‘Our Man in Havana’ offers wit, savvy and suspense

By Michael Wilmington

Our Man in Havana/1959/Kingsmead Productions, Columbia Pictures Corp./111 min.

Our Man in Havana,” a dark 1959 comedy starring Alec Guinness,  was the third and final film that British thriller writer Graham Greene and director Carol Reed made together. Their first was 1948’s “The Fallen Idol.” Their masterpiece was “The Third Man” (1949).

“Our Man in Havana,” about spying and murder and vacuum cleaners in pre-revolutionary Cuba, is not as suspenseful as “The Third Man” and, even as a comedy, it’s not all that funny. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad film or even a mediocre one.

“Our Man” is just not as good as we want it to be, not as good as the deliciously tense, scathingly witty and beautifully sad “The Third Man,” which boasts a wonderful cast, gorgeous cinematography by Robert Krasker and that haunting zither music by Anton Karas. At least one group of British critics selected “The Third Man” as the finest British picture of all time.

But perhaps we expect too much from “Our Man” and miss what’s there: a good amount of intelligence, wit, suspense, romance, political savvy, elegant Havana-location photography by Oswald Morris and a pretty wonderful, if uneven, cast. Guinness, as Wormold, the vacuum cleaner salesman turned reluctant spy, joins Ralph Richardson and Noel Coward as the maladroit spymasters who hire and employ him; Maureen O’Hara, as his affair-minded assistant spy; Burl Ives as Wormold’s best friend, Dr. Hasselbacher; and Ernie Kovacs as the urbane, sadistic Cuban head cop, Captain Segura, who’s in love with Wormold’s daughter Milly (Jo Morrow).

The time of “Our Man in Havana” is the 1950s, with Cuba under the Batista regime. Wormold is a typical guilt-ridden Greene character and Guinness plays him with some of the introverted whimsy he put into the role of the fussy inventor in “The Man in the White Suit.” Light on cash, Wormold allows himself to be recruited by a local MI6 agent named Hawthorne (Coward). Hawthorne asks Wormold to put together a spy team for MI6, which is run back in England by the dithering “C” (Richardson). Wormold, who has no experience and no contacts, hits on the stratagem of simply making up an agent list and writing phony reports – along with the plans for what looks like fictional weaponry but is actually one of his vacuum cleaners.

So convincing are all Wormold’s fantasies and absurd inventions that MI6 wants more and sends him a helper (O’Hara), to gather more of his non-intelligence. But there is a real world of spies and killers operating in Batista’s Cuba, and soon some of them are after Wormold, with real murder on their minds. Like “The Third Man,” the plot plunges a naïve but imaginative amateur into a political game that turns deadly serious in a dark, corrupt city that is filled with criminals and deceptions.

A masterpiece? Not so much. But “Our Man” knows how to have a good time.

The movie was shot on location in Havana, in Castro’s post-revolutionary Cuba although the novel, published in 1958, was set in Batista’s Cuba and that may have created a problem. Greene’s and Reed’s Havana never seems as real or as sinister as their Vienna in “The Third Man.”

There are two bits of miscasting. Burl Ives doesn’t have the accent for Hasselbacher and he plays his one mournful note too dolorously. And Jo Morrow can’t make you think she’s a British teenager (even when Wormold “explains” that she picked up her accent in America).

Most of this unusually talented cast, though, seems to be having fun, especially Guinness, Coward and Richardson – and, more surprisingly, Ernie Kovacs, who’s so good he makes you forget he isn’t Cuban and doesn’t seem at first to belong in a Graham Greene movie.

The biggest joke of Greene and Reed’s last film though, is that the plot is based on real life. Greene (a WWII spy before he became a writer) heard a story about a Spanish spy for the Nazis named Garbo who did exactly what Wormold did: invented a whole fictional spy team and submitted fictitious reports to his gullible employers. That tale clearly appealed to Greene, master of thrillers and deception – a good Catholic, albeit with sins on his conscience.

Sony Pictures recently released “Our Man in Havana” on DVD.

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The Noir File: Young lovers on the run in ‘They Live by Night’

By Michael Wilmington and Film Noir Blonde

The Noir File is FNB’s guide to classic film noir, neo-noir and pre-noir on cable TV. All movies below are from the schedule of Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which broadcasts them uncut and uninterrupted. The times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard).

PICK OF THE WEEK

Cathy O’Donnell and Farley Granger play the beautiful young couple.

They Live by Night” (1949, Nicholas Ray). Wednesday, Dec. 5, 10:30 a.m. (7:30 a.m.). “Gentle” and “romantic” might seem odd words to apply to film noir. But Nicholas Ray’s “They Live By Night” is one of the gentlest, saddest and most romantic of all noirs, and an inarguable classic as well. It’s the familiar but potent story of two naïve young outlaw lovers-on-the-run: Bowie, a kid with a gun and Keechie, a girl with a heart to be broken (played by Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell, an unusually beautiful young movie couple). Bowie and Keechie are two nice, ordinary kids who‘ve fallen in with the crookedly paternal T-Dub (Jay C. Flippen) and his violent partner Chickamaw (Howard Da Silva) to form a gang of traveling thieves.

Ray was a famous American film outlaw romantic. He and producer John Houseman and screenwriter Charles Schnee derived their legendary gangster love story from Edward Anderson’s harder-bitten Depression novel “Thieves Like Us.” Robert Altman later remade “They Live By Night,” in 1974, under its original title, with Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall as Bowie and Keechie (and Louise Fletcher as the two-faced Mattie). That was one of his neo-noir ’70s gems, but “They Live By Night” – often cited, with “Gun Crazy,” as a direct precursor of “Bonnie and Clyde” – has a tenderness and poetic quality that are unique for the crime movie genre. And never more so than in the remarkable nocturnal wedding-on-the-run of Bowie and Keechie, with Ian Wolfe as the wily justice of the peace reeling off a ceremony, paid witnesses, and the sense of a disappointed but wildly loving heart beating beneath it all.

Tuesday, Dec. 4

4 a.m. (1 a.m.):“Night and the City” (1950, Jules Dassin). Crooked fight promoter Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) tries to outrace the night. One of the all-time best film noirs, from Gerald Kersh’s London novel. With Gene Tierney, Herbert Lom and Googie Withers.

Wednesday, Dec. 5

12:15 p.m. (9:15 a.m.): “Gun Crazy” (1949, Joseph H. Lewis).

Thursday, Dec. 6

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Casablanca” (1942, Michael Curtiz).

10 p.m. (7 p.m.): “The Third Man” (1949, Carol Reed).

Saturday, Dec. 8

10 p.m. (7 p.m.): “Autumn Leaves” (1956, Robert Aldrich). Cougar Joan Crawford falls for an unstable younger man (Cliff Robertson); co-starring Vera Miles.

Sunday, Dec. 9

3 p.m. (12 p.m.): “Harper” (1966, Jack Smight). Paul Newman, at his most attractively laid-back, plays one of detective literature’s most celebrated private eyes, Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer, in this brainy thriller based on MacDonald’s novel “The Moving Target.” One catch: Archer has been renamed “Lew Harper,” so Newman could have (he hoped) another hit movie with an “H” title, like “The Hustler” and “Hud.” He got one. The stellar cast includes Lauren Bacall, Janet Leigh, Julie Harris, Shelley Winters, Robert Wagner, Arthur Hill, Robert Webber and Strother Martin. Scripted by William Goldman.

5:15 p.m. (2:15 p.m.): “Anatomy of a Murder” (1959, Otto Preminger).

10 p.m. (7 p.m.): “Lady in the Lake” (1947, Robert Montgomery).

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The Noir File: ‘The Third Man’ ranks as one of Britain’s best

By Michael Wilmington and Film Noir Blonde

The Noir File is FNB’s weekly guide to classic film noir and neo noir on cable TV. All the movies below are from the current schedule of Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which broadcasts them uncut and uninterrupted. The times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard).

PICK OF THE WEEK

The Third Man” (1949, Carol Reed) Saturday, Oct. 13, at 8 p.m. (5 p.m.)

“The Third Man” is a noir masterpiece with a perfect cast and Oscar-winning cinematography.

Graham Greene and Carol Reed’s “The Third Man” is one of the all-time film noir masterpieces. Greene’s script – about political corruption in post-World War II Vienna, a naïve American novelist named Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) and his search for the mysterious “third man” who may have witnessed the murder of his best friend, suave Harry Lime (Orson Welles) – is one of the best film scenarios ever written. Reed never directed better, had better material or tilted the camera more often.

“The Third Man” also has one of the all-time perfect casts: Cotten, Welles (especially in his memorable “cuckoo clock” speech, which he wrote), Trevor Howard (as the cynical police detective), Alida Valli (as Lime’s distressed ladylove), and Jack Hawkins and Bernard Lee (as tough cops). Oscar-winner Robert Krasker does a nonpareil job of film noir cinematography – especially in the film’s climactic chase through the shadowy Vienna sewers. And nobody plays a zither like composer/performer Anton Karas.

Sunday, Oct. 14

6:30 a.m. (3:30 a.m.): “Deadline at Dawn” (1945, Harold Clurman). Bill Williams is a sailor on leave who has just one New York City night to prove his innocence of murder. Susan Hayward and Paul Lukas are the shrewd dancer and philosophical cabbie trying to help him. Clifford Odets’ script is from a Cornell Woolrich novel; directed by Group Theater guru Harold Clurman (his only movie).

8 a.m. (5 a.m.): “Crime in the Streets” (1956, Don Siegel). This streetwise drama of New York juvenile delinquents (John Cassavetes, Sal Mineo and Mark Rydell) and a frustrated social worker (James Whitmore) is an above-average example of the ’50s youth crime cycle that also included “Rebel Without a Cause” and “The Blackboard Jungle.” Reginald Rose (“12 Angry Men”) wrote the script based on his TV play. Punchy direction by Siegel and a lead performance of feral intensity by Cassavetes.

1:30 a.m. (10:30 p.m.): “The Unknown” (1927, Tod Browning). One of Lon Chaney’s most sinister roles: as a traveling carnival’s no-armed wonder (really an escaped con). With the young Joan Crawford.

2:30 a.m. (11:30 p.m.): “The Testament of Dr. Mabuse” (1933, Fritz Lang). Fritz Lang and writer Thea von Harbou (Lang’s wife) bring back their famous silent-movie crime czar, Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge). This time, he’s a seeming lunatic, running his empire from an insane asylum. According to some, it’s an analogue of the Nazis’ rise to power.

Monday, Oct. 15

11:30 p.m. (8:30 p.m.): “Bad Day at Black Rock” (1955, John Sturges).

Tuesday, Oct. 16

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Eyes in the Night” (1942, Fred Zinnemann). A good B-movie mystery with Edward Arnold as blind detective Duncan Maclain, co-starring Donna Reed, Ann Harding and Stephen McNally.

3:30 a.m. (12:30 a.m.) “Wait Until Dark” (1967, Terence Young).

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On the radar: Revel in noir at the Aero, Egyptian and Lacma

There’s so much to see on the big screen this month in Los Angeles. See you at the movies!
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AT THE AERO THEATRE
1328 Montana Ave., Santa Monica; shows start at 7:30 p.m.
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Saturday, March 3: A sneak preview of the thriller/horror flick “Silent House” starring Elizabeth Olsen followed by 2003’s “Open Water,” a nerve-wracking story about a couple left stranded in the Caribbean after a day of scuba diving. There will be a discussion between films with co-directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau.

Farley Granger and Robert Walker in "Strangers on a Train"

Wednesday, March 7: One of my all-time favorite Alfred Hitchcock films, “Strangers on a Train” (1951) stars Robert Walker as a psycho playboy intent on committing a double murder with tennis champ Farley Granger. As Hitch shows us in the opening shot, never underestimate the importance of footwear.
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Wednesday, March 14: Another Hitchcock work that draws on his lifelong love of trains, “The Lady Vanishes” from 1938 takes place on a train en route from the fictional country of Bandrika to Western Europe. Passengers Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave attempt to find a mysterious Miss Froy.
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Thursday, March 15: In “The Night of the Hunter” (1955, Charles Laughton) the great Robert Mitchum gives an unforgettable performance as a warped preacher with a knack for seducing trusting souls. Also starring Shelley Winters and Lillian Gish. At 6:30 p.m., author Preston Neal Jones will sign his book “Heaven and Hell to Play With: The Filming of The Night of the Hunter.”
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Laura Harring, director David Lynch and Naomi Watts of "Mulholland Dr."

Saturday, March 24: A top-notch double feature, starting with Billy Wilder’s masterpiece noir and scathing look at Hollywood, “Sunset Boulevard” (1950). William Holden, Gloria Swanson and Erich von Stroheim star in this must-see flick. Next up: Naomi Watts and Laura Harring lead the cast of David Lynch’s mesmerizing and surreal portrait of Tinseltown’s latent evil, “Mulholland Dr.” (2001).

Wednesday, March 28: Yet more Hitchcock! Joel McCrea plays reporter Johnny Jones, who encounters intrigue and danger in “Foreign Correspondent” from 1940.
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Thursday March 29: “The Manchurian Candidate,” starring Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey and Angela Lansbury, celebrates its 50th anniversary. Superb direction from John Frankenheimer.
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AT THE EGYPTIAN THEATRE
6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood; shows start at 7:30 p.m. with multiple showings and one matinee for “The Snowtown Murders”

Alida Valli and Joseph Cotten in "The Third Man."

Wednesday, March 7: Carol Reed directs Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli and Orson Welles in 1949’s “The Third Man,” one of the finest thrillers ever made. Don’t miss it!
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Wednesday, March 14: Orson Welles as auteur and actor. In “The Lady from Shanghai” (1948), an outstanding noir, he co-stars with Rita Hayworth and Everett Sloane. In “Confidential Report” (1955), Welles plays a dad in deep denial about his murky past.
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Thursday, March 15-Sunday, March 18: Justin Kurzel makes his directorial debut with “The Snowtown Murders,” the story of Australia’s most infamous serial killer. Plays at 7:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday.
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Wednesday, March 28: More brilliance from Orson Welles in this knock-out double feature. “Touch of Evil,” a tale of corruption, is widely considered the last great work of classic film noir. Its unbeatable cast: Welles, Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh and Mercedes McCambridge. “The Trial” (based on Franz Kafka’s novel about paranoia and conspiracy) also boasts amazing talent: Welles, Anthony Perkins, Jeanne Moreau, Romy Schneider and Akim Tamiroff.
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AT LACMA
5905 Wilshire Blvd.
At 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 8: As a tribute to Wim Wenders, “The American Friend,” a stand-out neo noir from 1977 is paired with 1982’s “Chambre 666,” a doc with A-list directors about the future of filmmaking.
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At 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 9: Film noir is partly rooted in French Poetic Realism and these two examples of the genre make an excellent night at the movies. To start: Cinematic genius and master of poetic realism Jean Renoir’s “The Rules of the Game” (1939) followed by Jacques Becker’s “Casque D’Or” (1952). Becker assisted Renoir on “Rules” and “Grand Illusion” (1937).
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Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck star in Billy Wilder's "Double Indemnity" from 1944.

At 1 p.m. Tuesday, March 13: Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity” (1944) is one of the defining films of the noir genre. Femme fatale Barbara Stanwyck lures insurance agent Fred MacMurray into committing murder for a big payoff. Edward G. Robinson shines as MacMurray’s boss and friend.
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At noon Saturday, March 24: Christian Marclay’s “The Clock,” winner of the Golden Lion at last year’s Venice Biennale, is a 24-hour single-channel montage constructed from thousands of moments of cinema and television history depicting the passage of time. Begins at noon Saturday and ends at noon on Sunday, March 25.
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At 1 p.m. Tuesday, March 27: Another prime example of classic film noir, Robert Siodmak’s “The Killers” put Ava Gardner and Burt Lancaster on the track to super-stardom.
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Film noir’s feline stars: The cat in ‘The Third Man’

More on the most famous kitties in film noir

The Cat in “The Third Man” 1949

Name: Klaus W. Kuddelmann

Character Name: Little Harry

Klaus Kuddelmann's music deeply impressed Orson Welles and they became close friends.

Bio: Klaus W. Kuddelmann grew up in a family of musicians. His father Hans was a classically trained violinist and his mother Clara was an operatic soprano of considerable acclaim.

Young Klaus first performed at the age of 6 weeks, playing “Eine Kleine Nacht Musik” to a packed house at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna.

While studying at the Mewlliard School in New York after World War Two, he made the acquaintance of the great actor/director Orson Welles. Upon accepting the part of the nefarious double-dealer Harry Lime in “The Third Man” (1949), Welles insisted that Kuddelmann be cast as his feline sidekick.

Off camera, Welles and Kuddelmann reportedly holed up in Welles’ Vienna hotel room, eating and drinking into the wee hours of the morning. As a musical purist, Kuddelmann abhorred the film’s famous zither music – calling it “excruciatingly middlebrow” – and made a point of hissing and clawing at Anton Karas.

After the “The Third Man,” Kuddelmann returned to music and enjoyed great success on the European concert circuit. He died in 1972; his obituary listed 19 children and 358 grandchildren.

Image from http://catsinsinks.com

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Noir delights abound at TCM Classic Film Festival

"An American in Paris" opened the festival.

Four days of devouring big-screen classics has left me deliciously sated! At least until my next film fest.

About 25,000 people attended this year’s sold-out TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood, which featured more than 70 films and special events. Stars who made appearances included Julie Andrews, Alec Baldwin, Drew Barrymore, Warren Beatty, Leslie Caron, Kirk Douglas, Angela Lansbury, Hayley Mills, Peter O’Toole, Jane Powell, Debbie Reynolds and Mickey Rooney.

Before the screening of 1940’s “Fantasia,” in Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on Sunday night, TCM’s Bob Osborne announced that there will be a third fest in 2012. He also announced a new event: the TCM Classic Cruise, Dec. 8-12, 2011, a five-day/four-night event aboard Celebrity Millennium. The cruise will sail from Miami to Key West and Cozumel.

Most important for me was getting my noir fix and, happily, dark delights abounded. For example, there was the chance to see Nicholas Ray’s “Bigger Than Life” with James Mason as a teacher struggling with an addiction to prescription cortisone. As co-star Barbara Rush told Osborne before the screening, this 1956 psychological drama has been programmed in several film noir festivals “because it’s so dark and so scary.”

Bob Osborne talks with Barbara Rush.

As you’d expect from Ray, it’s very well done and the performances are excellent. Despite telling the audience that she was “very old,” Rush is very lively. When Osborne asked her to talk about her leading men, she replied, “I had them all!”

Another noir high point was meeting the charming Marya of Cinema_Fanatic and chatting with renowned author Foster Hirsch at the screening of 1953’s “Niagara,” directed by Henry Hathaway and starring Marilyn Monroe (as a murderous wife), Joseph Cotten (as her off-kilter husband) and Jean Peters (as a plucky, pretty brunette). Hirsch told the audience that film noir can absolutely be in color, describing “Niagara” both as a “minor masterpiece” and a “pulp-fiction paperback come to life.”

He pointed out the contrast in lighting between the bright exteriors and dark interiors, ending with the comment: “If you’ve come for laughs and joyous uplift, you’ve come to the wrong place.”

Also a treat was seeing “The Man with the Golden Arm” from 1955. Adapted from a Nelson Algren novel, it’s a story about drug addiction in a gritty urban setting, by master noir director Otto Preminger. I’d seen it before but, as with “Niagara,” the big screen really intensifies the storytelling. It is definitely Frank Sinatra’s best performance and one of Kim Novak’s finest as well. In attendance were Preminger’s daughter Vicki Preminger and Sinatra’s daughters Nancy Sinatra and Tina Sinatra. Rounding out the noir programming were “The Third Man” (Carol Reed, 1950), “Gaslight” (George Cukor, 1944) and “Taxi Driver” (Martin Scorsese, 1976).

Other films with noir elements included Orson Welles’ masterpiece “Citizen Kane” (1941), “The Tingler” (1959), “The Mummy” (1932), “Went the Day Well (1942) and “Whistle Down the Wind (1961). (I saw all but “Kane,” which I’ve seen several times before.)

Ana Alexander and Anya Monzikova of Cinemax's new series, "Femme Fatales," which starts May 13.

The festival also honored master composer Bernard Herrmann, who scored  “Citizen Kane” and “Taxi Driver” as well as “Psycho,” “Vertigo,” “Cape Fear” and many others.

On the neo-noir front, I’ll be excited to see Cinemax’s upcoming “Femme Fatales” anthology series “about powerful, sexy and dangerous women” starring Ana Alexander and Anya Monzikova, both of whom walked the fest’s red carpet to promote show.

The first of 13 stand-alone episode starts May 13 and I hope to catch up with the actresses sometime soon.

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‘The Third Man’ delivers stellar suspense, performances both haunting and dazzling

TCM’s Classic Film Festival starts tomorrow and I’m fretting about packing in all the viewing and events. Definite draws are the classic noirs “The Third Man,” which screens at 9 a.m. Saturday; Henry Hathaway’s “Niagara” from 1953, starring Marilyn Monroe, screening at 6:15 p.m. on Saturday; and “Gaslight” (George Cukor, 1944) showing at 9:30 p.m. Saturday. Other must-sees: Marlene Dietrich in “The Devil is a Woman” (Josef von Sternberg, 1935) at 10:15 p.m. Friday and “Citizen Kane” (Orson Welles, 1941) at 3:30 p.m. Saturday.

The Third Man/1949/(104 min. UK, 93 min. US)

Alida Valli and Joseph Cotten

If a city could be a femme fatale, it might be Vienna in “The Third Man” from 1949. The voiceover at the beginning of the film refers to “old Vienna with its Strauss music, its glamour and easy charm.” But new Vienna, a war-torn metropolis split into four Allied zones after World War Two, is a city living by its wits, host to a thriving black market. Hey, a girl’s gotta make a living somehow.

The voiceover also introduces us to a slightly naïve and completely broke newcomer to the hallowed city: Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), an American writer of pulpy Western novels, who has come to visit his old friend and fellow Yank Harry Lime (Orson Welles), a sly operator.

Instead of a buddy reunion, though, Martins ends up at his friend’s funeral: Turns out Harry was hit by a car and has died. Also at the burial is the distinguished Major Calloway (Trevor Howard), who suggests they get a drink.

As they sip, Martins starts asking questions about Lime’s death and eventually suspects foul play. So, Martins hunts for more info and, along the way, he meets a handful of vaguely nefarious characters who traveled in Lime’s orbit: his porter (Paul Hoerbiger), “Baron” Kurtz (Ernst Deutsch), the Romanian known as Popescu (Siegfried Breuer), Dr. Winkel (Erich Ponto). One source he particularly likes is Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), a sultry, cynical Czechoslovakian actress, who was also Lime’s lover.

What troubles Martins is learning that there were three men who carried Harry’s body from the street after he died, but he can only find two. Finding the mysterious third man drives the action, ultimately leading to a chilling chase through the dank sewers of underground Vienna.

Director/producer Carol Reed, working from a Graham Greene novel, draws us into a perfectly rendered world where tension and trouble pulse just beneath the surface, where anxiety and disillusion are tempered with fleeting pleasures and faded love. I love the details of everyday Viennese life: a moonfaced boy, an ancient balloon seller, a haggard landlady, a prowling cat and the forlorn-looking Teddy bears of the children’s hospital. The lecture hall scene reminds me of a similar passage in Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps” from 1935. [Read more...]

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Quick hit: ‘The Third Man’

The Third Man/1949/(104 min. UK, 93 min. US)

American writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) comes to his visit his school friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) in Vienna after World War Two. But he discovers that his pal is dead and the city is a hub for black-market corruption. Cotten digs for more details with help from various jaded denizens, including Welles’ girlfriend (Alida Valli) and a British major (Trevor Howard). First-rate fare from director Carol Reed working from a Graham Greene novel; brilliant zither music from Anton Karas.

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