Tag Archives: Graham Greene

Dances with Wolves (1990, Kevin Costner)

From the start, director Costner embrues Dances with Wolves with melancholic tragedy. Even as Costner’s protagonist–a Union soldier reassigned to the frontier–travels west, seeing startling natural beauty, which Costner and cinematographer Dean Semler visualize carefully, enthusiastically, perfectly, there’s dread. Most of it comes from John Barry’s lush and haunting score, but Costner does make sure to juxtapose his character’s idyllic, solitary experience with the realities around him. The realities involve the residents of the frontier–the Native Americans–and the threat Costner represents.

Costner’s protagonist is one of the singular elements of Dances with Wolves. He’s a goof, but Costner–both as director and actor–never invites a laugh. He still gets them occasionally and paces to allow them, he just doesn’t invite them. The film runs three hours, with most of the first hour spent establishing Costner and the setting. The Sioux living nearby, who he eventually joins, are either figures on the horizon or unintelligible visitors. Of course, the Sioux–Graham Greene and Rodney A. Grant are the primary supporting cast–do have their own scenes, but they’re delayed. It isn’t until Costner, the actor, meets them in the film does Costner, the director, let Greene and Grant start to develop. Almost the entire first hour of Dances with Wolves is Costner delaying the inciting incident. There’s a lot of ground situation to establish and Costner takes his time.

The tone Costner sets in that first hour, alternating between graphic war violence and the tranquil, infinite prairie, doesn’t carry for the rest of the film. Dances with Wolves becomes a very mature romance once the Sioux befriend Costner and he meets Mary McDonnell’s “captive.” McDonnell’s got her own arc, which is awesome, with her relearning her English and romancing a fellow white person, but she’s never reconnecting with her “lost” identity. Costner and writer Thomas Blake (adapting his novel) are very deliberate in how they present not just the Sioux, but how they present Costner and McDonnell to the Sioux and vice versa. That introductory tone, occasionally violent but still tranquil, makes the eventual character relationships all the better. Costner can spend twenty minutes having Costner and Greene bond, Costner and McDonnell appreciate each other’s company–and Costner and Grant’s relationship is maybe the film’s most emotionally devastating–and then get into the bigger questions.

The weight of Wolves comes from these characters forced into these new, impossible situations with one another, but also the impending doom of settlement. Costner narrates the film–through an in-film journal device–and lays a lot of that groundwork. But the appreciation for the natural beauty also gets emphasized in that narration. The narration also directly affects how Costner’s character’s sweet goofiness comes across in scene. It’s a beautifully constructed narrative.

The film’s technically outstanding. Semler’s photography, presumably mostly in natural light, is amazing. The Barry score is awesome. Great editing from William Hoy, Chip Masamitsu, Steve Potter and Neil Travis.

Superb acting–Greene, McDonnell, Grant, Costner, Tantoo Cardinal. Very nice “cameos” from Robert Pastorelli, Charles Rocket, Maury Chaykin, Wes Studi. McDonnell’s performance could power its own film.

Dances with Wolves is emotionally draining enough Costner could probably get away with a cute moment in the third act just to give some relief. But there isn’t any relief; Wolves has to be honest. Technicolor skies, endless Panavision prairies, the thunder of a buffalo herd–all too cinematic, all too real. Blake’s script helps a lot with the detail, ditto Jeffrey Beecroft’s production design.

Dances with Wolves is a stunning achievement from Costner and his cast and his crew.



Directed by Kevin Costner; screenplay by Michael Blake, based upon his novel; director of photography, Dean Semler; edited by William Hoy, Chip Masamitsu, Steve Potter and Neil Travis; music by John Barry; production designer, Jeffrey Beecroft; produced by Costner and Jim Wilson; released by Orion Pictures.

Starring Kevin Costner (Lieutenant Dunbar), Mary McDonnell (Stands With A Fist), Graham Greene (Kicking Bird), Rodney A. Grant (Wind In His Hair), Floyd ‘Red Crow’ Westerman (Ten Bears), Tantoo Cardinal (Black Shawl), Robert Pastorelli (Timmons), Charles Rocket (Lieutenant Elgin), Maury Chaykin (Major Fambrough) and Wes Studi (Toughest Pawnee).



The Third Man (1949, Carol Reed)

The Third Man runs just over a hundred minutes and takes place over a few days. It’s never clear just how many; director Reed and writer Graham Greene are both resistant to the idea of making the film too procedural. Greene’s scenes, even when they’re expository, still strive against lucidity. Everyone in the film is their own person, with their own agenda–it’s an entirely depressing affair.

Joseph Cotten is a hapless American in over his head and slightly aware of it. He liberally ingests alcohol to get himself through. Trevor Howard is a cynical British military policeman; he’s aware of the futility of trying to police in unison with three other governments (the film takes place during the post-WWII occupied Vienna, the four Allied powers each taking a section–as the film’s opening narration succinctly informs). Cotten thinks Howard has it wrong about his friend, played by Orson Welles. Except it turns out Howard and Welles are just alter egos. They never get their moment to reflect on one another, because Cotten’s the lead. His bumbling, drunken American is the audience. Reed and Greene are putting on a show about the world and what a terrible place people have let it become.

The Third Man has a lot of noir elements–Reed and cinematographer Robert Krasker’s use of Expressionist angles and harsh black and white is breathtaking–but it’s an anti-war picture. It’s the epilogue to a war film; after the fighting is done, what’s left for the people. Alida Valli gets to be the people. Howard’s the hero, Welles’s the villain, Cotten’s the audience, Valli’s the people. The people whose lives the war changed, something Cotten can’t understand. There’s so much to The Third Man before it gets to be a noir thriller–Reed’s use of German and Russian dialogue (Cotten’s protagonist only speaks English, as does the presumed audience), the way Vienna residents engage one another, the way they don’t, there’s so much to it. It’s so incredibly heavy it seems like Cotten’s sort of doofus is going to collapse under it all. At one point, when it appears his obtuseness has finally gotten him in too much trouble, he asks his captor if he’s going to be killed. It’s not resigned, just curious. Because Cotten has finally realized he doesn’t understand Vienna, he doesn’t understand Valli. But Howard and Welles do understand it.

When Cotten finally does get to be the hero, when he finally does step up to the plate, it’s not because he’s grown, but because he’s not willing to grow. He’s learned there are no heroes in the Old West but he still has to pretend there can be. It’s devastating. And it’s not even the main plot of the picture. It’s not even Cotten’s main plot, really, because his relationships with Valli and Welles are far more important than his one with Howard. It’s such a weird, anti-romantic film. The film is a mental assault–Reed’s direction, Krasker’s photography, Oswald Hafenrichter’s stunning editing–it’s not a question of the viewer catching up, it’s about the viewer not breaking down. Greene’s script is all too happy to oblige; the subtle understanding of the characters reflects in their dialogue. The Third Man seemingly ends where it begins, all the character development is conveyed in the dialogue, more specifically the actors delivery of it.

It’s an exceptional motion picture.

Great supporting turns from Bernard Lee and Ernst Deutsch. Cotten’s excellent, Valli’s better, Welles is sort of otherworldly. All of the audience’s hopes–and thereby Cotten’s–are pinned on Welles. He delivers. He’s a movie star in a world without movie stars. It’s not just his gentle but exuberant delivery of his dialogue, it’s his physical performance. Welles’s character development isn’t in how his delivery of dialogue changes, but in how his body moves. It’s so good.

And Howard’s awesome. It’s kind of a thankless role, but he’s awesome. He has to be unquestionably right and can’t ever seem obnoxious about it. There’s this gentle humanity to him, underneath the real world cynic.

Technically, there’s never a bad moment, never a less than perfect cut, never a less than perfect shot. Reed, Krasker, Hafenrichter and composer Anton Karas are all spectacular. Reed’s use of Karas’s Zither music (central European folk music) deserves a lengthy discussion and examination. Karas’s music leads Cotten (and the audience) through the film, but is never tied to them. They’re occasionally tied to it, but the music gets to be freer. The film even opens on a close-up of the Zither instrument itself, the strings vibrating as the opening titles run. Reed (and Greene) are very deliberate in giving instructions as to how the viewer engage with the film. The Third Man is never hostile, always inviting. It’s just inviting the viewer to be depressed and to value that depression.

Like I said, it’s exceptional. It’s exceptional overall, it’s exceptional in its technical qualities, it’s exceptional in its actors essaying of their roles. If The Third Man isn’t perfect, there’s no such thing as a perfect film.


Produced and directed by Carol Reed; written by Graham Greene; director of photography, Robert Krasker; edited by Oswald Hafenrichter; music by Anton Karas; released by British Lion Film Corporation.

Starring Joseph Cotten (Holly Martins), Alida Valli (Anna Schmidt), Orson Welles (Harry Lime), Trevor Howard (Maj. Calloway), Bernard Lee (Sgt. Paine), Ernst Deutsch (Baron Kurtz), Erich Ponto (Dr. Winkel), Wilfrid Hyde-White (Crabbin), Siegfried Breuer (Popescu) and Paul Hörbiger (Porter).


From Above (2013, Norry Niven)

When talking about films, I sometimes say “sincerity helps.” I got it from the Leonard Maltin review of Superman IV. I never say it ironically, I never say it as a joke. After From Above, I’m not sure sincerity helps at all.

From Above is sincere. It’s sincerely about prejudice and marriage and all sorts of things. It’s also bad. Director Niven is very adept at integrating CG into his shots–storms to start, but the whole film is baked in a computer. He never seems to wonder if creating such unrealistic, if lovely, visuals is a good idea or if it’ll just distance the viewer from the actors.

Similarly, he’s got music running all the time. Eric Kaye’s score can find the melodrama in any situation, even when the lead girl–Chelsea Ricketts, who too is sincere in an absurdly written role–is just walking. Niven has definitely got a vision and is committed to it.

But there’s nothing to Above. Watching Danny Glover and Tantoo Cardinal recite Shakespeare lines to each other (she’s dying, he’s taking care of her), it’s effective. It’s cheap, but it’s effective. The good story is probably about Glover and Cardinal as their deal with her impeding death, not how they met. Certainly not how they met in 1972 Arkansas, which is a racist place and all, but nowhere near as racist as, say, Archie Bunker.

Above is sincere, but sincerity doesn’t fix a bad script or cheap direction. It’s painfully trite every minute.



Photographed and directed by Norry Niven; written by James Bird; edited by Peter Tarter; music by Eric Kaye; production designer, Geri Schary; produced by Niven and Loren Basulto; released by Vertical Entertainment.

Starring Danny Glover (William Ward), Graham Greene (Mr. Mountain), Chelsea Ricketts (Venus), Mike Wade (Young William Ward), Ashley Bell (Molly), Tantoo Cardinal (Older Venus), Clarence Gilyard Jr. (Jeremiah Ward), Adriana Mather (Betty), Justin Alston (Ricky), Ezequiel Stremiz (Luca) and Clayton Rohner (Mr. Shelton).

Maverick (1994, Richard Donner)

Maverick is a lot of fun. In fact, it’s so much fun, when the film runs into problems in its second act, it’s impossible to be disappointed. It’s still so likable, one just feels bad it doesn’t maintain its quality.

There are two major problems. The first is the music. When the film starts–and for the majority of the run time–it’s a Western. It’s a very funny Western and has an affable Randy Newman score. Then it becomes a poker game movie… and the music inexplicably becomes modern country Western music. There’s one painful montage in particular where the music choice saps the energy of the film.

The second problem is the conclusion. William Goldman has a lot of fun with the twists at Maverick‘s finish and they’re nice to watch unravel… but it’s still a lot of padding. Alfred Molina’s character, for example, gets summarized in the conclusion instead of getting his due.

Molina gives the film’s most impressive performance. He’s creepy and dangerous; a very physical performance without much show of force. Just fantastic.

Mel Gibson’s great, so’s Jodie Foster, so’s James Garner. But the film’s made for them. I guess Foster, who doesn’t usually bring as much personality, is the standout of the three.

Graham Greene’s hilarious too.

Donner does fine. He and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond conceive an excellent Western. Donner primarily concentrates on the mood and the actors. Zsigmond and the scenery handle the rest.

Maverick is a joy, even with its bumps.



Directed by Richard Donner; screenplay by William Goldman, based on the television series created by Roy Huggins; director of photography, Vilmos Zsigmond; edited by Stuart Baird and Michael Kelly; music by Randy Newman; production designer, Thomas E. Sanders; produced by Donner and Bruce Davey; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Mel Gibson (Bret Maverick), Jodie Foster (Annabelle Bransford), James Garner (Marshal Zane Cooper), Graham Greene (Joseph), Alfred Molina (Angel), James Coburn (Commodore Duvall), Dub Taylor (Room Clerk), Geoffrey Lewis (Matthew Wicker), Paul L. Smith (The Archduke), Dan Hedaya (Twitchy, Riverboat Poker Player), Dennis Fimple (Stuttering), Denver Pyle (Old Gambler on Riverboat), Clint Black (Sweet-Faced Gambler) and Max Perlich (Johnny Hardin).