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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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

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968)

The Wonder Car.

“Good morning. I hope you had a pleasant journey. In a few minutes we will be landing in Vulgaria.”

It’s fantastic. It’s absurd. It’s whimsical. It’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Sure, it’s juvenile. That’s what makes it so fun!

If you’re like me, you remember this film from your childhood. And if you’re like me, you remember the undeniably singable songs, “Up from the Ashes”, “P.O.S.H.”, and, of course, the theme song. The songs in this film, masterfully created by the Sherman Brothers, are some of the rare songs you are happy to have stuck in your head.

But the songs aren’t everything. There is an exceptionally imaginative story, written by Roald Dahl (the mind behind Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, and last year’s Fantastic Mr. Fox) and based on a novel by Ian Fleming (the creator of the enormously popular James Bond series). For pure, unhindered, surrealistic storytelling, there isn’t a better team on Earth.

Dick Van Dyke (who plays the eccentric inventor, Caractacus Potts, to perfection) had gotten his start in showbiz only a few years before Chitty’s release. A mere five years earlier, he had gotten his first starring role in the musical comedy, Bye Bye Birdie. In autumn of the next year, the extremely popular family film, Mary Poppins, was released, in which he played Bert/Mr. Dawes Senior. Then, of course, there was “The Dick Van Dyke Show”, which enjoyed a five-season run, from 1961-1966. Although Chitty was not well-received by critics (or audiences, at the time of its release), it remains my favorite Van Dyke film.

This film is nostalgia for many of us, but for those of you who have not seen the movie, I have a few warnings for you. Firstly, this film was made for children. However, it’s considerably more intellectual than anything you’ll find “for kids” nowadays. It’s a movie that explores imagination. Most modern children’s films ignore the miracle altogether. It’s a movie to make you wonder. It’s an exhilarating breath of fresh air. A rare find: a movie with heart.

Synopsis

In early 20th century England, eccentric inventor Caractacus Potts (Dick Van Dyke) struggles to make ends meet. He lives with his equally eccentric father (Lionel Jefferies) and his two children. When the children beg Caractacus to purchase their favorite plaything–a broken-down jalopy in a local junkyard–he does everything he can to obtain the funds with which to buy it. One scheme to raise money involves the unexpected assistance of a beautiful and wealthy young woman they have just met named Truly Scrumptious (Sally Ann Howes), the daughter of a candy factory owner. Caractacus eventually acquires the needed money and buys the car.

Using his inventing skills, Caractacus transforms the piece of junk into a beautiful working machine, which they name Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (because of the noise the engine makes). At a seaside picnic with his children and Truly, Caractacus spins a fanciful tale of an eccentric inventor, his pretty girlfriend (who is the daughter of a candy factory owner), his two children, and a magical car named Chitty all in the faraway land of Vulgaria. The ruthless buffoon Baron Bomburst, the ruler of Vulgaria, will do whatever he can to get his hands on the magical car. Furthermore, children have been outlawed in Vulgaria. Caractacus and the gang must save Chitty–and the children of Vulgaria.

Information

Directed by Ken Hughes;

Written by Ian Fleming (novel on which it was based), Roald Dahl (screenplay), Ken Hughes (screenplay), Richard Maibaum (additional dialogue);

Starring Dick Van Dyke as Caractacus Potts, Sally Ann Howes as Truly Scrumptious, Lionel Jefferies as Grandpa Potts, Gert Fröbe as Baron Bomburst, Anna Quayle as Baroness Bomburst, Benny Hill as Toymaker, and Robert Helpmann as Child Catcher;

Produced by Albert R. Broccoli (producer), and Stanley Sopel (associate producer);

Music by Irwin Kostal (conductor, music supervisor), Richard M. Sherman (music and lyrics), and Robert B. Sherman (music and lyrics).

Facts

Lionel Jeffries played Dick Van Dyke’s father, despite the fact that Dick Van Dyke is actually six months older than Jeffries.

Besides the failed Bob Hope film, Call Me Bwana, and the unfinished Nijinsky, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is the only non-James Bond film to be produced by Albert R. Broccoli.

The colors of the floating Chitty–purple, green, and white–were the colors of the women’s suffrage movement of that time.

This is the first non-Disney film to feature songs by the Sherman Brothers.

Van Dyke only accepted the lead role on the condition that he would not have to attempt an English accent.

Director Ken Hughes reportedly hated the finished film.

Dick Van Dyke’s character was named for Caractacus, the last independent ruler of England before the Roman conquest of southern England.

The role of Truly Scrumptious was originally intended for Julie Andrews, but she was unavailable. Dick Van Dyke helped choose Sally Ann Howes because he thought her singing voice was ideal for the part.

The scenes in and around Baron Bomburst’s castle in Vulgaria were shot on location at King Ludwig II’s Castle Neuschwanstein, located at the foot of the Alps on the Bavarian-Austrian border.

The musical number ‘Toot Sweets’ took three weeks to film and involved 38 dancers, 40 singers, 85 musicians and 100 dogs. How would you like to wrangle that?

-luke