Trevor Hogg profiles the career of legendary British filmmaker Carol Reed in the second of a two-part feature… read the first part here.
“I don’t think people care what sort of curtains I have,” stated the British filmmaker. “I don’t think they care about the technical people. Stars are the draw. They earn their publicity. It brings people in. But no one would go to see a film because it was directed by Carol Reed.” However, the director also observed that a star-studded cast does not necessarily guarantee commercial success. “The future of British films depends on how they are made; if the standard is high then the future is rosy,” remarked Reed. “There is no reason why the British film world should not become a big industry like its American counterpart. We have a wealth of good actors. The trouble here is that we do not make enough good pictures to keep them occupied. We must at least double our output – but not on the basis of twenty-five brilliant pictures and seventy-five bad ones.”
With the 1947 release of Odd Man Out, Carol Reed became an internationally celebrated filmmaker. James Mason (A Star is Born) plays a wounded Irish revolutionary on the run from the police after a botched bank robbery. The picture opens with the declaration, “This story is told against a backdrop of political unrest in a city of Northern Ireland. It is not concerned with the struggle between the law and an illegal organization, but only in the conflict in the hearts of the people when they become unexpectedly involved.” There has been no doubt in the minds of movie critics and audiences that the “illegal organization” is the Irish Republican Army and the bleak city where the drama unfolds is in fact Belfast. Also featured in the movie are the acting talents of Cyril Cusack (Fahrenheit 451), Robert Newton (Gaslight), Kathleen Ryan (The Sound of Fury), and F.J. McCormick (Hungry Hill); the majority of the supporting cast came from Dublin’s Abbey Theatre.
The main set was based on the Crown Bar located in Belfast which Reed had reconstructed at D&P Studios in Denham, England. Most of the exterior shots were filmed on location in West Belfast with the remaining footage captured at Broadway Market in London. Controversy erupted over the sympathetic portrayal of James Mason’s character as there were those who viewed him to be more of a terrorist than a freedom fighter. The violent ending had to be toned down to pacify the censors but even with these complications the film went on to receive the BAFTA Award for Best British Film; it was also nominated for the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival as well as for Best Film Editing at the Oscars.
After signing with London Films, Reed was introduced to author Graham Greene by the studio’s owner Sir Alexander Korda (The Private Life of Don Juan). The creative partnership between the novelist and director would become one of most celebrated collaborations in the history of British films. The Fallen Idol (1948) is a cinematic adaptation of a short story by Greene about a butler who is much admired by the son of his employer; when the domestic servant is accused of killing his wife, the young boy desperately attempts to cover up his friend’s guilt. Making use of gloomy surroundings, the thriller is told from the misconstrued point-of-view of the child. Ralph Richardson (The Heiress) plays the idolized butler while Bobby Henrey (The Wonder Kid) portrays his naïve admirer. In explaining his reasons for selecting Henrey, Reed stated, “A child of eight can’t act. I wasn’t looking for an exhibitionist. Adults have habitual features and defences. A good actor must take something away, lose a part of himself before he can create the role. But with the right sort of child, such as Bobby, there is nothing in the way. There is absolutely no resistance. He will do everything you tell him.”
For The Fallen Idol, Reed won his second consecutive Best British Film at the BAFTAS and Best Direction from the New York Film Critics. As for the Academy Awards, the picture was nominated for Best Direction and Best Adapted Screenplay.
In 1949, Carol Reed directed his landmark film, The Third Man, which was based on an original screenplay by Graham Greene; it would later be turned into a novella by the author. Novelist Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) arrives in post-WWII Vienna only to discover that his friend Harry Lime (Orsen Welles), who had offered him a job, has been killed by a truck. As he explores the circumstances of Lime’s death, Martin finds himself drawn into a mystery worthy of his own creation. “I was having dinner one night with Orson,” recalled the filmmaker regarding of how Welles (Citizen Kane) became aware of the project. “I’d just gotten the synopsis from Graham Greene, which I thought was all right, so I told Orson that there was a wonderful part in it for him.” Movie producer David O. Selznick (Gone with the Wind) disagreed with the director’s assessment; he wanted British actor and playwright Noël Coward (In Which We Serve) for the part. In the end Reed turned out to be right, for the American performer’s portrayal of the black marketer would only be surpassed by his legendary role a decade earlier as newspaper mogul Charles Foster Kane.
Filming the movie with an askew perspective served a couple of purposes. “I shot most of the film with a wide-angle lens that distorted the buildings and emphasized the webbed cobblestone streets,” revealed Reed. “But the angle of vision was to suggest that something crooked was going on.” For six weeks principal photography was shot in Vienna where the director would make a fortuitous discovery; playing the zither in a courtyard located outside a tiny beer and sausage restaurant was instrumentalist Anton Karas. Carol Reed loved the melancholy sound of the music so he recruited Karas to provide the soundtrack for the movie; The Third Man Theme would make its originator an international star, and sell over 300,000 records.
No thriller would be complete without a romantic interest, and so the part of Harry Lime’s girlfriend, whom Holly Martins eventually falls for, was given to Alida Valli (Walk Softly, Stranger). In a pivotal plot point where the cat owned by Valli’s character approaches a shadowy figure, thereby revealing to Martins that his friend has faked his own death, Reed did something very clever. The moviemaker had the shoelaces worn by Welles scented with sardines so as to attract the animal. The legendary American performer and director was not to be outdone; Orson Welles improvised the famous Ferris wheel speech in the film. Added in the footnotes of the original script is a passage authored by Welles that reads, “You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock.”
The famous shot of the hand on the sewer grate caused Carol Reed to make an impromptu cameo appearance in the picture. “That was my hand; I did it on location before he [Welles] arrived because I knew Harry must try to escape the sewers. The shot immediately proceeding was done with Orson in the studio, because in Vienna there isn’t any staircase leading directly up to the drain…and the censors objected to Cotten (Portrait of Jennie) shooting Harry Lime [since it was a mercy killing]. That’s why Trevor Howard now shouts from off-camera, ‘If you see him, shoot.’ Cotten isn’t killing a friend, you see, he’s only following orders.”
When planning the conclusion of the film, Reed remarked, “A picture should end as it has to. I don’t think anything in life ends “right”. The ending in The Fallen Idol is only partly happy. After all, the boy is now finished with the butler, although he used to adore him. In The Third Man, Graham Greene wanted Joseph Cotten to overtake Valli in that car, then the film would finish with the couple walking down the road. I insisted that she pass him by.” The filmmaker explained his decision further, “The whole point of the Valli character in that film is that she’d experienced a fatal love – and then comes along this silly American!”
Initially, the prospects for The Third Man did not look good as its screening in Austria lasted for only a few weeks. The circumstances dramatically changed when the underwhelming Austrian response was replaced with one of overwhelming enthusiasm in the United States. Carol Reed was praised by New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther, who wrote that the British director, “brilliantly packaged the whole bag of cinematic tricks, his whole range of inventive genius for making the camera expound. His eminent gifts for compressing a wealth of suggestion in single shots, and for building up agonized tension and popping surprises are fully exercised. His devilishly mischievous humour also runs lightly through the film, touching the darker expressions with little glints of the gay and macabre.”
The movie went on to win the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival, Best Film at the BAFTAS, and the Academy Award for Best Black and White Cinematography. Fifty years later, the British Film Institute selected The Third Man as the best British film of the twentieth century.
After a three year absence, the filmmaker returned with an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel An Outcast of the Island. Running away from a scandal Peter Willems (Trevor Howard) hides himself in a secluded native village where tragically he falls in love with the daughter of the tribal chief. The picture was nominated for Best British Film at the BAFTAS, and is considered to be one of the most underappreciated movies to be directed by Reed. Also in 1952, the illegitimate son of Sir Herbert Beerholm Tree was bestowed with the same honour previously awarded to his father; Carol Reed was knighted by King George VI.
“I happen to love a dark street, with wet cobbles, and a small furtive figure under a lamp at the corner,” stated the moviemaker. “Whenever I go on location, I instinctively look for something of that kind. Now that is bad, thoroughly bad for me, and tedious for the public.” Reed’s insight proved to be correct when in 1953 he reunited with James Mason for The Man Between; it was thought to be an inferior reprisal of his revered classic The Third Man. A British woman visiting post-WWII Berlin becomes entangled with an espionage network smuggling secrets in and out of the Eastern Bloc. Cast alongside Mason are Claire Bloom (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold), Hildegard Knef (Lulu), and Geoffrey Toone (The King and I).
Working with Wolf Mankowitz, who adapted his own novel into a screenplay, Carol Reed directed A Kid for Two Farthings in 1955. A small boy, Joe (Jonathan Ashmore), buys a sickly goat as the local tailor Kandinksy (David Kossoff) leads him to believe it is a unicorn. The movie features a haunting final image of Kandinsky taking the “unicorn” to be buried in a graveyard; passing him but in the opposite direction is a Rabbi reading the Toran as he pushes a horn gramophone. The movie, which is seen to be an allegory about the Jewish holocaust during WWII, was nominated for the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival.
Recruiting Hollywood stars Burt Lancaster (Elmer Gantry) and Tony Curtis (The Defiant Ones), Reed made an cinematic adaptation of Trapeze his next project in 1956. Based on the novel by Max Cotto, the movie centres around a crippled trapeze artist (Lancaster) who mentors his protégé (Curtis) on performing the dangerous triple summersault; the training sessions become seriously compromised with the arrival of the act’s conniving third member (Gina Lollobrigida). Lancaster, being a former circus acrobat, was able to perform many of his own stunts. Filmed mainly in Paris, the picture proved to be a box office success, making a profit of eight million dollars.
“I have no desire to stay there [Hollywood], purely for one reason,” declared the filmmaker. “When you’ve lived your life in one country and grown accustomed to the national traits and temperament, it is difficult to do justice to your skill elsewhere.” Even with his misgivings about working within the major American studio system, Reed made another movie with big-named acting talent. The Key, released in 1958, had acting superstars Sophia Lauren (La ciociara) and William Holden (Stalag 17) sharing the big screen with Trevor Howard (Sons and Lovers).
Using the novel Stella by Jan de Hartog as the source material, the high profile production features William Holden as a Canadian Army sergeant; he commands a slow and poorly armed tugboat that tows crippled freighters to the English shoreline under constant threat from German U-boats and aircraft. When his friend (Howard) is killed, the character played by Holden fulfills his promise to look after his buddy’s lover (Sophia Lauren). Reed had nothing but complimentary things to say about Lauren. “She gives herself to you as an artist. During shooting, she’d ask me, ‘What did I do wrong? What can I do to make it better?’ I never knew her to pull an act – the headache, the temperament. Usually with such a beauty, there is worry about the looks. She doesn’t bother about looks. She’s interested in acting.”
A box office disappointment, the slow-moving picture was soon overshadowed by the filmmaker’s follow-up effort which saw him collaborate once again with Graham Greene.
Greene had no qualms having Carol Reed adapt his book Our Man in Havana (1959) for the big screen; when asked to explained why he enjoyed working with him so much, Greene stated that Reed is “the only director I know with that particular warmth of human sympathy, the extraordinary feeling for the right face for the right part, the exactitude of cutting, and not the least important, the power of sympathizing with an author’s worries and an ability to guide him.”
A vacuum cleaner salesman (Alec Guinness) is recruited by the British Secret Service to be their Havana operative. Rather than recruit local agents, the hapless retailer fabricates them as well as the intelligence information they provide so to pay for an affluent lifestyle for his daughter. The spy satire was filmed on location in Havana three months after the January 1959 Revolution which brought Fidel Castro to power. “I don’t believe the cinema is a place for little lectures on how everybody should live,” declared Reed. “I don’t think audiences want them either, unless they are very original and striking. Personally, I dislike the infusion of amateur politics in films. Certainly that is not the director’s job.”
In addition to Guinness (The Lavender Hill Mob), Our Man in Havana also features Noël Coward, Ralph Richardson, Burl Ives (The Big Country), Maureen O’Hara (The Parent Trap), and Ernie Kovacs (North to Alaska); Reed received a nomination from the Director’s Guild of America as well from the Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture – Comedy.
Soon after commencing the principal photography in Tahiti, Carol Reed abandoned the 1962 remake of Mutiny on the Bounty; he had learned that his notoriously temperamental leading man, Marlon Brando (The Godfather), had been given complete artistic control over the project by the studio heads at Metro-Goldwyn Mayer.
Leaving behind the troubles of the South Pacific, Reed shot an adaptation of a book written by Shelley Smith called The Running Man (1963). A fellow (Laurence Harvey) fakes his own death in a glider accident but complications ensue when an insurance investigator takes a deep interest in the case. Reuniting with the director is veteran actor Felix Alymer (The October Man) who performs alongside Lee Remick (Days of Wine and Roses), and Alan Bates (The Fixer).
Next on the agenda for Carol Reed was a Hollywood production, The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965), which was based on the novel by Irving Stone; the picture chronicles the tumultuous relationship between Renaissance artist Michelangelo (Charlton Heston) and his patron Pope Julius II (Rex Harrison). Filmed on location in Rome, the director recreated early sixteenth century Italy by accurately depicting the period’s clothes, manners, military actions and firearms. The attention to historical detail was acknowledged at the Academy Awards when the film was nominated for Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design, as well as for Best Musical Score, Best Sound, and Best Cinematography.
“Every new film should be a new beginning,” reflected the moviemaker, “and nobody should ever be able to say with any certainty, ‘Oh, that’s a Carol Reed subject,’ or ‘That’s not a Carol Reed subject.’ It’s doing the particular job well – and every sort of job – that primarily interests me. I don’t think the type of subject matters much.” Embarking on his next film, Reed found himself stepping into new cinematic territory.
Oliver!, released in 1968, was a musical version of the literary classic Oliver Twist. “This is [Charles] Dickens,” stated the director. “There are problems of a special kind. You say to yourself, ‘Fagin as a character would never dream of singing anything, nor, perhaps would the Artful Dodger or Bill Sikes.’ They would probably get a laugh. We concentrated upon them and made them the centre of attention. I never visualized Oliver! as a show dominated by a single star. In fact there are seven very good parts.”
The movie was a hybrid of established and unknown actors which included an early performance of the director’s nephew Oliver Reed (Gladiator) as the diabolical Bill Sikes. After auditioning 5,000 boys, Carol Reed cast Mark Lester (Black Beauty) to play the title character. As for Ron Moody (Flight of the Doves), he was selected to repeat his acclaimed London stage performance of Fagin after both Peter Sellers (Being There) and Peter O’Toole (The Lion in Winter) turned down the part. Jack Wild (The Pied Piper), who was also in the London production as one of Fagin’s pickpockets, was chosen for the role of the Artful Dodger. A year after auditioning for the part of the doomed Nancy, Shani Wallis (Arnold) was finally awarded the role when she performed in her native Cockney accent.
Six sound stages and a huge studio back lot were used for the big screen production. Some of the musical standards are Food, Glorious Food, Consider Yourself, As Long as He Needs Me, and You’ve Got To Pick a Pocket or Two. When Reed shot the exterior winter scenes to go along with the song Boy For Sale it was the middle of July; snowballs were made from polystyrene, salt, crazy foam, and mashed potatoes.
As for the difference between producing a drama and a musical, Carol Reed responded, “I discovered that in a big musical the man who directs it is far more dependant on other people than in a straight film.” Reed’s work on the picture garnered a glowing review from film critic Pauline Kael who wrote in The New Yorker, “I applaud the commercial heroism of a director who can steer a huge production and keep his sanity and perspective and decent human feelings as beautifully intact as they are in Oliver!.”
Kael was not alone in her praise for the musical as Oliver! was nominated for eleven Academy Awards including Best Actor (Moody) and Best Supporting Actor (Wild); it went on to win for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Musical Score, Best Art & Set Decoration, and Best Sound; a special Oscar honoured Onna White for her elaborate choreography. Oliver! was the last musical to win Best Picture until Chicago accomplished the feat thirty-four years later.
Taking on the struggle of the Native American Indian, Carol Reed directed Flap (or The Last Warrior) in 1970. Anthony Quinn (Lust for Life) plays the hard drinking and reckless Flapping Eagle who with the help of his horse H-Bomb, hijacks a railroad, and lassos a helicopter in his attempt to start the Last Great American Uprising. The picture did little to capture the public’s imagination which was the same case for Reed’s final film Follow Me! (also known as The Private Eye) released two years later. A British banker hires a private investigator named Topol (Julian Cristoforou) to find out if his free-spirited American wife (Mia Farrow) is cheating on him.
Upon being asked to choose his favourite film, Reed answered, “They’re all disappointments in the end. You only see the things you wish you had done. In the theatre you can take a play and then change it on tour or cut it down, but once you finish a film and show it, that’s it…No, I have no favourites.”
When describing how he approached each of his movies, the legendary filmmaker stated, “I give the public what I like, and hope they will like it too.” On April 26, 1976, at the age of 69, Carol Reed died of a heart attack.
Check out the British Film Institute’s Carol Reed Stills and Posters Gallery and Carol Reed Profile, along with features on classics The Fallen Idol and The Third Man.
Movies… For Free! The Way Ahead (1944)
Movies… For Free! The True Glory (1945)
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.