr. Curtis. We will always remember you.

-luke

Published in: on October 3, 2010 at 7:54 pm  Leave a Comment  

“Without a Song…”

Hello, dear readers! I think another quick list is in order, don’t you?

I am, of course, a lover of music. I listen to all kinds of music (well, most kinds, anyway) constantly. I truly don’t know if I could survive without it.

To let you know where I’m coming from, my favorite singers include (but are certainly not limited to) Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Tony Bennett, Perry Como, and Sam Cooke. The smooth, confident voices of jazz.

After watching certain movies, I became cognizant of the hidden singing talents some actors possess. So, here it is, folks: Actors Who Should’ve Also Pursued Musical Careers.

4. Jerry Lewis

Now, don’t tell him, but I put dear ol’ Jerry at the bottom spot. I did this only because, well, he did pursue a musical career for a bit. It was short-lived, however, and I don’t think many of his recordings have survived. He had a carefree attitude in his musical performances which overpowered his slightly nasally singing voice. Take a look at this performance of That Old Black Magic from his 1963 film The Nutty Professor.

3. Dom DeLuise

If you were a kid or a parent in the ’80s or ’90s, you probably watched (at least once) An American Tail. You know, the one with the mice? In this film, the lovable Dom DeLuise plays an even more lovable orange tabby named Tiger. And, if you’ve begun to recall any of the film by now, you probably remember that he shared a duet with Fievel, the picture’s tiny hero (who is NOT, in my opinion, musically inclined). I was rather surprised at how well DeLuise sang. Hear for yourself!

2. Mel Brooks

In his hysterical Hitchcock parody, High Anxiety, Brooks sings the title song in a nightclub. His performance reminds one of Sinatra or Tony Bennett, but with a distinctively Brooksian(?) flair. His voice is definitely unique, and his performance is tongue-in-cheek. That rhymed!

Take a listen!

1. Gene Wilder

Roald Dahl’s imaginative masterpiece, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, is one of the most universally loved and cherished films ever made. Although Bonnie and Clyde and The Producers made Gene Wilder familiar with Hollywood, this film rocketed him to fame in the early ’70s. With the film’s most memorable song, Pure Imagination, Wilder gives us but a taste of his largely hidden singing talent. And aren’t we grateful!

-luke

Published in: on August 4, 2010 at 1:49 pm  Comments (5)