British Film Noir at Music Box | Bleader

Friday, January 29, 2010

British Film Noir at Music Box

Posted By on 01.29.10 at 06:24 PM

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This week the Music Box presents a double feature of two British film noir classics, both produced and directed by the talented Carol Reed. If you've seen any of Reed's movies, it's probably The Third Man (1949), with Joseph Cotten as an American pulp writer in postwar Berlin and Orson Welles as his old friend who's gone missing, the supremely cynical black marketeer Harry Lime. Don't miss that one, for God's sake, but think about making a night of it and also checking out the earlier, somewhat lesser known movie on this double bill: Odd Man Out (1947), with James Mason as a badly wounded IRA terrorist stumbling across Belfast as the police close in on him.

Reed had made some successful movies in the UK, but Odd Man Out was the one that put him on the map internationally. He'd served in the film unit of the British War Office during World War II, and he came out of the war convinced that moviegoers would no longer accept the sort of high artifice that characterized British films in the 30s. "People who were plunged into war were so immersed in reality that nowadays they expect it in both the living theatre and pictures," he said at the time (quoted in Nicholas Wapshott's 1990 biography). "It is a natural reaction." For Odd Man Out, Reed shot on location in Belfast and took great pains to ensure that the street slang and the religious differences between Catholics and Protestants would be accurate.

He also drew heavily on the Abbey Theatre in Dublin for his supporting players, and they're an extraordinary bunch. As Jonathan Rosenbaum points out in his Reader capsule, the Mason character "encounters a cross section of human responses—self-interest, indifference, empathy, and charity" as he makes his way from one dank alley to another. Those human responses are brilliantly rendered by such distinguished players as Fay Compton, William Fay, and F.J. McCormick (who died soon after the film's release). Yet the most striking actor in the movie may be Kathleen Ryan, only 23 at the time, as the young woman who's in love with the wanted man and desperately trying to locate him before the cops do.

Reed followed Odd Man Out with another stunner, The Fallen Idol (1948), and then The Third Man, which won him the Grand Prix at the Cannes film festival. Most of the films he directed after that are unfamiliar to me and haven't played in Chicago for decades (if they ever played here at all). The two notable exceptions are Our Man in Havana (1960), starring Alec Guinness and adapted from the satirical novel by Graham Greene (who also wrote the source material for The Fallen Idol and The Third Man), and the screen adaptation of the hit musical Oliver! (1968), which collected six Academy Awards (including best picture and best director). Reed's reputation seems to have dimmed steadily since his death in 1976, but that troika of pictures he made after the war are still pretty impressive for their overheated visuals (all three were shot by Robert Krasker, an ardent student of German expressionism) and their intelligent performances. For a brief period after the war, Reed gave American noir directors a real run for their money.

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