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

Happy Birthday, Alfred Hitchcock!

Macabre humor, thy name is Hitchcock!

It’s here! Today is the 111th birthday of the Master of Suspense, Sir Alfred Hitchcock.

Perhaps the most influential and talented of all the Hollywood directors, Hitch got his start in silent films in England. His first completed directorial project was The Pleasure Garden (1925), and he went on to enjoy nearly fifty years of legendary status. He directed some of Hollywood’s (and England’s) greatest stars, including Cary Grant, James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, John Gielgud, Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier, Gregory Peck, Ingrid Bergman, Montgomery Clift, Karl Malden, Ray Milland, Paul Newman, and Sean Connery. Wow.

His films are some of the most visually and mentally arresting films ever to come out of Hollywood. After making a small splash with his 1927 silent film, The Lodger, and fairly big splashes with Blackmail (1929), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), and The 39 Steps (1935), he made his first American film, Rebecca (1940), with famous Hollywood producer David O. Selznick.

Many modern directors (including Martin Scorsese, M. Night Shyamalan, and Guillermo del Toro, just to name a few) give Hitchcock generous doses of credit for their inspiration. Hitch’s phenomenal films have thrilled (and continue to thrill) generations of viewers. Here was a man who constructed classy suspense. Check out my reviews of Rear Window (1954) and Psycho (1960). I promise to have many more Hitchcock reviews soon.

Happy birthday, Sir Alfred, and rest in peace.

-luke

Published in: on August 13, 2010 at 6:10 pm  Comments (6)  

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

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