Night Train to Munich (1940)

Night_Train_to_Munich_Poster.jpgWe are met with the scourge of Hitler overrunning mainland Europe. It’s about that time. American isn’t involved in the war. Britain’s getting bombed to smithereens and the rest of Europe is tumbling like rows and rows of tin soldiers.

Carol Reed always proved astute at setting the stage for great human dramas and Night Train to Munich is little different. Anna Bomasch (Margaret Lockwood) wakes up to find that the Nazis are on the march for Czechoslovakia and her father, a renowned scientist, is fleeing the country. However, she’s not so lucky and gets intercepted by the Nazis ending up in a concentration camp instead of aboard an airplane to freedom.

It’s in these moments where the script develops a fairly frank depiction of the concentration camps denoting that they were hardly a day of wine and roses. But in that very harrowing climate, she meets a proud rebel named Karl (Paul Henreid) who uses his underground contacts to help them escape and promises Anna that they will find her father in England. Hope still exists.

The man they wind up reaching in the British Isles feels more like a nobody than a top government agent singing tunes at a beachside promenade. But Dickie Randle (Rex Harrison) proves to be far more than he lets on at face value. Still, he is not the only one who holds that distinction and no sooner have they been reunited then father and daughter find themselves kidnapped by Gestapo spies and carried on a U-Boat back to the Fatherland.

We know where the final act must go as Randle heads into the mouth of the lion’s den to try and pull off a daring rescue that looks like an absolutely ludicrous endeavor with not even a half chance of succeeding. He masquerades as a member of the German corps of engineers and pulls the wool over on some of his denser adversaries. Still, one man is not so oafish and they must thwart the insider Gestapo man looking to trap them.

In its day and even now the film was pitched as a sequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller The Lady Vanishes (1938). The connection can be attributed to several aspects including similar locales — namely a train — the same studio producing in Gaumont, the screenwriting skills of Sidney Gilliat, and even the same leading lady in Margaret Lockwood. For these very reasons, it does become an interesting exercise to juxtapose this later work with The Lady Vanishes.

In fact, Reed’s film you could say was steeped in politics more than anything dared by Hitchcock. But it might be a stride too far to surmise that Carol Reed was a political filmmaker. He was a master at creating compelling worlds planted in the realities that were already known to us such as war-torn Ireland or Post-war Vienna. They are real moments but as is explained so exquisitely at the beginning of Odd Man Out (1947), these are not the particular aspects that connect us together. It is the universal quality of the human experience that reaches us…

That Man is evil. That love leads us to make choices that others would not. That Man often makes war instead of peace. Admittedly, Night Train to Munich is not such a rich exploration in environment, character, or cinematic themes, but it still has power as a fairly frank thriller. It can be hailed along with films like The Mortal Storm (1940) and The Great Dictator (1940), for being astutely aware of the historical moment that they were embroiled in — at least more so than most.

There are innumerable jabs at the Nazis including one minor gag involving the inflection of the phrase “This is a fine country to live in.” One rascally dissident uses this precise scenario to slither his way out of an appointment with a local concentration camp. Still, a moment like this and similar gags in barb-laden comedies like The Great Dictator (1940) or To Be or Not to Be (1942) come with a certain solemnity. Because we know the vast amount of carnage such camps were guilty of.

Surprise, surprise that everyone’s favorite British comic duo Charters and Caldicott crop up again proving to be as fussy as ever. Except in such an edgy climate, they too feel oddly out of place. Because maybe the threat feels all too real and as far as characters go they are caricatures not fit for such a realistic world. They’re just not quite at home with Nazis and concentration camps and how could they be?

Still, putting them back in their element, that is, back aboard a train, it feels like all is right with the world again. But even then, they act differently. This time they stick their necks out spurred on and put in a general huff by the indecency of the Nazis. And if they can all of a sudden get patriotic then the assumption is that most any convivial bloke can.

Whereas the train acts as the hallmark of The Lady Vanishes, in this film it is more of an important stop along the way in the overarching narrative. This story boasts a thrilling cable car finale with a subsequent shootout that’s gripping despite the inexhaustible amount of bullets or maybe precisely for that very reason. Carol Reed’s films would only improve as the 1940s went on but there’s no denying the intrigue and political clout here. He deserves to be remembered among the foremost of British directors if not only for his revered masterpieces like The Third Man (1949) but also the minor classics like Night Train to Munich (1940).

3.5/5 Stars

Odd Man Out (1947)

Odd-man-out-posterIn my profession, there is neither good nor bad. There is innocence and guilt. That’s all. ~ Denis O’Dea as the Police Inspector

What Carol Reed did so impeccably with The Third Man and here in Odd Man Out is developing a very specific atmosphere. He made the worlds of Vienna and in this case, the unnamed avenues of Northern Ireland come alive not simply by developing the setting in such a way that’s full of character and intrigue but still managing to craft a compelling story within that very same framework. It sets the stage for numerous vivid individuals to come alive because all the contours are colored in and filled out for the audience to enjoy.

Particularly in Odd Man Out, you can visualize Reed taking a certain historical moment and broadening its scope. Because his story, based off a novel by FL Green, is really about the IRA in Ireland who some would call patriots and most would call terrorists. Even some of their fellow people. Still, the majority would shower them with indifference but that’s where the narrative finds its footing. It opens with the following interlude:

“This story is told against a background of political unrest in a city of Northern Ireland. It is not concerned with the struggle between the law and an illegal organisation, but only with the conflict in the hearts of the people when they become unexpectedly involved.”

In this sense, a highly charged situation is pulled from its cultural subtext and Reed masterfully focuses on the universal aspects of the human experience that are found there. James Mason gives one of the most stirring performances of his career both vulnerable and strangely reserved. For much of the film he takes a back seat, almost working on the fringes of the storyline and yet it works quite well. I suppose in some ways, like Harry Lime, a couple years later, even when he’s not in the frame he’s of paramount importance because his name is on everyone’s lips.

The reason is this. Following his release from prison, Johnny has begun the planning stages of a bank heist in broad daylight. It’s never stated very explicitly but the assumption si that they need some capital to bankroll their cause. Still, Johnny and three buddies hold up the joint. But on the way back to the getaway car Johnny gets detained by a guard and a discharging gun leaves both men mortally wounded.

The whole film hinges on the aftermath of this even and the fact that this is a heist film is quickly forgotten because it surpasses the basic parameters of a crime movie destined for grander aspirations altogether. Look at it more closely and again and again Odd Man Out reiterates the fact that this is really about all people. Because any given conflict will always and forever elicit some sort of response from any single person. That’s how we are wired and one conflict will cause a ripple of interpersonal conflicts in any person who becomes involved. That’s where this film is coming from.

It’s such a classic menagerie of figures each with their own distinctiveness. Moments where they reveal even a very little bit about who they are. Whether it’s the old crone who invites the fugitives into her parlor only to call the cops of them. Maybe it’s a cabbie or a bar owner or a vagabond obsessed with birds who lives with a delusional painter. The story takes us through the bar halls, the streets, private homes, trams, carriages, churches, and wherever else the general public spends their waking hours. Much of Dublin’s Abbey Theater was called upon to star in the film and they certainly are a colorful lot.

At first, it was off-putting that the film sunk into almost hallucinatory territory as Johnny drifts in between delirium, visions, and bits and pieces of memories that all come to the fore as he struggles with his excruciating pain. The hourglass is slowly winding down. But his faithful love Kathleen (Kathleen Ryan) is resolutely looking to save him from the clutches of the police and anyone else who might want to do him harm.

In one particularly stirring moment, Johnny can be heard recounting a few jumbled tidbits from 1 Corinthians 13:

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I thought as a child, I understood as a child. But when I became a man, I put away childish things. Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal. Though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.

Meanwhile, Kathleen is seeking counsel with Father Tom and she seems to come to much the same conclusion. She opts for love over his religion because that is what she feels pulsing through her with all its overwhelming strength. Her faith is in her love. Nothing else.

It all culminates in a deadly finale. We could not expect anything less still that does not make the film’s conclusion any less jarring. Even today it’s a surprisingly candid denouement. There are no two ways about it. No ambiguity left. We know what fate befalls someone such as Johnny. This is a tragic human drama after all.

So in some scenes, it indubitably has twinges of film noir. Visually it’s indisputably noirish, atmospheric not only in lighting but with the additions of elements from pelting rain to falling snow. Still, the philosophy that runs through its frames feels far different than your typical hardboiled cynicism. There’s something else working here and that’s just a bit of what sets Odd Man Out apart from its various contemporaries. Johnny and Kathleen represent something slightly different. Still, it does beg the question, can their love (or charity) be their ultimate redemption?

Religious hard lining or legalism is hardly the answer and you could never possibly accuse someone like Father Tom of such a crime anyways. He seems a far more humble individual than that but that does put Kathleen’s decision as well as Johnny’s citing of the good book into some question as well. How far can you go in saying that love can be your salvation or does their need to be something further still? I guess you could say that’s the inner conflict in the hearts of many of these people who get involved: Love, charity, and innocence versus guilt.

4.5/5 Stars

The Third Man (1949): Out of the Rubble

the third man 1Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. 

Great films ring anew each time you see them. Or in this case, they twang with the oddly disconcerting strains of zither strings. The Third Man is such a film that continually asserts itself as one of the golden classics of the 1940s. But we must set the scene.

There’s an image of a great city–a formerly great city–blown up, diced up, and quartered. The first syllable of dialogue glibly carrying a twinge of irony lays the groundwork for the entire plot really. This is Post-war Vienna. It’s where the blown out buildings strewn with rubble can exist with the elegant remnants of royal dynasties. A land of black marketeering and shifty-eyed collaboration between wartime allies. It’s deception and ambiguity to the nth degree not only evident in the people but the very social structure they find themselves in. Everyone’s got an angle, a secret to hide, and a reason to hide it. There’s a consistently fine line between right and wrong and the storyline is ripe with incongruities and dissonance that, if nothing else, are disconcerting.

It struck me that this is the original Chinatown except it doesn’t simply act as a mere metaphor. We actually get enveloped in the atmospheric Vienesse world that feels invariably gaunt and hollow. It’s a world that’s flipped upside down and with the hapless American western pulp novelist Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) as our guide, we become just as mixed up as he does.

He’s come to the town for the prospects of a job offered by an old school chum Harry Lime. But Harry’s not there to meet him. In fact, Harry’s not anywhere. He’s dead. But everything is clouded with that same ambiguity. The military police led by Inspector Calloway (Trevor Howard) and his right hand man (Bernard Lee) are still investigating Lime’s prior dealings on the black market in tainted penicillin. Meanwhile, Martins obviously goes blundering around trying to learn anything he can because these men are obviously incompetent. He scouts around for eyewitnesses and several of Lime’s acquaintances. Most of all he’s taken with Harry’s gal Anna (Valli) who is also torn apart by the death of her Harry. They bond over that although Holly soon becomes infatuated with her as she remains in love with a man who is gone forever.

This is the disorienting world that we are thrown into by Graham Green and director Carol Reed. Where heaven is down and hell is up. Ferris Wheels ever turning, rotating through their cycles. Dutch angles giving every figure a contorted view. We never see anyone for their face value and we can never assume anything. Because there’s always something lurking in the shadows.

the third man 2Joseph Cotten is surprisingly compelling as the poor, unfortunate stiff and it’s hard not to feel sorry for him in his ignorance because we can relate with him. Alida Valli is striking as the aloof beauty who nevertheless has an unswerving affection for her former love that remains the only joyous thing in her current existence. Then, of course, there’s Orson Welles as the charismatic myth of a man–arguably the most intriguing supporting character there ever was even if it’s mostly thanks to the legend created by those who knew him.

Meanwhile, Carol Reed’s film is stylish and simultaneously dingy around the edges another gritty entry in the annals of film noir with some of the most beautifully pronounced shadows in the history of film. The final setpiece through the dank cavernous underworld of the Viennese sewers is a fitting place for the Third Man’s climatic moments to play out. It epitomizes all that has been going on above ground so far.

Then in a strikingly Deja Vu moment, the story ends much as it began in the exact same place with the exact same people but now there is so much more tension underlying each character. Feelings now buried in the dirt.

And in his final shot, Reed is fearless. He plays a game with the audience, giving them their final shot but instead of bringing it to a rapid conclusion he lets the gravity of the situation sink in before it’s gone in a fit of wistful melancholy. It ends as all films noir should with one man dead, another man smoking a cigarette, and the girl walking off with neither of them. It’s about as bleak as you can get but then again we’ve already spent the entire film getting accustomed to this lifestyle. This is only a day in the life of a city like Vienna. This is what life is in a post-war zone.

5/5 Stars

Note: I will say that I rewatched the film on Netflix and I would vehemently dissuade others from doing the same (at least if they’ve never seen The Third Man before). Because one major change they made that you would hardly even think about is adding subtitles in some crucial moments. When I saw the film multiple times before the lack of subtitles only added to my general sense of confusion in the face of ambiguities, much like Holly Martins faces himself. Subtitles take some of that away from us as an audience. In this case, the subtitles are tantamount to colorizing black & white movies or resorting to pan and scan. They can easily ruin the experience.

Fallen Idol (1948)

fallen-idol-poster-1948Fallen Idol is a fascinating film for how it develops inner turmoil. It’s earnestly interested in the point of view of a child and as such, it functions on multiple levels –that of both kids and adults. Philippe’s (Bobby Henrey) home is the embassy as his father is a French ambassador who is always away on the job. So Phil’s a little boy who is perpetually in the care of servants. Namely the authoritarian Mrs. Baines (Sonia Dresdel) and her good-natured husband (Ralph Richardson).

It seems like he has a fairly cushy life, able to have his run of the embassy, play all the time, and eat three square meals a day. He diverts himself with numerous trifles like any good little boy would, including an affinity for his pet snake McGregor. Meanwhile, Mrs. Baines is constantly pestering and prodding him to behave. Simultaneously Mr. Baines continually affirms his boyish nature. It’s no secret which one Philippe likes better.

This triangular relationship is vital to the film but it’s only the beginning. Because Mr. Baines, rather understandably, is unhappy in his marriage. It’s not working out for him and he has met another woman (Michele Morgan) who he dearly loves and who loves him. Of course, the one moment he goes off to meet her in confidence, the mischievous, prying eyes of Phillip find them, but he does not fully comprehend what he is seeing — what they are talking about in hushed voices — as he nibbles away at tea cakes and pastries.

The nuances of the events at hand are earnest between two deeply concerned adults who fear never being able to be together. But again, as a young boy, Philippe doesn’t quite understand the subtext of all that is going on. How could he? And Carol Reed does a wonderful job of conveying this through some simple camerawork throughout the story. It always seems like Philippe’s point of view is either from the distant staircase looking down at the figures below or he is looking up at the adults who stand above him. There’s always a pronounced distance, a gap that must be forged. And all of this suggests just how far removed he is from the events swirling around him.

At this juncture, Mr. Baines asks him to keep their secret and they go on an escapade to the zoo together. Philippe is happy with the reptile house and other animals, while Mr. Baines is soaking up his final moments with Julie before she goes away. She can’t bear to not be with him. Still, Phil is uninterested in the whole business.

But later, when some words slip out, Mrs. Baines puts two and two together. Now she is asking Phillip to keep their own little secret. He’s been asked to hold onto two conflicting secrets now and he doesn’t quite know how to respond. His mind’s convictions about lying and truth-telling are tied up in knots and they remain that way for the entire film.

The final act is even tenser as Baines must cope with the tragic aftermath of his wife’s death. She was confronting him about his love but that’s hardly the most interesting part. At this point, Phil thinks he knows what he saw and he doesn’t want to tell on Baines. In his eyes, Baines killed someone, but he likes Baines. There’s this troubling moral dichotomy that’s created in his little head. When the police inspector comes in digging around for the truth, the boy’s no help and Baines’ story is highly suspect at best.

Everything young Philippe does in an attempt to help only serves a hindrance for the man he idolizes. His allegiances were manipulated and by the end, his cries to be listened to are all but disregarded. When all is done he scampers down to his returning mother joyously. Completely ignorant of the bullet that Baines has dodged. It’s the perfect ending, summing up a film about a child embroiled in something far above what he can even fathom.

He doesn’t quite understand that Julie is not Mr. Baines niece. He doesn’t know what Mr. Baines meant when he was bickering with his wife about his freedom. Or even that the lady that he clings so closely to in the police station is a woman of the street. That’s what makes the performance that Reed teases out of his actor that much more impressive because it gets that obliviousness and confusion across perfectly.

In truth, Reed’s film brings to mind two other classics of the 1940s from British masters.   The first is Rebecca with Mrs. Baines asserting her domestic dominance rather like the unnerving Mrs. Danvers played by Judith Anderson. Furthermore, the heartbreaking nature of infidelity in this film also calls to mind David Lean’s heart-wrenching work with Brief Encounter. However, again, what sets Fallen Idol apart is the perspective of a child. It’s an innocent way of trying to make sense of the world. A world that is so often confused, ambiguous, and complex.  The beauty of being young is that same naivete. So much has gone on and Phil has seen and done so much. Yet when his mother is home, he cannot help but be happy to see her. All else fades away. That innocence remains to the end.

4.5/5 Stars

Review: The Third Man (1949)

5873f-thirdmanusposterI am continually drawn to The Third Man for a number of reasons, which I would love to highlight right now. To begin with, the opening credits come up and yet behind them is the rather odd image of a row of strings. As an audience, this is our first introduction to the zither, the twangy instrument that will create the strangely haunting score over the course of the film.

Then, we are fed a casual bit of narration that quickly throws us into the story of western writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), as he heads to Vienna to meet his old school chum Harry Lime (to be revealed later!). It seems safe to say that World War II was not good to the city, which is a mixture of ruins, cobblestone streets and ornate architecture that lend itself to an uneasy feeling. In other words, what happens in Vienna, stays in Vienna. Everything is zoned off nicely, and the authorities try and stay out of each other’s way.

Martins learns soon enough that Lime is dead and yet it doesn’t add up. His best friend was hit by a car driven by a colleague, carried off the road by two friends, and diagnosed by his personal doctor who all happened to be present. Martins is urged by a Major Calloway to not get involved. Heading home would be a much better solution.

But of course, Martins does not heed this advice. He meets Harry Lime’s girl, the beautiful but somber Anna (Valli), who has her own troubles with the authorities. Further investigation points to a mysterious third man who a local porter saw from his window. The old man winds up dead and soon Martins himself is threatened. Calloway encourages him to leave again before reluctantly disclosing that Lime was dealing diluted penicillin on the black market. That batch ultimately killed and harmed many a patient.

It’s a whole different ballgame now. But wait, after dropping in on Anna, Martins sees a shadowy figure out her window and in a dramatic entrance Lime shows his face. A magnificent magic trick and fully alive. The next day on a Ferris wheel Lime’s true character comes out. All I will say is that he would have been at home in the Borgia family.

Now Holly is conflicted about helping the police snag his old friend or heading home, wiping his hands of the whole ordeal. He finally reluctantly swings a deal because of his love for Anna. Plans are set and soon a trap is sprung for Lime. He is tipped off by a still faithful Anna, but the police force him to make his getaway into the sewers. That is where it all goes down for good. The next day Holly Martins waits at the side of the road for Anna. She slowly makes her way in his direction and without any acknowledgment, she keeps on walking on. She is now out of the picture and all he can do is light yet another cigarette. That is the cold and painful ending to The Third Man, a perfectly suited story for Post-War Vienna and a great Film-Noir.

We become constantly aware of this film’s almost painful camera angles, at times, which slightly distort scenes and close in on faces. It is an unnerving feeling for the viewer which is only compounded by the bleak and shadowy cinematography, along with the haunting music. It all adds up to a perfectly chilling composition. The story feels starkly real too thanks to the on-location shooting and the mixing in of the German with the English. As a non-German speaker, this extra language only furthered my confusion and, at times, my paranoia. Along with Martins, I often could not understand what was going on, causing me to be more and more befuddled.

All in all, although Orson Welles stole the show, both Joseph Cotten and Valli were superb. The two of them had the most screen time and it certainly was not wasted. Whether they were walking or talking they always made for an interesting contrast. Their accents, their demeanor, even their opinions of Lime were often in juxtaposition. I was not a fan of Trevor Howard, but he was not meant to be a likable character. Bernard Lee, on the other hand, had to be my favorite supporting role.

The Third Man is already on my watch list again and for good reason! Well done Carol Reed, Grahame Green, and Anton Karas!

5/5 Stars