“Carol could put a film together like a watchmaker puts together a watch,” stated director Michael Powell, himself not exactly notorious for his slapdash approach to filmmaking, speaking of fellow Brit Carol Reed. Though undoubtedly a statement of admiration, this quote also points to the still-standing difficulty in assessing Reed’s work in totality: while he may have turned in three more-or-less unassailable classics, one of which, “Odd Man Out” came out on Criterion Blu Ray yesterday, there’s a sense today that Reed has not got enough of a personal authorial imprint across his entire output to earn him a real spot in the auteur pantheon. In fact, his name is often unfamiliar even to those who count one or more of his films among their favorites — compare that relative retrospective anonymity with the reputations of contemporaries like Hitchcock or Wilder or Ford.
Partly this probably comes down to the fact that Reed himself, by all accounts, was an unassuming man, the polar opposite of the bullhorn-toting blowhard caricature of a movie director. But there is also a chameleonic quality to his output, a willingness to subdue his own stylistic impulses in service of stories that sometimes did not deserve this deferential treatment, which makes his legacy, outside of the aforementioned triptych, hard to pin down. And so it’s easier to in some ways consign him to the box marked “solid, technically competent” — watchmaker, if you will. The problem then becomes, how do you account for “The Third Man“?
For many people, the answer was to erroneously and unfairly credit that film’s greatness to star Orson Welles, who himself having gently encouraged the misapprehension early on perhaps, later felt compelled to state firmly “it was Carol’s film.” Inasmuch as anything about the wonderful “The Third Man” can be said to be unfortunate, it’s almost unfortunate that Welles’ stunning turn in the film gave any sort of credence to that rumor, because simply put, “The Third Man” is enough film to build a profile and a legacy upon all by itself.
But it’s not all by itself. To celebrate the Blu Ray release of “Odd Man Out,” one of the other great films of Reed’s, we thought we’d give ourselves the pleasure of looking through his filmography again and pulling out the six titles that represent the best and most pivotal entries in an under sung and overall undervalued body of work.
“Night Train To Munich” (1940)
Reed’s name is not half so famous as that of Hitchcock these days, so it’s probably appropriate that this more or less overt take on Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes” is roughly half as famous as its forebear. Casting “The Lady Vanishes” star Margaret Lockwood, using a script by that film’s writers (Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, who worked with Reed several times) and even including the same popular bumbling Englishmen, Charters and Caldicott (Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, proving that Shared Universes are not a Marvel Comics invention) the film feels creakier than the polished gleam of Reed’s best work. But for a wartime-era spy adventure made when the war had scarcely begun, it’s still remarkably solid. Perhaps best of all it’s a showcase for a tremendously likable performance from a laconic but dashing Rex Harrison who gets to have quite a bit of fun here as a low-rent boardwalk crooner who is also a high-ranking British spy who impersonates a Nazi officer and dangles off a cable car in order to save the day and win the girl. But while it’s somewhat prescient in its subplot about concentration camps, it’s a film that history has overtaken, and though we can hardly blame Reed or his writers for not anticipating the unimaginable horrors of the Holocaust, somehow the lighthearted, romantic romp tone strikes a sour, or at best rather irrelevant note now. At the time, however, it was precisely the sort of escapist yet propagandist film that a nation newly at war could embrace, and it was a success for Reed, one that broke him out of B-pictures and second-string status, and set the stage for him to go on to his greatest successes in the 1940s.
“Odd Man Out” (1947)
A hunted man is pursued through the darkening streets of a crumbling, divided city by police, friends, co-conspirators, enemies and his blindly faithful lover — yes, there are many ways in which Reed’s 1947 classic, foreshadows his defining masterpiece of two years later, not least in his use of chiaroscuro compositions and literal foreshadowing. But “Odd Man Out” is the more serious film, it doesn’t have the cock-eyed black humor of “The Third Man” and its expressionist cinematography, as much Murnau as it is noir-influenced or Wellesian, is perhaps even more evocative and extreme. Occasionally, the bold use of mise en scène, stark lighting cues and woozy editing techniques — as when the portraits in Robert Newton‘s mad artist’s studio line up to become an audience, or the double exposures designed to take us into McQueen’s (James Mason) dying, flickering mind — land a little on the nose, but they do so with such simple impact that the effect is breathtaking anyway. Yet “Odd Man Out,” often cited by Roman Polanski as his favorite film of all time, is most remarkable not for the theatricality of its expressionist stylings, but for how brilliantly they sit alongside Reed’s social realist concerns, here in an almost documentary-like attention to authentic detail. A lot of that is derived from the location shooting, with the exteriors largely filmed on the ground in West Belfast, but playwright RC Sheriff‘s script also deserves great praise here. Humanizing moments of dialogue, like the kindly ladies who take McQueen in and then bicker about whether cutting his coat sleeve to tend to his wound is the right thing to do, sit alongside Reed’s own magpie eye for visual detail, like the little girl who only ever wears one roller skate, or the way the botched robbery and shooting that leads to McQueen’s predicament becomes instantly legendary as a game replayed by neighborhood kids before a single day has passed. Managing to be oddly apolitical, despite McQueen’s leadership of an IRA-type organization, it’s remarkable how much of a debt Yann Demange‘s excellent recent “’71” also owes “Odd Man Out.” An elegiac portrait of a broken, bleeding idealist’s odyssey through enemy territory, “Odd Man Out” was Reed’s first masterpiece, and, had not “The Third Man” come along a couple of years later, might well have been regarded as the pinnacle of his achievements. As it is, it’s merely a pinnacle.
“The Fallen Idol” (1948)
The middle, and least widely seen, of the three consecutive features that are really the reason cinephiles collectively lose their shit for Carol Reed, “The Fallen Idol” is also remarkable for being the first time Reed collaborated with writer Graham Greene, establishing a three-time partnership (also “The Third Man” and “Our Man in Havana“) in which each truly brought out the best in the other. Based on Greene’s own short story “The Basement Room,” it tells the story of young Phillippe (Bobby Henrey), the emotionally neglected son of an ambassador, who forms an attachment to the embassy butler, Baines (a wonderfully sympathetic Ralph Richardson), but is conflicted when he believes he witnesses Baines kill his overbearing, cruel wife. Greene’s script is wonderful, but the filmmaking is what truly sets “The Fallen Idol” apart, with Reed equally adept at establishing the vital geography of the vast, dust-sheet-laden embassy, as well as the film’s more intimate set pieces. Those smaller moments, in fact, might be where the film comes most alive — like when Phillippe barges in on a clandestine meeting between Baines and his lover, Julie, and the two have to conduct the heartbreaking negotiations of the end of their relationship in a makeshift code. Or when we feel Phillippe’s jealousy of Julie during a trip to the zoo. Or in just how accurately Reed captures the sheer boredom, frustration and confusion of being a kid in a grown-up world as Phillippe clatters through the empty hallways, eavesdropping on adult conversations without understanding them, and talking self-pityingly to the small snake he keeps secretly as a pet. If anything at all mars “The Fallen Idol,” though, it might be the slightly false feeling to the film’s happy ending, which undercuts the moral about the dangers of secrets somewhat, and kills the tension with a lighthearted “everything’s going to be all right” vibe that runs counter to the broodiness of the source story. Conversely, the following year, Reed would firmly dictate that the ending of the screenplay for “The Third Man” not follow Greene’s source novella for precisely the opposite reason: the ending Greene had originally written was happier than the compromised and ambiguous one in the film. Greene later conceded that Reed had been proven “triumphantly right” on that occasion, and we can’t help but wonder if “The Fallen Idol”‘s many merits would have been more celebrated if he had done something similar here. Whatever the case, it’s a beautifully made and worthy addition to the central Holy Trinity of Carol Reed films, especially as it finds Reed working in a very different, more observed, less overtly expressionist register than the films with which he’s most associated.
“The Third Man” (1949)
As though the planets had been inching toward alignment with his previous two features, in 1949, for a brief moment, perfect syzygy (somehow a very Harry Lime word) was achieved with Reed’s undisputed masterpiece, “The Third Man.” A film dangerously close to perfection in every frame, it is a rare example of every single aspect of the filmmaking process being so perfectly achieved of itself that to think of any one will immediately call something unforgettable to mind. Think of the dialogue and you’ll likely remember the “cuckoo clock” speech of Lime’s; consider the locations and you think of that fabulously evocative, ruined Vienna, all crumbled steps, cobbles, archways and vaulted sewers; think of the soundtrack and that Anton Karas zither track, that spent 11 weeks at the Billboard number 1 spot and spawned 4 other versions that charted the following year will instantly earworm its way into your day; think of Robert Krasker‘s extravagantly gorgeous, Oscar-winning cinematography and you think of small men casting huge shadows, low, off-kilter angles and figures melting into darkness. And think of the cast and you’ll undoubtedly remember Orson Welles‘ brilliant little sphinx-like smile when he’s introduced wordlessly in that flare of light. Welles is arguably even more impressive here as an actor than in “Citizen Kane” for being so sparingly used — barely onscreen for fifteen minutes, it is hard to think of any other actor, perhaps save Brando, who could possibly have lived up to the extended buildup that his character is given. But in just that witty, impish face and amused, ironic expression Harry Lime, whose massive shadow has extended over the whole film to that point, is brought to blistering life, and we understand immediately all the things he is: a dangerously charismatic joker, a careless lover, a selfish monster, a rat who will die in the sewers where rats belong. (Trivia: in my personal favorite shot in the whole film, it’s Reed’s fingers sticking out through that grate, not Welles’). It’s often been said of Reed that he was only ever as good as his collaborators and that’s probably true. But these great collaborators were each in such peerless form that Reed’s meticulous, instinctive, expressive talents rose in accordance, lending a magnifying and focussing effect to each of their contributions, and delivering a seamlessly brilliant, holistic film. In fact, we’d go so far as to say that for a time at the end of the 1940s, despite a role-call of filmmaking geniuses like Michael Powell, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, John Ford, John Huston, David Lean, Billy Wilder and Orson Welles himself all being at the height of their activity, the unassuming, modest Carol Reed was simply the greatest film director in the world, because of “The Third Man.”
“Our Man in Havana” (1958)
Of course the legacy of “The Third Man” tends to obliterate the other collaborations that Reed had with writer Graham Greene, but the fact that their partnership always gave rise to something special was never more in evidence than with the 1958 adaptation of Greene’s own popular satirical spy novel, “Our Man in Havana.” Reed had gone into a creative slump after the enormous success of their last Vienna-based team-up, dabbling in color with the twee “A Kid for Two Farthings” and the starry, turgid “Trapeze” suddenly unrecognizable as the model of precision and controlled humanism that his best films embodied. But while hardly up to “The Third Man” or even “The Fallen Idol” snuff, ‘Havana’ at least partially brought him back to himself, giving him a new, fascinating location to explore, a terrifically ambivalent, hangdog performance from Alec Guinness as the vacuum cleaner salesman turned fabulist spy Wormold, and letting him slot right back into sync with the irony and black humor of Greene’s writing that seemed to chime with him so instinctively. Indeed it’s a tone that many other adaptations of Greene’s work have struggled with, and even here, with Greene himself adapting his own novel (and dialing up the comic aspects) it doesn’t quite hang together, but Reed still delivers a deeply enjoyable satire mocking the officious paranoia of the world’s secret services, and the British Secret Service in particular. With Noël Coward‘s umbrella-carrying mid-level buffoon threatening to do a Harry Lime and walk away with the whole picture despite limited screen time, and a fun, sleazy turn from Ernie Kovacs as the ruthless Cuban chief of police who falls for Wormold’s comely but spoiled daughter, the film is a little too lightweight to have its serious underlying barbs really land, but it’s still an immensely enjoyable and witty entertainment that showed again just how attuned Reed’s filmmaking style could be to Greene’s sardonic writing.
Despite the acclaim, including a Best Director Oscar and the Best Picture statue too, it’s easy to regard “Oliver!” as a late-career anomaly from Reed — his only ever attempt at the musical genre, it’s also the last real spark in a four-decade-spanning career, with both his subsequent films, “Flap” and the Mia Farrow/Topol oddity “Follow Me” being disappointments, to put it mildly. But look closer and in addition to becoming a Christmas TV staple, “Oliver!” despite its surface dissimilarities (it was based on the stage musical by Lionel Bart) is something of a sublimation of all of Reed’s directorial instincts — good and bad — to that point. Here the expressive mise en scène that he was so noted for earlier, returns in glorious technicolor that for once enhances rather than diminishes the glory of his compositions (props due here too to DP Oswald Morris). And the focus is children, who have always figured in Reed’s films, often working class kids in gangs at that. Here the sentimentality that Reed could be prone to when given lesser material is offset by the squalor of the Dickensian slum setting (albeit studio-bound) which gives a socially conscious cast to the story that is redolent of “The Stars Look Down,” and other earlier Reed films. And the massive scale of the set builds enabled Reed to achieve some truly spectacular and intricate musical numbers, especially “Consider Yourself” and to pepper the film with his signature expressionist camerawork: just watch the introduction of his nephew Oliver Reed as Bill Sykes — it’s a cobblestone/archway/looming shadow combination straight out of “The Third Man.” But perhaps what makes “Oliver!” most worthy of reevaluation as an integral title in Reed’s thematic and stylistic catalogue, is how, despite the huge ensemble and complex choreography, the filmmaking never gets in the way of the story and the characters — in a way his personal investment can be felt in how he chooses to serve the material rather than any real agenda of his own. It’s paradoxical and not entirely true that the greatest mark of Reed as an auteur is that he left no recognizable directorial mark on his best films (as though a great director must leave a killer’s calling card in every scene), but “Oliver!” makes a good case that his was a talent that was probably more flexible, subtle and oddly humble than he is really given credit for.
Outside of these six features, Reed’s filmography becomes shakier, but there are some valuable titles that are less well-known amongst the disappointments too. Prior to his breakout with 1940’s “Night Train to Munich,” Reed had worked mainly in “quota quickies,” that is cheaply made b-movies created solely to fulfill the quota of British films that British cinema’s were mandated to show by the 1927 Cinematograph Act. However his first solo directorial credit, for “Midshipman Easy“(1935) which he himself chalked up to being at best a learning process, brought him some notice, most tellingly from one Graham Greene, then reviewing films for The Spectator. Greene admired both it and his next film, the comedy “Laburnam Grove” and would of course go on to work with Reed a decade later, establishing a partnership that would give rise to three of Reed’s best films.
“The Way Ahead” (1944) is an authentic and heartfelt grunt’s-eye look at life in a WWII infantry division from conscription through training to actual combat. Expanded from a propaganda short film he made, it stars David Niven, who is a sight more convincing as the officer he becomes than as the petrol pump attendant he starts out as. In fact the casting of ineffably posh types as working class was a problem elsewhere in Reed’s oeuvre, notably in the sappy “A Kid for Two Farthings,” though Michael Redgrave fared better as the coalminer’s son who goes to college in “The Stars Look Down.” And though that film’s awkward melding of defanged politics and romantic melodrama, and an eye-wateringly patronizing opening voiceover about the “noble, simple, ordinary hero,” doesn’t quite work otherwise, the on-location shooting and casting of the colliery sections, and the whole third act which deals with a mine collapse, are exceptional. The end of the war saw him pick up his first Oscar (he’d own again for “Oliver!“) for the documentary “The True Glory” which details the end of the war on the Western front and which led straight into his peerless late-40s run. Reed left the set of “Mutiny on the Bounty” (1962) reportedly unable to cope with star Marlon Brando, and was replaced by Lewis Milestone, but would go on to attempt a different sort of epic with the Michelangelo yarn “The Agony and the Ecstasy” which was a disastrous flop at the time, and which, if anything, the passing years has rendered even more turgid and baffling in its casting of Charlton Heston — Charlton Heston! — as the Florentine Renaissance artist.
It’s tempting to stack his misses up against his hits and come to the conclusion that Reed was indeed reliant on a symphonic arrangement of collaborators and material in order for his own highest talents to be unleashed — the rest of the time he was merely, again, solid. And yet if you look at the heights he achieved during that moment of symphonic resonance, no matter how brief, Reed’s place in film history is assured: he may not have turned in as many classics as some of his contemporaries, but those he did are as great, if not greater than the ones those more household names achieved.