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

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 military police, black marketeers, and a very much alive Harry…

Reed fills the screen with dazzling cinematic imagery, from a terrifying ferris wheel ride to the shadow world of Vienna’s sewers, each scene giving the viewer something different: Dutch angles, quick cut edits, close-ups, and atmospheric lighting. Little touches like that kid and his ball or the man with the balloons add greatly to the film’s mood. While Reed was already one of England’s master craftsmen, there’s a heavy Orson Welles influence throughout THE THIRD MAN. Most historians claim the film is pure Reed, but the Welles touch is so evident in many scenes that one wonders…

Orson Welles  doesn’t appear as Harry Lime until around 30 minutes into the film, but his presence is felt throughout, and the entire movie revolves around this charming rogue. Welles is reunited with his Mercury Theater cohort Joseph Cotten as the pulp fiction writer Holly (“I write cheap novelettes”), who sets things in motion. Alida Valli was well known to Italian movie lovers; she’d go on to a long and prosperous international career. Trevor Howard is good as always as British Major Calloway, and his second-in-command Sgt. Paine is played by James Bond’s future boss Bernard Lee. There’s another 007 connection in THE THIRD MAN as well: assistant director Guy Hamilton would go on to direct GOLDFINGER , DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER , LIVE AND LET DIE , and THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN.

Then there’s that unique zither score by Austrian native Anton Karas, unlike anything heard in films before or since. Allegedly, Reed didn’t want to go with traditional Viennese waltz music, and came across Karas playing his zither at a wine garden one night. One thing led to another, and the zither plays a huge factor in making THE THIRD MAN so memorable, not to mention making a brief star out of the humble Karas, whose “Harry Lime Theme” became an unlikely #1 hit in 1950:

I could go on and on about the brilliance of THE THIRD MAN, but why waste time reading my humble scribblings? Go out and watch the film yourselves, and if you already have – watch it again!

Happy 100th Birthday Olivia de Havilland!: HUSH… HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE (20th Century Fox 1964)

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Today marks the 100th birthday of one of the last true Golden Age greats, Olivia de Havilland. Film fans across the globe are celebrating the life and career of this fine actress, who fought the Hollywood system and won. Olivia is the last surviving cast member of GONE WITH THE WIND (Melanie Wilkes), won two Academy Awards (TO EACH HIS OWN, THE HEIRESS), headlined classics like THE SNAKE PIT and THE DARK MIRROR, and costarred with dashing Errol Flynn in eight exciting films, including CAPTAIN BLOOD , THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, SANTA FE TRAIL, and THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON.

Olivia moved to Paris with her husband in the 1950’s and was semi-retired, acting in a handful of films. In 1962 director Robert Aldrich  scored a huge hit, a psychological horror thriller called WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?, starring screen veterans Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. A new genre was born, featuring older actresses in suspenseful psychodramas. Olivia starred in one of them, 1964’s LADY IN A CAGE, about a woman trapped in her home as deranged youths ransack her house. Aldrich sought to capitalize on his success with another film to star Davis and Crawford titled HUSH… HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE. But Crawford bowed out, citing illness (gossip of the day suggested she didn’t want to work with Davis again). Bette placed a call to her old Warner Brothers friend Olivia, who read the script and accepted the role of scheming cousin Marion. The two Grand Dames, along with director Aldrich, had another hit on their hands, a Southern Gothic tale set in a decaying Louisiana mansion.

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The film opens in 1927, as Charlotte’s father Big Sam Hollis confronts John Mayhew. Mayhew has been having a clandestine affair with the big man’s little girl behind the back of his wife Jewel. Big Sam forces John to break it off at that evening’s big dance, and Charlotte doesn’t take it well, screaming “I could kill you!” Later, we see someone offscreen grab a meat cleaver and, sneaking into the music room where John sits alone, chop off his hand and head, violently hacking him to death. Charlotte enters the ballroom in a blood-stained dress as the partygoers are shocked, and Big Sam sadly walks her to her room.

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Fast forward to 1964. The Hollis home is scheduled to be demolished to make room for a new highway, but Charlotte brandishes a shotgun to ward off the bulldozers. Charlotte’s fiercely loyal maid Velma tries to talk some sense into her, but the emotionally wounded Charlotte refuses to leave. Enter Charlotte’s “last kin”, cousin Marion, who arrives back home to take care of things. Sweet natured Marion and family doctor Drew (who once were lovers) also try to convince Charlotte to leave the estate, but she’s having none of it, angrily still holding a grudge against Marion for telling Jewel Mayhew about her and John. Meanwhile, an insurance investigator named Harry Wills has come to town, seeking answers to why Jewel has never cashed in on John’s policy.

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The movie then becomes a nightmare of terror for Charlotte, as she sees John’s disembodied head show up in the music room, hears harpsichord music playing, and strange voices calling her. Dr. Drew gives her sedatives to calm her down, and Velma begins to get suspicious of him and Marion. When she finds an hallucinatory drug in Charlotte’s room, she puts two and two together. Velma tries to help Charlotte escape, but is stopped by Marion, who smashes a chair over her head and sends her crashing down the staircase to her death.

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Marion and Drew have been plotting all along to drive Charlotte over the edge in order to take control of her money. They concoct an elaborate ruse that ends with Charlotte pumping Drew full of lead (actually blanks). Charlotte pleads for Marion to help her get rid of the body, telling her she can have all the money. They dump him in a pond, but Charlotte’s in for a shock when Drew pops up at the top of the staircase, a shambling mess, causing her fragile sanity to crumble. The two lovers celebrate outside, drinking champagne and congratulating themselves on their wicked scheme. Charlotte comes out ton the porch and overhears them and, realizing she’s been duped, pushes a heavy planter on top of them, killing them both.

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Olivia de Havilland was 48 when HUSH.. HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE was made, still a very attractive woman. She plays Marion perfectly, all sweetness and sympathy at first, then showing her true rotten nature. Miss de Havilland shows a mean streak here, a far cry from Maid Marion and Melanie Wilkes. I think it’s the film’s best performance, and that’s saying a lot considering the all-star cast.

Bette Davis goes full-throttle as Charlotte like only Bette Davis can. Agnes Moorehead was Oscar nominated for Velma (the film was also nominated in six other categories). Moorehead’s  CITIZEN KANE costar Joseph Cotten plays the co-conspirator Dr. Drew. Mary Astor makes her final screen appearance as the widowed Jewel Mayhew, showing much restraint among all the Grand Guignol theatrics. Cecil Kellaway has the small but pivotal part of Wills; his scenes with Davis and Astor are standouts. Others in the cast are Bette’s BABY JANE costar Victor Buono (as Big Sam), George Kennedy Bruce Dern (as John), William Campbell, Wesley Addy, and Ellen Corby.

HUSH… HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE is a fine entry in the “older actresses doing horror” sweepstakes. Not quite as good as WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?, it still manages to deliver plenty of chills, and it’s got a classic movie lover’s dream cast. Olivia de Havilland went on to make appearances in five more features (including THE SWARM ) and some television projects (winning an Emmy for ANASTASIA: THE MYSTERY OF ANNA) before retiring completely in 1986. Still alive and well and living in Paris, we salute you on your special occasion, Olivia. Here’s to a hundred more!

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Love Means Never Having To Say You’re Ugly: THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (AIP 1971)

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For a 13-year-old monster-crazed kid in 1971, attending the latest Vincent Price movie at the local theater on Saturday afternoon was a major event. Price was THE horror star of the time, having assumed the mantle when King Karloff passed away a few years before. Not to take anything away from Mr. Cushing and Mr. Lee, but “Vincent Price Movies” had become, like “John Wayne Movies “, a sort of genre unto themselves. AIP had squeezed about every nickel they could  out of the Edgar Allan Poe name so, with the release of THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES, a new character was created for the horror star, the avenging evil genius Dr. Anton Phibes.

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Phibes is a concert organist, theologian, scientist, and master of acoustics who uses his knowledge and vast wealth to gain revenge on the nine surgeons who (to his mind) botched an operation that killed his wife. We first see Phibes in his art-deco lair, playing the organ ala THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. Winding up his animatronic band (Dr. Phibes’ Clockwork Wizards), his silent, deadly, and beautiful assistant Vulnavia enters, and the two dance to “Darktown Strutters Ball” (and yes, that familiar singing voice is good ol’ Paul Frees !). Phibes and Vulnavia then proceed to visit one of the doctors, dropping a battery of killer bats into the sleeping surgeon’s bedroom.

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This is just the first of many gruesome deaths Phibes has planned for the surgical team. With the Old Testament Ten Curses of Egypt as his template, the fiendish Phibes exacts his revenge using frogs (a frog’s head mask at a masquerade ball squeezes its victim’s neck, decapitating him), blood (draining every last pint out of Terry-Thomas ), hail (a locked car is equipped with an ice making machine), rats (a biplane pilot trapped with the furry little devils), livestock (impaled by a catapulted unicorn’s head), and locusts (boiled Brussels sprouts poured on another sleeping victim, descended upon by locusts who eat her flesh).

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Inspector Trout of Scotland Yard has been assigned to investigate the bizarre goings-on, feeling the heat from his superior Crow, who keeps calling him “Pike”. Trout learns the dead doctors all worked with the eminent Dr. Vesalius, and on one case in particular. But Victoria Regina Phibes husband was killed in a car accident, so it couldn’t be him… could it? Vesalius is given reason to belive that somehow, Phibes escaped the fiery crash, and is alive and unwell somewhere in London. The two men exhume the Phibes’s coffins, discovering ashes in Anton’s coffin. Trout suspects they belong to Phibes’ chauffeur, and when they open Victoria’s coffin, her body isn’t there.

Phibes kidnaps Visalius’s son, vowing to place the death of the firstborn curse on him. He implants a key into the boy’s ribcage, and Visalius must race against time to remove it and free his child before the slowly dripping acid hits his face and kills him. Trout and his men show up, looking for Phibes. Vulnavia sacrifices herself so the mad Phibes can carry out the final curse for Victoria and himself… the curse of darkness.

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Price has a field day as the deranged doctor. With tongue placed firmly in cheek, the role requires him to act mainly with his eyes and body. His voice is only heard through an electronic box he’s invented with his acoustical genius. Phibes speaks haltingly, lips not moving, due to the horrific damage done to him in the accident (which he reveals to Visalius during the climax). Trevor Crole-Rees’ makeup job on Price is sufficiently eerie (remember when makeup artists were horror film rock stars?). By the way, Phibes’ wife’s name is an in-joke for Price fans, as he first came to fame acting in a Broadway play titled “Victoria Regina” opposite Helen Hayes.

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Joseph Cotten costars as Dr. Visalius, a long way from CITIZEN KANE and Jedediah Leland. My favorite actor here is Peter Jeffrey as the put-upon but dogged Trout. Jeffrey was offered but turned down the role of Doctor Who in the mid-sixties. Oscar winner Hugh Griffith (BEN-HUR)  plays a helpful rabbi. Model Virginia North, who appeared in ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE, is the bewitching vixen Vulnavia. Another Bond Girl, Caroline Munro (THE SPY WHO LOVE ME), plays Victoria… sort of. We see her only in photographs and, at the end, as a corpse. Munro was also a veteran of Hammer horrors (CAPTAIN KRONUS- VAMPIRE HUNTER, DRACULA A.D. 1972), Ray Harryhausen’s THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD, and starred as Stella Star in the cult classic STARCRASH.

The movie’s campy tone and art deco look can be credited to director Robert Fuest, a former set designer who began directing on British TV’s THE AVENGERS. Fuest also did the sequel DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN,and the horrors THE DEVIL’S RAIN and THE LAST DAYS OF MAN ON EARTH. Noted for his “black humor”, Fuest wasn’t given many opportunities to direct, but when he did, he put his own unique stamp on the project. The art direction on THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES is credited to Bernard Reeves, his only feature credit. I suspect Fuest had a hand in some of the set designs here, melding thirties style design with a futuristic touch. The score by Basil Kirchin incorporates some familiar thirties tunes, including a particularly memorable one made popular by Judy Garland in THE WIZARD OF OZ (you know which one I’m talking about!)

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Vincent Price starred in the sequel, and had other successes with the revenge horrors THEATER OF BLOOD and MADHOUSE. But by the mid-70’s, tastes in terror were changing, and soon slasher shockers would rule the horror roost. The classic monsters (and the actor’s who portrayed them) gave way to Michael Myers, Freddie Krueger, and Jason Voorhees. And though change is inevitable, there are still fans of the masters like Karloff, Lugosi, Chaney, Lee, Cushing, and Vincent Price today. As long as there are classic movie buffs, both those who grew up with these films and younger fans discovering them via TCM and other media outlets, the works of these genre greats will live on. Helping to keep them alive is what makes blogging here on Cracked Rear Viewer and Through the Shattered Lens so rewarding for me.

 

 

Hunger Games: Charlton Heston in SOYLENT GREEN (MGM 1973)

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Oscar winning actor Charlton Heston (BEN-HUR) ventured into the realm of dystopian science-fiction in the late 60s/early 70s with a quartet of films. He starred in the 1968 blockbuster PLANET OF THE APES and its 1970 sequel BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES, then a 1971 adaptation of Richard Matheson’s I AM LEGEND titled THE OMEGA MAN. The last of these was 1973’s SOYLENT GREEN, a grim look at an overpopulated, polluted future world (set in 2020!) where food is scarce, the climate has changed dramatically, and the rich minority controls everything. (Geez, sound familiar?)

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Heston plays NYC Police Detective Thorn, investigating the murder of powerful, rich industrialist William Simonson (Joseph Cotten in a cameo), who lives in Central Park West, a complex for wealthy males that comes complete with a woman as part of the “furniture” (Leigh Taylor-Young). The killing looks like a robbery attempt gone bad, but Thorn suspects foul play, and has his eye on Simonson’s bodyguard Tab (a rather paunchy Chuck “THE RIFLEMAN” Connors).

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Thorn is assisted by his roommate, the elderly crime book researcher Sol Roth. Edward G. Robinson is Sol, in what was his last film role. Robinson was Hollywood’s OG, having starred in 1931’s LITTLE CAESAR, the movie that kicked off the gangster cycle. His acting chops hadn’t diminished one bit, and Robinson gives us a touching swan song as a man who longs for the days when the world was livable, showing his disgust at the “tasteless, odorless crud” the Soylent Corporation manufactures to feed the masses. The scene where Thorn brings home some plundered “real food” (beef, apples, and a bottle of bourbon) is priceless as we watch the old man’s spirit lift savoring the meal.

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The powers that be put the kibosh on Thorn’s investigation, having him reassigned to “riot duty”, riding herd over the rabble as Soylent Green is put up for rationing. An assassin tries to gun him down, meeting a gruesome death under one of the front-end loaders used to control the rowdy peasants. Thorn keeps digging into the murder despite pressure from his boss (Brock Peters), as does Sol. The elderly former professor goes to The Exchange, bringing along the reference books Thorn obtained from the Soylent Oceanographic Survey. They come to a grim conclusion, and Sol cannot bear to live with the truth. He checks into Home, an assisted death facility, and Thorn arrives just before Sol expires. Sol shares the horrible secret of Soylent Green, begging Thorn to prove it to the world. The death scene is poignant, as Sol drinks from a poisoned cup, then lays down while bathed in orange light, images of nature before him, classical music gently taking him away. Edward G. Robinson, an actor’s actor to the last, died of terminal cancer twelve days after filming this scene.

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I’m about to SPOIL THE ENDING so if you haven’t seen SOYLENT GREEN, keep scrolling. Most of you film fans out there already know, and even those who’ve never seen the movie have heard people imitating Heston’s famous last words: “It’s people…Soylent Green is people!” I’m a huge admirer of Heston, not just for his many great performances, but for always staying true to himself. Charlton Heston was King of the Epics (THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY), starred in Orson Welles’ classic noir TOUCH OF EVIL, and made great Westerns like WILL PENNY and THE MOUNTAIN MEN. A liberal politically early in his life, Heston campaigned for Adlai Stevenson, marched with Martin Luther King, and was president of his union, The Screen Actor’s Guild. When he felt the Democratic Party had abandoned their principles, Heston switched to the Republicans, supporting his old friend Ronald Reagan. He served as president of the NRA, making that famous speech about taking our guns away “when you pry them from my cold, dead hands”. It’s not hip to be Heston fan nowadays, but I don’t really care. He served his country in WW2, and stood up proudly for his convictions. Besides, any actor who can do Shakespeare and share a stage with Dame Edna Everage can’t be all bad. Charlton Heston, American icon, died of complications from Alzheimer’s disease in 2008.

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Other cast members include Whit Bissell, Paula Kelly, Dick Van Patten, and Celia Lovsky. Miss Lovsky was once married to Peter Lorre, and as an actress is perhaps best known to sci-fi fans as Vulcan leader T’Pau in the “Amok Time” episode of STAR TREK. Director Richard Fleischer, son of animation pioneer Max (Popeye, Betty Boop), had an uneven career, batting slightly over .500, with more hits (20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, FANTASTIC VOYAGE, THE BOSTON STRANGLER) than misses (1967’S DOCTOR DOOLITTLE, the abominable MANDINGO, 1980’S THE JAZZ SINGER with Neil Diamond). SOYLENT GREEN is solidly in the hit column, with themes that are still relevant today, and a wonderful farewell performance from Edward G. Robinson.

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