Tag Archives: Joseph Cotten

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.

CREDITS

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).


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The Magnificent Ambersons (1942, Orson Welles)

Unfortunately, I feel the need to address some of the behind the scenes aspects of The Magnificent Ambersons. Not because I plan on talking about them, but because director Welles’s career is filled with a lack of control. There are always questions–what did editor Robert Wise do on his own, what did he do with Welles’s input. With Ambersons, one can get lost in the possibility. But the reality is more than strong enough on its own.

With Ambersons, Welles creates a nightmare. He creates a nightmare of a child in the humorously awful, spoiled little rich kid (a wonderful, uncredited Bobby Cooper), who becomes a nightmare of a young man (Tim Holt in a phenomenal performance). The thing about Holt’s character, who negatively impacts everyone around him in one way or another including himself, is he doesn’t change. He just has a certain set of skills, he applies them to all situations without regard to whether they’re appropriate for those situations. Welles doesn’t care if the audience is sympathetic to Holt, he cares if they’re interested. Holt–and the Magnificent Ambersons exist regardless of audience sympathy; they even have a haunted mansion to loiter around.

Because even studio meddling and Wise’s ego can’t alter the “in camera” aspects of Ambersons. There’s an amazing mansion set where Holt terrorizes his elders. There’s Stanley Cortez’s gorgeous photography. There’s the acting. And, frankly, some of the editing is so obviously under Welles’s instruction, especially in the first act. Ambersons runs under ninety minutes and covers a decade and a half. It’s mostly told in summary, with actual scenes left to haunt the characters and audience alike. It’s a weighty film; director Welles narrates it himself, applying further pressure to the audiences’ shoulders. It’s got a perfect narrative distance. Was that distance Welles’s intention or the result of meddling? Who knows.

Wonderful supporting performances from Ray Collins and Richard Bennett. Dolores Costello is great as Holt’s mother, Agnes Moorehead’s great as his aunt. Joseph Cotten’s great as Holt’s love interest’s father. Cotten is also Costello’s love interest, which what all the drama is about. Anne Baxter plays Cotten’s daughter. She has the most important role in the entire film (outside Moorehead, who has to humanize Holt). Baxter has to be believable as the object of Holt’s affection. It works, thanks to Baxter, Holt and Welles, but it’s an achievement. It isn’t about Baxter being appealing, it’s about Holt being monstrous.

The Magnificent Ambersons, in its under ninety minute runtime, offers somewhere around eighty-five minutes of perfect filmmaking. The other three or four minutes, meddled or not, have perfect acting and excellent studio filmmaking. It may have a haunted history, but it’s appropriate. The Magnificent Ambersons is all about being haunted after all.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Orson Welles; screenplay by Welles, based on the novel by Booth Tarkington; director of photography, Stanley Cortez; edited by Robert Wise; music by Bernard Herrmann; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Tim Holt (George Minafer), Dolores Costello (Isabel Amberson Minafer), Joseph Cotten (Eugene Morgan), Anne Baxter (Lucy Morgan), Agnes Moorehead (Fanny Minafer), Ray Collins (Jack Amberson), Don Dillaway (Wilbur Minafer) and Richard Bennett (Major Amberson).


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Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles)

In Citizen Kane, director Welles ties everything together–not just the story (he does wrap the narrative visually), but also how the filmmaking relates to the film’s content. Kane’s story can’t be told any other way. That precision–whether it’s in the summary sequences or in how scenes cut together–is absolutely necessary to not just keep the viewer engaged, but to keep them over-engaged. Even with the conclusion, where Welles reveals the film’s “solution” (quote unquote); it doesn’t resolve that mystery in a timely fashion–Welles drags it out to get the viewer thinking, questioning. Welles puts together this perfect film and then asks the viewer to wonder whether or not it was all worth it. Not just his making it, but the viewer’s watching it.

The little moments in the film–Welles gets in these subtle things with melodramatic fireworks going off in the background, whether its Dorothy Comingore’s humanity or Everett Sloane’s wistfulness or “protagonist” William Alland’s frustration–remind the viewer the story’s still about people. And why shouldn’t it be? Most scenes in Kane feature two to three working characters. Sometimes Welles has people in the background, sometimes he doesn’t. The little moments in big scenes–like one between Joseph Cotten and Sloane during a party–are often more devastating than the little scenes.

Welles unforgivingly asks a lot of the viewer. He opens the film with a complex fading sequence to bring the viewer into the world of Kane, then abruptly pulls the film out of itself, into a newsreel. And for almost twenty minutes, Welles barely gives himself any screen time. It’s always such a big deal that first time Welles lets Kane have an audible line in the newsreel.

All that control isn’t to prime the viewer, isn’t to get him or her desperately wondering about Rosebud, all that control is because the film needs it. Kane spans forty-some years in under two hours. Far under two hours if you don’t count the newsreel “first act.” When Welles establishes his character as an older man, an atypical protagonist–Kane’s infinitely sympathetic while never likable, though Welles knows his charm goes a long way in lightening a heavy scene–he does so without hostility. Nowhere in Kane does Welles play for the audience, but he also doesn’t artificially distance them. The opening does, quite literally, guide the viewer into the film.

Kane is an unsentimental film about a sentimental subject and Welles does wonders with that disconnect.

Comingore probably gives the film’s best performance. Welles is amazing and mesmerizing, but so much of the second half has to do with how he plays off her, she’s essential. Of course, there aren’t any merely good performances–even Erskine Sanford, in the closest thing to a comedy relief role, is great. Ruth Warrick, Ray Collins, Paul Stewart, George Coulouris–all fantastic.

And Joseph Cotten as the film’s “good guy?” He’s marvelous.

Impeccable Gregg Toland photography, great Bernard Herrmann music.

500 words aren’t enough.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Orson Welles; written by Herman J. Mankiewicz and Welles; director of photography, Gregg Toland; edited by Robert Wise; music by Bernard Herrmann; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Orson Welles (Charles Foster Kane), Joseph Cotten (Jedediah Leland), Dorothy Comingore (Susan Alexander Kane), Ruth Warrick (Emily Monroe Norton Kane), Everett Sloane (Mr. Bernstein), George Coulouris (Walter Parks Thatcher), Agnes Moorehead (Mary Kane), Harry Shannon (Jim Kane), Paul Stewart (Raymond), Ray Collins (James W. Gettys), Erskine Sanford (Herbert Carter) and William Alland (Jerry Thompson).


My Favorite Classic Movie Blogathon 2

THIS POST IS PART OF THE MY FAVORITE CLASSIC MOVIE BLOGATHON HOSTED BY RICK OF CLASSIC FILM AND TV CAFE


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Shadow of a Doubt (1943, Alfred Hitchcock)

Shadow of a Doubt is a strange one–the presence of Teresa Wright and the small town atmosphere and the Gregg Toland-esque (but not Gregg Toland) cinematography make it feel like William Wyler, the presence of Joseph Cotten and the camera angles and intricate sound design make it feel like Welles (or at least an RKO picture Welles produced and did uncredited directing on), and some of the feeling in the shots… only some of them… make it feel like a later Hitchcock, like Psycho or Marnie, anything but one of his early American pictures. Shadow of a Doubt feels absolutely foreign from something Hitchcock did in the UK, The Lady Vanishes for easy comparison, but also unlike his more well-known American works of the 1940s. Artistically speaking, it’s the most exciting Hitchcock got after he gave up all the filmic experimentation with the move across the Atlantic and it’s some beautiful stuff in Shadow, because he hasn’t got a formula worked out, because Hitchcock’s successful formulas tend to rely on the intrigue, not on the lack of it. Shadow of a Doubt works in the end not because of Hitchcock’s efficiency as a suspense director, but because that Wyler-esque family drama (the contribution of Thornton Wilder?) works so well.

Two different things are going on, from the actors, in Shadow of a Doubt. Teresa Wright does her thing, essaying this conflicted, happy, sad, romantic young woman who’s petrified, but who’s also able to navigate an impossible situation with seeming success–falling in love during it as well. Then there’s Joseph Cotten, who’s playing a character much like one Joseph Cotten would play for the next ten years, both as good guys and bad guys–the guy who’s completely evil, but maybe not wrong about his motivations for being evil, also not so evil he can’t care about people. Cotten is not a Hitchcock actor, which makes Shadow an odd favorite for Hitchcock to pick from his oeuvre. There’s just something about Cotten–you can see he’s doing what he’s doing, Hitchcock’s direction be damned. It’s another reason Shadow of a Doubt is so different–all the excellent, excited performances. Hitchcock usually sucked the enthusiasm out of actors, even in good films, instead letting them be themselves with written dialogue, but in Shadow of a Doubt, it’s a much, much different situation. Patricia Collinge does some excellent work in the film, usually in scenes unlike any other Hitchcock scenes. The most Hitchcockian actor is Macdonald Carey and Carey is essential as Wright’s love interest and Cotten’s pursuer, but he’s got that blander Hitchcock acting style going. He’s good, but it’s not a textured, tortured performance, not like Wright, Cotten or Collinge.

I’d only seen Shadow of a Doubt once before, maybe ten years ago, and for the majority of the film, I was upset, remembering it being much better than it unfolded. But once the end came around and especially the neat coda, I had bought into it entirely. Hitchcock’s visual style, while incredibly fun to watch, is nothing compared to the film’s unlikely emotional impact.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock; screenplay by Thorton Wilder, Sally Benson and Alma Reville, from a story by Gordon McDonell; director of photography, Joseph A. Valentine; edited by Milton Carruth; music by Dimitri Tiomkin; produced by Jack H. Skirball; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Teresa Wright (Young Charlie), Joseph Cotten (Uncle Charlie), Macdonald Carey (Jack), Henry Travers (Joe Newton), Patricia Collinge (Emma Newton), Hume Cronyn (Herbie Hawkins), Wallace Ford (Det. Saunders) and Edna May Wonacott (Ann Newton).


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