On this week’s post, we’re digging into British noir films. One of these films is an all-time classic, and the other is obscure at best. This weeks films are:
Edward Dmytryk – Obsession (1949)
Carol Reed – The Third Man (1949)
The Third Man is one of the personal favorite films of all time, and I’ve seen it many times. Obsession on the other hand is completely unknown to me. That’s always a good time. One title note, Obsession is the original title of that film, but it was released in the US as The Hidden Room. Which was very confusing when I was trying to look up this film on IMdB.
Anyway, let’s get into it.
This film tells the story of Clive, a psychiatrist with an unfaithful wife. He’s finally had enough, and tells her that he’s going away for two weeks so that he can catch her in the act. When he does, he threatens to kill her current beau, an American named Bill. But Clive’s plan is much more sinister. Bill disappears, but no one quite knows where he’s ended up. Some think that he left the country after being threatened, others assume Clive killed him and the body just hasn’t been found yet. But what did Clive really do? And will he be found out?
The film is directed by Edward Dmytryk, who isn’t well-remembered, but had a very long career as a director. The cast is equally obscure, starring Robert Newton as Clive Riordan, Sally Gray as Storm Riordan, his wife, and Phil Brown as Bill, the American. Phil Brown is probably the best known of the cast, as he played Uncle Owen in the original Star Wars. So not a memorable cast or director, just a lot of working actors and a solid director. That’s not a bad combination. But it’s clear this movie was never meant to be an all-timer. It was just a straightforward film designed to get something in front of audiences.
But the fact that the cast and director aren’t well-known doesn’t make this a bad movie. The acting is good, the writing is good, and the directing is good. The cinematography is really simple, and nothing special, but still there are a few good shots to appreciate.
The film starts with Clive at a gentleman’s club, his companions talking about how America has too much influence over Great Britain. I’m not sure if this is a little inside joke or not, but Film Noir is an American genre that is being embraced by Great Britain here. However, this discussion does inform a plot point later, so perhaps it’s just trying to tie things together. In classic suspense fashion, Clive is eyeing his coat, informing the audience that he is plotting something.
He then returns home, and hides while his wife comes home with the new man she’s seeing. When they discover he’s home, they immediately begin to concoct a story to tell him to cover for their illicit activities. But Clive is too smart for them, calling the restaurant they claim to have been at, proving them liars. When they try to leave, he pulls a gun from his pocket, threatening them. He explains to them that he’s tired of Storm cheating on him, and that he decided the next time he caught her, he would kill the man she was seeing. Bill is scared, but Storm decides it’s all talk, trying to lead Bill out of the room. Clive takes a shot, the bullet landing in a wall just past them. They realize he’s serious.
Storm leaves Bill alone, sure that Clive won’t hurt him. The next day, there’s no body, but Bill is missing. Storm fears the worst, until she gets a letter from Bill, asking her to leave Clive and come see him. Perhaps he’s not gone.
But then Clive retreats into a lab behind his office. He’s mixing chemicals and filling up water skins while wearing gloves. We don’t quite know what he’s doing. Then we see him climbing into an empty lot, into a dark sewer drain, until we find him entering a small room. And that’s when we find Bill. He’s chained to the wall, with a bed, a light, and a small bathroom. Clive has drawn a circle on the floor so he knows exactly how far Bill can reach, and stays far enough out so he isn’t in danger. He leaves coffee, sandwiches, and then goes into another room and pours the contents of the water bottle into the bathtub. Very mysterious.
Now, every fan of Breaking Bad probably guessed at what he’s doing. He’s filling the tub with a chemical that will dissolve human flesh, but not other specific materials. This of course, isn’t revealed until much later in the film.
Having Bill in the room with Clive as his only contact does an interesting thing for the structure of the film. Clive is able to slowly reveal different aspects of his plan, along with what he is thinking at other times when Bill isn’t there, and it doesn’t feel out of place. Normally a film would have to shoe horn this sort of thing in somewhere, and it might feel forced, but as a prisoner, Bill is dying for any kind of attention and conversation.
And Clive treats him well, bringing him different types of food, and books he requests, but even so he makes it clear that he will kill him when he’s ready. He claims to only be keeping him alive so that if Scotland Yard gets interested in him as a suspect, he can produce the living Bill and not be accused of murder. He’s just biding his time until suspicion about what happened to Bill dies down.
Outside, Clive acts normally, playing with his trains, meeting patients, and subtly torturing his wife. Essentially daring her to call the police, knowing that she will have to reveal her string of affairs if she does. This works out well for him until the day her little dog Monty gets of his leash and runs to find Clive, who is going to feed Bill. Clive has no choice but to let the dog in to keep him from raising suspicion. Bill manages to capture the dog, and Clive can’t risk getting too close, for fear of being overpowered. The dog becomes Bill’s companion, and Clive claims the dog simply ran away. But Storm doesn’t buy it as she finds dog hair on his coat.
This turns out to be the downfall for Clive. With Storm suspicious that he killed her dog, she sends an anonymous letter to Scotland Yard, casting suspicion on Clive. Clive plays it cool with the detective, but admits to Bill that he has to delay the planned murder for a bit until Scotland Yard gives up.
Finsberry, the detective, is a funny character. He reminds me of the character that Stephen Fry played in Gosford Park. His character was very confident, but hopeless as a detective. Finsberry is also incredibly confident, fully believing that he’ll solve the case when it’s ready to be solved, and not before, much to the frustration of others. However, he is a really good detective. When he talks to Clive, it’s clear he already knows much more than he’s letting on, and prefers to let Clive try to lie to him, to see what he might reveal and what he might not.
The ending of the film is quite satisfying on a few levels. There’s some suspense, and a good and unexpected final confrontation between Clive and Finsberry.
This is a good, well-made movie. It’s got a simple plot, but it’s competently made. The plot isn’t deep, but it works. So it isn’t an all-time classic, but that’s ok. Not every film can be one that lasts forever. It’s worth examining and celebrating movies that are just good. We might not necessarily need to dedicate entire books to a film like this, but we certainly shouldn’t discard them.
I found this one on Film Struck, a classic film movie streaming service, and I’m really glad I did. I love discovering obscure films like this.
But our next film isn’t obscure at all.
The Third Man (1949)
The Third Man centers on Holly Martins, a pulp western novelist who arrives in post-war Vienna on the promise of a job from his long-time friend Harry Lime. However, on the day he arrives, he discovers that Harry has died, and attends his funeral. He is told by a police officer that Harry Lime was a criminal, and Martins refuses to believe it. He decides to stay in Vienna until he clears his old friends name and finds out why he died. Will he be able to solve the mystery?
The Third Man is directed by Carol Reed. written by Graham Greene, and stars Joseph Cotten, and Orson Welles, with Alida Valli (credited here as Valli), and Trevor Howard in supporting roles. Orson Welles is a superstar and a legend, but I want to start by talking about Cotten. Joseph Cotten has always been one of my favorite actors. One of the best ‘everyman’ actors the screen has ever seen. In today’s terms, he might be called a character actor, rather than a leading man, but I see him more as a Tom Hanks type. The type of actor who you can put in almost anything, and expect a really great performance. He had plenty of leading man parts, and gained fame as part of Orson Welles’ company of actors, having good parts in Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons.
Here, Cotten plays Holly Martins, a down and out novelist just hoping his old friend can keep him afloat. He’s incredibly loyal to Lime, and stubborn. Once he learns that Harry has been accused of a crime, the film turns into a detective story, with Martins looking for information. He discovers that Harry was hit by a car. The men closest to him saw it happen, and it was his own driver who hit him, and he died before the ambulance arrived. But when talking to the porter in Harry’s building, he discovers that there was a third man involved that no one mentioned to the police. But as he continues looking into things, he starts finding out more and more troubling information. Things really get serious when he’s planning to meet the porter to get more information, and the man turns up dead.
Meanwhile, Martins gets a taste of what it’s like to live in Harry’s world. He meets Anna, Harry’s former girlfriend, and learns more about Harry personally in this world. She becomes his ally, and Martins becomes her protector, learning that she has a fake Austrian passport, trying to avoid being claimed as a Russian citizen because of her Czechoslovakian heritage. Anna becomes a leverage point for Calloway, the police officer who’s also a Major in the British army.
Speaking of Calloway, I have to mention him, and his Sergeant, Paine. Paine is played by Bernard Lee, best known as M in the early James Bond films. And here, he’s just a delight. He’s plays Paine as a big, loyal, friendly dog who refuses to let his master be harmed. After hearing the truth about Harry from Major Calloway, Martins tries to take a swing, but Paine is right there, punching him in the face before he even knows what has happened, then apologizes sheepishly and tells Martins what a fan of his novels he is. Paine is my favorite character in the film. Calloway is another great character. Totally in control, no nonsense, but with a heart as well, as evidenced by some of his actions later in the film.
Eventually, Calloway proves his case to Martins, showing how Harry Lime was the ringleader of a racket stealing penicillin, watering it down, and then selling it. The results for the people who took it is very grim. Martins is shocked, unable to reconcile this story with the man he knows.
But then the biggest twist of the film occurs, accompanied by one of the greatest reveals in the history of cinema. By reveal, I mean a camera reveal that also doubles as a plot point. In this case, it’s set up beautifully. Martins is at Anna’s apartment, reminiscing about Harry after he’s heard about the horrible things he’s done. He tries to play with a cat, but Anna tells him the cat only liked Harry. The cat runs off into the street where a man walks into the shadow of a doorway. The cat goes over and snuggles his feet. As Martins leaves, he sees the man, and assumes it’s someone following him because of the investigation. He yells at the man, daring him to do something. An angry resident nearby turns on a light and opens her window. As the light flicks on, the doorway is suddenly lit up, revealing Orson Welles as Harry Lime. The film reveals at this moment that Harry is alive. And it somehow does it without us ever seeing a picture of Harry before this moment.
It’s all played in Martins’ reaction. He is shocked, and calls out to Harry, but Harry is immediately on the run. He manages to escape.
Orson Welles is magical in this film, even though he only appears for the last third, and a few scenes at that. I can’t remember where I heard it, either in a book about Welles, or a talk I attended from Peter Bogdanovich. But when Welles was asked why he took such a small part in this film when he was still a bankable star, he said that he loved the idea of being in a film where every character spends all their time talking about his character. And he’s right of course, the film spends all it’s time building up to the moment that Harry Lime appears, and then the entire film centers on him from then on. Including one of the greatest speeches in film history. Harry takes his friend Holly Martins up on a Ferris wheel to talk to him about what he did, he points at the people far below them and asks Martins if he would care if any of those little dots stopped moving forever.
Besides the plot, acting and writing, which are all stellar, the direction is also excellent. The film never lets us forget where it is set, post-war Vienna. This is a city struggling to recover from a long and damaging war. In almost every shot, we see the ruins of a different building. There are little moments, like when Anna offers Martins a drink, and when he turns it down, she says “Good, I wanted to sell it.” We see how the Ferris wheel is deserted because no one can afford it, and children push the Merry-go-round around themselves. The people in this world are just trying to survive. Very different from post-war views of America.
And the soundtrack is one to remember as well. Rather than an orchestral score, the music is all zither music. An incredibly unique sound which gives the film a flavor unlike any other. And the cinematography is interesting as well, using a lot of dutch angles with a titled camera to give things an off-kilter feel.
Make no mistake, this is one of the most interesting films ever made. The score, the setting, the characters, the actors, the writing and directing are all essentially perfect.
It’s no secret that I love this film deeply. I generally place it in my personal top 5 of all time, just below Seven Samurai. When I picked this film, I felt almost certain that I had already done the film on the blog. It seems like I must have done it, considering it’s such a classic, and one of my all-time favorites, but as far as I can tell, it’s never come up. Either way, and amazing film, and one that everyone should watch.
The Double Feature
I’ve talked about this before, but Film Noir is an American invention, but a French discovery. After World War II, the French got a flood of American films that they were unable to see during the war. But seeing all these films at once, the French started to notice the similarities. The darker themes they covered, and the similar cinematography, making heavy use of shadows. It became a celebrated genre, and other filmmakers took it on, including these two British films.
Both of these films are clearly set in the post-war era. Obsession has characters talking about undue American influence, and both films show bombed out ruins in their backgrounds. For audiences of the time, these films would have felt completely contemporary, even if we don’t necessarily recognize them today.
Things are starting to get back to normal after a few crazy weeks for me. Things are slowing down and I’m making good progress on the things I have to do before the semester ends. I really appreciate the semester schedule. It gives you a good natural deadline for work that’s not too tight, and not too lenient. 3-4 months, and you’re ready for the next thing.
But as that’s going on, I want to think about next week’s films. I think I’m going to hit some straight action movies next week. Next week I’ll cover:
Paul Verhoeven – Robocop (1987)
James Cameron – Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Both are in the sci-fi sub-genre, but I think they’re action films first. It should be a good comparison.
See you next week.