Friday 23 October 2015

Carol Reed

It is tempting to compare Carol Reed with Vittorio De Sica. They had both been making films for some time until they, right after the end of World War 2, made a number of influential and famous films that captured the moment and defined the time in which they were made, and in which children played an important part. Then they disappeared again from the limelight, making allegedly lesser films. These days though Reed is given a considerably shorter shrift than De Sica, even though I think Reed's films are the better ones, showing more dexterity, imagination, power and boldness.

Alec Guinness and Burl Ives in Our Man in Havana

It is sometimes claimed that The Third Man (1949) is so good because of its writer, Graham Greene, and the presence of Orson Welles. Some remain convinced that Welles directed parts of it (which he did not, he was barely present at all) or that the film at least is clearly influenced by Welles. Yet The Third Man is very similar to the films Reed made before and after, in terms of style, themes and direction of actors. There is no reason to belittle Reed. His body of work, at least in the 1940s and 1950s, is enough proof of his exceptional abilities and artistry.

Berlin in The Man Between (1953)

The canted camera angles is Reed's most obvious stylistic trademark, which began to appear already in the 1930s and with The Fallen Idol (1948) had become well integrated. An eccentric editing pattern had also become apparent in the middle of the 1940s, which helps create a nervous tension in the narrative. A recurring example is where a scene begins almost in mid-sentence, where the cut from one space to another is slightly disconnected; somebody is already talking in the new scene, perhaps turning away from the camera, or turning towards it. An opulent mise en scĂ©ne, with shadows, staircases and densely decorated rooms, is also part of his style. Space is on the whole of immense importance and often takes on subjective, psychological dimension (emphasised by the canted angles). Reed is interested in the environment, which is usually urban and hostile, and the space in which the film takes place is vividly brought to life, and with it the people who live in it, watching the strangers who are intruding in their mist. His main characters are usually doomed, both because of historical and political forces over which they have no control, but also because of personal weaknesses. In the context in which they find themselves even kindness can be such a weakness, This is partly what gives Reed's films their sense of melancholy, which is remarkably strong in The Stars Look Down (1940), Odd Man Out (1947), The Third Man, The Man Between, and is also there in Our Man in Havana (1959), Reed's last really great film.

This sequence from The Man Between, which takes place in Berlin before the building of the wall, has all of these things. A British woman, a German man, and a boy, are thrown together because of politics over which they have little control. Here they gave taken refuge on a roof. I consider it to be one of Reed's very best films, not least because of the music.


All these films are also political films, dealing either with internal British tensions or cold war politics. Another fine film of his is The Young Mr. Pitt (1942), a lesser known (and less distinctly Reedian) historical biopic about the 18th century British prime minister, played by Robert Donat. The Way Ahead (1944), co-written with Eric Ambler and Peter Ustinov, is a lovely, even gentle, film about a group of ordinary Englishmen, played by an impressive cast including William Hartnell, Stanley Holloway, David Niven, John Laurie and James Donald, who are reluctantly conscripted into the infantry in 1941 and after a long period of training are sent to Africa to fight against the Germans, although things do not go according to plan. This is not a war film, there is at most ten minutes of fighting. Instead it is about these men having to adjust to a new kind of life, far from modern conveniences and from their families.

Then there are the children. The ambassador's son in The Fallen Idol, the supervisor's son in The Third Man, the orphan (seen above) in The Man Between, the young daughter and an orphan river boy in Outcast of the Islands (1951), the main character in A Kid For Two Farthings (1955). They are innocent and loyal, but this too can be dangerous, and in both Fallen Idol and The Man Between the loyalty of a child becomes a threat.

Outcast of the Islands is Reed's most eccentric film, based on Joseph Conrad's second novel and set somewhere between Singapore and Borneo during the years of European colonisation, and shot on Sri Lanka. It is so filled with longing, self-loathing and degradation is almost painful to watch; in one scene Almayer, the German head of a trading post, is tied up in a hammock and pushed back and forth over an open fire by his Dutch enemy, Willems, whilst Almayer's daughter screams "Pig! Pig! Pig! Pig!" and laughs at him. There is also captain Lingard, who once adopted Willems and now has brought him to this place, a place which he considers to be his islands and the local people his people; carrying on like a self-appointed king. "Does the white man know what is best for us?" Babalatchi, the local leader, asks with controlled contempt. In the end everything and everyone are ruined. "Ah, life is foul." Lingard exclaims, "Foul like a tangled rigging on a dirty night."

It is not entirely successful, as it feels slightly rushed, but the acting, the complexity of the emotions that run through it, and the visuals (as well as Reed's documentarian eye for faces and spaces) still make it a fine film, ending with a rainstorm worthy of Akira Kurosawa.

Willems (Trevor Howard) and Aissa (Kerima)

So while The Third Man is Reed's best known film, it is not his best film. The Fallen Idol and Odd Man Out are its equals, with The Man Between and Our Man in Havana close behind. In Reed's considerably powerful oeuvre, those five are in a league of their own.

As I have said before, British cinema of the 1940s and early 1950s is exceptional. If ever there was a golden age of cinema, it was there and then. I wrote recently about David Lean, the other week about A Canterbury Tale (1944) by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and a few years ago I wrote about Anthony Asquith and J. Lee Thompson. But there are so many more films, filmmakers and actors, many who are more or less unknown outside of Britain, including the very few women directors who were active those years, such as Muriel Box and Wendy Toye.

Friday 9 October 2015

A Canterbury Tale (1944)

I spent two days in Canterbury a couple of years ago, partly because of my love for Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's film A Canterbury Tale (1944). The cathedral provided accommodation so I slept on the premises, and in the morning I walked into the actual cathedral before it was open to the public. I walked around in there all by myself; a very special thing to do. Then when it opened to the public I happened to be by the main entrance, and inadvertently greeted all those who walked in, including a group of school children. When they saw me standing there they said "Hello." or "Good morning.", and I responded in kind, even occasionally throwing in a "Welcome" as if I belonged there, as if it was my cathedral.


Even by the usual standards of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, A Canterbury Tale (1944) is eccentric. Shot in Kent, in the area where Powell grew up, and made at the height of the war, when American soldiers had begun to arrive in Britain to help with the existential fight against the Germans, it is filled with a deep sense of England's history, the past and the present coming together in a perpetual now. In the opening sequence a pilgrim on his way to Canterbury in the 15th century looks up at a falcon in the sky, a falcon which suddenly becomes a fighter plane (a Spitfire or a Hurricane?) in the same part of the sky, 500 years later. This is then the time in which the rest of the film is set, but the past is still there, and can be felt, and heard. This is a film about time, and the importance of history. It is also a place about space, both the natural world and the man-made. The Kentish countryside; the forest, the hills, the farms, and the small town in which the film takes place, and Canterbury and its cathedral, where the film comes to its conclusion. Everything imbued with a sense of awe and wonder, almost pantheistic.

This is fairly typical of Powell and Pressburger, for them space is always of the outmost importance. It is not just there, it means something, it is alive and it influences the characters in the most profound ways, sometimes for good and sometimes for bad. In A Canterbury Tale space is warm and benevolent, the natural world is protective, and we can hide in it, and seek comfort. An American soldier and an old English man form an immediate bond over their mutual love of trees and wood.

But there are also weird things going on, and there is a war. People are being killed, or have gone missing. Disappointments are to be had. But sometimes, miracles happen. Not due to otherworldly causes but because life is unpredictable and sends conflicting messages. Sometimes the worst happens but not always. Good things also happen, and happiness can be found, even if it takes roundabout ways.

John Sweet, Sheila Sim, Dennis Price

A Canterbury Tale is a deeply moving experience. Partly because one can sense the urgency with which they made it. "This is where I was born and this is where I grew up." Powell seems to be saying. "We must protected this place and preserve it. This is worth fighting for." The fight here is not for freedom or democracy but for time and space itself. It is also moving due to the characters, the three main characters, the American soldier, a land girl from London and a British soldier who was a cinema organist before the war, who meet by chance and become friends during a couple of days in Kent. They all have reasons to be disappointed, even heartbroken, especially she. There is one especially fine scene when she finds the caravan, now covered in dust and cobweb, with which she once travelled around Kent with a boy, now shot down somewhere over Germany.

A Canterbury Tale is also peculiar in that it contains so many things: a detective story, sometimes shot like it was a film noir, a pastoral hymn, a fairytale, a propaganda film, a history lesson. But these things are not disconnected, they are woven tightly together, in a unique and spellbinding way. The films of Powell and Pressburger constantly ask of us to reconsider the way we look at things; time, space and characters, and this is true for A Canterbury Tale too. Nothing is to be taken for granted, there is magic everywhere, if you pay attention.


The year after A Canterbury Tale, Powell and Pressburger made I Know Where I'm Going, with which it is closely connected (and both are photographed by Erwin Hillier). It was shot in Scotland, on the isle of Mull. I have been there too, and the magic remains.