Goodnight, Vienna: THE THIRD MAN (British Lion 1949)

cracked rear viewer

I’m just gonna come right out and say it: THE THIRD MAN is one of the greatest movies ever made. How could it not be, with all that talent, from producers Alexander Korda and David O. Selznick, director Carol Reed , screenwriter Graham Green, and cinematographer Robert Krasker, to actors Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli , and Trevor Howard. It’s striking visuals, taut direction, and masterful acting transcend the film noir genre and make THE THIRD MAN one of the must-see films of 20th Century cinema.

The story starts simply enough, as American pulp novelist Holly Martins arrives in post-war Vienna to meet up with his old pal Harry Lime, only to learn that Harry was recently killed in a car accident. He attends the graveside service, meeting Harry’s mysterious actress girlfriend Anna Schmidt, and is quickly pulled down a rabbit hole of intrigue and deception involving the British…

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Shattered Politics #86: Casino Jack (dir by George Hickenlooper)

Casino_JackI had two reactions to the 2010 film Casino Jack.

My first reaction was to think, “Wow, Kevin Spacey really can act!”  I mean, don’t get me wrong.  I knew that, especially when working with a director who is strong enough to curb his natural tendency to go overboard, Kevin Spacey was capable of giving a great performance.  However, Spacey is one of those actors who has such a unique look and style about him that I think sometimes we forget that he’s capable of doing more than just playing variations on Kevin Spacey.*

And it is true that, in the role of real-life Washington D.C. lobbyist Jack Abramoff, Kevin Spacey gave a performance that was full of the usual Spacey tricks.  By that, I mean we got the Spacey voice going from a purr to a roar in just a manner of seconds.  We got the Spacey glare, where he narrows his eyes and stares at whoever has offended him with an intensity that lets you know that something bad is about to happen.  We got that somewhat strained Kevin Spacey smile, the way facial expression that lets us know that we don’t want to know what’s going on behind that friendly facade.

But, even though Spacey was up to his usual tricks, all of those tricks still came together to create a unique character.  As I watched the film, I forgot that I was watching Kevin Spacey.  Instead, I really felt that I was watching and listening to one of the most powerful lobbyists in American history.

And, when Abramoff was eventually arrested and prosecuted for defrauding his clients, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit of sympathy for him.  Spacey plays the character with such a combination of hyperactive charm and righteous fury that you can’t help but be a little bit enthralled by him.  That’s not to say that Kevin Spacey turns Jack Abramoff into a sympathetic character.  (Indeed, as good as Spacey is, there are a few moments when his contempt for Abramoff comes through and his performance suddenly turns into a one-dimensional caricature.)  But what Spacey does do is show that Jack Abramoff was less an inhuman monster and more the logical product of Washington culture.  The only difference between Abramoff and everyone else in Washington is that Abramoff got caught.

But, at the same time, the move itself is never quite as interesting as Spacey’s lead performance. The movie’s main theme appears to be that Washington is corrupt and we’d do better if we curtailed the power of lobbyists but … well, do you really need a movie to tell you this?  I mean I’m pretty much apolitical and I knew that long before I saw Casino Jack!

Casino Jack: Good performance.  Boring message.  Bleh movie.

* This is better known as the Christopher Walken syndrome.

Scenes That I Love: The Cuckoo Clock Speech From The Third Man


Some movies are merely good.  Some movies are undeniably great.  And then, a handful movies are so amazingly brilliant that, every time you watch, you’re reminded why you fell in love with cinema in the first place.

The Third Man is one of those brilliant films.

Directed by Carol Reed and scripted by novelist Graham Greene, The Third Man takes place in the years immediately following the end of World War II.  Pulp novelist Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) comes to Vienna to search for his old friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles).  Upon arriving, Holly is shocked to learn that Harry makes his living selling diluted penicillin on the black market.

In the classic scene below, Harry and Holly have a clandestine meeting in a Ferris wheel and Harry justifies both his actions and the lives that have been lost as a result of them.

While Orson Welles’ performance is (rightfully) celebrated, I’ve always felt that Joseph Cotten’s work was even more important to the film’s success.  While Welles made Harry Lime into a charismatic and compelling villain, it was  Cotten who provided the film with a heart.

A Quickie With Lisa Marie: Brighton Rock (dir. by Rowan Joffe)

Brighton Rock is a British film noir that’s currently both playing in limited release and which is also available via video-on-demand.  Based on a novel by Graham Greene, Brighton Rock is the story of Pinkie (Sam Riley), a sociopathic gangster who murders a gambler.  The chase leading up to the murder is witnessed by a mousey waitress named Rose (Andrea Riseborough) who doesn’t realize what she’s actually seen.  In order to keep her quiet, Pinkie marries Rose.  Rose, however, works for Ida (Helen Mirren) and Ida just happens to have been friends with the murdered gangster.  Realizing that Rose is in danger, Ida takes it upon herself to expose Pinkie for the murderer he is.

Brighton Rock is a visually striking film and it has a handful of good performances but it never quite comes together.  Before making his feature film directing debut here, Rowan Joffe wrote the script for last year’s The American and, much like The American, Brighton Rock has an abundance of style and is full of references to the classic crime films of the 60s and 70s.  Also, much like The American, the style — too often — seems to exist separately from any larger vision.  As a result, the film ultimately feels like several disconnected — if pretty scenes — strung together by convenience.  The film has an intriguing-enough plot but the narrative lacks any sort of forward momentum.  Interestingly enough, Greene used the story of Pinkie, Rose, and Ida to examine larger theological issues within the Catholic church.  With the exception of a scene where Pinkie prays, an over-the-top sequence featuring a judgmental nun, and a few inserts of crucifixes artfully hanging on grimy walls, Joffe pretty much jettisons the story’s religious angle but without it, Pinkie and Rose’s actions make a lot less sense. 

Joffe’s decision to cast Sam Riley, whom I’ve had a crush on ever since I first saw Control, in the lead role of Pinkie is problematic.  It’s not that Riley gives a bad performance because he doesn’t.  He makes a convincing psychopath and if he’s never quite charming enough to be a true anti-hero, he’s still makes Pinkie into a compelling figure.  Unfortunately, Riley is still totally miscast in the film.  In Graham Greene’s original novel, Pinkie was only 17 years old.  Sam Riley is 31 and looks even older.  Unfortunately, all of the other characters in the film continually refer to him as “the kid.”  John Hurt, at one point, gives a monologue in which he wonders how someone so young could be so evil.  But Riley isn’t young and as a result, I found myself wondering just how old someone had to be before they were considered to be an adult in 1960s England.

Still, if nothing else, Joffe gets some good performances from his supporting cast.  Andrea Riseborough manages to be both poignant and annoying as Rose while Andy Serkis appears to be having a lot of fun playing a slightly ludicrous gangster.  Not surprisingly, Helen Mirren commands every scene she appears in and she and John Hurt have got a great chemistry.  Regardless of how you might feel about the film as whole, it’s impossible not to enjoy their scenes together.  They’re final scene together made me squeal with delight and, in the end, that has to count for something.