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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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

Rear Window (1954)

Reminds me of my childhood suspicions of neighbors.

“I’m not much on rear window ethics.”

My friends and I sat in a tree. Steely expressions. Plastic guns. Walkie-talkies. We had just seen our neighbor commit a grisly murder.

Or was he simply feeding his dog? Darn. I was sure that he was wielding a large sword. And wasn’t that a gun he just lifted? Confound it. Look, look! He’s–oh. Nope.

No matter how many times we were proven wrong, my friends and I were always convinced that our neighbors were utterly diabolical. How heartbroken I was when we discovered that no killing had taken place at the house directly next to mine.

…Which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, now that I think about it.

__________

I think it’s high time we watched a Hitchcock. He’s a cinematic genius, widely regarded as one of the very best Hollywood directors. We’ll be watching many of his masterpieces throughout the year, but I believe Rear Window is the best “beginner” Hitchcock film. It has everything that makes a good movie–and more.

For those of you who relate Hitch’s name with dark, sinister stories of immorality and brutal, indiscriminate killing…stop it. Granted, his films are of a mature nature (some more so than others). However, there is very little objectionable content, especially by today’s standards. Hitchcock’s films are all filled to the brim with wit, suspense, and they are always, always entertaining.

To tell you the truth, I wasn’t expecting much when I first popped the disc into my DVD player. I thought the film would be another marginal, run-of-the-mill 50s drama.

I do realize that I often attempt to dictate your thoughts. I also realize that I am not a woman; thus, my efforts to do so are in vain. However, if you are expecting this movie to be boring, STOP. I refuse to hear any more from you until you experience the film for yourself. Try it, and you might just be amazed.

As you may know, Rear Window stars two of my favorite screen personalities, Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly. Indeed, the two make a rather odd couple, but their acting is excellent nonetheless. Stewart is entirely believable. In this film, Jimmy Stewart is a human, not an actor. He has realistic delays, overlaps, and stammering in his dialogue; he doesn’t just read it off the page.

I suppose I should stop rambling soon, but I’m afraid I’ll have to drone on for a moment longer. Hang in there.

A thriller is meant to, of course, thrill. Sounds obvious, no? Well, it seems that nowadays, “thriller” is synonymous with “violence” and “sexual content”. Hitchcock, especially in Rear Window, displays his ability to keep you on the edge of your seat (I nearly fell off at one point) without resorting to either.

The events preceding the end are actually more climactic than the climax itself. I won’t reveal any more. Luckily for you, I won’t talk anymore, either.

Synopsis

After an assignment goes wrong, professional photographer L.B. Jefferies (Stewart) is confined to his New York apartment with a broken leg. He suffers from severe boredom, the only “excitement” being the visits of his nurse, Stella, and his socialite girlfriend, Lisa (Grace Kelly–who else?). To pass the time, he begins to look out of his large rear window, observing his neighbors. A string of suspicious events leads Jefferies to believe that one of his neighbors has murdered his wife. He enlists the help of Stella and Lisa to find evidence and prove the crime.

Information

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock;

Written by Cornell Woolrich (short story on which it was based), and John Michael Hayes (screenplay);

Starring Jimmy Stewart as L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies, Grace Kelly as Lisa Carol Fremont, Thelma Ritter as Stella, Raymond Burr as Lars Thorwald, and Wendell Corey as Det. Lt. Thomas J. Doyle;

Produced by Alfred Hitchcock, and James C. Katz (1998 restoration);

Music by Franz Waxman.

Facts

The size of the set demanded excavation of the soundstage floor. Therefore, Jeff’s apartment was actually at street level.

At the time, the set was the largest indoor set built at Paramount.

At one time, during the filming, the lights were so hot they set off the soundstage sprinkler system.

While shooting, Hitchcock only worked in Jefferies’ apartment. The actors in the other apartments wore flesh-colored earpieces so Hitch could radio his directions to them.

During the month-long shoot, Georgine Darcy (Miss Torso) “lived” in her apartment all day, relaxing between takes as if it were her own.

Coincidentally, Raymond Burr (Lars Thorwald) went on to play Robert Ironside in the Ironside series. Ironside is a wheelchair-bound detective, a character not unlike Stewart’s in Rear Window.

What’s a more masculine phrase that I could use instead of “sneak peek”?

Next week I’ll be recommending the perfect film for St. Patty’s Day.

-luke