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

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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

Psycho (1960)

"AAAAAAH!" I'm paraphrasing, of course.

“A boy’s best friend is his mother.”

Quite a departure from the types of movies I usually review, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is one of my top five favorite films and (in my humble opinion) undeniably the best horror/thriller ever made.

What makes this film so incredible is that it completely shattered the tradition of the typical thriller. It starkly and chillingly portrays insanity; which, at the time of its release, was not something ordinarily done. Yet again, Hitchcock relies on suspense, not gore, to shock the audience. He intelligently sets up relationships, motivations, situations…and then demolishes it all. It is a brilliant and utterly original film.

Psycho was released in 1960, eight years before the end of the Hays Code (or the Motion Picture Production Code). For those of you who don’t know, the Code basically established what could and couldn’t be portrayed in American films. I’m not going to list every do and don’t; I’ll just give the three main principles:

1. No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.

2. Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.

3. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.

As you can see, these were pretty strict rules. That’s not to say they weren’t good ones; only about one-tenth of the films that are released nowadays would pass the Code. The code was abandoned in ’68, in favor of the new MPAA ratings system (Psycho was re-rated M in 1968, and re-re-rated R in 1984).

Hitchcock filmed the movie in black and white, because, in color, “it would have been too gory”. There were a few shots that were left on the cutting room floor, as well as some lines that were found offensive. It’s really quite an event that this movie passed the Code. It’s not horrible, and quite tame when compared to any horror film made after Night of the Living Dead (1968), which is often credited as the main reason for the MPAA ratings system. Still, though, for audiences in 1960, it was shocking.

The ending, which I will not reveal here, gets me every time. I’ve probably seen this movie six times, but the end always gives me chills.

This is probably Hitchcock’s most intense, frightening film, and his first American film to be labeled a “horror” instead of just a “thriller”. It’s unlike any of his previous films, yet it keeps that wonderful Hitchcockian flavor. The first half-hour of the film is more of a thriller, or a drama. Nothing particularly exciting or frightening happens. That’s not to say it’s not interesting; I was enthralled from the minute the opening credits began. As Hitch himself said, “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” Don’t be put off by the somewhat slow-moving beginning. Promise?

One last thing. The score for Psycho is one of the greatest ever written. Of course, everyone knows about the screeching violins during the infamous “shower scene”, but the entire film is full of masterful music by Bernard Herrmann. The opening credits begin with the pounding, pulsing, deep strings, which are soon joined by terrifying strings of a much higher pitch. It’s enough to put you on edge before even a second of film has been shown.

Watch it with the lights out. Turn the volume up. It’s awesome.

Summary

Arizona officeworker Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) cannot marry her lover, Sam Loomis (John Gavin), because most of his money goes towards alimony. She is exasperated with having to meet Sam during her lunch breaks. After one such meeting, Marion returns to her workplace, where her employer asks her to deposit $40,000 cash in a local bank. Desperate, angry, and impulsive, she leaves town with the money and heads toward California, determined to make a new life with Sam.

Night falls, and so does rain. This causes Marion to drive off the main highway, and to happen upon the vacant Bates Motel. She stops there for the night, where she is met by the shy and peculiar Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). Marion discovers that poor Norman is dominated by his mother, and she agrees to eat dinner with him in the motel’s office. After dinner, she returns to her room, where she reaches a decision. She undresses and steps into the shower.

Information

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock;

Written by Robert Bloch (novel upon which it was based), Joseph Stefano (screenplay);

Starring Janet Leigh as Marion Crane, Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, John Gavin as Sam Loomis, Vera Miles as Lila Crane, and Martin Balsam as Detective Milton Arbogast;

Produced by Alfred Hitchcock;

Music by Bernard Herrmann.

Facts

Martha Hyer, Eva Marie Saint, Piper Laurie, Hope Lange, Shirley Jones, and Lana Turner were all considered for the role of Marion Crane.

Alfred Hitchcock bought the rights to the novel for just $9,000. He then bought as many copies of the book as he could, to keep the ending a secret.

During filming, Psycho was referred to as “Production 9401” or “Wimpy”. The latter name came from the second-unit cameraman, Rex Wimpy, who appeared on clapboards and production sheets, and some on-the-set stills for Psycho.

This is the last film Hitchcock did for Paramount. By the time filming started, Hitchcock had already moved his offices to Universal, and the film was shot on the Universal backlot. Universal owns the rights today, though the Paramount logo still appears on the film.

Vera Miles wore a wig for this film, because she had shaved her head for her role in 5 Branded Women (1960).

Psycho is the first American film to show a toilet flushing on-screen.

Anthony Perkins was paid $40,000 for his role. Hee hee.

Psycho is ranked #1 on AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Thrills list.

The shower scene has over 90 splices in it. Hitchcock spent nearly a week shooting this scene, making sure no nudity was shown and that the knife never actually penetrated the skin.

The score is played entirely by stringed instruments.

As part of publicity campaign prior to release of the film, Alfred Hitchcock said: “It has been rumored that ‘Psycho’ is so terrifying that it will scare some people speechless. Some of my men hopefully sent their wives to a screening. The women emerged badly shaken but still vigorously vocal.”

Hitchcock thought it would be amusing if theaters would prohibit patrons from entering the film late. Surprisingly, theater managers went along with this, and it proved to be an extremely successful marketing gimmick. At one point, a man and his quite pregnant wife were deliberately sent to test the theater managers’ strictness. The man and his wife not admitted. Hee hee.

(When you watch, try to spot Hitch’s cameo! I’ll give you a hint: it’s near the beginning of the film.)

-luke

The Five Greatest Noses of Entertainment

Well, folks, as a change of pace, I thought it would be nice to create a list. Everyone makes lists of favorite movies, or greatest actresses, or greatest moments in film… Bah! It’s time to review the five most iconic noses of entertainment history.

5. Danny Thomas

Amos Alphonsus Muzyad Yakhoob, better known as Danny Thomas, was primarily a TV actor (The Danny Thomas Show ran for 11 seasons). However, he was known mainly for his schnozz.

4. Barbra Streisand

Easily the greatest currently active nose in Hollywood, Streisand has made nearly 20 films, including Funny Girl, Hello, Dolly!, and Yentl, and has sold 70 million records worldwide.

“I hate tooting my own horn, but after Steven Spielberg saw Yentl (1983), he said, ‘I wish I could tell you how to fix your picture, but I can’t. It’s the best film I’ve seen since Citizen Kane (1941).'”

Oh, we understand. You can’t let a horn like that go to waste.

3. W.C. Fields

A striking resemblance.

Making a huge mark on Hollywood in hilarious shorts such as The Dentist and The Fatal Glass of Beer and in classic full-length films The Old-Fashioned Way, The Bank Dick, and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, comedy great W.C. Fields has one of the grandest honkers in film history.

“I never drink anything stronger than gin before breakfast.”

2. Bob Hope

Earning the nickname, “Old Ski Nose,” America’s favorite comedian has been the butt of innumerable schnozz jokes. And with good reason.

One of my favorites (paraphrased): “Pardner, I would shoot you right between the eyes, but it looks like you’ve had enough trouble there.”

1. Jimmy Durante

He’s the guy that found the lost chord and the winner of SC’s Greatest Nose Contest. You didn’t expect any less, did you?

I mean, what can be said about this landmark, this monumental proboscis? It’s awe-inspiring.

As Durante himself ad-libbed to Bob Hope, “When it comes to noses, you’re a retailer; I’m a wholesaler!”

-luke

Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

The willing vagabond.

“There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that’s all some people have?”

Recently, I’ve found myself unwittingly watching ’50s movies. All. The. Time. Not to say that there’s anything wrong with ’50s cinema; some of my all-time favorite films were made during that glorious decade. However, I chose to explore the true “Golden Age” of Hollywood, and found that my ’40s binge was more rewarding than I could’ve hoped.

During this spree, I came across some of the finest films ever made and added several to my already lengthy favorites list. However, perhaps the greatest of all the 1940s films I watched was Preston Sturges’ masterful Sullivan’s Travels. I think the reason behind its obscurity nowadays is that it is somewhat overshadowed by films such as Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon, How Green Was My Valley, and Suspicion, all of which were also released in ’41. Still, for any fan of comedy, of superb acting and direction, or of stories that will leave you feeling happier, Sullivan’s Travels is a must-see.

I sat down to watch this film with, I must admit, fairly low expectations. Once it started, however, I staggered back in awe. Seriously, this is a great film.

(Dear reader, I realize that I say that quite a bit. So far, I’ve only reviewed my favorite films, and I’ve said roughly the same thing about each one: “This is a good movie!” Don’t worry; at some point, I will review some movies I hate. Won’t that be fun?)

Joel McCrea (one of my favorite actors), who has exhibited his enormous talent in nearly 100 films (spanning from the ’20s to the ’70s!), shows his comic adeptness AND his dramatic abilities in Sullivan’s Travels. He is an instantly likable fellow, and does not have too little or too much emotion. I first became cognizant of his skill when I watched Hitchcock’s early spy thriller, Foreign Correspondent (1940), in which he gives a (surprise!) great performance. And I’m not the only one who likes him; he has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Veronica Lake… *wolf whistle* I mean, what can I say about her that you can’t figure out for yourself? She’s gorgeous! (And, apparently, rather short. She measured 4′ 11 1/2″, whilst Joel McCrea was a “towering” 6′ 3″. It’s been said that, in some scenes, Lake had to be placed atop a box so their heads could be seen in the same shot.) I expected her to be aloof and seemingly unattainable, but in this film she was actually quite vulnerable, sincere, and, of course, unbelievably beautiful. Her presence is yet another compliment to an already fantastic film.

And I can’t sanely review this film without saying something about its writer/director, Preston Sturges. Sturges was the undisputed king of screwball comedy during the ’30s and ’40s (giving us films such as The Lady Eve, Miracle at Morgan’s Creek, The Great McGinty, and Hail the Conquering Hero, whose sly banter and clever storylines constantly challenged the Puritanical Hays Code). He was also THE FIRST prominent screenwriter to direct his own script.

One reason this satire of Hollywood is SO wonderful is the sincerity with which the story is told. I don’t mean it’s sappy. But it’s not just a continuous laugh-fest or a box-o’-Kleenex movie. It’s a brilliant, unpredictable mixture of both. For a comedy, it’s very moving; for a drama, it’s hilarious. I guarantee you’ll be satisfied, or your money back.

But wait, there’s more!

Synopsis

Tired of making fluffy, forgettable comedies, Hollywood director John L. Sullivan (McCrea) wants to put all his creative effort into a serious, socially responsible drama called “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” His producers point out that Sullivan knows absolutely nothing about poverty or suffering. Thus, Sullivan decides to put himself in a vagabond’s shoes (literally). However, his experiment hardly goes as planned, and he soon comes across a downtrodden aspiring actress, who longs to join him on his journey. And when the experiment seems to be nearly done, a series of events places Sullivan in a tighter spot than he had ever imagined.

Information

Directed by Preston Sturges;

Written by Preston Sturges;

Starring Joel McCrea as John L. Sullivan and Veronica Lake as The Girl (with a Sturges regular, William Demarest, as Mr. Jones);

Produced by Paul Jones (associate producer), Buddy G. DeSylva (executive producer, uncredited), and Preston Sturges (producer, uncredited);

Costumes by Edith Head;

Music by Charles Bradshaw and Leo Shuken.

Facts

Filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen borrowed the title of John L. Sullivan’s fictional project for their 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou?

The author of the fake book, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, was an amalgamation of the names of Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis, and John Steinbeck.

Preston Sturges supposedly got the idea for the movie from stories of John Garfield living the life of a hobo, riding freight trains and hitchhiking his way cross-country, for a short period in the 1930s.

Veronica Lake was pregnant during filming.

NAACP Secretary Walter White wrote a letter to Preston Sturges congratulating him for his “dignified and decent treatment of Negroes in this [the church] scene.”

Preston Sturges had originally intended to use a clip from a Charles Chaplin film for the church sequence, but Chaplin wouldn’t give permission. In an earlier scene, Joel McCrea does parody the Little Tramp character. The cartoon eventually used was Walt Disney’s Playful Pluto (1934).

-luke