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Posts Tagged ‘Graham Greene’

Sometimes you look around at the best of the films of today, your Boyhoods and your Birdmans, and you ask yourself how well they are really going to stand up to the test of time – some people are already suggesting that Birdman‘s true posterity will be as the answer to the pub quiz question ‘What film won the Best Picture Oscar in the year that Boyhood didn’t?’ Will any of these films be getting re-releases in 20, 30, or 40 years time?

Some hardy perennials of the cinematic landscape do seem to have this kind of immortality. I saw Touch of Evil at the Phoenix a couple of years ago and am not especially surprised to see it making another appearance there very soon, while currently enjoying its second major revival (at least) in sixteen years is Carol Reed’s The Third Man, 66 years old at the time of writing and looking just as splendid as ever. (Clearly the message is: if you want your film to have staying power, hire Orson Welles as your bad guy – though this inevitably leads one to wonder why 1986’s Transformers: The Movie doesn’t figure more prominently on the art house circuit.)

third-man-poster

Apparently there are still people around who haven’t seen The Third Man (personally I’ve been watching it fairly regularly since I was a teenager), so here is how the story goes. Vienna after the Second World War is a dreary, bombed-out, desolate city, occupied by a coalition of international forces and in the grip of vicious black-marketeers. To this place comes American hack writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), hoping to meet up with his old friend Harry Lime. But he is distraught to find Lime’s funeral in progress as he arrives, and even more outraged when army policeman Calloway (Trevor Howard) shows little concern over the death, proclaiming that Martins’ friend was a gangster who deserved to die.

Martins resolves to clear his dead friend’s name and solve the mystery surrounding his death, despite the warnings of everyone involved that he should just leave Austria as soon as possible – even Harry’s lover, Anna (Alida Valli), doesn’t seem very supportive of his crusade, although the two of them do perhaps strike up a connection of a different kind…

Very few films, classic or otherwise, have such a distinct identity as The Third Man, and this is partly a question of sound and vision: the film’s all-zither soundtrack is justly legendary, while the streets, ruins, and sewers of Vienna are a unique backdrop. Uniquely filmed as well, as of course: the black and white cinematography of the film is by turns luminous and murky, as the story requires, while Reed’s skewed camera angles are also unmistakable.

It’s this aspect of the film that usually leads observers to link it, in some fashion, with the film noir genre, which was also enjoying its heyday during the late 40s and early 50s. But if The Third Man is noir it is noir of a peculiarly British flavour: there are no hard boiled detectives or femmes fatale here. Reed’s protagonist is a deluded, somewhat clownish figure, and the leading lady is far more vulnerable than she is brassy. Not that there is no moral ambiguity here, of course, but this too comes from a slightly odd angle – no-one, ultimately, doubts the utter amorality of Orson Welles’ villain, or that he is a vicious and unrepentant criminal, but both Cotten and Valli’s characters find it wrenchingly difficult to condemn him. They both seem quietly aware that he is a more charismatic and capable person than either of them and – to begin with – defer to him as a result.

This, I think, is the ultimate source of the atmosphere of melancholy which permeates the film – or contributes at least as much as the bleakness of the setting. ‘The dead are happier dead,’ observes Welles’ character, ‘they don’t miss much here, poor devils.’ Welles himself certainly seems to be playing the happiest character in the film – all the other major characters seems quietly consumed by their own failings and shortcomings.

This probably makes The Third Man sound like a pretty heavy-going piece of work, but as well as an examination of guilt, loyalty, and lapsed friendship (perhaps even love), it also functions superbly as a thriller, and a remarkably witty one as well: you’re never very far from a sharp line or a memorably weird character. Apparently the famous speech concerning cuckoo clocks was inserted into the script by Welles himself, as Graham Greene was at pains to point out in later years, but this film is in every way a collaborative effort.

But why has it lasted so well? Is it just a question of quality? I’m not sure; I think it may be. Certainly, this film – set, as it is, in a very particular time and place – has something about it which gives it some degree of universal appeal. Everyone has had their disappointments, I suppose, everyone has fallen in love with the wrong person at some time or other – perhaps everyone has pondered on the strange allure of bad people. The Third Man is about all of these things, and manages to tell an engrossing story about them which is also marvellous to look at. That’s the basis of it, I suspect: the rest is probably simply magic, and beyond rationalisation.

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From the Hootoo archives. Originally published April 3rd 2003:

It’s ironic that, for a country that’s not really been overly blessed with genuine movie stars (not recently, anyway), we’ve only recently appreciated the national treasure that is Sir Michael Caine. Admittedly the great man did not help his standing much by appearing in a load of old crap throughout the 1970s (mainly to pay off various mortgages), but now, in this late stage of his career, each new appearance is something to be looked forward to.

And now he’s back in Phillip Noyce’s The Quiet American, based on the novel by Graham Greene. Here Caine plays Thomas Fowler, a world-weary (and, this being a Greene protagonist, Catholic) reporter stationed in Saigon in the early 1950s. Fowler hasn’t gotten involved in the war between the governing French authorities and the Communist rebels – he doesn’t even have an opinion on the matter. But his cynicism extends only so far, and he’s deeply in love with his much-younger Vietnamese mistress Phuong (played by the heartstoppingly beautiful Do Thi Hai Yen). Their life together is set for upheaval, though, when the hardly-industrious Fowler is threatened with recall to London, forcing him to visit the war zone in search of a story – and also by the arrival in Vietnam of idealistic young American aid worker Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser, shrewdly cast). Pyle is determined to help both Phuong and the country, no matter what methods he is forced to use…

It’s not easy to make a film of one of Greene’s thoughtful and skilfully written novels at the best of times, and to make one about an American bombing a Third World nation ‘for its own good’ that isn’t commercial suicide in the current climate is an enormous challenge (even bigger than the one I face in trying to get any witty remarks on this subject past the BBC censors). But Noyce has managed it pretty well: the movie is well staged, extremely well photographed, and stylishly directed.

He gets a towering performance out of Caine. To be sure, there’s not much exactly new here – various bits of most of his latterday roles get recycled – but the overall effect is compelling, moving, and entirely worthy of his Oscar nomination. He doesn’t steal the movie: rather, it is constructed around him.

And this isn’t wholly to the benefit of the film. For one thing, it gives Brendan Fraser a very difficult job indeed in bringing the eponymous character to life. Fraser is a much underrated actor; on his day he’s quite capable of holding his own against seasoned scene-stealers like Sir Ian McKellen. But here he struggles, sidelined too much by the dominance of Caine’s character. And given that the conflict – both romantic and political – between the two is at the heart of the story, this inevitably affects the impact of the story. To the film’s credit, it tackles some thorny moral and political issues with impressive intelligence, seeming to suggest that there are no easy answers – but the political themes of the story (which are vaguely like those of the most famous Greene movie, The Third Man) are pushed into the background by the film’s focus on Caine and the love triangle. It may make the film more marketable these days, but that’s all it achieves.

Despite all this, though, I found The Quiet American to be an intelligent, involving, and extremely well made drama. Circumstances may have given it a certain resonance its makers didn’t intend, but even without this it would still be worth seeing, if only for Caine’s consummate display of screen acting technique. A great performance in what’s only a good movie – pity they couldn’t have split the difference a bit more.

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Head for the hills! Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the cinema, yet another movie bearing the ghastly imprimatur of the UK Film Council (of ‘utter crap’ and ‘makes you want to gouge your own eyes out’ fame) hits the screen. Come to think of it, now The King’s Speech (also a UKFC job) has been nominated for about 400 awards I may have to stop being snippy about it. Bother. And Ben Affleck’s credible again nowadays, too. What the hell am I going to make cheap gibes about from now on?

Oh well. The film in question is another period drama, Rowan Joffe’s new adaptation of Brighton Rock. This, as you must surely know, is a classic novel about good and evil and guilt and innocence, written by Graham Greene and originally published in 1938.

Joffe’s film updates the story to 1964, when the south coast was being terrorised by roving gangs of mods and rockers. The basic plot remains the same, however, as teenage headcase Pinkie (Sam Riley, in the role that made Richard Attenborough’s name) seizes control of an adult criminal gang following the killing of its leader. He murders Hale, the man responsible for the first death, but teenage waitress Rose (Andrea Riseborough) can potentially link him to the crime – and so Pinkie sets about manipulating the girl’s emotions and the infatuation she feels for him in order to secure his own survival. Meanwhile, a friend of Hale’s, Ida (Helen Mirren) has set about bringing his killer to justice in her own way…

Well, first things first, and this isn’t actually what you’d call a bad film. It looks very convincing in a dreadful, crumbling sort of way, and there are great performances from the cast. Sam Riley is magnetic – kudos to the guy for even daring to follow in Lord Dickie’s footsteps – and Andrea Riseborough is also very good in a tough role – Rose is so weak and delusional and gullible, and, well, just plain wet, that it would have been very easy for her to become actively annoying. To Riseborough’s credit, she never does. The more senior members of the cast – including Phil Davis, John Hurt, and Andy Serkis – are also fine, and Joffe’s direction also has moments of inspiration.

That said, the reasons behind the decision to bring the story forward to 1964 seem a little obscure to me. It can’t be solely a budgetary thing, nor can it be to make the story more accessible to a modern audience – it’s still set 47 years ago. The inclusion of the mods and rockers material doesn’t seem to inform the story much – this is too personal and internal a story for that. It doesn’t actually harm the film, but it doesn’t help it in any way. The same could be said for the rather large amounts of blood and what my uncle likes to refer to as effing and jeffing – this must be rather close to the top end of the 15-band, not that it makes much difference.

At this point I’m going to be a little more specific about the story of Brighton Rock, both this film version, the famous 1948 one, and the novel, so, you know – look away if you don’t want to get spoiled. As you might expect, a number of changes have been made – John Hurt’s character is rather more prominent than in the book, for instance. Rather more fundamental than this are the changes affecting Ida Arnold. In the book, Hale isn’t a gangster himself, and not directly responsible for killing Pinkie’s mentor – he’s a loser, but sympathetic in a way that the new film’s version of the character isn’t (he may only stick a knife in someone’s throat by accident, but he was still actively looking to carve the guy up). As a result Ida arguably seems to set out on a crusade for justice for a man who may not really deserve it.

The book is also about the contrast between Pinkie, who’s a practicing Roman Catholic as well as a vicious murderer, and Ida, who doesn’t have any particular belief system but an overpowering sense of right and wrong: she is a woman who fully enjoys pleasures of all kinds, a woman of easy virtue. Greene seems to depict her as an almost pagan, Earth-mother character (his initial description of her repeatedly refers to the size and apparent amiability of her breasts, which has sort of coloured my view of the character ever since). In the film she’s a rather more establishment, conventional figure (so to speak), less distinctive and memorable as a result, and there are almost shades of Miss Marple in the way Helen Mirren plays her. She only begins to resemble the book’s version of Ida in the closing scenes, by which time it seems oddly out-of-character.

You can’t really do a Graham Greene adaptation without keeping the Roman Catholicism in, of course, but it isn’t much more than colour here. Taking its place is… um, not a huge amount of anything, to be honest. The story rolls along in its own rather grim fashion – this is the kind of film where people have awkward, unsatisfying sex in grotty rooms heated only by three-bar electric fires – and it’s never actually boring. Some of the alterations made for the 1948 version are retained here, most obviously the final moments. (On the other hand, the role played by William Hartnell in the first film has been given to Nonso Anozie – given some of Hartnell’s well-documented issues with some ethnic groups, anyone living near the actor’s grave may be able to pop round and use him as a lathe.)

As I said, Brighton Rock isn’t what you’d actually call a bad film, and there are some good things within it. But the strong performances and powerful atmosphere can’t quite make up for a script which never gets into the heart of Greene’s story to bring it to life. This is by no means the worst thing the UKFC ever produced (thank God), but neither is it especially memorable.

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