“Over the years Frears has refined a magical instinct for just how long we want to see a face and how long a scene needs to be. If he could bottle this instinct, it could be called “Essence of Moviemaking”.”- Pauline Kael1
Interviewer: “Would you say that your films show a concern for people living on society’s fringes?”
Stephen Frears: “It would never cross my mind, but now you come to mention it…”
It is dead of night, and the sound of a crash is heard. Emerging out of the darkness, 11-year-old Leo (Richard Thomas) chances upon a scene of pure carnage, which, we will come to recognise, could stand as a symbolic representation of his vision of a broken-down grown-up world. A serious traffic accident has occurred, in which a lorry appears to have careered off a flyover and caused significant damage and serious injury below. The police, rescue workers and interested bystanders are already at the scene and getting in each other’s way. Amidst the chaos, no one pays much attention to the young boy moving between them or notice that Leo has spotted the cap of the chief inspector of police (Jack Douglas) on the back seat of his car and, while the inspector is otherwise occupied in trying to bring matters under control, has stolen it. When challenged about his presence on the scene, Leo has said he is on his way home; but, in fact, he pauses at the nearby police station and watches a young offender being roughly bundled out of a patrol car and taken inside. His curiosity being aroused, he stares in at the window as Inspector Ritchie (Derick O’Connor) is showing off the force’s new surveillance equipment. One of its monitors catches a glimpse of Leo.
This opening is as striking for its style as its content. Although photographed by Chris Menges, who was the chief cameraman on Kes (1969), one could not mistake Bloody Kids for a Tony Garnett/Ken Loach social drama, for its look is lurid and garish and seems to be pushing the film beyond gritty realism. Stephen Frears was always looking for material that offered imaginative responses to the everyday, thus giving an overworked theme (in this case, juvenile delinquency) a fresh perspective and dimension. Visually Bloody Kids has something of the ambience of modern film noir, which will resurface in some of Frears’ later work, such as The Grifters (1990) and Dirty Pretty Things (2002). Some of his thematic preoccupations (to be discussed later) are being foreshadowed here also.
As Leo looks through the police station window, is he already formulating a plan in his own mind to learn more about the workings of the police by setting up a case of his own for them to solve? It will involve the theft of one of the blood bags being stored for the school play in his school’s refrigerator, and the collaboration of his easily manipulated best friend at school, Mike (Peter Clark). But the plan will go awry. Staging a fight using the fake blood outside a football ground, Leo is accidentally stabbed for real by Mike, who will go on the run, while Leo in hospital will concoct ever more fantastical tales to the police about what has happened and about the violent nature of his friend.
The making and reception of the film
Originally entitled Red Saturday and then One Joke Too Many and based on an original idea and screenplay by a rapidly rising star of theatre and television drama, Stephen Poliakoff, Bloody Kids was acquired for production by Barry Hanson and developed as a film for television. At that time Frears had only one feature film to his name, the unusual private-eye parody, Gumshoe (1971), but over the decade he had built up a formidable reputation as a director of television plays, particularly those in which he had collaborated with writer Alan Bennett and some of which had been produced by Hanson. Bloody Kids was filmed on location at Southend-on-Sea and at the Hampstead Royal Free Hospital in London. The two boys had never acted before. Their fake fight, which kicks off the whole drama, was filmed on a cold and windy morning outside the Southend football ground before an actual match. They were still filming when the crowd came out after the game and started gathering around the incident out of curiosity, which added a touch of authenticity. “We hadn’t planned to film the scene with a genuine crowd,” said Frears, “they were an unexpected bonus.” Frears was to become very adept at using unexpected situations to a film’s advantage. What realism taught him, he said, was “making the best use of where you are,” citing an occasion when the location prompted him on the spur of the moment to change the season in the script he was doing (The Hit) from Spring to Autumn. When the writer objected, Frears replied: “I just don’t have time to sew leaves on the trees.” When a giant crane was mistakenly delivered for a day when they were filming My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), Frears took the opportunity to create the most spectacular shot of the entire film, where the camera cranes from the launderette up and over the roof to disclose the gang of white youths readying themselves for violence.
Prior to its screening at 9.30 p.m. on Sunday 23 March 1980 on ITV, Bloody Kids was advertised on the front cover of that week’s edition of the TV Times under the heading: “The children beyond the law.”2 The magazine went on to describe the film as “dealing with the disturbing problem of children and crime, in a story of two 11-year-old boys who try to outwit the police. The story is fiction – but the problems it describes are only too painful fact. A glance at the newspaper headlines almost any day of the week makes one wonder whether we have created a generation of monsters.”3 This was somewhat at odds with how Poliakoff described the film in publicity notes provided for the press, in which he said simply: “The kids have been raised on TV images. They feel at home in their own dark exciting urban landscape and have learned to manipulate it for their own purposes.” Indeed, and perhaps inadvertently reflecting the material’s complexity, TV Times seemed to contradict itself in its further description of the film, in its listings referring to the boys’ actions not as a “crime” but as a “juvenile prank”.
“A generation of monsters”? Have “we” created them, as the magazine suggested? When reflecting on the film in the context of Poliakoff’s early writing career, the critic Robin Nelson claimed that “it is not always clear whether he [Poliakoff] attributes social failings to the individual youths or to the harsh environment which the economic and social structures afford them.”4 What is noticeable here, however, is the absence of parental control; a demoralized police force, where even the most sensitive of the policemen shown, PC Williams (Billy Colvill) can reflect that “it’s no job for a grown man”; a health service wilting under pressure, with a hospital lift out of order and its staff working to rule; a shabby environment with limited sources of diversion and entertainment; and a society that seems only capable of offering surveillance over stimulation.
After its television showing, the film began to create a stir on the international film festival circuit, particularly at the 1980 New York Festival, where it was shown as part of a strand entitled ‘British Film Now’. In a review in the New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote that it “gracefully and economically moves through a cool forbidding world of the urban young,” evoking a world of “deadened responses, bright neon colors, soulless activity.”5 She was particularly impressed by what she called the “the light, concise feeling” of Frears’ direction and “its lovely mode of punctuation as he fades swiftly and delicately out of one episode to the next.” In fact, it was Frears’ direction that particularly caught the eye of the New York critics more than the film’s depiction of modern Britain. Frears was to call himself a “rather odd combination of somebody enmeshed in British society but with a yen for American movies.”6 Perhaps because of this, American critics appeared to have no difficulty in attuning themselves to the film’s world; they probably saw some affinities with Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973).
The favorable reception given to the film on the festival circuit was undoubtedly instrumental behind the British Film Institute’s decision to give it a limited release on some of the UK’s regional cinema outlets in November 1982. By then, Stephen Poliakoff’s reputation had risen sharply because of his award-winning television play Caught on a Train (1980), so splendidly acted by Peggy Ashcroft and Michael Kitchen, and superbly directed by Peter Duffel. The UK cinema release of Bloody Kids also coincided with the launch on 2 November 1982 of the new television station Channel 4, part of whose remit was to fund and re-vitalize feature film making in Britain and to provide a significant emphasis to its representation of youth culture. Although not a Channel 4 film, Bloody Kids seemed in some ways a kind of standard bearer for the quality television film – fresh, challenging, unconventional – that the new channel aimed to provide. Frears had already been signed up to direct Channel 4’s first feature film showing on its opening night, Walter (1982), starring Ian McKellen; and he was to go on to direct what is arguably the finest of all Channel 4-funded films, My Beautiful Laundrette.
A joke too far
When Leo first outlines to Mike his plan of staging a fake fight between them, which will look sufficiently bloody and violent for the police to become involved, he concludes: “Then I’ll tell ‘em it was a joke.” Mike seems more puzzled than amused and asks: “Why are we doing this?” “Surprise ‘em, that’s why,” replies Leo; but it is unsettling that Mike is willing to go along with a plan he seems not to understand nor even fully approve. He is right to sense that there might be more to this than a simple joke at the expense of the police. It has already been suggested in the school scenes that Leo is a potential troublemaker and attention-seeker who is determined to make his mark. In fact, he has already literally done so when he defiantly draws a line across a wall in the school corridor with indelible pencil. Watching cops and robbers on television and being momentarily entangled in the police operation in the opening accident, he wants to participate in a drama of his own contriving. He will lead the police a merry dance and do so by implicating his friend in his stabbing and mischievously depicting him as an aggressive personality who has declared his intention to kill someone before his 12th birthday. A cold-blooded, manipulative streak in Leo is here finding a disturbing outlet.
Poliakoff’s development of the events following the stabbing is quite ingenious. The narratives of Leo and Mike separate but are still interconnected, in that both now involve different levels of manipulation. Whilst Leo is spinning his tales in hospital to doctors, nurses, and the police, who are suspicious but not yet disinclined to believe him, Mike has been drawn into the clutches of a gang led by a sort of modern Artful Dodger, Ken (Gary Olson), who has taken the reluctant lad under his wing. He begins to initiate him in the arts of petty crime: how to steal a car; how to drive round a shopping mall precinct and evade police cameras; how to order a Chinese meal and then leave without paying. By this time Mike seems to be in a nightmare from which he cannot escape. Fearing retribution from the police, he tells Leo that “they’ve got to know it wasn’t real,” but now fantasy is racing ahead of fact, and the so-called ‘joke’ is being played out in deadly earnest and gathering momentum. When the two boys meet again, another fight breaks out between them but this time it is for real.
Frears as auteur
Bloody Kids is an exhilarating but edgy movie, zig-zagging its way through an unpredictable series of events, and with an abrasive and anarchic spirit that seems to derive in part from the temperament of its director. (When he was a castaway on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, Frears had chosen as his favourite disc the Groucho Marx song in Horse Feathers, ‘Whatever it is, I’m against it’.) I am aware that Frears would be resistant to this line of argument. In several interviews, he has indicated that he has no time for the auteur theory, that critical procedure which seeks to ascribe the core meaning (and quality) of a picture to its director. He has always insisted that he is a director for hire, moving freely between film and television, Hollywood and Britain, big-budget star vehicles to modest assignments outside of the mainstream, sometimes in the same year (for example, in 1992, where he went straight from the $42 million Dustin Hoffman blockbuster, Accidental Hero to the whimsical low-budget Roddy Doyle comedy, The Snapper). With Bloody Kids, he would have been quick to acknowledge the quality of his cast (which features fleeting appearances from such future formidable performers as George Costigan, Brenda Fricker, Geraldine James, Roger Lloyd-Pack and Mel Smith) and the important contributions of his technical team. If anything, rather than a directors’ cinema, Frears’ work, he would argue, seems to support the notion of a writers’ cinema, since he has collaborated with a stunning array of writers who comprise practically the cream of British screen and theatrical dramatists of the last half century: in addition to Poliakoff, his writing collaborators have included Alan Bennett, Steve Coogan, Roddy Doyle, Lee Hall, Christopher Hampton, David Hare, Hanif Kureishi, Jimmy McGovern and Peter Morgan. When asked once where he gets his inspiration, he answered: “Through the letter box.” Nevertheless, this begs the question of why certain stories seem to attract him more than others, generally those that, as Lesley Brill has astutely observed, “offer an unusual perspective on the familiar”, which in turn allows him to go beyond realism in finding a style to match his subject. Many of his films have female leads and, in fact, all the seven Oscar-nominated performances in his films have been by women, which might make Bloody Kids look somewhat atypical, since it has no major female roles. Yet, in another respect, the material seems prophetic.
After the unexpected success and enthusiastic reception of My Beautiful Laundrette in America, he was offered the chance to direct the film version of Christopher Hampton’s stage success, Dangerous Liaisons (1988), based on the scandalous 18th century novel by Henri Laclos. Coincidentally, and fresh from his Oscar-winning triumph with Amadeus (1984), Milos Forman was making a film, Valmont (1989), on the same theme; and yet Forman’s interpretation was unexpectedly upstaged by the verve and panache of Frears’ version, which, as well as being a commercial hit, went on to win three Oscars and several Oscar nominations. “It’s a sort of incredible film,” Frears has said. “When I watch it, I can’t believe I directed it.” Yet if you watched it in conjunction with Bloody Kids, I think you could very much believe that Frears directed it: the films have the same kind of impudent humor, social satire, and a similar choreographic energy in the camera movement. Both films are lifted into the realms of dark melodrama by George Fenton’s dashing and rhythmically pulsating scores. In Dangerous Liaisons, the Marquise (Glenn Close), in her sexual dealings, describes herself as “a virtuoso of deception”; in his different context, Leo in Bloody Kids could claim the same for himself. And what is Bloody Kids but a story of a dangerous liaison?
In fact, it is possible to see dangerous liaisons as a recurrent pattern at the heart of Frears’ work. One thinks of the Pakistani Omar and his affair with the ex-National Front white schoolfriend Johnny in My Beautiful Laundrette, which will culminate in violence; the hit man and the gangster in The Hit (1984), making contact in the context of impending execution; Joe Orton and his gay lover in the biopic Prick Up Your Ears (1987), a relationship which will end in murder; mother, son and femme fatale in The Grifters, a lethal cocktail of deadly liaisons if ever there was one; the precarious friendship between two refugees in Dirty Pretty Things, which endangers both their lives; the friendship between a Queen and her Indian servant in Victoria and Abdul (2017), which scandalizes the royal household and has political repercussions. In this category, one might even slip in two television dramas about British politics, The Deal (2003), portending the future stormy relationship between Prime Minister, Tony Blair and his combative Chancellor, Gordon Brown; and A Very English Scandal (2018), where Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe (Hugh Grant) resorts to desperate measures to rid himself of a former gay lover (Ben Whishaw) who could bring down his career. It has been said that Frears’ films have explored different varieties of love in an unconventional way, but I have always thought that his key films are more about friendship than love, but a particular kind of friendship that often develops into a power struggle in which one of the protagonists could become the nemesis of the other. It is the element of danger that gives the relationship its dramatic spice; and Bloody Kids is a forerunner of this.
The ending is as remarkable as the opening. Leo has run amok, escaping from his hospital bed, and setting off a fire alarm that is prompting an emergency mass evacuation from the hospital. Whereas Mike is wanting the whole thing to stop, Leo insists that it is just starting. Their violent tussle in the lift is brought to a sudden halt when the lift reaches ground floor and the doors open onto a scene of chaos bordering on surrealism, as casualties, patients, doctors, nurses, policemen and fire fighters float past the boys’ field of vision towards the hospital exit in a sort of dream-like slow-motion. That extraordinary image alone could have inspired one of Frears’ directing mentors, Lindsay Anderson to make Britannia Hospital in two years’ time. It brought to my mind a line by the poet WH Auden in his ‘Address for a Prize Day’ in The Orators (1932): “What do you think about England, this country of ours where nobody is well?” The final shot is a freeze frame which shows our two underage kids in the act of naughtily smoking a cigarette as they leave the hospital to confront the adult world: but it also has the effect of ending the film on a disquieting question mark, rather like the famous freeze frame that concludes Francois Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cents Coups (1959). What will they do next? In the long term, where are they heading? “You’re gonna be quite famous,” Ken has said to Mike earlier in the evening during their Saturday night spree in Southend-on-Sea. “Infamous” might prove to be nearer the mark.
Chris Allison, ‘Bloody Kids’, Screenonline, available here.
W H Auden, The English Auden: Poems, Essays and Dramatic Writings 1927-1939, edited by Edward Mandelson (Faber & Faber, 1977).
Lesley Brill, The Ironic Film Making of Stephen Frears (Bloomsbury, 2016).
Lester Friedman (ed.), Fires Were Started: British Cinema and Thatcherism (Wallflower Press, 2006). Second edition.
Pauline Kael, Hooked (Marion Boyars, 1990).
Robin Nelson, Stephen Poliakoff on Stage and Screen (Methuen, 2011).
Pauline Kael, review of My Beautiful Laundrette, New Yorker, in Pauline Kael, Hooked (Marion Boyars, 1990). ↩
Bruce Beresford’s Breaker Morant (1979) is to Australian film what David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is to the British cinema and John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) is to the American. Like those two masterpieces, it has a larger-than-life, arguably tragic hero who is charismatic but controversial; an iconoclast and outsider who tends to follow his own rules and can be a thorn in the side of authority; a character of enormous courage who is also capable of a savagery that can test the boundaries of acceptable conduct; and a character whose progression raises important and uncomfortable issues about racism and about national identity.
In an interview in 2004, Edward Woodward was to call Breaker Morant “the greatest piece of work I’ve ever been involved with” and Bruce Beresford “the greatest director”. His performance of the English-born Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant (the nickname derived from his reputation as the best breaker of horses in Australia) catches all the character’s complexities, adding an impudent twinkle of irony to the man’s intelligence and hot temper. Reflecting on the film a good twenty-five years after its making, Bryan Brown, whose sardonic performance as Lt. Peter Handcock contributes invaluably to its variety of mood, said of Breaker Morant that “it doesn’t date”, a deserved tribute not only to the solidity of its craftmanship but to its still pertinent observations on the hypocrisies of high command and the facility with which those in power can serve up scapegoats to cover their own deficiencies and duplicities.
Researching the facts
The setting is Pietersburg, South Africa, and the year is 1901, towards the end of the Boer War. Lieutenants Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant, Peter Handcock and George Witton (Lewis Fitz-Gerald), members of a mainly Australian guerrilla unit known as the Bushveldt Carbineers who are fighting on the side of the British, are on trial for the murders of Boer prisoners and of a German missionary, the Reverend Hesse (Bruno Knez). They are facing the death penalty and it is soon made apparent to the court that a quick conviction is politically desirable, as it would discourage Germany from entering the war on the side of the Boers and facilitate negotiations for peace by showing the Boers an example of British fairness. However, Major Thomas puts up an unexpectedly strong case on the defendants’ behalf, not only disclosing their bravery and effectiveness in deterring insurgences from outlaw Boer commandos, but claiming the men were acting on unwritten orders not to take any prisoners issued by the head of the British armed forces, Lord Kitchener himself (Allan Cassell). Suddenly political expediency is being compromised by inconvenient revelations.
Although there were several sources behind the film’s screenplay (a play by Kenneth Ross, an unproduced television adaptation by Jonathan Hardy and David Stevens, a fictionalized biography of Morant called The Breaker by Kit Denton), the bulk of the writing was done by Beresford. He did extensive research on the Boer War at the National Army Museum in London and was given access to the library of the actor Kenneth Griffith who was an authority on the conflict. In the Mitchell library in Sydney, he came across a manuscript by George Witton, whose life sentence of penal servitude had been commuted, and who had written an account of the affair entitled Scapegoats of the Empire, whose publication in 1907 had been suppressed. (Its eventual publication in 1982 was presumably prompted by the success of the film.) A bizarre incident in the film, where the prisoners are temporarily released from their cells to help the compound to ward off a Boer attack (“Well, that relieved the monotony, didn’t it?” comments Handcock, as their foes retreat), only for them to be promptly put back on trial again the next day, was apparently based on fact. One particularly felicitous discovery in the Imperial War Museum in London was a letter home from a member of the firing squad, who said Morant and Handcock held hands on their way to their execution. It is an affecting detail that Beresford said would never have occurred to him in the ordinary way.
Making the film
The filming took place between May and June of 1979, with the external sequences of the Boer War being shot in Burra, South Australia. The film was brought in at a very modest budget of around $800,000. The fact that it looks so splendid owed much to the exceptional skills of the cinematographer Donald McAlpine, who worked on several films with Beresford, and the production designer David Copping. Beresford said that, cinematically, his main concern was whether he could bring sufficient visual variety into the trial scenes to avoid dullness. In fact, the film has all the ingredients that one looks for in a gripping courtroom drama: eloquent and heated exchanges between two evenly matched legal adversaries; a Capra-esque David and Goliath element in the case, as Major Thomas finds he is not only opposed by the prosecutor Major Bolton (Rod Mullinar) but up against the president of the court, Lt Colonel Denny (Charles Tingwell), who is clearly in favour of a conviction; outbursts of anger from Morant, which could harm his case for it shows how his temper on occasion might override his judgment; and even occasional moments of comedy, particularly when Handcock is defending his dalliance with the wives of two absent Boer soldiers (“Well, they say a slice off a cut loaf is never missed”) to the morally affronted Lt Colonel Denny. The witnesses are well contrasted and flawlessly acted, generally introduced in close-up when taking the oath, which tends to magnify an untruth when uttered. This is particularly the case when Lord Kitchener’s aide, Colonel Hamilton (Vincent Ball), is called to the stand to respond to Major Thomas’s claim that the accused had not been acting out of undisciplined sadism but out of obedience to unwritten orders authorized by Kitchener himself. The slightly distorted close-up of Hamilton as he takes the oath conveys the discomfort of a military man who is swearing to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, whilst knowing that he has been sent to the court by Kitchener to conceal it.
The character of Major Thomas has sometimes been compared with Kirk Douglas’s Colonel Dax in Stanley Kubrick’s blazing indictment of military injustice, Paths of Glory (1957), in that both are underdogs making a similarly impassioned protest against a rigged court martial that has already reached a verdict that will save face more than serve justice. (Incidentally, Kirk Douglas was president of the jury when Breaker Morant was shown at the 1980 Cannes Film Festival and was known to be an admirer of the film.) There is an electrifying moment when Major Thomas rounds on the court for its air of moral superiority to inform them that he has witnessed at first-hand the appalling treatment by British forces of Boer civilians, with farmhouses being burnt, crops destroyed, and women and children being herded into what the British even then were calling “concentration camps”. Were the British, then, not guilty of the same barbarity as the men on trial? Yet, for all his passionate advocacy, it is striking that he is never in complete possession of all the facts, which means that the issues are not as cut-and-dried as he (and some of the film’s critics) might believe. For instance, he never becomes aware of the true circumstances behind the missionary’s death. In his investigation of the facts behind the trial (and contrary to the assertion in Ross’s play and in Witton’s memoir), Beresford had become convinced that, carrying out Morant’s orders, Handcock had indeed killed the missionary, as Morant suspected him of being a Boer spy. Although sympathetic to the predicament of the accused soldiers generally, Beresford felt it would be wrong not to reveal his conclusion about their complicity in this deadly deed. The killing is one of the most compelling, yet chilling, sequences in the film, and it certainly deepens the moral complexities of the trial since we are not dealing with innocent scapegoats but tarnished heroes with blood on their hands. It is one of the many ironies of the film that this is the one charge on which they will be found innocent. Thomas unwittingly also misrepresents Breaker Morant’s character when he says in mitigation that Morant only carried out the killing of prisoners after the murder by the Boers of his commanding officer, Captain Hunt (Terence Donovan), a close friend and brother of Morant’s fiancée, implying it was this incident alone that had motivated his subsequent savagery. Yet Beresford has shown in an earlier scene that Morant was aware of this policy – indeed, as carried out by Captain Hunt himself – and observed it without any sign of moral qualms.
Beresford supplied another original twist to events, which complicates the moral landscape still further. In his cross-examination of Morant, Major Bolton makes the point that Morant could not possibly know how Captain Hunt had met his death, for the men had been compelled to retreat, assuming that Captain Hunt was mortally wounded. In reply, Morant has said that, on recovering the body afterwards, they had seen that the bullet wounds were not fatal and that the injured man must therefore have been tortured and mutilated before death, an act of barbarism that has fuelled Morant’s thirst for revenge. However, the film shows that, after his men have gone, Hunt has got up and shot one of the Boer leaders as he emerges from the farmhouse, so the Boers’ subsequent treatment of Hunt could be interpreted as harsh retribution for the killing of one of their own. In other words, their motivation is not that dissimilar to Morant’s. It is not the only time in the film that one is made to sense that Morant might have more in common with his adversaries than he has with the British and that the Australians (whom the British refer to throughout as “you colonials”) in this conflict might be fighting on the wrong side. Not for nothing does Morant note that the date on which he joined the Carbineers was April Fool’s Day.
Away from the clashes in the courtroom, Beresford has intelligently opened out the drama in a way that enlarges the issues without impeding narrative momentum. He takes full advantage of the landscape where possible and cleverly exploits the occasional discrepancy between what we hear in the courtroom and what we are shown on the screen, such as the self-serving testimony of the regiment’s Boer translator, Botha (Russell Kiefel), who claims not to have supported the killing of the prisoners when we have seen the opposite. (It will not save him from the wrath of Boer sympathizers.) A telling visual contrast is made between the spartan conditions of the prison compound and the luxuriance of Kitchener’s living quarters, which is relevant because it matches a key theme of the film: the gulf between the decision makers and those who are compelled to enact those decisions and take the consequences. There is a brilliantly staged early scene of a dinner party hosted by Lt Colonel Denny, where, behind the civilities, the political priorities against which the trial is to be conducted are symbolically laid out. It will begin with a recitation of the Poet Laureate Alfred Austin’s celebratory poem about the relief of Mafeking (“Swelling the page/Of England’s story”) and it will end with a song from a young Boer singer who is representative of what Denny now calls “an ex-opponent of ours” (new political alliances are in the process of being drawn up). In between, British values dominate the conversation (even the discussion of Morant turns on his English background); the German and the Boer guests play along in harmony, whilst the latecomer, Major Thomas, looks physically stranded at the opposite end of the dinner table to Kenny and is pointedly addressed as a “colonial”, the outsider representing Australian soldiers whose fates, one deduces, have already been sealed.
Beresford was justly proud of the execution scene. A droll overhead shot frames both Morant and Handcock in the prison courtyard and the men outside the prison walls at work on their coffins. When Handcock grumbles that they could have had the decency to measure them first, Morant replies: “I don’t suppose they’ve had many complaints.” (Handcock’s misgivings prove to be well-founded, as, after the execution, they have some difficulty squeezing his body into his coffin: a misfit to the end.) Morant bids a dignified farewell to Major Thomas, rejects the padre’s offer of a final blessing – instead directing the padre’s attention to a particular passage in the Bible, Matthew 10:36 (“And a man’s foes shall be those of his own household”) – and then, under a beautiful dawn light, walks hand in hand with Handcock to the chairs in the distance (there is no convenient wall against which they can be lined up to be shot) where they seat themselves before the firing squad, refusing blindfolds. “Shoot straight, you bastards, don’t make a mess of it!” Morant shouts out in a call that combines defiance, black comedy, and military pride. The shots ring out; at a tactful distance and with a slight hint of slow motion, the bodies fall backwards off the chairs with the impact of the bullets. Over the end credits Morant’s voice is heard singing “Soldiers of the Queen”, a remembrance of how the film began (the brass band at the rotunda playing the same theme) and a song whose words are in praise of the very forces by which he has just been executed. One can sense the director’s outrage behind the irony.
One of the most controversial parts of the film proved to be Major Thomas’s concluding address on behalf of the prisoners. He stresses the circumstances that have driven the men to behave as they did: as Morant has put it, it is “a new kind of war for the new century”, in which the enemy are not only soldiers but civilians, even children. He does not deny the substance of the charges but argues that the responsibility for the men’s action lies with the people who put them in that situation in the first place and who are now complacently passing judgment. “The fact is that war changes men’s natures,” Thomas argues. “The barbarities of war are seldom committed by abnormal men. The tragedy of war is that the horrors are committed by normal men in abnormal situations… We cannot hope to judge such matters unless we ourselves have been submitted to the same pressures and the same provocations as these men whose actions are on trial.” Some critics, particularly in America, were troubled by this argument, saying it amounted to excusing a My Lai massacre situation. Nevertheless, George Witton had made the same point in his memoir:
“War is calculated to make men’s natures both callous and vengeful, and when civilised rules and customs are departed from one side, reprisals are sure to follow on the other, and the shocking side of warfare in the shape of guerrilla tactics is then seen. At such a time it is not fair to judge the participants by the hard-and-fast rules of citizen life or the strict moral codes of peace. It is necessary to imagine one’s self amidst the same surroundings – in an isolated place, with the passions of war aroused, men half-starved, dangers constantly threatened from all quarters, and responsibilities crowding one upon another – to enable a fair decision to be reached.”
In his response to the criticism, Beresford said that he was not in any way attempting to whitewash My Lai or similar such occurrences but simply reflecting an ugly truth about war, which deforms human nature. “It’s not just a case of a madman with a gun,” he said. “War puts normal people into circumstances where they have to cope with pressures that no one should ever have to confront.” In the end, and amidst all the other dimensions that this remarkable film explores and exposes, it is this anti-war statement that is at the heart of what Beresford wished to communicate.
The brief flashbacks are important, because behind them lies the question: how have these three men, from their quite different but essentially decent social backgrounds, wound up as alleged murderers and sacrificial pawns in a military and political chess-game of empire building? Morant was a published poet and adventurer before becoming a decorated soldier and Handcock had joined the army simply to provide for his family and escape poverty at home. As the film makes clear, Witton had been brought up to believe in the values of Empire. In his memoir, he wrote that he joined the British conflict against the Boers with unreserved excitement (“I could not rest content until I had offered the assistance one man could give to our beloved Queen and the great nation to which I belong”). His subsequent disenchantment was absolute. By the time of his return to Australia in 1904 after his three years in prison, he had concluded that the war he had joined so enthusiastically was “mercenary” and “inglorious”.
Reception and conclusion
Although Beresford was to migrate to Hollywood over the next decade and make Oscar-winning films such as Tender Mercies (1983) and Driving Miss Daisy (1989), it seems to me that Breaker Morant remains by far his finest achievement. The film has over the years attained classic status. At the time of its release, it was generally well received, but with one notable exception. It was to be nominated for an Oscar for its screenplay; Jack Thompson won the best supporting actor prize at the 1980 Cannes Film Festival; and it swept the board at the 1980 Australian Film Institute Awards, winning ten awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. Yet it was totally ignored by the British Film Academy when the awards season came round and was given a poor commercial release. It had its distinguished British champions such as Dilys Powell, who wrote that “The quality of Breaker Morant is that it involves you in the basics of war. And war changes not the soldier only, but all of us. After all, one comes out sympathizing with a man who shoots his prisoners”, and Graham Greene, who called it “The film which I’ve liked more than anything else in recent years… I thought it a magnificent film, most moving.” However, Beresford was to characterize the film’s overall critical reception in the UK as “horrendous”. As a former Chairman of the British Film Institute Production Board in his younger days, he would no doubt have been particularly incensed by the fact that the BFI’s main critical journal, Sight and Sound, did not even review the film and that the review in the BFI’s sister journal, Monthly Film Bulletin (August 1980), was negative and even slightly patronizing, comparing it with the morally strident films of Stanley Kramer (a comparison Beresford would not have appreciated). On reflection, and if any consolation, the reception only served to mirror one of the film’s main themes: British injustice. Still, Beresford would surely have approved a comment attributed to George Witton when he heard an Australian politician declaring that Australians would fight alongside the British in World War One to the very last man. Witton’s response was terse and unequivocal: “That last man would be me.”
Peter Coleman, Bruce Beresford: Instincts of the Heart (Angus & Robertson, 1992).
Keith Connolly, ‘The Films of Bruce Beresford’, Cinema Papers Supplement, August-September, 1980.
Kit Denton, The Breaker (Angus & Robertson, 1973).
Graham Greene, Mornings in the Dark: The Graham Greene Film Reader, edited by David Parkinson (Carcanet Press, 1994).
Brian McFarlane, Australian Cinema 1970-1985 (Secker & Warburg, 1987).
Dilys Powell, The Golden Screen (Pavilion Books, 1989).
Tim Pulleine, ‘Breaker Morant’, Monthly Film Bulletin, August 1980, p. 153.
Kenneth G. Ross, Breaker Morant (Edward Arnold, 1979).
David Stratton, The Last New Wave: the Australian Film Revival (Angus & Robertson, 1984).
George Witton, Scapegoats of the Empire: The True Story of Breaker Morant’s Bushveldt Carbineers (1907. Oxford City Press edition, 2010).
“International business may conduct its operations with scraps of paper, but the ink it uses is human blood.”
“Victims? Don’t be so melodramatic. Look down there. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving? […] These days, old man, nobody thinks in terms of human beings. Governments don’t, so why should we? They talk about the people and the proletariat and I talk about the suckers and the mugs. It’s the same thing”
(Harry Lime, looking down from the Great Wheel in The Third Man)
A year or so ago, when I was contemplating writing a book on the relatively unexplored territory of the screenwriting career of Eric Ambler, one outcome seemed certain: I would need to devote a chapter comparing Ambler with Graham Greene. The connection seemed inescapable. They were both major screenwriters who had made a significant contribution to British cinema during its heyday of popularity from the late 1940s to the end of the 1950s; they were both masters in their fictional field who, particularly during the 1930s, brought a new literary respectability to the genre of the mystery thriller; they even shared the same publishers and had coincidentally spent regular periods of residence in Switzerland.
My interest was piqued still further when I recalled quotations cited in two classic works of Greene scholarship, which, in an interesting and oblique way, seemed to confirm my conviction that the parallels between Ambler and Greene were worth pursuing.
The first quotation comes from Volume One of Norman Sherry’s biography, The Life of Graham Greene (1989), where Sherry is quoting from a review of a novel published in 1951: “The cinema has taught him speed and clarity, the revealing gesture. When he generalizes it is as though a camera were taking a panning shot and drawing evidence from face after face.”1 As Sherry remarked, it could be a description of Greene’s own writing style, but it is, in fact, taken from a review by Greene of Eric Ambler’s novel, Judgment on Deltchev. We know that Greene was an admirer of Ambler’s work, describing him as “unquestionably our best thriller writer” on the cover of a compendium of Ambler’s work; and including Ambler in The Spy’s Bedside Book (1957) which he compiled and edited with his brother Hugh. “He analyses danger,” wrote Greene of Ambler, “as carefully and seriously as other novelists analyse guilt or love.”2 His review of Judgment on Deltchev suggests a stylistic literary kinship particularly derived from their common cinematic experience.
The second quotation comes from the third edition of Quentin Falk’s study of cinematic adaptations of Greene’s work, Travels in Greeneland (2000), when he draws attention to an observation from the Observer’s film critic, Philip French made on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of The Third Man in 1999. French had been musing on why Greene had always expressed a preference for The Fallen Idol over the more highly esteemed The Third Man, the reason being, Greene said, that it was more a writer’s film whereas The Third Man was more a director’s movie. French suspected there was more to it than that and that Greene was distancing himself from “this masterpiece” because he was aware that, in terms of plot and character, The Third Man owed something to Eric Ambler’s 1939 novel, The Mask of Dimitrios, most notably its central situation of a main character, presumed dead, who turns out two thirds of the way through the story to be very much alive. French suggested further points of contact which I will be exploring in due course, but he seemed surprised that few commentators had picked up the comparison. When he had once asked Ambler if he had noticed the resemblance, Ambler replied drily; “Yes, I have.”3
It should be emphasized that I am not talking about direct or conscious influence here, but more about parallels and connections between two writers who might be considered, in a sense, kindred spirits. I have talked in a similar way about parallels between the work of Greene and Alfred Hitchcock, even though Greene’s film criticism had a curious blind-spot about the merits of Hitchcock’s movies.4 Ambler had an even more direct contact with Hitchcock. He not only wrote two episodes for Hitchcock’s television series, but he married Hitchcock’s long-time assistant and later producer of his tv shows, Joan Harrison, with Hitchcock being their (by all accounts, very unruly) best man.5
Parallel lives and literary connections
Before exploring the cinematic and literary connections in greater detail, I think it might be useful to sketch in a bit of biographical background. Incidentally, both wrote two volumes of autobiography, the second of which was even less forthcoming than the first and the first each having titles that suggested something short of complete self-revelation: in Greene’s case, A Sort of Life (1971); in Ambler’s Here Lies (1985). I think it was John le Carré who said of Greene that he never disclosed the whole truth about himself but only gave you a cover story, in the spirit of someone who sometimes covers his tracks with the truth only because it is easier to remember. Ambler put things more bluntly. “Only an idiot believes he can write the truth about himself,” he declared.6
Both were born and died in the same decade: Greene (1904-1991) at the age of 87; Ambler (1909-1999) at the age of 89. Their family backgrounds were very different, Greene being the son of a headmaster, Ambler the son of parents who were partners in a successful music hall variety act. Both were psychoanalyzed in their youth and both early on seemed to conclude that England was a dull place to live, finding inspiration and excitement in foreign locations.
They each discovered at an early age a love of reading and a passion for writing. For Greene a decisive influential text was Marjorie Bowen’s novel, The Viper of Milan (1906), a deceptively escapist period novel which for Greene conjured up a world of tragedy, treachery and terror. “She had given me my pattern,” he was to write in his essay ‘The Lost Childhood’, “perfect evil walking in the world where perfect good can never walk again, and only the pendulum ensures that after all in the end justice is done.”7 The whole world of The Third Man is evoked in that description; the Great Wheel of Vienna seems almost like the Wheel of History tilting tentatively and only temporarily towards a more optimistic future. For Ambler, it was his encounter, at the age of fifteen, with Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and, being, as he wrote, “shattered by it. Wrapped in the mantle of Raskolnikov, I used to go for long, gloomy walks in the more depressing quarters of London, looking for fallen women whom I could salute, though from a respectable distance, in the name of suffering humanity.”8 It led to his conviction that there is a potential policeman or criminal in every human being. The Dostoyevskian influence can even be felt as late as 1963 when The Ability to Kill was published, his macabre and even morbid collection of essays about notorious murder cases, narrated in that characteristic low-key prose which in his novels, as Gavin Lambert remarked, often conveys “a high state of panic”.9
Over the years they developed a writing routine that was quite similar. They both would draft out their work in longhand. Greene would customarily stop when he had written 500 words; and Ambler was to remark that 500 words a day “was good going.”10 Their literary reputations were established in the 1930s, with both ending the decade on a high note: in Greene’s case, with two masterpieces, Brighton Rock (1938) and The Power and the Glory (1940); and in Ambler’s case, the two novels on which his literary fame and prestige largely rest, The Mask of Dimitrios (1939) and Journey into Fear (1940). Although there is no evidence of conscious borrowing, there seems sometimes an intriguing crossover of stimuli. Ambler uses as epigram a quotation from Dryden to launch Cause for Alarm (1937); Greene does likewise for The Power and the Glory. There is a similarity of titles: Journey into Fear (Ambler); The Ministry of Fear (Greene, 1943). “Dangerous” is one of Greene’s key words, whether it be found in the lines from Robert Browning’s poem Bishop Blougram’s Apology that he said was at the basis of all his work (“Our interest’s on the dangerous edge of things”) or his comment that it was the “dangerous third martini” that prompted him to propose himself as film critic to the editor of The Observer in 1935. Ambler describes Dimitrios’s “brown, anxious” eyes as “dangerous” and one of his early novels has the title, Uncommon Danger (1937). “Would they ever cross the border?” says a character in Uncommon Danger; and crossing the border is a main theme of Greene’s great short story of the following year, ‘Across the Bridge’.
Given that they were both working within the thriller genre, such coincidences are perhaps not surprising in themselves or significant until one considers what each novelist has done with the ideas. Nevertheless, it seems to me noteworthy when the imagery one of them uses prompts a memory of something in the work of the other. For example, we know now the symbolic importance to Greene of the green baize door which led to a passage by his father’s study, and which signified not only the dividing line between home and school, but also between safety and anxiety, for the other side of the door opened onto an alien world of fear and hate.11 Ambler’s image in Journey into Fear for a similar kind of realization, where a zone of comfort leads to one of chaos, is “the world beyond the door, the world in which you recognized the ape beneath the velvet”.12 This is the moment when three shots are fired at the armaments engineer Graham as he opens his hotel room door; and suddenly he is aware of a world of terror outside of the orderly and comfortable terrain in which he has hitherto complacently moved. When Ambler talks in Epitaph for a Spy of “mankind fighting to save itself from the primaeval ooze that welled from its own subconscious being” and then later in Journey into Fear refers to “the insanity of the subconscious mind…the awe-inspired insanity of the primaeval swamp”,13 I cannot help mentally fast-forwarding to Greene’s fascination with the Viennese sewers in The Third Man, this slippery underworld through which Harry Lime moves, and which could symbolize the subconscious mind of Holly Martins, who has a guilty admiration and envy of his best friend’s outlawed vitality that must be rooted out and destroyed in a final and deadly underground confrontation. Greene has always – and rightly – been admired for the prophetic quality of his novels, his nose for the next political trouble spot, which prompted his friend Alec Guinness to remark that when he heard that Greene was going off to visit some part of the globe, he would avoid that place like the plague: he thought some revolution or war would be bound to erupt soon. The Quiet American is the quintessential example of that. Ambler also had his impressively prophetic side. One would struggle to find a more chillingly prophetic sentence in all 1930s literature than the one in Ambler’s 1936 novel, The Dark Frontier: “Never does a man’s knowledge advance so rapidly as when he is creating a weapon of destruction.”14 In a few years’ time that knowledge will have advanced the world into a new nuclear and Cold War age that could imperil its very survival.
The cinematic connections
The connections between the two authors’ engagement with the film industry seem alternately minor and substantial. Both made a solitary personal appearance in a film: Ambler as a Bren Gun instructor in The New Lot (1942), Greene as a retired businessman in Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night (1973). Each had the distinction of being nominated for an Oscar for best adapted screenplay: Greene for The Fallen Idol, Ambler for The Cruel Sea (1953). A more substantial connection is that both collaborated on three films with the director Carol Reed. During Greene’s period as film critic in the 1930s, Reed was one of the very few English directors whose work he had consistently championed. Their three films together – The Fallen Idol, The Third Man and Our Man in Havana (1959) – constitute one of the most highly regarded writer/director partnerships in the history of British film; and Greene was to dedicate the publication of his novella The Third Man, which provided the basis for the screenplay, to Carol Reed “in admiration and affection”. A good friend of Reed also, Ambler had a more quirky and unorthodox collaboration. His first screenwriting experience was for Carol Reed’s Army Film Unit, where they worked together on The New Lot, which was intended as a recruiting film for the Army and an introduction to basic training. This was expanded into the feature film starring David Niven, The Way Ahead (1944), which, with Went the Day Well? (1942), seems to me arguably the best British war film made during the actual war years. Their third collaboration was an altogether more troubled affair, for they were involved in MGM’s ill-fated remake of Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), which essentially involved their endeavor to make a coherent and entertaining movie whilst satisfying the whims of its temperamental star, Marlon Brando. Years earlier, in a lecture entitled ‘The Novelist and the Film-Makers’, Ambler had defined the central issue confronting any screenwriter, as being “the problem of collaboration without loss of self-respect”.15 After fourteen re-writes had failed to satisfy the film’s star, Ambler resolved to salvage his self-respect by leaving the production altogether and Reed followed shortly afterwards. Less original and imaginative a screenwriter than Greene perhaps, Ambler was nevertheless to demonstrate a particular facility for literate and well-crafted adaptations of popular English novelists in the realist tradition, such as his adaptation of H G Wells’s The Passionate Friends (1948) for David Lean, and his version for Ronald Neame of Arnold Bennett’s The Card (1952), which Ambler mentions in his autobiography as being his father’s favorite novel. As well as the Oscar nomination for The Cruel Sea, Ambler was to be nominated for British Academy Awards for The Purple Plain (1954), which its director Robert Parrish thought improved on the HE Bates novel, and for Roy Baker’s film, A Night to Remember (1958), which still looks the best film yet made of the Titanic disaster.
Ambler’s lecture on the novelist and the film makers had originally been given in 1951 at the invitation of Greene’s publisher friend, A. S. Frere to the Sunday Times Book Exhibition and delivered later that year to the Edinburgh Film Festival. It offered a wise and whimsical fantasy about the likely fate awaiting a young and enthusiastic novelist who has excitedly sold his novel to the movies but then must look on askance and even aghast as his precious work becomes progressively altered to suit the commercial imperatives of the medium. Ambler is pragmatic about this process. After all, he says, “most writers from other media go to work in the film industry in the hope of making a lot of money in a comparatively short time.”16 There is nothing wrong in that, of course, because it means they will be able to continue writing novels; and it still requires them to fulfil their obligations to the project with all the diligence and professionalism at their command. The novelist must be under no illusions, however, about what is involved. “Screenwriting has very little to do with writing as a novelist understands the term,” Ambler argues. “The only common denominators are a sense of story construction… and the ability to create characters who breathe.”17 The distinction Ambler makes between writing a novel and writing for the screen underscores one significant difference between Ambler’s approach and that of Greene: namely, Ambler’s policy of never adapting his own novels for the screen, for they involved completely different approaches and techniques. This was in sharp contrast to Greene, who, after what he saw as his disastrous attempt to adapt John Galsworthy’s play ‘The First and the Last’ in Twenty-One Days (1937), vowed in future only to adapt his own work for the screen, a rule he kept, except for the solitary (and frustratingly unexplained) exception of his adaptation of G. B. Shaw’s Saint Joan (1957) for Otto Preminger.
In 1958 Greene was to write his own essay on the same theme, entitled ‘The Novelist and the Cinema – A Personal View’. Like Ambler, he expressed a general gratitude towards the cinema in the contribution it has made to a novelist’s survival; in his case, not so much in writing for the screen but selling the rights to others for his novels to be filmed. “It is better to sell outright,” he wrote, “and not to connive any further than you have to at a massacre.”18 The book would probably have a longer life, he reasoned, and the money he made from a film version would enable him to carry on writing. The “massacres” he mainly deplored were those films which reversed the meaning of his originals: as examples, he would single out particularly John Ford’s film, The Fugitive (1947), his version of The Power and the Glory, and Joseph L Mankiewicz’s The Quiet American (1958), neither of which he seems to have seen but which he concluded, from reports he had read, were travesties of his intentions.19 Worth recommending also, for a more balanced assessment than Greene’s, is Andrei Gorzo’s perceptive and judicious analysis of Mankiewicz’s film of The Quiet American in A Sort of Newsletter, February 2021, pp. 2-7.)) Like Greene, Ambler disliked nearly all the films made from his work. Probably the most successful was Jules Dassin’s heist movie, Topkapi (1965), adapted from his novel, The Light of Day (1962), and which at least won a best supporting actor Oscar for his great friend, Peter Ustinov. An adaptation of Journey into Fear (1942) was, in Ambler’s phrase, “master-minded” by Orson Welles, who was a great fan of Ambler’s writing, but was directed by Norman Foster and in the end bore little relation to the novel. Jean Negulesco’s film of The Mask of Dimitrios (1944) was an attempt to cash in on the success of John Huston’s film of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (1941) and similarly featured Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet. The experience of watching it gave Ambler stomach cramps; and although the film has gathered a following as a well-executed mystery of mood and atmosphere, it and the novel were never mentioned, in terms of theme or achievement, in connection with The Third Man. Until Philip French, that is.
Dimitrios and Lime
Ambler’s preferred title for his novel had always been A Coffin for Dimitrios. One surmises that the publishers might have thought it too downbeat, but for Ambler, it would have concealed for longer the twist in the tale: that, just as the body in Harry Lime’s coffin is not Lime’s but that of the hospital’s doctor, Joseph Harbin, so the body in Dimitrios’s coffin is not that of Dimitrios but of his expendable criminal associate, Manus Visser. As Philip French went on to argue, the connection between Ambler’s novel and The Third Man was not simply confined to the two charismatic criminals at their core, but to their other main characters, both of whom are writers of popular lowbrow novels (Greene’s Holly Martins writes westerns, Ambler’s Charles Latimer writes detective stories) who discover that there is more excitement in pursuing a real-life adventure mystery. With his admiration for Ambler, Orson Welles is likely to have noticed the similarities and, for that matter, so might Carol Reed, whose opening narration for The Third Man, as French noted, begins: “I never knew the old Vienna before the war – Constantinople suited me better,” which is where the narrative of Mask of Dimitrios begins also.
On a visit to Turkey, a university lecturer in political economy and writer of popular detective novels such as The Bloody Shovel, Charles Latimer is introduced to an admirer of his, the head of the Turkish secret police, Colonel Haki, who wonders if he is interested in real murderers. He starts telling him the story of a man named Dimitrios, whose murdered body has just been fished out of the Bosphorus and who, for the last fifteen years or so, had been an international criminal of legendary status for his involvement in crimes ranging from robbery, murder and drugs smuggling to sex trafficking, spying and political assassination. Latimer becomes obsessed with finding out more about Dimitrios and, to this end, begins to track down and interview people who knew him and, in some cases, were former associates. The structure has sometimes been thought to have influenced that of Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941), which has also begun with the death of a larger-than- life character and which has then been followed by an investigation and interrogation of people who knew him, gradually building up a character portrait based on the sum of their different perceptions and perspectives. As Latimer proceeds, he keeps encountering an individual called Peters who seems to have his own agenda regarding the investigation into Dimitrios’s past. There is something disquieting about Peters. On their first meeting, Latimer is reminded of “a high church priest he had known in England who had been unfrocked for embezzling the altar fund”.20 On further acquaintance, he will notice “an edge to his husky voice that made Latimer think of a small boy pulling the legs off flies”;21 and Peters’ smile with his brilliant false teeth is “as if some obscene plant had turned to the sun”.22 It will transpire that Peters is seeking revenge on Dimitrios and knows something that Latimer does not: namely, that the body in the morgue which Latimer saw was not that of Dimitrios and that Dimitrios is still very much alive.
When one recalls Greene’s high praise for Ambler, it seems certain that he would have read The Mask of Dimitrios and inwardly absorbed some of its contents, for, as well as the central twist, there are incidental details which will occur in modified form in The Third Man. Indeed, Ambler even uses the phrase “the third man” at one point about one of the intermediaries involved in a drugs operation that had been masterminded by Dimitrios.23 The babble of foreign languages around Latimer, which sometimes confuse him, anticipates similar situations experienced by Holly Martins during Greene’s story. One of the characters whom Latimer locates, Grodek, is identified by his inordinate fondness for cats;24 and, of course, it is a favourite cat that will first disclose the presence of Harry Lime in The Third Man. “I have, I know, done things of which I have been ashamed”, Peters tells Latimer at one point;25 one of Lime’s associates, Kurtz will make a similar disclosure when he first meets Holly Martins (“I have done things that would have seemed unthinkable before the war”). Ambler’s imagery sometimes has the evocative pithiness of Greene. The “watchful repose” on Colonel Haki’s face reminds Latimer of “a very old and experienced cat watching a very young and inexperienced mouse”.26 One of Latimer’s contacts, Irana Preveza tells him that Dimitrios’s eyes “made you think of a doctor’s eyes when he is doing something to you that hurts.”27
The central comparison is that between Dimitrios and Lime. If Lime is the logical and consistent product of a fallen post-war world (amoral, cynical, indifferent to the suffering of humanity, governed only by motives of self-interest and greed), Dimitrios is similarly representative of the spiritual, moral and political degeneracy that has led to this genocidal war in the first place. (Ambler will even deploy the word “holocaust”.28 ) There is an extraordinary passage in Ambler’s novel when Latimer is still absorbing the news that Dimitrios is alive; and aligning this information with what he has learnt about the man. “If there were such a thing as Evil,” he reflects, “then this man…”; but he stops this thought in mid-flow and carries on:
But it was useless to try to explain him in terms of Good and Evil. They were no more than baroque abstractions. Good Business and Bad Business were the elements in the new theology. Dimitrios was not evil. He was logical and consistent: as logical and consistent in the European jungle as the poison gas called Lewisite and the shattered bodies of children killed in the bombardment of an open town. The logic of Michelangelo’s David, Beethoven’s quartets and Einstein’s physics have been replaced by that of The Stock Exchange Year Book and Hitler’s Mein Kampf.29
In its way, and for its time, Latimer’s reflection seems to me as remarkable as Harry Lime’s immortal “cuckoo-clock speech” in The Third Man in its attempt to define the cock-eyed state of the world. When Latimer later communicates what he has learnt from his quest to his journalist friend Marukakis, the latter wonders whether it is possible to explain a character like Dimitrios or simply turn away disgusted and defeated. “Special sorts of conditions must exist for the creation of the special sort of criminal that he typified,” he suggests. “All I do know is that while might is right, while chaos and anarchy masquerade as order and enlightenment, those conditions will obtain.”30
Do those words resonate today? I found re-reading The Mask of Dimitrios a rewarding but unnerving experience, partly because Dimitrios now looks such a modern figure. Harry Lime might have been, in Major Calloway’s words, “about the worst racketeer who ever made a dirty living in this city”, but Dimitrios is an insidious international bandit; an entrepreneur and puppet-master behind the scenes who manipulates the links between businesses and politicians; a man who “could preserve a picture of distinguished respectability”31 and is on the Board of Directors of an organization called the Eurasian Credit Fund (the equivalent of a multi-national corporation of today) whose reach and influence extend world-wide into all kinds of significant and murky spheres and events. Anton Karas could write a jaunty theme to capture the sardonic swagger behind the villainy of a Harry Lime, but I think he would have been hard pressed to come up with something similar for a sinister character like Dimitrios. His actions have no boundaries of shame or conscience or moral integrity, and adherence to the law is something entirely outside of his consideration. He knows exactly what he is doing and, because he is doing it, he reasons it therefore cannot be wrong. What motivates him? Peters will have the answer to that. “He wanted money and he wanted power,” he tells Latimer. “Just those two things, as much as he could get.”32 One would not need to look very far for contemporary equivalents nor be surprised by his explanation for what finally brings about his downfall: in a word “stupidity”; as he says, “If it is not one’s own, it is the stupidity of others”.33 In his final communication with Latimer, Marukakis is describing political tensions between his country Bulgaria and Yugoslavia which seem to him utterly absurd but, because of the stream of propaganda, could lead to war. ”If such things were not so dangerous one would laugh,” he says. “But one recognizes the technique. Such propaganda always begins with words, but soon it proceeds to deeds. When there are no facts to support lies, facts must be made.”34 For me, that last sentence is redolent of the politics of 2021, never mind 1939.
Although Ambler’s post-war novels do not achieve the same level of literary eminence as Greene’s, they are still well worth investigating, not least because of their Greene connections. There is an explicit reference to The Quiet American in Ambler’s Passage of Arms (1959) when a guide says to the hero, an American engineer Greg Nilsen, “Now I show you where Quiet American makes bomb explosion”,35 and is not to be dissuaded even when it is pointed out to him that Greene was writing a work of fiction not fact. In his fine critical study of Ambler, Peter Lewis has pointed out more parallels between the two novelists, as, for example, in a later novel like Ambler’s Doctor Frigo (1974), which reminds Lewis of The Honorary Consul (1973) in terms of setting and seems to anticipate The Human Factor (1978) in terms of theme. Ambler’s droll essay ‘Spy-Haunts of the World’, which includes a list of ten questions which could help one identify a spy, would make an amiable companion piece to Our Man in Havana.36 My impression is that they never saw each other as rivals so much as literary practitioners working within a tradition laid down by John Buchan and later pursued by writers such as John le Carré and Len Deighton, and which they pursued in their own distinctive and individual ways.
Reviewing Ambler’s The Intercom Conspiracy (1969) in the Washington Post, the critic J. W. Anderson wrote that “Ambler deserves to be considered a major novelist by any standard; had he chosen another subject [i.e. something other than the thriller], he would no doubt have been installed long since in the required reading lists for college English majors.”37 As David Lodge pointed out in his Foreword to the collection of essays, Dangerous Edges of Graham Greene, the same situation seemed until recently to have been true of Graham Greene, who, though widely read, was rarely considered to be of sufficient stature to figure on the syllabus of a University English Department: too accessible perhaps, and working in a popular genre that was not quite academically respectable.38 A Festival in celebration of his work, that is still going strong after more than twenty years and has attracted leading scholars from all over the globe, has knocked that perception of Greene’s literary status on the head. Has a similar commemoration been created for Eric Ambler? I don’t know, but I would like to think so; and a festival devoted to his masterpiece The Mask of Dimitrios would be a thrilling place to start.
Norman Sherry, The Life of Graham Greene, p. 415. ↩
Quoted in Gavin Lambert, The Dangerous Edge (Barrie & Jenkins Ltd., 1975), p. 121. ↩
I elaborate on this comparison in my chapter ‘Poets of Criminality and Conscience: Greene and Hitchcock’ in Graham Greene: A Literary Life (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), pp. 96-108; and in ‘The Strange Case of Graham Greene and Alfred Hitchcock’ in Strand Magazine, Feb-May 2004, pp. 44-48. ↩
For a full account of the incident, see Charlotte Chandler’s biography of Alfred Hitchcock, It’s Only a Movie (Simon & Shuster, 2005), p.233. Hitchcock had arranged an elaborate reception for the married couple at Chasen’s, which featured an 18-course dinner, with food flown in from all corners of the world and drinks to accompany every course. By the time he was due to deliver his best man’s speech, Hitchcock seemed thoroughly inebriated, swaying from side to side, almost falling over, and speaking incoherently, to the embarrassment of the guests. Suddenly at the very end of the speech, he stood up straight, looked at the audience, and said in perfectly spoken English without a hint of having had a drop to drink, “I do hope they’ll be very happy.” In this context, it might be remembered that another thing Greene and Hitchcock had in common was a fondness for practical jokes. ↩
Eric Ambler, Here Lies (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1985), p. 18. ↩
Graham Greene, Collected Essays (Penguin, 1970), p. 17. ↩
Eric Ambler, The Ability to Kill (Bodley Head, 1963), p. 81. ↩
Mornings in the Dark: The Graham Greene Film Reader edited by David Parkinson (1993), p. 445. ↩
As a counter to Greene’s opinion, it is perhaps worth mentioning that John Ford told Peter Bogdanovich that The Fugitive had “come out the way I wanted” and was “one of my favourite pictures – to me, it was perfect.” – John Ford (Studio Vista, 1967), p. 85. ↩
Eric Ambler, The Mask of Dimitrios, p. 43. All quotations from The Mask of Dimitrios are taken from the Omnibus edition of Ambler’s novels, published by Heinemann/Octopus, 1978. ↩
To commemorate the 70th anniversary of the release of Carol Reed’s The Third Man and the 20th anniversary of its being voted the best British film of the century in a British Film Institute poll, I want to offer some reflections on the film and particularly on the character of Harry Lime, who, as played by Orson Welles, is assuredly one of the cinema’s most charismatic villains. A remarkable aspect of Lime’s cinematic durability is that he is only on screen for around 8 minutes or so. My focus will be on those scenes in which he appears and the reasons for their impact. To begin with, however, I wish to ruminate on one of his most striking features: his name.
What’s in a name?
In Ways of Escape, Graham Greene mentioned some of the symbolic interpretations which had been offered about the names of the two main characters of his screenplay, Harry Lime and Holly Martins: for example, how the former had been linked to the lime tree in Sir James Frazer’s classic study of pagan mythology, The Golden Bough (1922), and how Holly was clearly associated with Christmas, so symbolically they represented a clash between paganism and Christianity. Greene could offer a much simpler explanation for what he had in mind:
The truth is I wanted for my ‘villain’ a name natural and yet disagreeable, and to me Lime represented the quicklime in which murderers were said to be buried. As for Holly, it was because my first choice of name Rollo had not met with the approval of Joseph Cotten. So much for symbols.1
However, it is worth noting that a character’s name in The Third Man, like his or her nationality, is a very slippery business in what is an extremely slippery film (in terms of its narrative development, its camera style, and even its streets, which seem to gleam with wetness although it never rains). Holly was originally Rollo but is sometimes called Harry by Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), who is supposedly Austrian but is actually Czech, so one could surmise that Schmidt is not her real name.
The British Chief of Police, Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) is mistakenly called Callahan by Holly (the name probably derives from the head of the British Military Police at that time, Galloway) but Calloway is also the name of the crooked financier of one of Greene’s short stories ‘Across the Bridge’ (1938) which concludes with one of his most potent phrases – “the baseless optimism that is worse than hopeless despair” – which seems to predict the folly of appeasement and the onset of war. In The Third Man, we are amidst the rubble of Vienna after World War Two, and Holly will encounter a sinister Austrian doctor called Dr Winkle (Erich Ponto) whose name Holly will mispronounce as “winkle”. The film is a veritable miasma of unstable identity in a city of fluid nationalities and borders and even more flexible morality. As one of Lime’s shady associates, ‘Baron’ Kurtz (Ernst Deutsch), tells Holly: “I tell you, I have done things that would have been unthinkable before the war.”
Although Greene indicated that the name of Holly for his main character was inspired by the 19th century American poet Thomas Holley Chivers, who was essentially a figure of fun (Greene wanted the name to be absurd and at one stage Anna comments directly on how silly it is), it has been suggested that the actual character of Holly Martins was based on the American screenwriter and producer Robert Buckner as an act of retaliation for Buckner’s screen adaptation of Greene’s novel The Confidential Agent, which had been filmed by Herman Shumlin in 1945. Buckner had been the screenwriter on a number of westerns, including The Oklahoma Kid (1939), and Holly Martins writes westerns, one of which is called ‘Oklahoma Kid’, which ‘Baron’ Kurtz displays on his first meeting with him and which Major Calloway later tells Holly he has read with some pleasure. Greene might have been having a private joke at Buckner’s expense (he was a great practical joker), but I don’t think he was after revenge. After all, he rallied to the defence of Lauren Bacall’s much-criticised performance in that film, and in general thought The Confidential Agent perhaps the best American film adaptation of his work, far surpassing the endeavours of more prestigious Hollywood directors, such as Fritz Lang (Ministry of Fear (1944)) John Ford (The Fugitive (1947), based on The Power and the Glory), Joseph L. Mankiewicz (The Quiet American (1958)) and George Cukor (Travels with my Aunt (1972)). He might also have been pondering ‘Holly’ as a diminutive of ‘Hollywood’, and thinking wryly of those bizarre story conferences about The Third Man that he and Carol Reed had shared with Hollywood mogul, David O Selznick, which on one occasion seemed destined to be endlessly protracted until Selznick realised he was thinking of another film entirely. In his Preface to The Pleasure Dome (1972) Greene recalled, among other things, Selznick’s dislike of the film’s title (“Who the hell is going to a film called The Third Man?” he grumbled), and his preferred choice of Noel Coward in the role of Harry Lime (both Reed and Greene were appalled).2
But what about the name ‘Harry Lime’? ‘Harry’ is a good English name with Shakespearean connections (“Pray God for Harry, England and St George!”), but it also has connotations of to ‘harry’, as in ‘harass’, or ‘hurry’, for a character who is elusive, sometimes threatening, and always on the move. Lime is a shade of green, or what Peter Conrad called “an acid variant of the novelist’s name.”3 Another connection between Greene and Lime is obliquely suggested by an interesting comment about the novelist which is cited in Ian Thomson’s book Articles of Faith, where Tom Burns is quoted as saying that, when Greene entered a room, he “seemed to me to have a spotlight on him”.4 Think of Harry Lime’s first entrance in The Third Man: arguably the most dramatic spotlit entrance of any film character.
The name resonates in other ways. It is only one letter short of ‘smile’; and he is the only character in the whole film who really smiles. (When anyone else does, or laughs, it is so remarkable an occurrence that it usually attracts comment. Anna has only two laughs in her, she says; and Holly seems almost terminally morose, a potentially monotonous mood which, it should be said, Joseph Cotten invests with a good deal of variety and charm.) ‘Lime’ is also only one letter short of ‘slime’, as if presaging that final chase in the sewers. It is a clever name because it is such a fizzy concoction of ‘sly’, ‘slime’, ‘smile’ and ‘lie’, all of which make up the cocktail of his character. And the film certainly ensures that we don’t forget it, or him: the name is mentioned twice in the prologue, and ten times in the opening ten minutes, and he dominates every scene in the picture, whether he is in it or not. His absence is always present; indeed it ensures the film always seems to have a spring in its step and a surprise round every corner. “Lime, Harry Lime,” says Holly in the opening scene when he gets off the train and is explaining the purpose of his visit to Vienna, “Thought he’d be here to meet me.” But he isn’t, for Lime is a will o’ the wisp who is not where Holly thought he would be nor is he where Calloway thinks he is. “Could you tell me.. is this …?” says Holly at the graveyard when wondering whose funeral service it is “A fellow called Lime”, says Calloway, dispassionately. But it is not quite, for someone else is in that coffin; although even when he is supposed to be dead, his spirit seems to walk abroad and every character seems obsessed with him.
All of this mystery and mythologizing is setting the makers of the film a huge challenge, because when he does eventually appear, it must deliver on that promise. It is similar to a Hitchcock suspense sequence: when you have worked an audience up to such a pitch of expectation, you have to top that expectation with something extra in order to avoid anti-climax. After all, an audience knows that Orson Welles will appear sometime in the film, because his name is on the credits. When Carol Reed told Welles apologetically that he would not appear until halfway through, Welles replied: “Could you make it two-thirds?” He might well have been thinking of something like the carefully delayed entrance for maximum effect of the character of Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s novella, Heart of Darkness, a work very close to Welles’s own heart (he had adapted it for radio, and it was intended to be his first film before location and financial complications forced its cancellation: nevertheless, Citizen Kane was to show clear traces of its influence.)5 And it is not just a case of when the character is going to appear; it is also how.
Extract 1: Enter Harry Lime
This is surely one of the classic moments of the cinema: once seen, never forgotten. Much of its power derives from the skill of its preparation.
As Anna and the lovelorn and inebriated Holly are sharing their memories of Harry in Anna’s apartment, the camera, which has been behaving oddly throughout the film, makes a sudden lunge towards the open window, as if it has spotted something strange out in the square that it was not expecting to see. A dark figure is walking across the street but it seems to stop as if noting a light on in Anna’s apartment. The cat, which Anna has said only liked Harry, has gone wandering off into the square to see what is happening. (One is not surprised to find that Harry was a cat person – sly, self-sufficient, a loner – whereas Holly is associated with a squawking parrot.) It comes to a doorway and starts sniffing round a person’s shoes, which are well polished and give the impression of a man who is doing quite well for himself for someone in a bombed out city. Another thing about those shoes: they might give a clue as to the identity of the murderer of the porter (Paul Hoerbiger), who just, before his death, looked as if he had seen a ghost. The screenplay reads: “Porter slams the window and turns towards camera. He stays still, listening. The sound of squeaking shoes [my emphasis] approaching from the next room. As they come closer, there is a look of horror on the Porter’s face.”6 Holly will be suspected of that murder; and it could be another example of Holly’s getting into a scrape from which his best friend has escaped, a repeated pattern of their childhood friendship.
When Holly comes out of Anna’s apartment, he notices a figure in shadow in a doorway across the square. Still quite drunk, he starts shouting at it: “Cat got your tongue?” and then defiantly initiates a game with this mysterious spy: “Come out, come out, whoever you are…” Suddenly this childish chant seems magically to summon up the very person who has defined childhood for him. Joseph Cotten’s reaction shot at that point is superb, for the shock of what he sees jerks him forward, and what will follow in a moment is what Graham Greene said was his favourite game from childhood: a game of hide-and-seek in the dark. The game has cropped up also in The Fallen Idol (1948) and in his short story ‘The End of the Party’ and in each case the game will start playfully but will turn into something much more serious, as it will in The Third Man, when the game is to be played out again in earnest and fatally in the sewers of Vienna.
The revelation is visually stunning. One of the neighbours, complaining about the noise in the street, opens her window and the light from her room illuminates the doorway like a theatrical spotlight, to reveal Harry Lime, an appropriately grand entrance for a larger-than-life character who, it seems, even has his own theme tune and one which is so insistently catchy that it sold 40 million copies on its release. Anton Karas’s music is one of the film’s master-strokes (there are a few) and part of its magic is that it fits the character so snugly. There is a hollowness to it, as if it is suggesting that Harry, like Conrad’s Kurtz, is hollow at the core, yet its jauntiness has something of Harry’s cheek; it is not the obvious music for a villain; it seems to invite us to forgive him. Incidentally it is quite wrong to claim, as some soundtrack critics have done, that the theme is repeated incessantly through the film. Apart from the opening credits, it only appears when Harry appears.
In the published screenplay, Greene describes Lime’s habitual expression in Martins’ presence as one of “amused geniality, a recognition that his happiness will make the world’s day.”7 That could almost have been written with Welles in mind. It is as if his cockeyed smile, the ironical twinkle in his eye, his cheerful rascality, requires the tilting of the camera to reflect Harry’s sardonic take on things.8 Even the step where he stands seems to be on a slight slope. In Citizen Kane, there is a famous close-up of Welles when the young Kane as newspaper editor has just enunciated his ‘Declaration of Principles’, and Joseph Cotten as his best friend Leland asks to keep a copy of it as he feels it might someday be important. Welles as Kane smiles at that but looks uncomfortable, as if he has been caught out at something. Peter Bogdanovich thought the shot looked awkward, though Welles always insisted it was meant to look that way, but the close-up in The Third Man cannot be faulted: it is exactly what the moment demands. The great French critic André Bazin thought this performance enshrined Welles as a movie actor much more than Citizen Kane. This is all the more remarkable given its short duration, and is particularly interesting because, unusually for Welles, he played the part without make-up, meaning that this was the closest we ever got to him on screen. Bazin went on:
The topicality of Greene’s script equated the ambiguity of his hero with our war-torn world. Personable bandit, in tune with the disillusionment, the romanticism of the period, archangel of the sewers, an outlaw prowling the zone dividing good from evil, a monster worthy of love, Harry Lime/Welles was, in this case, more than a character: he was a myth.9
Personable bandit/monster worthy of love: Bazin’s paradoxical description of Lime cannot but remind one of those favourite lines of Greene’s in Robert Browning’s dramatic monologue, Bishop Blougram’s Apology, which Greene said could stand as an epigraph to all his books:
Our interest’s on the dangerous edge of things,
The honest thief, the tender murderer,
The superstitious atheist, demi-rep
That loves and saves her soul in new French books –
We watch while these in equilibrium keep
The giddy line midway.10
Small wonder that Harry Lime appealed so strongly to Greene’s imagination. Little wonder also that Carol Reed was his favourite of all the directors he worked with, not simply fulfilling his vision of this moment but imaginatively enhancing it.
There is a fine touch still to come. When Holly tries to cross the square, he is almost run over; and in the time it takes him to recover, Lime has gone. It is a subliminal recollection of how Lime is supposed to have died (being hit by a car), but he seems to have disappeared as if by magic. We remember that Lime has taught Holly the three-card trick, and also perhaps that Orson Welles was an accomplished magician who could no doubt make himself disappear in a deserted square. It is another example of why Welles was such perfect casting.
As yet, we have only seen Harry Lime. We have heard much about him – the worst racketeer in Vienna, fun to be around – but we have not heard his voice. From a brilliantly constructed visual sequence, we will move to what one could equally be described as an exemplary piece of screenwriting, where the eloquence of the dialogue and the sharpness of the characterisation never get in the way of purposefully moving the film forward.
Extract 2: The Great Wheel
The scene on the Great Wheel is so important because it is the only one in the entire film between Harry and Holly. In those five minutes the momentum of the narrative has to be maintained, but the scene must also capture the essential relationship between the two men, which is the core of the film and what has kept Holly in Vienna. If that does not come across, the whole film falls apart.
There is an immediate contrast in character: Holly waiting glumly, Harry arriving on the move- brisk, unapologetic, already smiling, no explanations, just a greeting (“Hello, old man…”). There is no suggestion of guilt. He does not suffer from a bad conscience, only from bad indigestion (rather like the lawyer Prewitt in Greene’s Brighton Rock, who is also corrupt and dyspeptic and who says that “I’ve sunk so deep I carry the secrets of the sewer”: Harry Lime has taken that one literal stage further). Yet immediately on his appearance, and even as Harry circles round him (he could always run rings round Holly), one can feel life quickening with excitement for Holly and can sense within him the magnetism of Harry’s attraction.
“Hello, old man” is a slightly odd greeting, a term of endearment (he uses it six times in the scene) that is not meant literally but does carry certain inferences. There is still an element of the naughty boy about Harry Lime. “He never grew up,” Anna has said about him, “the world grew up around him.” Holly seems older by comparison, having the melancholy of maturity. The setting adds to that feeling: a playground, a fun fair out of season; and in this context, one might also think back to the little boy Hansl (Herbert Halbik) with the round chubby cheeks, whose whole purpose in the film seems to be to get Holly into trouble and who is surely meant as a sort of surrogate of what Harry was like as a child and his relationship even then with Holly. The phrase “old man” also suggests to me a comparison with a film made the previous year, John Huston’s Key Largo (1948), another allegorical fable about the post-war situation, with Edward G Robinson as Johnny Rocco, a deported gangster in hiding, planning a return to America by flooding it not with diluted penicillin (which is Harry’s racket) but with counterfeit money. “Who’s gonna stop me, old man?” he says to Lionel Barrymore, who is in a wheelchair and who symbolically, I think, is meant to evoke Roosevelt. There the phrase “old man” is literal and said with a sneer, unlike the affectionate address of Harry, but the underlying sentiment is similar. Barrymore in Key Largo and Holly in The Third Man are ‘old men’ in comparison with their audacious adversaries, or, more specifically, old-fashioned men, dinosaurs of decency out of place in the ruthless new world of pragmatism, profit and power.
The Great Wheel is an inspired choice of location. It is a reminder of the old Europe which the recent war has destroyed. It is also appropriate for a film of constant instability and revolving perspectives. Anna tells Calloway at one stage that “You’ve got things upside down”, and when the porter tells Holly about Harry’s funeral and the destination of the dead body, he points upwards to indicate Hell and down to indicate Heaven. In his 1947 essay ‘The Lost Childhood’ (which would be a good alternative title for the film), Greene writes that, inspired by Marjorie Bowen’s novel, The Viper of Milan, he had discovered the pattern for his future work, which was: “perfect evil walking the world where perfect good can never walk again, and only the pendulum ensures that after all in the end justice is done.”11 It seems to me that The Third Man is an elaboration of that pattern, with Lime as a charismatic Lucifer, who insists that he still believes in God but who knows the way the world is turning. The sin of Lucifer was pride, which comes before a fall, and Harry Lime’s fall will be precipitous: from the top of the Great Wheel all the way to the sewers. As Calloway said on discovering that the man they buried at the beginning of the film was not Lime: “We should have dug deeper than a grave.”
“Have you ever seen any of your victims?” Holly has asked Harry, referring to the patients who have suffered from taking the diluted penicillin. (And, incidentally, the turning-point for Holly is the later occasion when Calloway tricks him into visiting the children’s hospital and he sees for himself some of the victims of Harry’s racket.) In response, Harry will nonchalantly deliver the first of two statements of personal philosophy which encapsulate the moral deformities of a fallen post-war world. “Victims?” he says. “Don’t be melodramatic.” Opening the door to the cable car to look down at humanity below, he goes on:
Look down there. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I said you could have twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stops, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money – or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man, free of income tax.
A moment later he will go on to say:
In these days, old man, nobody thinks of human beings. Governments don’t, so why should we? They talk about the people and the proletariat, and I talk about the suckers and the mugs, it’s the same thing. They have their 5-year plans; so have I….
Harry’s smooth alignment of his own individual philosophy with the political morality of the day is still capable of chilling the blood. From his vantage-point of superiority, Harry has the dangerous egotism of the demagogue, an attitude that has accounted for the current devastation of Europe. In Harry’s eyes, such cheerful cynicism is not an erosion of the soul but a recognition of the new reality. It could not be more different from the naive simplicities of Holly’s western novels where good will always triumph and evil will always be defeated.
As if delighting in his amorality, Harry starts teasing Holly with a little game of his own, which typically Holly does not quite grasp. “There’s no proof against me. Except you,” Harry says and muses how easily Holly could now be disposed of. “Don’t be too sure,” says Holly with grim apprehension but Harry seems still to be turning the idea over in his mind. “Hm… I carry a gun. Don’t think they’d look for a bullet after you hit that ground.” And then he laughs: “I suppose he was laughing at us all the time,” Anna has said of him. He has been pulling Holly’s leg, of course, for, as he says, “as though I’d do anything to you or you to me.” Inadvertently he reveals his Achilles’ heel.
The cuckoo clock
As he gets out of the car, Harry extends his offer to Holly to come in with him as a partner and set up another meeting, adding that “when we do meet, old man, it’s you I want to see, not the police.” And then comes the parting shot. “And don’t be so gloomy,” he says. “After all, it’s not that awful. You know what the fellow said, in Italy for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed – they produced Michaelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long, Holly.” It is the one part of the scene not written by Graham Greene, but improvised on the spot by Orson Welles, and it is an improvisation of genius. Throughout the scene, his delivery of the dialogue – the timing, the rhythm, the apparent spontaneity, the irresistible shafts of mischief, the way he seems always two sentences ahead of Holly’s laborious thought processes – has been instrumental in lifting the words off the page. That exit speech – witty, paradoxical, sardonic, and, as enunciated by Welles, a marvel of breath control and ironic inflection – elevates the scene onto another level. Supreme man of the theatre that he was, Welles knew that a character who had been given such a stunning entrance would need an equally inspired exit, because, to all intents and purposes, this is his last line in the film. What is wonderful about it is that is perfectly in character. It is a lot more than an afterthought by an egotistical actor; it is the magical something extra that makes a screen character not simply memorable but immortal and makes a film sequence not just exceptional but unforgettable.
Harry’s curtain-line, as it were, makes you smile, reminding us that The Third Man could be a rather glum film without Harry Lime, which perhaps is one of the reasons that audiences can like him in spite of themselves.12 And the cuckoo clock is a compelling symbol, “an automaton that pretends to be alive,” as Peter Conrad put it,13 whereas Harry Lime is a human pretending to be dead. It is very Wellesian for Harry to pick the Renaissance as his prize example of artistry in the midst of political turbulence. Yet underneath all the cleverness and the irony, one can still intuit the nihilist in Harry, the Fascist inside the funster, with a contempt for ordinary people and their values, and carrying within him a lethal message about the failure of democracy that now seems so worryingly topical..
The secret of the sewers
I have often puzzled over the last part of the film when Harry agrees to meet Holly. Does he not suspect that he is walking into a trap? Is it a kind of death wish? Or is his trust in Holly so absolute that it never occurs to him that he is being set up? The best defence I have read of Harry’s motivation at this point appears in a book on film-making by that great director Alexander Mackendrick, who, when a teacher at UCLA, had an exercise in which he invited his students to write out the thoughts of a screen character at a particular stage in a film: what would be going through that character’s mind? One of his main examples comes from The Third Man and the thoughts going through Harry Lime’s mind as he approaches that café. Mackendrick suggested a cluster of reasons for Harry’s keeping that appointment, including curiosity (and we know what curiosity did: it killed the cat), but at the heart of it is Harry’s absolute conviction of Holly’s enduring hero-worship and his capacity for loyalty, which makes him, in Harry’s eyes, completely trustworthy.14 “As though I’d do anything to you, or you to me…”
When Peter Bogdanovich discussed loyalty and betrayal with Welles and suggested that “you must disapprove then of Cotten’s betrayal of Harry Lime in The Third Man, Welles replied: “Of course… Betrayal is a big thing with me… almost a prime sin.”15 It is another aspect of the casting of Orson Welles which brings a resonance that would not have happened with any other actor. If there is one theme that recurs again and again in Welles’s work, it is the theme of betrayal and, more specifically, betrayal by one’s closest friend or confidante: from Citizen Kane (1941), Othello (1952) and Touch of Evil (1958) to perhaps the greatest betrayal scene in all literature, when Welles’s Falstaff is disowned by Prince Hal, now Henry V, in Chimes at Midnight (1966). And casting him next to Joseph Cotten, an acolyte from Welles’s Mercury Theatre, only intensifies the theme. Cotten as Jed Leland in Citizen Kane moans at one stage, “I was his oldest friend – and he behaved like a swine.” Did Cotten betray Welles over The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Welles’s magnificent torso of a film, cut by the studio from 131 to 88 minutes after a disastrous preview, and in which Cotten appeared in some scenes that were re-shot by another director? Welles was very cross with him, but Cotten’s feeling was that, if he had not acquiesced, the film might not have been shown at all. Certainly the history between the two men feeds fascinatingly into the character complexities of The Third Man.
In one way, Holly exhibits a quality which Greene was to discuss controversially in his later career (notably in his defence of Kim Philby): the virtue of disloyalty. Holly is disloyal to Harry but for a virtuous reason: the sight of the “victims” in the children’s hospital. Yet why is it that this virtue feels so treacherous? In a later scene with Anna, when it seems as if her papers have been cleared, she realises that she is part of the bargain that Holly has struck with the police to trap Harry, and she tears up her papers in disgust. The price of her freedom is too high. “Look at yourself,” she says to Holly, “They have a name for faces like that.” We learn what that name is when she confronts Holly in the café just as Harry is stealing in by the back entrance and catches the end of their conversation. “Holly. What a silly name,” Anna is saying. “You must feel very proud to be a police informer [my emphasis].” It is on the word “informer” that Harry pulls his gun, and at that point his expression suggests he would do something to Holly, for this is the worst betrayal in his eyes. “Informer” was certainly a loaded word in the Hollywood of 1949, reeling from the investigations of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee and prior to the McCarthyist witch-hunts of the early 1950s, which will see friend informing on friend. Harry’s sentimental (complacent?) belief in Holly’s unwavering loyalty has proved his undoing.16
Extract 3: Chase, Funeral and Finale
From the heights of Vienna to its depths: from the top of the Great Wheel to the sewers. Greene was fascinated by the sewers: what he called, “a strange world, unknown to most of us, that lies under our feet.”17 I suspect he saw people like that, essentially unknowable and with hidden depths; and the final chase does feel as if it represents the point when Lime is finally and inescapably trapped by the dark deviousness of his own personality.
At the end, he is cornered, his bid for freedom now rendered as just fingers through a grating that lead out onto the street (another of the film’s indelible images). He has shot the sympathetic Sergeant Paine (Bernard Lee) and retribution is at hand. Now wounded, he will nod consent for Holly to shoot him, even at the end holding dominion over him and, as it were, calling the shots. There is a loud report; and Holly will come back down the tunnel alone with gun in hand, looking for all the world, and for the only time in the film, like one of those western heroes he writes about.
There follows a funeral scene which echoes how the film has begun and brings the narrative full circle (like the Great Wheel). What a strange narrative journey it has been: of a man investigating the suspicious circumstances of his friend’s death; suspecting he has been murdered but then discovering he is a murderer; and who, in a delicious stroke of irony that Harry himself might have appreciated, finds that finally it will fall upon him to kill the friend whose death he has been investigating. And yet is Harry dead really? His death is implied, not shown – like the ravages of his diluted penicillin. He still gets the girl, living on in the memory of Anna, who departs from the cemetery and walks past the waiting Holly without so much as a glance, leaving him on the margins of the film frame and amongst the falling leaves, sidelined in love, the absolute epitome of the forlorn romantic loser. Would audiences remain in their seats for this long goodbye and tolerate an unhappy ending in what had been intended as a film with, in Graham Greene’s words, no other desire than “to entertain them, to frighten them a little, to make them laugh”?18 Greene had misgivings, but Reed insisted that artistic truth should take precedence over commercial calculation, and he was triumphantly vindicated. As Greene later generously acknowledged, he had underestimated the mastery of Carol Reed’s direction and the potency of Anton Karas’s music in making the ending so perfect a conclusion.
Although Greene said they had no desire to move people’s political emotions, it seems to me that, if T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land is the definitive evocation of post-World War One decadence, demoralisation and dismay, then its equivalent artistic masterpiece of post-World War Two is The Third Man. With its own babble of languages and heap of broken images, and with its extraordinary visual deployment of a devastated Vienna to suggest a whole culture and civilisation in ruins, The Third Man quite transcends its thriller genre. At its heart stands Harry Lime, buried but seemingly imperishable, for he will soon be resurrected on radio and on television. With just a few lightning strokes of inspired creativity, Welles, Greene and Reed had fashioned an altogether extraordinary character who was realistic, symbolic, and mythical all at the same time.
This article is developed from a talk given for the Graham Greene International Festival.
Graham Greene, Ways of Escape (Penguin, 1980), pp. 181-182. ↩
The Pleasure Dome (Secker & Warburg, 1972), pp. 3-4. ↩
Peter Conrad, Orson Welles: The Stories of his Life (London: Faber & Faber, 2003), p. 329. ↩
Articles of Faith, edited by Ian Thomson (Signal Books, 2006), p. 146. ↩
Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was a work close to Greene’s heart also. As I have argued in Graham Greene: A Literary Life (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), it has always seemed to me that the relationship between Holly Martins and Harry Lime owes its pattern to the Marlow/Kurtz relationship in the Conrad novella: “In both cases, one can see the attraction of the ostensibly ‘good’ character for the ostensibly ‘evil’ character, who makes him uncomfortably aware of darker potentialities within himself that he would rather not see. In Greene’s screenplay, Lime is the suppressed Dionysiac side of Martins’ inhibited personality, representing an outlawed vitality that Martins both envies and fears. Marlow has the same ambivalence towards Kurtz [Conrad’s phrase for this is “the fascination of the abomination”]. In both cases, the temptation of irresponsible licence that his ‘double’ represents is to be rooted out in a symbolic confrontation in darkness- in Conrad’s case, in the heart of the jungle; in Greene’s case, in the sewers of Vienna.” (p. 26) ↩
The Third Man screenplay (London: Faber & Faber, 1973), p. 63. ↩
After seeing the film, the great Hollywood director William Wyler had sent Carol Reed a spirit level, with a note that read: “Carol, next time you make a picture, just put it on top of the camera, will you?” See Nicholas Wapshott, The Man Between: A Biography of Carol Reed (Chatto & Windus, 1990), p. 228. ↩
André Bazin, Orson Welles: A Critical View (Elm Tree Books, 1978), p. 105 ↩
Graham Greene, Why the Epigraph? (Nonesuch Press, 1989). ↩
Graham Greene, Collected Essays (Penguin, 1970), p. 17. ↩
When Welles’s daughter Chris saw the film with her father and told him afterwards that she felt sorry for Lime at the end, he was delighted. “That’s what makes the movie work… and any other one, for that matter – that you can feel sympathy for the villain.” But when she asked him whether he liked Harry Lime, Welles replied: “Like him? I hate him. He’s utterly cold and without passion.” She says she was startled by the vehemence with which he spoke. See Chris Welles Feder, In My Father’s Shadow (Mainstream Publishing, 2009), p. 101. ↩
See Alexander Mackendrick, On Film-Making, edited by Paul Cronin (London: Faber, 2004), pp. 55-7. ↩
Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich, edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum (Harper Collins, 1993), p. 296 ↩
The screenwriter William Rose once wrote that the basic theme of his screenplay for Alexander Mackendrick’s classic black comedy, The Ladykillers was: “In the Worst of all Men is a little bit of Good – that will destroy them”: see Mackendrick, On Film-Making, pp. 103-4. This could apply to the ending of Greene’s short story, “Across the Bridge” and is also applicable to Harry Lime. ↩
The text that follows is an edited version of a lecture I gave some years ago to introduce a series of Ferens Fine Art lectures at the University of Hull on the topic of Post-Impressionism. The initial focus was on the first Post-Impressionist Exhibition in London in 1910, what it contained, and how the reaction to it was symptomatic of what was going on generally in the arts at this time. I have always thought that the period between roughly 1910 and 1914 was one of the most remarkable periods of creativity in the arts ever, and it was to be the topic of my PhD, but a book on Billy Wilder intervened; the thesis was never finished; and my career took a very different direction.
To begin with the quotation that provides the title of this essay, a famous quote from Virginia Woolf in an essay entitled ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’ published in 1924. “In or about December 1910,” she wrote, “human character changed.” Virginia Woolf was often deliberately playful and provocative in her artistic pronouncements; she was never, however, frivolous. The date she cited was carefully chosen: a conscious allusion to the first Post-Impressionist exhibition at the Grafton Gallery in London, which was the first extensive viewing that the public in England had been given of the work of artists such as Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin and Picasso. The change in human character that Virginia Woolf was suggesting was not so much of a change of personality per se but a way of perceiving personality (1910 was also the year when Freud was giving a famous lecture on the origins and development of psychoanalysis) and also of the way of portraying character, in paint and in print. In the early years of the 20th century, artists in different fields were seeking a new language or mode of expression to render what the art critic Roger Fry called “the sensibilities of the modern outlook”.
It was Roger Fry who had organised the Exhibition, which had actually been opened to the press on November 5th (Virginia Woolf had allowed a little time for its impact to be felt). Needless to say, some critics seized on the date of bonfire night as symbolically significant, Robert Ross, for example, immediately suggesting that what these painters were up to was roughly analogous to what Guy Fawkes had planned for the Houses of Parliament, revealing the existence, as he put it, “of a widespread plot to destroy the whole fabric of European painting.” The Exhibition attracted huge publicity, and was widely denounced as being pornographic, degenerate and evil.
Whether Fry had anticipated such a response is difficult to say. The Exhibition had been organised in something of a rush. Desmond McCarthy wrote the introduction to the catalogue and he was terrified that, because of the last-minute changes, the numbers of his entries would get mixed up, and a portrait of a nude, say, would be catalogued as ‘station master at Arles’. Even the title was opportunistic rather than any carefully considered artistic statement. When they were stuck for a title, Roger Fry said: “Let’s call them Post-Impressionists – at any rate they came after the Impressionists.” It is worth recalling that, although the Exhibition was widely greeted as the latest outrage of the new century, most of it was taken up with works by painters already dead and with paintings that had been done in the 1880s and 1890s. It is also worth bearing in mind the identity of some of the paintings put on show which caused such an outcry – Cezanne’s ‘Madame Cezanne in Armchair’, Matisse’s ‘The Girl with Green Eyes’, Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’, Gauguin’s ‘Christ in the Garden of Olives’, Picasso’s ‘Nude Girl with a Basket of Flowers’: i.e. some of the paintings that were to become amongst the most popular, and priceless, of the century. So why the outrage? Why did the Exhibition strike the critic of The Times as “the equivalent of anarchism in politics […] the rejection of all that civilisation had done?” Why did the critic Wake Crook say “the whole show was made to look like the outpouring of a lunatic asylum”? To account for this, the Exhibition must be characterised in a little more detail, indicating how far what the painters were doing seemed to differ from convention and expectation.
One characteristic, evident particularly in the work of Van Gogh and Gauguin, was an unrestrained, un-Edwardian emotionalism, expressed in striking, often lurid, colours, that were themselves expressive of the painters’ emotional intensity and suffering. Their contemporary equivalent in music would have been Gustav Mahler, who was to die in 1911 and whom, even as late as the 1930s, the critic Basil Maine was dismissing as a composer “totally foreign to our English temperament – it is as likely that we would take up Mahler in England as the French would take up Elgar”. (Times have changed: nowadays there is barely a major symphony orchestra in the land that has not performed the whole cycle of Mahler’s nine symphonies; he is performed as often as Beethoven.) Their equivalent in literature would be a novelist like Dostoyevsky, who in 1910 (nearly thirty years after his death) was virtually unknown in England, although in two years time, his novel The Brothers Karamazov is to be translated into English for the first time and is to be rapturously acclaimed. (It is tempting to speculate whether the acclaim would have been quite that intense if English sensibilities had not been stirred up, as it were, by the Post-Impressionists.) In 1910, though, emotional expressiveness in art of that extremity was still often viewed with alarm. For example, Van Gogh’s ‘Wheatfield with Crows’ – now one of his most famous and admired works – was looked on at the Exhibition with considerable puzzlement and even downright hostility. Robert Ross described it as “the visualised ravings of an adult maniac” (which is true, up to a point, though the sentiment could have been expressed with a little more artistic sensitivity and human compassion). Other interpretations of it ranged from its being a representation of a prairie fire or that of a smoking ham omelette. A clue to interpretation might have been given by the credo of Paul Gauguin who complained about “nobody being astonished anymore” and who sought in his art an increasing subjectivity. “Before the easel the artist,” he said, “is slave neither to the past, the present, nature nor even his neighbour. Himself, always himself…. I am content to search my own self and not nature.” Such art frequently portrays a mind on the rack, a personality with Freudian symptoms of psychological abnormality or hypersensitivity: only recall Gauguin’s portrait of Van Gogh as he painted sunflowers and how Gauguin got behind the physical surface. “It’s me, Paul,” Van Gogh is said to have observed when he saw it. “But it’s me already gone insane.”
Another controversial feature of contemporary art highlighted by the Post-Impressionist exhibition was its non-representational nature. “What is one to think of Paul Gauguin’s idea of oxen?” queried one critic who was reviewing modern French art at an exhibition in Brighton that had preceded the more famous one at the Grafton gallery. “They are wooden-looking beasts akin to those of the nursery Noah’s ark variety, and their landscape environment is innocent of any attempt at perspective.” The poet Wilfrid Blunt wrote in a very similar vein about the Post-Impressionist exhibition in a diary entry of 15 November 1910: “The drawing is on the level of that of an untaught child of seven or eight years old, the sense of colour that of a tea-tray painter, the method that of a schoolboy who wipes his fingers on a slate after spitting on them…” Implicit in those comments was the assumption that the artists were aiming for naturalistic representation but failing through poor technique. On the contrary, as Roger Fry was later to argue, the Post-Impressionists were in the process of re-considering the very purpose and aim as well as the methods of pictorial art. As Fry wrote: “Where once representation had been pushed to the point where further development was impossible, it was inevitable that artists should turn round and question the fundamental assumption that art aimed at representation.” It might well be that the achievement of the Impressionist painters had been so great as to leave the modern artist feeling impotent, and believing that the future could only be a search for an alternative mode of expression rather than a continuation along a trail which these masters had effectively exhausted. It was a problem facing other early 20th century artists in different fields: where could musical Romanticism and tonality possibly go after the titanic operas of Wagner and the epic symphonies of Mahler? Where could narrative realism go after Middlemarch and Anna Karenina?
It might well be too that a different philosophical cast of mind was also present. As John Rothenstein said in his book The Moderns and their World (1957): “Yet there would seem to be other deeper and non-painterly causes at work. Whereas once it was taken for granted that an unremitting scrutiny of appearances might enhance both understanding and delight…in our own time it is the opposite that is taken for granted…. The radiance of human beauty and the majesty of the oak…are but constructions of the human mind…. What the eye sees is not what our forbears confidently thought that they saw.” One might link that with something that Picasso was saying at the time: “I paint objects as I think them, not as I see them…. If a painter asks me what was the first step for painting a table, I would say measure it.”
What one is seeing, then, is a shift towards an inner rather than outer landscape in painting, a more symbolic and private form of representation. Picasso’s picture of 1910, ‘Girl with a Mandolin’ was more accessible and shapely than most Cubist paintings of the time but it still had that harsh geometric edge characteristic of Cubism- in an age which was felt to be becoming increasingly mechanised, technological, industrialised, regulated, and the individual increasingly dominated by machinery (the novels of D. H. Lawrence during the second decade of the century are to pursue that idea with a passionate urgency). If Van Gogh’s musical parallel, in terms of tortured extreme romanticism, was Mahler, Picasso’s analogous musical counterpart, in terms of a kind of steely harshness, was Stravinsky – whom Picasso was later to draw.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, Picasso was to be as controversial a figure during this period as any other of the Post-Impressionists. When his picture ‘Mandolin, Wine Glass and Table’ was reproduced in the New Age magazine of 23 November 1911, there was a storm of protest. G. K. Chesterton, for example, dismissed it as “sodden blotting paper” and chastised critics who sought to defend Picasso after the artist “has had the misfortune to upset the ink and tried it to dry it with his boots.” On the other hand, Middleton Murry, who confessed he did not ‘understand’ Picasso, was more prepared to be open to the experience, approvingly quoting the response of a woman friend to Picasso: “I don’t know what it is – I feel as though my brain has been sandpapered.” Once again it was Roger Fry who most eloquently responded to the spirit of what the artist was attempting, recognising that such art gave up all resemblance to natural form in favour of a purely abstract language of form – in Fry’s phrase, ‘a visual music’. “Such a picture as Picasso’s ‘Head of a Man’”, Fry wrote, “would undoubtedly be ridiculous if, having set out to make a direct imitation of the actual model, he had been incapable of getting a better likeness. But Picasso did nothing of the sort.” The critic of The Times in 1912 interpreted Picasso’s method as essentially a reaction against the limits of photography. Why should an artist attempt to duplicate what a photograph can do now – and the film camera?
The impact of the Post-Impressionist exhibition was not only immediate and powerful but also wide-ranging. It touched creative artists in fields other than painting. For example, when Katharine Mansfield saw Van Gogh’s paintings at the Exhibition, she told a friend that “they taught her something about writing…a kind of freedom, a shaking free.” Similarly, amid the derision of fellow writers like Chesterton, Arnold Bennett saw what these contemporary painters were doing as profoundly significant, with enormous implications for the future of literature. “Suppose some writer were to come along and do in words what these men have done in paint,” he wrote, “I might conceivably be disgusted with the whole of modern fiction and I might have to begin again….Supposing a young writer turned up and forced me and some of my contemporaries to admit that we had been concerning ourselves with inessentials, had been worrying ourselves to achieve infantile realisms? Well, that day would be a great and disturbing day for us.” Ironically, it is precisely on those grounds that Bennett is later going to be attacked by Virginia Woolf in the essay ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’ – that he, and writers like him, such as H. G .Wells and John Galsworthy, had indeed been concerning themselves with “inessentials” and “infantile realisms”. Bennett’s observation is a premonition of the direction modernist writing is about to take. Between 1910 and 1914, we have the publication of the first novels and stories of arguably the three most original writers of the century – James Joyce, Marcel Proust and D. H. Lawrence – all of whom are, to a different degree, experimentalists, who turn away from the novel of externally observed reality to the subtle dissection of mental states, who eschew the novel of plot in favour of a more overt preoccupation with language and form. In her essay ‘Modern Fiction’, Virginia Woolf defined a new era, and area, for fiction: what was needed, she argued, was a form that reflected the uniqueness of the individual mind and found a way of articulating the previously unexpressed and inexpressible. It was a call for a new kind of novel driven not by plot and the progress of man in society but by psychological experience, by sensory association, and driven less by prosaic incident than by poetic impulse and imagery.
The four years prior to the Great War are a golden period for literary discovery, experiment and achievement. As I mentioned, one of the discoveries was Dostoyevsky, interest in whom was fuelled by Constance Garnett’s translation of The Brothers Karamazov in 1912, the novel which Freud was subsequently to call “the greatest novel ever written” and whose intense psychological analysis and spiritual torment would find a readier reception in a world where Freud’s ideas were starting to take root. Appearing in 1913 was Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, inspired by the death of Gustav Mahler two years earlier: that extraordinarily potent, prophetic story of a decaying Europe heading for imminent disaster, symbolised through a dying artist and a plague-ridden Venice, both of whose inner diseases are not to be discovered until they are beyond cure.
Conversely, though equally significantly, it’s also the period of the English Nature poet, celebrated particularly in the runaway success of Edward Marsh’s anthology, Georgian Poetry, published in 1912 and which, as W. H. Davies was to put it, “performed a wonder – it made poetry pay!” D. H. Lawrence is said to have earned as much for his one poem included in the anthology, ‘Snapdragon’ as he earned from some of his novels. It is the era of Rupert Brooke, of Walter de la Mare, of John Masefield. George Orwell was to attribute a certain social accuracy to the Georgian phenomenon – as he put it:
Most middle-class boys grew up within sight of a farm and naturally it was the picturesque side of farm-life that appealed to them- the ploughing, harvesting, and so forth…. Just before the war was the great age of the ‘Nature poet’: Rupert Brooke’s ‘Grantchester’, the star-poem of 1913, is nothing but an enormous gush of ‘country’ sentiment, a sort of accumulated vomit from a stomach stuffed with place-names. Considered as a poem, ‘Grantchester’ is something worse than worthless, but as an illustration of what the thinking middle-class young of that period felt it is a valuable document.
Allowing for the fact that Orwell under-rates Brooke’s comedy and irony in the poem, one can agree that he puts his finger on a notable aspect of that poem’s appeal and that of Georgian poetry generally at that time: namely, its nostalgia. As the critic V. de S. Pinto commented: “Nobody would guess from Georgian poetry that there had been a Russian Revolution or that Germany was preparing to dominate Europe.” Closer to home, nobody would guess either from the poetry, or from Marsh’s subsequent anthologies, that the nation was experiencing an unstable period politically (an absence all the more remarkable since Marsh was Winston Churchill’s private secretary for the best part of 20 years). It is a period when the suffragettes were on the march; and when there was trouble in Ireland, almost boiling over into civil war at the beginning of 1914. In 1912, even the Titanic had sunk, for some artists an event of considerable symbolic significance, most memorably in Thomas Hardy’s poem, ‘The Convergence of the Twain’ which seemed to see the event as perverse Divine intervention to undercut modern Man’s technological arrogance. However, the Georgian poets are still writing of a tranquil leisurely England in which W. H. Davies, in his 1911 poem, ‘Leisure’ can muse, ‘What is this life if, full of care,/We have no time to stand and stare’; and where Rupert Brooke, at the end of ‘Grantchester’ can be asking: ‘Stands the church clock at ten to three;/ and is there honey still for tea?’ Not exactly a dynamic, forward-looking image, but it is possible to sense an underlying unease about all this, almost a desire for time to stand still out of a fear of what the future holds. Brooke’s image of wanting time to stand still and of the motionless clock-face, incidentally, is brilliantly picked up in a film version of John Buchan’s The 39 Steps, not the famous 1935 Hitchcock version but the 1978 version starring Robert Powell – a story which is set on the eve of World War One (Buchan had begun writing the story in 1914) and where, at the film’s climax, the hero is clinging to the hands of Big Ben and trying to prevent the hands moving forward to noon, because there is a bomb planted there that will go off if the clock strikes and plunge Europe into chaos. Nevertheless, in a period of social and political uncertainty, the idyllic platitudes of Georgian poetry were probably so popular because they were profoundly reassuring. After all, as George Orwell said in a different context, if you were fighting in the First World War, which poetry would you prefer to read – that of Owen and Sassoon, say, which agonisingly evokes the awfulness of your situation, or a poem like T. S. Eliot’s ‘Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock’, which does at least take you away from the battle-field and remind you of some of the more commonplace anxieties of modern living?
What is intriguing about the Georgians in this regard is that their pastoral, paradisal vision is shared by others from a quite different artistic background. A number of artists at this time are preoccupied with the theme of the search for the lost paradise. You find it in Alain-Fournier’s great, one-and only novel of 1913, Le Grand Meaulnes, a heart-breaking tale of lost innocence and the search for the land of lost content (the author was tragically to be killed in the early years of the war); also in the contemporaneous and exquisite ‘Enchanted Garden’ movement that concludes the orchestral ‘Mother Goose Suite’ by Ravel, who coincidentally was once planning to set Le Grand Meaulnes to music. 1912 is also the year of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. It is almost as if they sense there is some mighty convulsion about to take place and they are trying to assert enduring values or find some private escape before the crunch comes. This sense of apprehension has been delicately caught in Edmund Blunden’s poem, ‘The Sunlit Vale’, a gentle rebuke to what one might call the ‘Greensleeves’ sentiment in the English temperament (and even Vaughan Williams had done a famous arrangement of ‘Greensleeves’ in 1912):
I saw the sunlit vale and the pastoral fairy-tale
The sweet and bitter scent of the may drifted by;
And never have I seen such a bright bewildering green,
But it looked like a lie,
Like a kindly meant lie.
We are also entering the film age. Between 1910 and 1914, an area of California called Hollywood will establish itself as the centre of the American film industry. The cinema is still in an age of innocence, being taken to its hearts by the masses but frowned on by some (not all) of the intelligentsia not simply because it is a popular mass art but also because it is a mechanical one, the product of a developing technology. Yet for artists in the Futurist movement, for example, with their embrace of modern apparatus, their love of speed and industrialisation and their rejection of tradition, this is all to the good: the cinema is a new art that has the potential of fulfilling their aims, and also the potential, as the Italian writer Gabriele D’Annunzio declared, of surpassing all other art forms in terms of spectacle and fantastic visions. Indeed in 1916 the Italian film theorist, Ricciotto Canudo will refer to film as “the seventh art”, joining dance, poetry, music, sculpture, architecture and painting. And while some deplore film’s mass appeal, and feel it represents the contamination of art by crude commercial obligations and constraints, a great writer like Tolstoy, for example, is completely unfazed by the cinema’s connection with industry and commerce and indeed has a wonderful little parable about it. “In the reeds of film art,” wrote Tolstoy, “sits the toad, the businessman. Above him hovers the insect – the artist. The jaws of the businessman devour the artist. But that doesn’t mean destruction. It is only one of the methods of procreation. In the belly of the businessman is carried on the process of impregnation and the development of the seeds of the future…which will begin their brilliant, beautiful lives all over again.” Even a century later, there has been no more positive account given of the fruitful tension between art and commerce which has given us some of our greatest films.
In fact, a lot of artists will grow to love cinema’s earliest manifestations and its spirit of adventure, admiring the pluckiness of Chaplin, the mania of the Keystone Kops, the trials and tribulations of Pearl White, early silent Italian epics such as Quo Vadis (1912), which so inspired D. W. Griffith ,and Cabiria (1913), whose inter-titles were written by D’Annunzio. Like Post-Impressionist art, film will cause some writers to re-evaluate how they write. Innovative writers like Joyce and Virginia Woolf express interest in the cinema, perhaps for oblique reasons i.e. the novel’s reliance on narrative and representational realism, neither of which is of primary concern to Joyce and Woolf, can be taken over by film, which will displace the novel as the primary narrative form of the century, leaving the novelist free to explore new and different aspects of the form. Yet the opening chapter of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is dazzlingly cinematic in its manipulation of time without traditional transitions and its use of literary equivalents of flashback, flash-forward, parallel sequences, jump cuts, subliminal cuts etc. No wonder that a decade later, the master of Soviet montage, Sergei Eisenstein will be going round waving a copy of Joyce’s Ulysses under the noses of his film-making colleagues and declaring, “This is the Bible of modern cinema!”
The same tensions felt in painting and literature immediately before 1914 were also apparent in the music of the period – what one might cautiously characterise as a breakdown of order leading towards either new forms or disintegration. This is felt most strongly in the last-gasp Romanticism, early Modernism of Gustav Mahler, particularly his last completed work, the Ninth Symphony (“the most important symphony of the century”, as the critic Richard Osborne has called it, a judgment with which many great conductors would agree); and also in the work of Mahler’s pupil, Arnold Schoenberg, whose dissonances might come out of a reaction against an exhausted nineteenth century tonality or out of a response to a society on the verge of breakdown. How could a sensitive artist, he might ask, be expected to write romantic, harmonious music in such a situation? Nevertheless, even Richard Strauss, who was regarded as a modernist at that time, found Schoenberg a bit extreme: after looking at the score of Schoenberg’s ‘Five Orchestral Pieces’ of 1912, Strauss had written to Mahler’s widow, Alma that “only a psychiatrist could help poor Schoenberg now…he’d do better shovelling snow.” Still, like Mahler, Schoenberg was very conscious of his historical moment. When someone criticised him for writing such ugly and atonal music, he replied: “Somebody had to be Schoenberg, and no one else volunteered, so I was.” In 1908, in the vocal finale of his second String Quartet, a soprano voice sings the words of Stefan Georg: “I feel air from another planet…” The observation could be both musical and social, in the same way as Charles Ives’s ‘The Unanswered Question’, composed in the same year, poses similar questions: whither tonality? whither harmony? whither humanity?
The most striking musical event during the period – and the most notorious premiere in musical history – was the premiere in Paris on 29 May, 1913 of Stavinsky’s ballet score, The Rite of Spring, which provoked a riot. Indeed ‘striking’ might be the operative word: one observer has written that he felt an incredible throbbing in his temples which he thought must have been the effect of the score but then realised that the man behind him had stood up and started pounding out the rhythm of the music on the top of his head. According to Stravinsky’s own account, protests against the music were underway even before the curtain had risen and they exploded into uproar when the ballet started, the dancers being described by Stravinsky in his autobiography as “a group of knock-kneed and long-braided Lolitas”. He had stormed backstage to deal with the choreographer Nijinsky but then had to restrain him from running onto the stage to remonstrate with the audience. The scandal had the effect of validating the newness of the work and the authenticity of Stravinsky’s modernist credentials, and converting it into an instant classic. Indeed for a while afterwards, people would turn up for a performance in anticipation of a riot and were most put out when it failed to materialise. Siegfried Sassoon expressed his disappointment at this in his poem, ‘Concert Interpretation’:
No tremor bodes eruption and alarms.
They are listening to this not-quite-new audacity
As though it were by someone dead- like Brahms.
However one interprets the subject of the Rite of Spring (as the sound of the cracking of the Russian spring, or the necessity of conflict, or the primitivism within us all, which would link it with other key texts of modernism, like Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough or Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) or however one interprets its mood – brutal, barbarous, mechanical, destructive, vital, joyous – it remains one of the landmarks of twentieth century art, being musically to the 20th century what Beethoven’s 9th was to the 19th. T. S. Eliot was to say that he heard in it the sounds of the new century – the motor horn, the beating of metal, the roar of engines – but felt that Stravinsky had “transformed those despairing noises into music”. There will be something Stravinskian about Eliot’s great poem of 1922, The Waste Land, with its rigorous objectivity and anti-romanticism and its underlying theme of sacrifice and rebirth. I also think of Stravinsky when I read D. H. Lawrence’s great novel of 1915, The Rainbow and that remarkable scene of the pregnant Anna’s naked dance, as if she is seeking some kind of mystical experience or release – a desire to feel life in the body more than the mind. It’s a sort of Stravinskian dance of life. Her husband looks on, bemused and appalled, rather like the audience on Stravinsky’s opening night, but from another perspective, it could appear beautiful, different, liberating. Stravinsky always claimed the music came to him in a dream, hearing it in his head even before he had any precise idea of how to write it down in conventional musical notation. “I didn’t compose ‘The Rite’,” he would say, “I was the vessel through which it passed.”
These, then, are some (not all) of the most famous artistic highlights of the pre-First World War period; and, in conclusion. I would like to emphasise two points about them. One of the features of the arts at this time is its interconnectedness. A writer was as much likely to be influenced in his work by a painter or composer as by another writer, and this was true of artists in other fields. It is an extraordinary period of artistic cross-fertilisation. I have already noted the impact on the writer Arnold Bennett of the Post-Impressionist Exhibition. The composer Schoenberg had close connections with The Blue Rider school of artists and was no mean painter. Vaughan Williams said that the magical epilogue that concluded his ‘London Symphony’ of 1914 was inspired by a passage describing the Thames from H. G. Wells’s great Condition of England novel of 1909, Tono-Bungay. Rupert Brook’s poem ‘Grantchester’ will be set to music by Charles Ives. The impact of the composer Mahler on Thomas Mann was the main inspiration behind his novella Death in Venice. Kandinsky talked in musical terms about his painting, talking of the “silencing” or the “sounding” of one colour by another; and in the catalogue for the second Post-Impressionist Exhibition in 1912, Clive Bell claimed that “we now expect a work of art to have more in common with a piece of music than with a coloured photograph.” In his book Concerning the Spiritual in Art Kandinsky will write that “music, poetry, painting, architecture are all able in their different way to reach the essential soul, and the coming era will see them brought together, mutually striving to the great attainment.” That interconnectedness is one of the most distinctive and exciting aspects of the arts of that period and possibly one of the reasons why I love it, because I have always been deeply affected by something that Leonard Bernstein said in the first of his marvellous Harvard lectures of 1973 called The Unanswered Question about the importance of inter-disciplinary values and his belief that “the best way to “know” a thing is in the context of another discipline.”
My final point has to do with context. It is surely impossible to respond to the literature, music, painting of the period without being aware in each of a sense of crisis, collapse and a corresponding need for innovation and an affirmation of the new. The reasons for this could be artistic (the perceived exhaustion of Romanticism in music, realism in fiction, Impressionism in painting); or they could be social (the widespread political turbulence, or a premonition of impending crisis, as in that ominous second sentence of Death in Venice when Thomas Mann refers to “a spring afternoon in that year of grace 19-, when Europe sat upon the anxious seat beneath a menace that hung over its head for months.”) The Australian painter Sidney Nolan thought that Art sometimes acted as an Early Warning System, that one of the things that distinguished great artists was the gift of being able to sense something in the air. Van Gogh wrote of what he called “the miraculous regularity with which art is always the first to indicate the direction life is taking.” Leonard Bernstein thought Mahler’s 9th Symphony was the greatest of the twentieth century because of its prophetic quality; it saw into the future and, in Bernstein’s words, “in that foretelling, it showered a rain of beauty on this world that has not been equalled since.” In their book entitled Wittgenstein’s Vienna (1996), the authors Allan Janil and Stephen Toulmin posed the following question: “Was it an absolute coincidence that the beginnings of twelve-tone music, ‘modern’ architecture…non-representational art and psychoanalysis were all taking place simultaneously?” There is a danger that, with the benefit of hindsight, one can impose a schematic and convenient pattern on a period and give it a coherence that might have been far from clear at the time. Nevertheless, I continue to contend that what was happening across the arts in that period – the strains, the tensions, the rejection or revision of tradition, the sense of a breakdown of order into chaos – was not coincidence but confluence. If there is a phrase for the whole experience, I would cite something that D. H. Lawrence said was the theme of The Rainbow and it could almost come from a Futurist manifesto: “The old world is done for, crumbling on top of us: there must be a new world.”
So, when Virginia Woolf wrote that “in or about December 1910, human character changed,” she might have been outrageous, eccentric, deliberately provocative: but she also had a point.
For anyone wishing to explore the topic further, I have attached a list of some Key Artistic events between 1910 and 1914.
As introductory reading, I can recommend the following:
J. B. Bullen (ed.), Post-Impressionists in England: The Critical Reception (1988)
Christopher Butler, Early Modernism: Literature, Music and Painting in Europe, 1900-18 (1994)
Ian Dunlop, The Shock of the New (1972)
Nigel Gosling, Paris 1900-1914 (1978)
Peter Nicholls, Modernisms (1995)
Paul Poplawski (ed.), Encyclopedia of Literary Modernisms (2003)
Alan Rich, Music: Mirror of the Arts (1969)
Trudi Tate, Modernism, History and the First World War (1998)
S. K. Tillyard, The Impact of Modernism 1900-1920 (1988)
Peter Vergo, Art in Vienna 1900-1918 (1975)
SOME KEY ARTISTIC EVENTS 1910-14
1910 Art: First Post-Impressionist Exhibition in London; Picasso, Portrait of a Young Girl with Mandolin Literature: E. M. Forster, Howards End; W. B. Yeats, The Green Helmet; death of Leo Tolstoy, Mark Twain. Music: Stravinsky, The Firebird; Elgar, Violin Concerto; Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony and Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis; London premiere of Richard Strauss’s Elektra and Salome. Film: D. W. Griffith moves his film operation to California in an area called Hollywood.
1911 Art: Kandinsky and Franz Mark set up ‘Der Blaue Reiter’ exhibition in Munich. Literature: Rupert Brooke poems first published; Joseph Conrad’s Under Western Eyes; H. G. Wells, Ann Veronica; D. H. Lawrence, The White Peacock. Music: Strauss, Der Rosenkavalier; Stravinsky, Petrushka; Elgar, Symphony No.2; Sibelius, Symphony No.4; Ravel, Daphnis and Chloe; Bartok, Bluebeard’s Castle; Debussy, Jeux; death of Gustav Mahler.
Film: The birth of the fan magazines and revealing of the identity of the Biograph girl, Florence Lawrence.
1912 Art: 2nd Post-Impressionist in London; Kandinsky writes On the Spiritual in Art; Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. Literature: First English translation of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov; Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past; Edward Marsh’s anthology Georgian Poetry; Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden. Death of August Strindberg. Music: World premieres of Mahler’s Symphony No.9 and Das Lied von der Erde; Schoenberg, Pierrot Lunaire; Ravel’s Orchestral Suite Mother Goose. Film: D. W. Griffith, The Massacre; Enrico Guazzani’s Quo Vadis; legendary actress Sarah Bernhardt is filmed in Queen Elizabeth and declares to producer Adolph Zukor ‘You have preserved the best of me in pickle for all time.’
1913 Art: The Armory Exhibition of Post-Impressionist Art in New York; Kokoschka’s Die Windsbraut (portrait of turbulent relationship with Mahler’s widow); Emil Nolde’s The Prophet. Literature: Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice; Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes; D. H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers; May Sinclair, The Three Sisters. Music: Stravinsky, Rite of Spring; Charles Ives, Fourth of July; Webern, 6 Pieces for Orchestra; Magnard’s 4th Symphony; first gramophone recording of a complete symphony (Artur Nikisch conducts Beethoven’s 5th). Film: Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria; Victor Sjostrom’s Ingeborg Holm; Cecil B. DeMille’s Squaw Man; Louis Feuillade’s Fantomas; Pearl White in The Perils of Pauline.
1914 Literature: James Joyce, Dubliners and serialisation of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; George Bernard Shaw, Pygmalion; Wyndham Lewis, Blast; John Buchan begins The 39 Steps. Music: Holst, The Planets; Vaughan Williams, A London Symphony; Prokofiev, Scythian Suite. Film: Sennett Tillie’s Punctured Romance.
“I don’t think he’ll change. At 21 or 22, so many things appear solid, permanent and terrible, which 40 sees as nothing but disappearing miasma. 40 can’t tell 20 about this; 20 can only find out by getting to be 40.” (Eugene’s letter to Isabelle in The Magnificent Ambersons)
“Nobody knows whether the world is old or young.” (G.K. Chesterton)
In Billy Wilder’s scintillating portrait of Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard (1950), there is a moment where a former star of the silent screen (Gloria Swanson) is outlining the plot of her comeback film Salome to a cynical young screenwriter (William Holden). “The princess in love with a holy man,” she says. “He rejects her. She dances the dance of the seven veils. She demands his head on a golden tray, kissing his cold dead lips.” Comments the screenwriter sardonically: “They’ll love it in Pomona.” It is a vicious reference. On March 17, 1942, the Fox Theatre in Pomona, California was the scene of one of the most notorious previews in film history, that of Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons. The derisive response of the audience was to trigger a chain of events which was to lead to the cutting of the film by about a third from its original length of 131 minutes. It was an act of aesthetic vandalism whose severity had not been seen in Hollywood since the savaging of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1923) nearly twenty years earlier. Welles’s relationship with Hollywood never recovered.
The blow to Welles’s career and possibly his self-esteem was acute. He had gone into the project full of confidence, having adapted Booth Tarkington’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel into a screenplay in just nine days on King Vidor’s private yacht. He was familiar with the material, always claiming that his father, who was a friend of the novelist, was the model for the novel’s inventor-hero, Eugene Morgan, played in the film by Joseph Cotten. Welles had already done a radio adaptation in 1938, with himself in the role of the pampered son, George Minafer of a wealthy Indiana family who is to get his “come-uppance”. In the film, this part was played by Tim Holt, and Welles was to reflect later on whether this had been a strategic mistake; although his voice is heard as narrator, this was the only time when he did not appear in his own film. It is an aspect of the film which has prompted some speculation. Did Welles genuinely feel he might have seemed a little too old and forceful for the part, as he originally argued, or was the role of the spoilt son being doted on by a glamorous mother a little too close to home? Tim Holt’s uncompromising performance was perceived at the time as being a major impediment to audience identification: as the review in Variety put it, the movie “devotes 9000 feet of film to a spoiled brat who grows up as a spoiled spiteful young man”. There are others, however – this writer included – who feel Holt’s performance is superb, an unflinching, courageously conceived characterisation of an arrogant, unsympathetic yet ultimately pitiable human being.
Welles had insisted on a period of five weeks rehearsal before filming began. When his remarkable cameraman from Citizen Kane, Gregg Toland proved unavailable, he turned to the more painstaking Stanley Cortez, with whom he occasionally fought but who turned in a quite exceptional piece of work. (Cortez was later to be the cameraman on another of the most beautifully photographed of all black-and-white movies, Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter.) Sometimes the circumstances of shooting were difficult. For example, Welles insisted on shooting the snow scene in an ice plant in Los Angeles, not so much for authenticity of performance but because he wanted a clear visible contrast between the cold pure breath issuing from the characters’ mouths and the acrid smoke coming from Eugene’s new-fangled automobile. Towards the end of the filming Welles had been commissioned to make a documentary in Brazil called It’s All True as part of a government initiative to foster good relations between North and South America; and because he needed to be in Brazil in time for the carnival in Rio, this necessitated his dictating his instructions on the final cut of Ambersons to his editor Robert Wise, often by phone or by cable. Although this arrangement was complicated, there is no indication at this stage that Welles anticipated any major problems. He firmly believed he had made a better film than Citizen Kane: less showy, more thoughtful.
There have been many different accounts since of what went wrong and who was to blame. The most graphic account of the preview was given in a letter to Welles by the then President of RKO, George Schaefer, who had been one of his most steadfast allies during the attempts to suppress Citizen Kane. Schaefer described the preview experience as “like getting one sock in the jaw after another for two hours.” The audience laughed in the wrong places, particularly at Agnes Moorehead’s titanic performance as Aunt Fanny, stewing in frustration at her unrequited love for Eugene, a performance incidentally that went on to win the award for best actress from the New York Film Critics and was to be described by the great drama critic Kenneth Tynan as the best performance of its kind (the gnawing of unrequited love) in the English-speaking cinema. (Welles described her simply as “the best actor I’ve ever known”.) The downbeat nature of the film had also been criticised, not surprisingly perhaps since the audience, prior to Ambersons, had been sitting through a cheery Dorothy Lamour musical, The Fleet’s In (1942). Still it was hardly fair of RKO executives to blame Welles for the pessimistic thrust of the narrative: if they had cared to read the novel, they would have seen that he was only being true to his source. (Although full of imaginative touches, the adaptation is essentially a faithful one.) Also it is worth remembering that not all of the preview cards were hostile. 53 of the 125 were positive and 10 said it was the best film they had ever seen, a judgment shared by future director Cy Endfield who had seen the complete cut. Schaefer’s hypersensitive response was undoubtedly influenced not only by the audible disapproval of certain sections of the audience but by the fact that the fate of Welles’s film was intimately tied up with that of his own future at RKO, Schaefer being entangled in the middle of a power struggle at a studio now looking to showmanship rather than genius to recover its fortunes.
A preview at Pasadena two days later went much better, only 10 cards out of 85 being overtly negative, but executive confidence in the film had been badly shaken. The film had gone over budget and was thought to be too long. Indeed, sensing that the length of the film might be a problem, Welles had apparently suggested cutting a substantial portion out of the film prior to the Pomona preview – roughly 20 minutes from the section where Isabelle reads Eugene’s letter to her collapse – which one of his most knowledgeable commentators, Robert Carringer has argued might well have contributed to the film’s poor reception there. “I was bargaining,” Welles said, arguing (I think rightly) that if the film were thought to be overlong and needed trimming, it was better to take out a single section than tamper with the whole thing and destroy the rhythm; and feeling that this concession of his would lead to the rest of the film being untouched. In fact, Wise and Welles’s assistant, Jack Moss restored the section that Welles suggested they cut but then took out another 15 minutes for the Pasadena preview. RKO were still not satisfied and by now had adopted a policy of showing double-features in its programmes. The sections of the film dealing with the social context and material relating to the Ambersons’ economic downfall were jettisoned; a new, “happy” ending was shot by the film’s assistant director, Freddy Fleck; and the film finally came in at 88 minutes, to be released in a double-bill with Mexican Spitfire sees a Ghost (1942) starring Lupe Velez.
“If only you’d seen how Moorehead wrapped up the whole story at the end,” Welles was to tell Peter Bogdanovich. “Joe Cotten goes to see her after all these years in a cheap boarding-house and there’s nothing left between them at all. Everything is over – her feelings and her world and his world; everything is buried under the parking lots and the cars. That’s what it was all about – the deterioration of personality, the way people diminish with age… But without question it was much the best scene in the movie.” The whole structure was dependent on charming the audience by setting up the splendour of the Ambersons and then tearing it to shreds, but that was lost in the choppy continuity of the final version; and, stranded in Brazil, Welles was to say that “it was cut in my absence by the studio janitor.” There is no doubt he felt betrayed, both by the studio and by colleagues like Robert Wise and Joseph Cotten, who had participated in the re-cutting and the re-shooting. In fairness, Robert Wise in his own defence said that the film is still considered a classic so he can’t have done that bad a job; and Joseph Cotten was to argue that, if he had not collaborated on the re-shooting, the film might not have been released at all. Incidentally there was one person who did take a stand against the whole process of revision: the clue is in the final credits. When Welles is intoning them at the end (“I wrote the picture and directed it. My name is Orson Welles”), it is noticeable that there is no mention of the film’s composer. That most irascible and idealistic of film composers, Bernard Herrmann refused to allow his name on a film where his music had been cut and, in his view, the integrity of the whole enterprise compromised by philistines.
So The Magnificent Ambersons is one of the great ‘Might-Have-Beens’ of film history, and all the more poignant because what is left is intermittently (and there is no other word for it) magnificent. It is a chronicle of the changing social and emotional fabric of American life as the nineteenth century moves towards its close. Like Citizen Kane, it is about dynastic decline and about the bond between a spoilt son and adoring mother that will ruin both their lives and their chance of happiness. In the first ten minutes, in which the story advances twenty years, Welles calmly establishes the society and the fashions of the period; comically depicts the clumsy action of Eugene Morgan which causes him to lose the hand of his sweetheart Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello) to Wilbur Minafer (Don Dillaway); and briskly evokes the insufferable nature of the Minafers’ son George, who is the emotionally warped product, one feels, of an essentially loveless marriage. Everything has been steadily building to the first of the film’s great set-pieces, the Amberson ball in honour of George’s homecoming as a young man of 20, a sequence that is not only a marvel of cinematic virtuosity in itself but adumbrates all the key themes and relationships that are to be developed later.
In his affectionate but ironic narration at this point – the amused slight pause before the word “pageant” to describe the ball in George’s honour is particularly telling – Welles is careful to establish that this occasion will be the last of its kind the Ambersons will hold. The sequence has an elegiac air almost before we know it. It will show off the house in all its grandeur before its later decay, and the flowing and graceful camera movement around the setting suggests a kind of aristocratic languor whilst also hinting that things cannot stand still The winds of change are about to blow into that house-almost literally, because when the camera follows Eugene and his daughter Lucy (Anne Baxter) as they enter, one notices a slight wind behind them that rustles through the chandeliers. When Eugene introduces himself to Isabel and George as they are greeting the guests, there is an almost imperceptible but immediate shift in the balance of relationship between mother and son, Isabel’s slight change of posture as she greets Eugene pushing George a little to the background of the frame: it is an arrangement that not only suggests Isabel’s delight at seeing Eugene again but the threat Eugene will pose to George in being the central figure in his mother’s life. George takes charge of Lucy, not immediately picking up the information that she is Eugene’s daughter (it shows how much he has been attending when introduced to his guests) and there will be some comedy at his expense before Lucy lets him in on his mistake. For all the smooth elegance and understated humour of the scene, it is actually also full of misunderstandings, occasional rudeness, pin-pricks of embarrassment (Isabel blushes when she is reminded that if Eugene had not fallen drunkenly on his fiddle, she might not have married Minafer) that are omens of future discord.
The subtle range of mood is heightened by Welles’s (and Herrmann’s) extraordinary use of the soundtrack. The different musical styles (romantic, brash, modern, old-fashioned) provide variations on the theme of old times and new times that runs through many of the conversations. The overlapping dialogue creates a fascinating sound texture where the young people are heard as quick and loud whereas the older generation tend to be slower and more intimate. The sequence builds to a superb final section where George and Lucy converse on the stairs whilst Eugene and Isabel dance to one of Welles’s favourite waltzes, Waldteufel’s ‘Toujours ou Jamais’. Suddenly it is time to say goodnight, the camera lingering on Isabel in shadowy silhouette in the foreground of the frame after bidding farewell to Eugene whilst in the background of the shot George is boorishly trying to set up a date with Lucy which she at first declines and then accepts, as if determined to keep him off balance. All the future themes are there: parents and children; past and present; old and new; and the sudden shadow that is to fall across the Amberson household with the return of Eugene. After that night the Ambersons are never to be quite that magnificent again.
There are at least three other great scenes in the film: the single-take strawberry shortcake scene, in which Aunt Fanny’s emotional agony will cut through the domestic teasing like a sharp knife; the dinner scene, when Eugene has to make a dignified response to an outburst by George (‘Automobiles are a useless nuisance’) that seems to come suddenly out of nowhere to dash the tranquil mood; and Uncle Jack’s quiet revelation to Eugene and Lucy, without looking either of them in the eye, about Isabelle’s fading health and the reasons for it. (Ray Collins as Uncle Jack never did anything finer on film: he brings to the part such sensitivity and vigour.) The critic V. F. Perkins has claimed with some justification that the film ‘has as many marvellous shots, scenes, ideas, performances as most film-makers could hope to achieve in an entire career.’ Yet, in contradiction to the Alfred Hitchcock canard that if you have four good scenes you have a movie, Ambersons never quite hangs together. The Variety review thought that one of the problems was that “it hadn’t a single moment of contrast; it piles on and on a tale of woe”, though the more I see the film, the more it seems to me the most richly varied in mood of all Welles’s work and undoubtedly his most tender. Like other grand American film epics that failed to find an audience – from D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) to Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980) – it might just have been the wrong film at the wrong time, a film about societal and familial breakdown appearing in a post-Pearl Harbour era where audiences were looking for family and social cohesion. What Kenneth Tynan called the film’s “naked emotional intimacy” did not offer the reassurance sought.
Even now the lamentation over the film’s fate might just be premature. If missing sequences from Metropolis (1926) can turn up in Argentina eighty years after the film’s premiere, might there still be some hope that somewhere someone could unearth the missing footage that would restore Ambersons to its pre-Pomona glory? Even as late as the 1960s, Welles was considering whether it would be possible to re-shoot the final scenes with Joseph Cotten and Agnes Moorehead who, after all, were now much closer to the actual age of the characters they played; but he really wanted to move his career forward rather than re-visit and revise painful memories. After Ambersons, however, rather in the manner of Eugene’s visits to the Amberson house, doors which had formerly been open to him were now firmly closed. George Orson Welles had got his “come-uppance”; and like George Amberson Minafer whose fate he intones so movingly, “when it came, he would get it three times filled and running over…”
“Orson Welles has got to do something commercial,” wrote George Schaefer at the end of his fateful letter to Welles after the Pomona preview. “We have got to get away from ‘arty’ pictures and get back to earth. Educating the public is expensive.” Welles was never able to deliver what Hollywood wanted just as Hollywood was never able to accept the gifts that Welles offered. With Ambersons, what he was offering was something comparable in theme and stature to a masterpiece like James Joyce’s short story, ‘The Dead’: a meditation on love and loss from a twenty-odd-year old who seemed blessed with the wisdom and compassion of a man of 40. For anyone who cared to notice amidst his ribbon of broken dreams, this precocious boy wonder had matured into an artist of awesome profundity.
“It’s like meeting God without dying,” said Dorothy Parker on first encountering Orson Welles. Still in his early twenties, Welles’s fame had preceded him: the boy wonder who could read by the age of two; who could quote chunks of King Lear by the time he was seven; who had written a treatise on Nietzsche and published a best-selling book on Shakespeare before he was out of his teens. A voodoo version of Macbeth and an anti-Fascist modern-dress Julius Caesar had established his stage reputation as a stupendously original director. His sensational radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds on Halloween night in 1938 had been powerful enough to provoke mass hysteria on a scale unprecedented for the modern media, either before or since. When at the age of 25, he produced, directed, starred in and co-wrote his debut feature Citizen Kane and it turned out to have the artistry and authority of an authentic film ‘auteur’ before the term had even been invented, there seemed only one possible way Welles’s career could go: down.
When he was asked if he knew at the time he was making an important film, Welles replied with the swagger of the young Kane himself: “I never doubted it for a single instant”. Time has proved him right: Citizen Kane remains the Great American Film against which all contenders must be measured. Yet one cannot forget how closely Welles’s audacity courted catastrophe. In constructing a character portrait so close to the public and private life of the ruthless newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst who angrily tried to suppress the film, he came very close to making a masterpiece that would never be shown. Moreover, although the film radiates with the youth and precocious talents of its flamboyant collaborators, most of whom were new to the cinema, it also aches with the central character’s sense of frustrated achievement. It is a film of echo and shadow dominated by a gigantic but hollow man whose life trails into a shadow of what it might have become. Kane is always making promises, but they remain unfulfilled, like his own promise. It was as if Welles was tempting Providence, making a prophetic film of his own possible development. By a curious coincidence both Kane and Welles were to die the same age.
It would be simplistic to view Welles’s subsequent career in terms of decline or anti-climax: there were great things still in store. Nevertheless, Kane was to prove an all-but-impossible act to follow. It was to be the first and last film in which he had total control. For nearly every subsequent film, there are at least two versions – the one that Welles wishes to make, and the one that was actually released. The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) was the film in which its hero and its director get their “come-uppance”: its reduction from 131 minutes to 88 by a panicky RKO after hostile previews remains one of the most appalling acts of vandalism in screen history. Because of various privations, Macbeth (1948) had to be shot in three weeks; because of different privations, Othello (1952) took three years. In spite of a 58-page memo by Welles defending his conception, Touch of Evil (1958) was cut and re-edited by Universal studios on its initial release. His career was to have more than its fair share of disappointments as cherished projects came to nothing, leaving him at times looking a bit like Kane in Xanudu: a king in unwilling exile in a kingdom of his own devising. Equally, though, he was still able to create some of the most dazzling moments in all cinema: the Amberson ball near the beginning of The Magnificent Ambersons, their world seen in all its splendour before the decline; the Hall of Mirrors finale in The Lady from Shanghai (1947), piling layer upon layer of visual deception; the astounding opening tracking shot of Touch of Evil, to show how everything is interconnected and being sucked into the main path of the narrative; the breathtaking but brutal spectacle of the Battle of Shrewsbury in Chimes at Midnight (1966), which signals the end of Merrie England. These are all caught in that unmistakable virtuoso camera-style of his that he said “describes that sense of vertigo, uncertainty, lack of stability, that melange of movement and tension that is our universe.”
Welles’s style reflected his world-view: it was impossible to separate one from the other. He was fascinated by two main character types: the innocent who has his eyes opened to the guilty world around him; and the egomaniac who wants to dominate that world. He anatomised the corrupting effects of power. The situation that aroused his strongest emotion was the act of personal betrayal, occurring between men who had seemed the best of friends or closest of confidantes: Kane and Leland, Harry Lime and Holly (The Third Man (1949)), Othello and Iago, Quinlan and Menzies (Touch of Evil), Falstaff and Prince Hal (Chimes at Midnight). “Betrayal is the big thing with me,” Welles told Peter Bogdanovich, “it’s almost a prime sin”. The theme resonated with him because he saw himself as the victim of many such betrayals in his own life. The critic Penelope Houston memorably described him as “the man the cinema has on its conscience”. In his obituary on Welles, director John Huston (who was playing the leading role in one of Welles’s numerous unfinished projects, The Other Side of the Wind) declared: “What a shame – and I mean that literally – that one of the finest talents motion pictures has ever had was rejected out of hand.”
Yet to what extent was it the industry’s fault that, in Janet Leigh’s phrase, “his genius was not more fully used”? Was the betrayal in some way self-inflicted? Was there an element of playing the martyr almost as alibi for the possibility of artistic failure? Here was a man with gargantuan gifts – probably the most all-round talented artist the cinema has ever seen – who somehow, in some way, let it slip through his fingers: one even thinks subliminally of Harry Lime poking his fingers through the grating in The Third Man in a vain bid for freedom. Failure in Welles almost seems willed sometimes: the films returning obsessively to the theme of decline and fall, and his most memorable characters sinking as low as it is possible for man to go: Harry Lime dying in a sewer, Quinlan perishing in effluent.
Welles was a fascinating and charismatic magician of the cinema, even as he metamorphosed from the Kane of his youth to the Falstaff of his later years: a crown prince who had become something of a court-jester. Even as one is dazzled by his direction, one should not underestimate Welles’s greatness as an actor, one who, in Derek Jarman’s admiring estimation, “could punch holes in the screen”. Yet even here how typical it is that his most memorable screen incarnation, Harry Lime occupies only about eight minutes of the film’s length and that his greatest moment on screen was a spur-of-the moment improvisation: his impromptu, off-the cuff speech on behalf of Lime (perfectly in character and delivered with matchless irony and breath control) about the Renaissance, the Swiss and the cuckoo-clock. As with Charles Foster Kane, so with Welles: you are left with a sense of sadness and waste. Yet, with Citizen Kane, you are left with a sense of awe at the creator behind it. Also, like the reporter Thompson in Citizen Kane, who has investigated the character but misses the key to the puzzle, you are tantalised by a mystery. The magnificence of Welles is as incontestable as that of the Ambersons but it is an incomplete magnificence, fragments more than monuments: why? Is the clue to this incompleteness professional, artistic or biographical? Might there be a “Rosebud” in Welles’s life? As Kane’s most faithful friend, Bernstein (and how curious it is that he has the same name as Welles’s guardian as a young man) says: “That Rosebud you’re trying to find out about… Maybe that was something he lost…”
Readers of this short article will be forgiven if their initial response is: “Frank who?” And if they then consult a variety of respected reference sources (e.g. Halliwell, Katz, the BFI’s screenonline website, Robert Murphy’s edited anthology of British and Irish directors, Brian McFarlane’s epic Encyclopaedia of British Cinema) they will be none the wiser, for he is not mentioned in any of them. A BFI Film Forever source cites a Frank Nesbitt who was born in Chicago in 1938 and died in 1990, but he seems to be simply the namesake of the director with whom we are concerned, who was born in South Shields on 27 June 1932 and died in Los Angeles at the age of 74. He directed three feature films in the 1960s and early 1970s whilst he was still in his thirties, but then, to the best of my knowledge, never made another film.
My curiosity in him was piqued when I was researching the career of Carol White for a booklet I was writing for the Network blu-ray release of John Mackenzie’s film Made (1972). I had never seen Frank Nesbitt’s film, Dulcima (1971), in which White co-starred with John Mills and which was considered good enough to be a British entry at the Berlin Film Festival. There is no reference to it in the BFI’s critical anthology, Seventies British Cinema (2008). Gill Plain’s fine study of John Mills’s career in her book, John Mills and British Cinema (2006) contains no reference to Dulcima either, although it seems to me (having now caught up with the film) one of the finest character performances of the actor’s later career. Curiously, Mills’s own autobiography, Up in the Clouds, Gentlemen Please does not mention it.1 Perhaps he thought the subject was a little too close to home: he plays a middle-aged man who falls in love with a woman who is thirty years younger than he is; that same year his daughter Hayley, without her father’s full approval, was marrying a man 33 years her senior, the producer/director Roy Boulting.
Dulcima had been one of the projects undertaken by Bryan Forbes during his brief and ill-fated tenure as head of EMI film production; and in his autobiography, A Divided Life, Forbes described the two leading performances as “beautifully judged”. Unfortunately he spelled the name of the director incorrectly and omitted him from the index. Forbes was distressed that the film did not receive the appreciation he felt it deserved. This was partly due, he felt, to poor marketing and distribution. Also the reviews tended to be lukewarm. “It’s neat, but nothing,” opined Time Out, in the kind of dismissive review that can destroy an artist’s soul. Could the poor commercial return and the dismal critical response to his film have been the factors which disillusioned Nesbitt with the film industry?
During the 1960s, he had made a short, Search for Oil in Nigeria (1960), and been an assistant director on such films as Terence Fisher’s The Horror of it All (1964) and John Gilling’s The Brigand of Kandahar (1965). He had also directed two British B-movies, Walk a Tightrope (1963) and Do You Know this Voice? (1964), both of which starred that estimable Hollywood heavy, Dan Duryea. Steve Rogers of Network distributors (who, to their credit, have released all three Nesbitt features on dvd) described these films to me as “belonging to the bizarre sub-genre of fading American stars in weird British b-movies.” “Bizarre” and “weird” they are, but also absorbing and well crafted.
In Walk a Tightrope, Duryea plays a dock-worker, Carl Lutcher, with a propensity to violence, living a precarious and unfulfilled existence with his devoted girl-friend (Shirley Cameron). “You know something?” he tells her, “I hate people.” From what we are to learn about his childhood, his period in a mental institution and his treatment in a coroner’s court, he has every reason to do so. What has triggered it in this particular instance, however, is that he has carried out a hit on a London architect, Jason Shepperd (Terence Cooper) at the behest, and in the presence, of Shepperd’s wife, Ellen (Patricia Owens), only for her to react hysterically to her husband’s murder. When Lutcher demands that she pay the remaining money she promised, she strenuously denies agreeing to any such arrangement. Unbeknown to both of them, Shepperd’s best friend, Doug (Richard Leech), who was in the house at the time of the shooting and had been knocked out, has regained consciousness sufficiently to overhear the exchange between wife and killer before Lutcher makes good his escape. He is appalled by what he has heard: what can it mean? Doug is later persuaded by Ellen that she is telling the truth and reassured by her determination to catch the killer of her husband, to whom she had been married for only six months and to whom she seemed utterly devoted. “Yes, get him,” she says. “I’d give my soul.” With her assistance, the police will apprehend Lutcher and he will be tried in a coroner’s court. Whilst admitting to the murder, the accused still insists (and despite the absence of any obvious motive on the wife’s part) that Mrs Shepperd had hired him to kill her husband. When she denies this on oath and the court accepts her testimony over his, he can only retort: “May you rot in hell!” For the benefit of readers who might wish to see the film for themselves, I will not disclose the surprise twist. Suffice to say, that although some viewers might well have solved the mystery before the end, I was completely taken in and did not see it coming.
According to the film’s publicity, Walk a Tightrope was shot in ten days and edited in six. If so, it is quite an achievement, because it looks a proficient piece of film-making. For a B-movie, its technical credentials are impressive. The effective photography and score are by seasoned professionals, Basil Emmott and Buxton Orr, respectively. The screenplay is by the experienced film and television writer, Mann Rubin, who is probably best known for his screenplays for Hollywood movies such as The Best of Everything (1959), Warning Shot (1966) and the Frank Sinatra thriller, The First Deadly Sin (1980). The co-starring of Patricia Owens opposite Dan Duryea also adds a touch of quality, for she would have been a familiar presence to regular cinema audiences of the time, having appeared in a number of popular and prestigious Hollywood movies of the late 1950s, including Sayonara, No Down Payment and Island in the Sun (all 1957), not to mention possibly her most memorable film role in the horror classic, The Fly (1958) and her appearance in my favourite John Sturges western, The Law and Jake Wade (1958). She was also directed by Alfred Hitchcock in an episode from his tv series Alfred Hitchcock Presents entitled ‘The Crystal Trench’ (1959), which had a plot that seems somewhat similar to that of the recent British film, 45 Years (2015). Stardom seemed to beckon, but it never quite materialised, and she was to retire from the screen in 1968. Here she gives deceptive depth to a character who is not quite what she seems; and she more than holds her own in the courtroom scenes with Duryea, even when sporting headgear intended to signify mourning but which looks more like a lamp-shade than a hat. The character might seem demure on the surface, but, when someone says to her, “You didn’t hate me that much”, Owens delivers an answering look of such withering hostility that it credibly causes the man to retreat from the room. It is one of those performances that works well enough on one seeing, but, on a second viewing, and with full knowledge of the final narrative twist, gains an added layer of surprise and conviction.
The same could be said for Frank Nesbitt’s direction, where certain plot moments are given emphasis in a way that makes perfect sense in narrative terms on a first viewing but accrue additional significance with hindsight. The early scenes of pursuit and the scene in the café when the heroine is unexpectedly greeted by her husband and his best friend are an illustration of this. The shock moments – Duryea suddenly bursting into their home, or the moment when he surprises the heroine in the pub when she is beginning to suspect he might not be coming – are particularly well delivered. Modest in means it may be, but, as a supporting feature (and as a feature directing debut), Walk a Tightrope is a cut above average.
The production company that made Walk a Tightrope, Parrock-McCallum (i.e. Jack Parsons and Neil McCallum) was also responsible the following year for Do You Know This Voice?, adapted by McCallum from a 1960 novel by the esteemed American thriller writer, Evelyn Berckman. The kidnapping of a schoolboy for ransom goes horribly wrong when the boy is accidentally killed (offscreen) by one of the kidnappers, who nevertheless presses ahead with his claim for ransom in the hope that the parents will pay up before the body is discovered. Unlike in the novel, where the identity of the kidnappers is not disclosed until halfway through, in the film we are quickly made aware of the guilty party. He is a hospital orderly, John Hopta (Dan Duryea), an American who has remained in England after the war and who has committed the crime in league with his English wife, Jackie (Gwen Watford). The police have no clues, apart from the testimony of an old Italian lady, Mrs Marotta (Isa Miranda), who happens to be the Hoptas’ next-door neighbour and on friendly terms with the husband. She was outside the phone-box when the final call for ransom was being made. Because she was retrieving coins that she had dropped on the ground, she did not get a good look at the caller’s face, but there was something about the feet and the shoes that had struck her as not quite right and she thinks she will be able to remember more in time. The police have recorded the phone call with the ransom demand and broadcast it in the hope that someone will recognise the voice. In the meantime, Mrs Marotta has set herself up as bait by letting the press know that she caught a glimpse of the killer and could recognise him if she saw him again.
Having set up the characters and situation very concisely, Nesbitt now contrives a number of neat suspense sequences that follow from a strikingly-angled, noir-ish shot of Duryea in his home, as he muses that “I’ll have to kill her. The little old lady knows.” The murder attempts are not without a vein of black humour, as if Nesbitt has absorbed some of the strategies of Mackendick’s The Ladykillers (1955) and Crichton’s The Battle of the Sexes (1960). On the first occasion, Hopta’s attempt to silence the little old lady is thwarted by the whistle of a boiling kettle, causing Mrs Marotta to swerve abruptly out of the range of Hopta’s noose: a murder averted by the prospect of a cup of tea. (A cup of tea will also play an important role in the unmasking of the kidnappers in one of the film’s final scenes.) In a second attempt, Hopta will steal out of his house at the crack of dawn to slip some poison into Mrs Marotta’s bottle of milk on her doorstep. (Those were the days when the local milkman delivered milk on your doorstep as part of his morning round.) Yet this will also be thwarted during a tense scene round the kitchen table with Mrs Marotta, Hopta and a young policeman who has been sent to protect her, for the first creature to sample the milk will be the hapless family cat, Bruno, who will promptly collapse and die. The final murder attempt is without any comic diversion. Hopta has broken into her house wearing a stocking mask over his face. The large alternating close-ups when he confronts Mrs Marotta in the kitchen unnervingly convey both the threat he represents and the overwhelming fear she feels.
The film is competently acted, but also interestingly characterised. Duryea’s character is a variation on the part he played in Walk the Tightrope: an embittered misanthrope who feels that life has consistently dealt him a bad hand, forcing him finally to resort to crime. He shows little sign of remorse for the death he has caused: indeed he even suggests he might have done the boy a favour. “He’s better off than the rest of us,” he says. “He died when he was clean and innocent.” He has wrongly assumed that, because the boy went to an expensive school, the parents must be rich, which is not the case, so the plan seems doomed from the outset. That usually serene actress, Gwen Watford is unexpectedly intense here, strongly and even poignantly suggesting the anguish of a wife who has lived for years with a man she loves but who senses an aura of failure about him that could frustrate their last attempt at some sort of freedom and happiness. As the old lady, Isa Miranda sensitively conveys the personality of a warm-hearted and courageous woman who still feels something of an outsider in a foreign land. There are fine performances also from Alan Edwards and Shirley Cameron as the boy’s parents, expressing the depth of their grief in completely different ways. And incidentally, whatever happened to Shirley Cameron? She gives sympathetic, contrasting performances in both these films, but seems to have done nothing afterwards on screen.
I would like to put in a word here also for Canadian born actor, Neil McCallum, who died at the age of only 46 in 1976 and who, if he is mentioned at all in reference books on British cinema, is briefly referred to as a beefy, burly actor who appeared in tough-guy roles in films such as The Siege of Pinchgut (1959) and The War Lover (1962). (The latter is the film the heroine of Walk a Tightrope has gone to see when she is being followed by the villain: a nice in-joke.) McCallum has a small acting role in Walk a Tightrope as a prosecuting counsel; but, as these two Nesbitt films remind us, he was not simply a reliable supporting actor but a talented producer and screenwriter as well. His screenplay for Do You Know This Voice? is an excellent adaptation that, in several respects, seems to me a distinct improvement on its source. At the simplest level, he has transposed the action from America to England; changed the nationality of the old lady from Czechoslovakian to Italian; and streamlined the narrative, eliminating a number of characters and a redundant subplot involving an unconvincing affair between the police officer who is investigating the case and the old lady’s daughter-in-law. Skilfully, he has turned one of the weakest points of the novel (the coincidence of the person outside the phone box just happening to the kidnapper’s next-door neighbour) into a moment of fateful dramatic irony, for, in the film, it is Hopta who has suggested that Mrs Marotta call her niece and even given her some coins for that purpose, an act of kindness that will account for her presence outside the phone box and unwittingly bring about his own downfall. (I am reminded of what that great screenwriter William Rose said was the main theme of The Ladykillers: “In the Worst of All Men there is a little bit of Good – that will destroy them.”) The friendship between Hopta and the old lady adds an extra dimension of complexity to the drama. Whereas in the novel the husband-and-wife kidnappers are irredeemably nasty and villainous, in the film they are more desperate than evil and have a genuine devotion to each other, which gives the twist at the end a sadness which far transcends that of the finale of the novel. It is a clever script that, with all the other elements, helps to make the film a decidedly superior slice of British film noir.
Adapted by Nesbitt from a 1953 novella by H.E,Bates, and finely photographed entirely on location in colour by Tony Imi, Dulcima tells the story of a young country girl of that name (Carol White), who seeks an escape from a life of drudgery at home by becoming housekeeper and then occasional lover of a middle-aged farmer, Mr Parker (John Mills), whom she has first encountered in a drunken heap outside his cottage and discovered a pile of money hidden in his hat. As she improves his living surroundings, he becomes more and more attached to her; and she keeps him at arm’s length for part of the time by inventing a boyfriend called “Albert”, who, she says, might disapprove strongly of their relationship. As the novella puts it: “Albert came gradually forward into the situation not simply as a third party but as a watchful and terrifying eye keeping guard on her.” The situation becomes more complicated when she meets and falls for a young gamekeeper (Stuart Wilson), whom Parker assumes is the “Albert” she has mentioned. Parker proposes marriage; but when he sees Dulcima and the gamekeeper together, he will be consumed by jealousy, and things will end will an unexpected eruption of violence. Bates described his novella as “ a tragedy of the underdeveloped”.
Nesbitt’s adaptation keeps fairly close to the original, with some judicious additions and modifications. He elaborates on the novella’s market scenes, not simply for local colour but for crucial motivation, since it is Dulcima’s observation of Parker’s low cunning in getting the best deals for himself on these occasions that provides her with the justification for her own deceptions. Nesbitt’s depiction of her home life is grim enough to account for her migration to Mr Parker’s and her determination to milk the situation for what it is worth, even if it involves a few sexual favours along the way. For a time the story chugs along with the earthy hedonistic humour that television audiences would later see as characteristic of H.E. Bates in his Darling Buds of May mode. Yet Nesbitt plants a few clues early on that developments in this central relationship, where genuine affection contends with secret greed and dishonesty, could take an ominous turn. In fact, at one stage when she exaggerates the farmer’s anger if he sees the gamekeeper encroaching on his land, Dulcima unwittingly predicts the tragic outcome.
It is hard to imagine how the two leading performances could have been bettered. Carol White is marvellous at suggesting the unease lurking beneath the surface of the heroine’s duplicity and for conveying the dilemma of an essentially kind-hearted person, who does not wish to hurt Mr Parker but is torn between her desire to escape rural poverty and the new romantic feelings stirring in her for the gamekeeper. John Mills is particularly fine in the last part of the film, when his fear of losing Dulcima leads to a frightening explosion of drunken rage as he confronts her and then wrecks the living room they have built up together and tears up the wedding dress he has bought for her. Nesbitt’s imaginative addition to the novella’s ending (unlike in Bates’s story, Dulcima has decided to stay with Mr Parker rather than leave) makes it even more ironic and painful..
Taking the three films together, one would not claim Nesbitt to be a particularly distinctive stylist. He knows how to tell a story; and he knows how to get good results from his actors and technicians. Just occasionally he can be guilty of labouring a point (e.g. the use of animal imagery to suggest Parker’s lusting after the heroine in Dulcima or the over-emphatic shot of the poisoned glass in Do You Know This Voice?), but he can deliver shock effects in his films, of which there are a few, with impressive force. Shoes are important in all three films, but one would hesitate to build an auteurist case out of that.
Yet there is one thing that particularly struck me as consistent about all three films and marked them out as being bold and unusual in mainstream cinema: they all end unhappily, and in rather similar ways. In all of them, a main character is left at the end in a state of complete mental collapse. All three films are about schemes which go awry, and where the wrong people get caught up in the crossfire of desire and deceit. In all of them there is an innocent victim who is killed. None of them has a redeeming love story; and although all involve crime of one sort or another, the forces of law are either ineffectual or invisible. In the two films that are adaptations, Nesbitt adds twists that are not in the originals but give an extra touch of blighted fortune to the fates of torn and tormented main characters who are seeking salvation from a miserable domestic and social situation. All three films afford the characters a tantalising glimpse of a better future, but then disaster strikes just at the point when things seem finally okay and they can move forward. “It’s all over.” says Gwen Watford’s wife in relief at the end of Do You Know This Voice?: alas, she speaks more truly than she knows. What a strangely pessimistic and intriguing portfolio of work: was the pessimism somehow prophetic? When talking about Dulcima in his autobiography, Bryan Forbes described Frank Nesbitt as a “young director starting out on a career” who, he wrote, “showed great promise in his handling of this melodramatic bucolic tale.” Promise? Starting out? We know now that Nesbitt was not starting out on a directing career but packing up; and one would love to know why.
Thanks to Network DVD for providing the image of Frank Nesbitt and John Mills at the top of this article.
The following is a slightly edited transcript of the audio commentary I gave for the Criterion Classics DVD release of Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole. (I was also interviewed about the film on the Masters of Cinema DVD/blu ray release.) This essay will probably make more sense if you have viewed the film recently. I’ve kept the relatively informal style and hope the commentary will be of interest. For a number of reasons, personal and artistic, no director has been more important to me than Billy Wilder.
Plain credits on a parched, soil surface: Ace in the Hole announces itself immediately as a gritty film featuring characters with hearts of stone. The name that dominates the credits is writer/producer/director Billy Wilder; and Ace in the Hole (1951) is following on from such hard-hitting Wilder movies as Double Indemnity in 1944, The Lost Weekend in 1945 and Sunset Boulevard in 1950 which shone a harsh spotlight on unsavoury aspects of American life. Like other acclaimed writer-directors of the 1940s in Hollywood, such as Preston Sturges, John Huston and Joseph L.Mankiewicz, Wilder had become a director to protect his own scripts. ‘It isn’t important that a director knows how to write,’ he would say, ‘but it is important that he knows how to read.’
‘Tell the Truth’: Enter Chuck Tatum
Wilder was very adroit at giving his main characters memorable entrances – think of Marilyn Monroe’s first entry as Sugar Kane in Some like it Hot (1959) where she gets a wolf whistle from a train – and Kirk Douglas’s first appearance as Chuck Tatum, as he is towed into Albuquerque, is appropriately unorthodox here. Wilder is establishing three things very quickly: that Tatum is down on his luck; that he is nevertheless good at exploiting even adverse situations to his advantage, so he gives the appearance of being chauffeured into town; and also that he is interested in newspapers – and looking around for the next angle or opportunity.
Passing the offices of the Albuquerque Sun Bulletin he will see his chance. As he enters the office, he passes a Native American cutting up pictures for the front page, ‘How,’ he says. ‘Good afternoon, sir,’ replies the man. That’s a slight exchange but a significant one. It shows quickly Tatum’s cockiness, sarcasm, even racial insensitivity, all qualities that are to have some importance in the revelation of his character.
Cherish the moment when he enters the office and surveys a scene of busy routine, almost more like a schoolroom than a newsroom: it is one of the few occasions, certainly in the early part of the film, where he is quiet. But he is doing what he often does in such moments: sizing things up. He moves to the front of the frame as if in assertion of his own ego: no question in his mind that he should occupy centre stage.
Whereas most people might say ‘Excuse me’, Tatum rings for attention: a slide of the typewriter carriage whose ‘ping’ announces his presence and demands service. It’s an incisive metaphor for the way he uses a typewriter to grab attention (the essence of his profession, in his eyes). When Herbie goes to tell his boss that Charles Tatum from New York is here to see him with a scheme that will make him $200, Tatum uses the typewriter carriage to ignite his match for his cigarette – nothing as ordinary as a matchbox for Chuck: he has, as one might say, flair. The brief exchange with the cub reporter, Herbie, played by Bob Arthur, has a nice moment too, presaging their future friendship. When Herbie returns Chuck’s ‘cagey, eh?’ there’s a flicker of acknowledgement in Chuck’s face as if sensing he has found someone with a little spark.
There is another key detail in this scene: Mr Boot’s sign ‘Tell the Truth’ which Tatum surveys with some amusement. There’s a double-edged irony here: in one sense, the sign is a perfect representation of him, because precisely what he does is embroider the truth; but much later in the film, when he does try to tell the truth, nobody wants to listen.
Mr Boot is played by one of Hollywood’s most reliable supporting players of the time, Porter Hall, who was in Double Indemnity as the passenger on the observation car on that fateful train, and whom I particularly remember as one of the studio bosses trying to dissuade Joel McRae’s idealistic director from making ‘O Brother where art thou?’ in Preston Sturges’s dark satire about Hollywood, Sullivan Travels (1941). The scene resembles an early scene in Sunset Boulevard when William Holden’s down-at-heel screenwriter has to make a sales pitch to a potential employer who seems hard to impress. However, whereas Holden’s screenwriter tries at least to charm his way into the boss’s good graces, Tatum wears his arrogance like a red badge of courage. ‘Even for Albuquerque this is very Albuquerque,’ he sniffs, contemptuously, when offering his opinion on Boot’s newspaper. Tatum’s pitch emphasises his big-city expertise. He knows newspapers backwards and sideways and can write to order: if there’s no news, he says, he’ll go out and bite a dog. So what is he doing in Albuquerque, a $250 a week newspaperman offering his services for $50?
Wilder once again makes shrewd use of Boot’s ‘Tell the Truth’ notice to make a point. Tatum advertises his credentials but shows how observant he is: he could lie pretty well, he says, but he would never lie to man who wears belt and suspenders, because that betokens a cautious man who would check his facts. (A similar character, incidentally, crops up in Wilder’s The Spirit of St Louis.) Boot is unfazed by this revelation of journalistic brilliance compromised by human frailty, but the character seems extreme even for Wilder (a director famously described by William Holden as ‘a man with a mind full of razor blades’) and at this juncture it might be worth saying something about the casting and screen persona of Kirk Douglas.
Born Issur Danielovitch Demsky and son of an immigrant Russian-Jewish ragman, Douglas had begun his film career after World War Two and had played a range of roles, from the villain in the classic film noir Build My Gallows High in 1947 to a teacher in Joseph Mankiewicz’s Oscar-winning A Letter to Three Wives in 1949 to an exceptionally charming gentleman caller in the film version of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie in 1950. But the part that particularly defined his screen personality at this time, which was his first starring role and his first Oscar nomination, was the boxer in Champion (1949), a man who will stop at nothing in his ruthless drive to get to the top. Douglas was one of a new breed of stars who could make an anti-hero fascinating; and, with a director who was also not afraid to go against the grain, it makes for an abrasive combination. Even Douglas asked if the character might be given a bit more charm, but Wilder refused. ‘Give it both knees, right from the beginning,’ he told him.
Yet I think Wilder still manages very cannily to suggest a vulnerability in Tatum that just occasionally pierces his armour of arrogance. I’m intrigued by the small detail that during the scene he keeps lowering his price, from 50 to 45, to 40 per week: for all the bravado, he really badly wants this job. He gives the reason why in a striking low angle shot that makes him look menacing but at the same time gives the impression of his momentarily staring into an abyss: that he’s burnt his boats as well as the bearings on his convertible and his only chance back now is a break in a small newspaper that will have the wire services clamouring for his skills. ‘When they need you, they forgive and forget,’ he says. It’s hard not to feel that Wilder might have had Hollywood in his mind when composing that line. When watching Tatum at this point – where there seems to be both fire and fear in what he says – I think of that Scott Fitzgerald maxim in his uncompleted final novel about Hollywood, The Last Tycoon: ‘There are no second acts in American lives’.
Land of entrapment
There’s a great shot when he comes out of Boot’s office and they point to his desk. The camera placement actually anticipates the very last shot of the film, when Tatum will be back where he started – only worse. He walks directly to the front of the frame at which point the screen goes black, in a device that seems to me Wilder has stolen directly from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, his famous ten-minute-take film of 1948, played out in continuous time and where the transition from one reel to the next was contrived through a character walking directly in front of the camera to enable the transition to be made. Whereas Rope used it to maintain an illusion of continuous time, Wilder deploys it to mark a time lapse. When Tatum strides back away from the camera, a year has passed: the camera’s immobility matches that of Tatum’s progress. There’s a nifty touch of costuming too: notice that now he is wearing both belt and suspenders, perhaps in mock homage to Boot’s hold over him; but he is also wearing a black shirt which sets him apart from the other people in the room but also has uncomfortable connotations from Europe’s recent past. He will be wearing it constantly as he begins to exert a dictator-like grasp of the media’s potential to help him develop his scheme; when this grip starts to slip, it will be signalled by a change of clothing.
‘Thanks, Geronimo,’ he says to his co-worker when his lunch is delivered. The casually racist remark rankles – as it is meant to do, for later he is to become involved in matters that the Native Americans hold sacred. To Tatum – and to invoke the title of another great newspaper movie – nothing’s sacred. Even the words of President Roosevelt are parodied when he cites that day as one that will live in infamy – they have stopped serving him chopped chicken livers. As he starts complaining about the food, it’s clear that something is eating him. Behind his desk is a sign that reads ‘New Mexico – Land of Enchantment’ – but for Tatum it is a land of entrapment, a ‘sun-baked Siberia’, as he puts it, and it sets him off on what is clearly a familiar tirade against the quality of life there and what he was used to. ‘No Yogi Barra,’ he shouts and then asks Miss Deverish if she knows who Yogi Barra is. (Actually Kirk Douglas himself didn’t pick up that reference and had to have it explained to him by his secretary – that Yogi Barra was a legendary catcher for the New York Yankees. Wilder always delighted in slipping in references to American sports.) ‘Yogi…’ she replies, ‘it’s a sort of religion, isn’t it?’ Tatum picks up the analogy and runs with it, but in her quiet way, Miss Deverish is alluding again to a potential religious sub-theme that will be developed later.
‘What do you do for NOISE around here?’ he shouts – so loudly that we can see newsmen in an adjoining room looking through the window to see what the commotion is about. It’s obviously a much repeated wail, as Herbie points out – ‘Is this is one of your long-playing records, Chuck?’ – but notice how unobtrusively Wilder suggests that at least Tatum and Herbie have grown a little closer over the year: Herbie now calls him ‘Chuck’ and now ignites his match for him by repeating the routine with the typewriter carriage, like the famous routine with cigar and match shared between Fred MacMurray and Edward G.Robinson in Double Indemnity to suggest their friendship. Tatum is still looking for that elusive break, which he evocatively describes as the ‘loaf of bread with a file in it’. He paces the newsroom like a prisoner in a cell, and the imagery of prison, of feeling trapped – literally and metaphorically – is to be a pervasive motif.
Nevertheless, although one might deplore the sentiments, one is drawn to the dynamism: it’s a dichotomy that will provide a major source of the film’s dramatic tension. He is, after all, the only source of movement and vitality in the office: he’ll be the film’s driving force. And as in the earlier scene prior to his meeting with Boot, he will start pulling the leg of Miss Deverish, suggesting she involves herself in a trunk murder (another sly allusion to Rope, perhaps?) and growls, as if wishing to put a tiger in her tank. Miss Deverish, incidentally, is played by one of those infallible Hollywood supporting players, Edith Evanson. She is forever associated in my mind with that figure of Fate she plays in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953), limping bravely towards the camera to disclose at great personal risk a crucial piece of evidence to Glenn Ford’s vengeful cop that will set him on the path to justice.
We have seen Boot enter unnoticed by Tatum – not the only time in the film he is to do that, appearing like a headmaster behind a naughty pupil who is acting up in class. He even thinks he has caught out Tatum drinking on the job: earlier he has told him of the drinking ban at work and asked if Tatum drank a lot. ‘Not a lot but frequently,’ is Tatum’s reply. Along with his clothing, alcohol will be another later signifier of his loss of control: he can resist temptation when things are going well, but when things deteriorate, so does he. In this instance, like many a Wilder protagonist, Boot has misread a visual image because he has not seen the complete picture. The bottle is in fact for Tatum’s model ship made out of matches and toothpicks: ingenious, but an object that signifies Tatum’s feelings of boredom and also perhaps of claustrophobia. Coverage of a rattlesnake hunt will at least get him out of the office – and maybe out of a rut.
‘Good news is no news’
What I like about the little scene that follows between Tatum and Herbie as they drive to the hunt is its purpose of progression. Ostensibly, it’s just a nice contrast to the Albuquerque scenes which, in their interiority, were getting a little claustrophobic. We see Tatum relaxing, as before being chauffeured to his next assignment. It’s developing a bit further the budding friendship between Tatum and Herbie, with Herbie as a useful foil to Tatum: he gives him someone to talk to; his callow attitudes are contrasted with Tatum’s outrageousness, giving us something to measure it against; but Herbie almost at times becomes representative of the audience, taken aback by the way Tatum’s mind works. Whereas Herbie thinks the rattlesnake hunt might be more exciting than Tatum gives it credit for, Tatum suggests that the thing that would make it really exciting would be if 50 rattlesnakes escaped and they were rounded up until one was unaccounted for. ‘Where’s the last rattler?’ Herbie asks. ‘In my desk drawer, fan.’ Wilder is already preparing the way for Tatum’s handling of the cave-in story (and, in a way, also preparing the way for the appearance of the Sheriff, who keeps a pet rattlesnake in a box). When Tatum stumbles across it, it’s as if the groundwork has already been cleared in his mind. And we’re seeing the contrast between Tatum’s style of journalism and that of Herbie, brought up under the ‘Tell the Truth’ tutelage of Mr Boot. What has Herbie learned from Tatum? ‘Bad news sells best because good news is no news.’
There’s a nice sense of pacing and contrast in the next passage as well as delayed dramatic revelation that adds to the suspense. Wilder is close now to the core situation of his drama and he wants to lead you into it gradually and drop a few clues to add intrigue before the full revelation. The shot from inside the store window is an indicator of that. It is the most striking shot of the film so far and signalling something very significant is occurring inside or about to be revealed there.
Narrative curiosity is sustained a little longer as Herbie comes across an old lady fervently praying. Herbie’s intrusion feels like something of a sacrilege (an anticipation on a minor scale of a future dramatic theme) but our curiosity is furthered by the fact that the woman takes no notice of him and indeed seems unaware of his entry. Clearly the subject of her prayer is the entire focus of her attention which in turns hints at its seriousness. It’s a nice touch that Herbie doesn’t immediately grasp the significance of all this, certainly in terms of its potential for a story: he’s just puzzled and intrigued. But when he comes out to tell Tatum about it, Tatum’s antennae are immediately on the alert (‘Praying?’) and almost simultaneously a police siren is heard, connecting these two things. There’s a dark irony here: a feeling that he instinctively and almost immediately senses that this might be what he’s been looking for – or, in other words, that this might be the answer to his prayer. There’s time for him to make another crack in racially-dubious taste – ‘Maybe they’ve got a warrant for Sitting Bull for that Custer rap’ – before they drive to investigate what is happening, passing the sign that advertises the mine that was discovered by the Indians 450 years ago. Entry is free: it won’t stay that way for long.
Enter the Minosas
We are introduced to the film’s other key character, Lorraine Minosa (Jan Sterling) – a sweet-sounding name for one of the sourest characters in the whole of Wilder’s work. Skilful dramatist that he is, Wilder not only uses the character’s appearance for dramatic exposition but to push the narrative a little further, just through one phrase she uses about her husband: ‘dumb cluck’. It’s an immediate revelation of her attitude: that he had it coming, and that she’s more angry than anxious. At this point Tatum goes a bit quiet, letting Lorraine disclose herself in her own words, obviously sizing her up, and picking up not only her exasperation at her husband but her dislike of her surroundings. What he is not picking up – and could not possibly at that stage – is that the character sitting next to him will prove to be his nemesis.
A Deputy Sheriff (Gene Evans) is dealing with the situation – and not very sensitively or sympathetically. If he’s the deputy Sheriff, what on earth is the Sheriff like? Wilder again is using cunning delaying tactics to add greater impact to the later introduction of the Sheriff, who will be drawn into Tatum’s plan and whose clear disreputableness will be the yardstick by which the lowness of the scheme will be judged and condemned. I’ve always thought Wilder was taking a great risk here in offering such an unflattering portrayal of the forces of law and order at a time when such subversive characterisations could have been construed as being un-American. Even the Hollywood censor, blind to the blistering criticism of other aspects of the film, was to be perturbed by the fact that no obvious punishment will be meted out to a figure like the Sheriff who seems irredeemably corrupt. But then, as we shall see, the film’s distribution of punishment and retribution will be very idiosyncratic.
We are also introduced here to Leo Minosa’s father, Papa Minosa (John Berkes), who will turn out to be one of the few humane characters we will encounter in the entire film. Through him, we learn that Leo has been trapped for about 6 hours in the cave and is down about 200 to 300 feet. To this, another dimension is added: when the Deputy tries to get the Native Americans to go in after Leo, they won’t – for them it’s a sacred place that has been violated and they are afraid of ‘bad spirits’.
It is the longest time that Tatum has been out of the narrative. It’s not filmed as a point of view shot, but there is a sense that while the scene is playing, Tatum is watching, waiting, listening, taking it all in. It’s the moment when he hears about the ‘bad spirits’ and ‘the mountain of the Seven Vultures’ that something clicks and he gets out of the car: you can almost feel his blood quickening as he senses the stirrings of a story, the possibility of an angle. Nothing is going to keep him out of that cave – certainly not that boorish Deputy Sheriff.
A short scene with the Deputy is a sharp little cameo because it gives a positive thrust to Tatum’s aggression. We know Tatum’s motives for wanting to go into that cave are far from altruistic: the snap of violence when he snatches the torch shows how determined he is. At the same time we enjoy the way he puts down an unpleasant character, exposing the coward beneath the bully. There is something attractive as well as appalling about his audacity and arrogance. At this particular point he is cutting through obstructive bureaucracy, getting something done. One of the ironies here – and it is to gather uncomfortable momentum as the film progresses – is that Tatum’s behaviour attracts the gratitude and devotion of Leo’s father, who sees him as Leo’s saviour. ‘God bless you,’ he says to Tatum as he prepares to enter the cave: that sentiment will be given a vicious twist both by the ultimate outcome of Tatum’s involvement with Leo, and Wilder’s visual handling of it. And like the master dramatist he is, Wilder adds a final twist of the knife. ‘Tell him we’ll get him out, tell him not to worry,’ says Leo’s father, to which Lorraine adds, ‘Tell him we’ll have a big coming-out party and brass band.’ Her sarcasm is a measure of the anger and scorn she feels at her husband’s foolhardiness, but Wilder is also subliminally preparing the ground for the grotesque celebratory carnival that is about to form to greet Leo’s anticipated rescue. We are left with that telling visual contrast: Lorraine smoking – fuming, in fact – and Papa Minosa crossing himself in prayer, a gesture that reminds us of how this whole thing started, when Herbie came across Leo’s mother. As Tatum and Herbie enter that cave, Wilder is deepening the implications of his tale: are we entering a tale of rescue and redemption, or of selfishness and sacrilege?
‘The human interest story’: Herbie and Floyd Collins
Tatum leads the way: it’s clearly a master/pupil relationship now, with Tatum giving Herbie another lesson in journalistic behaviour and Wilder taking us closer to Tatum’s strategy. Many people trapped down a mine is a powerful story (Wilder might have been thinking of films like G.W.Pabst’s Kameradschaft or Carol Reed’s The Stars Look Down), but as Tatum demonstrated with his rattlesnake analogy, it’s even better when there’s just one: it gives the story ‘human interest’. (The original title of the film was ‘The Human Interest Story’ and an ironic phrase for someone who grows progressively dehumanised as the plan proceeds). There is a significant reference to Lindbergh here; Cecil B DeMille mentions him when he greets Gloria Swanson on the Paramount steps in Sunset Boulevard; and, six years later, Wilder was to make his most all-American film about Lindbergh’s solo cross-Atlantic flight, The Spirit of St Louis. But what brings Tatum up short (so much so that he momentarily stops at this point, forgetting the urgency of the rescue) is the example of Floyd Collins, the reporter who ‘crawled in for the story [about a cave-in] and crawled out with a Pulitzer Prize.’
The Floyd Collins story was basically the starting point for Ace in the Hole and had been suggested to Wilder by one of his co-writers, Walter Newman, at that time a young writer for radio whom Wilder had spotted, later to become a highly regarded screenwriter on such films as The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) and Cat Ballou (1965). At this point in the film, Tatum has latched on to the Floyd Collins story because a plan is formulating in his mind: the treacherous path inside the cave might actually be the pathway out of his stultifying existence at Albuquerque where he feels as if he’s being buried alive. ‘I don’t like the looks of it, Chuck,’ says Herbie, to which Tatum replies: ‘I don’t either, fan, but I like the odds.’ William Holden’s anti-hero in Stalag 17 (1953) will say much the same thing when he volunteers to smuggle the officer out of the prison camp: the risk is worth taking, because the rewards might be greater.
When Tatum asks Herbie to stay behind, the motive seems sound enough, but you can sense a deeper motive too: he wants this story to himself and he doesn’t want Herbie getting too close to his methods. Wilder’s use of the setting is very expressive here. The occasional rumblings and slippages of soil keep the dangers at the forefront of our mind, but Tatum’s meandering, labyrinthine progress is also a metaphor for the devious workings of his mind and perhaps also a portent that he might be getting into this deeper than he realises. He suspects it might be his way out of being buried alive in Albuquerque: he might actually be digging a hole for himself he can’t get out of.
His meeting with Leo quickly sets up their relationship. As played by Richard Benedict, Leo seems a perfectly ordinary man who has got himself into a jam. Tatum brings him a blanket, coffee, cigar – and hope, becoming visually from now on virtually his only link to the outside world. When Leo is fretting that he might be trapped overnight, Tatum replies: ‘They’ll do it as fast as they can, but they’ve got to do it right.’ The word ‘but’ is very important there: it’s Tatum’s little wedge in the argument, whereby he’s thinking that Leo will be rescued at his required pace. And it’s at this point that Leo introduces the supernatural element (‘I guess they didn’t want me to have it…the Indian dead’). In reaction shot here, Kirk Douglas in reaction shot here suggests that Tatum is not giving him his full attention – part of him is listening, but the other part is thinking of how this can be worked up into the story.
Even Leo is tickled by the thought of media attention – little realising that this will, in effect, condemn him to death. He talks about his fear, the wartime camaraderie he experience, and then starts singing ‘The Hut Sut Song’ – ‘Hut Sut Rawlson an the rillerah, and a brawla, brawla sooit’. This nonsense ditty, supposedly based on a Swedish folk song, was a big hit in 1941; featured in the film San Antonio; and is heard in the background, for example, in Fred Zinnemann’s Pearl Harbor drama, From Here to Eternity (1953) as a kind of marker of the period. It was called a national disease, a song that, once heard, will unfortunately stick in your head until the day you die. Small wonder it nearly causes another cave-in.
The song, however, has lifted Leo’s spirits: Tatum’s too. Contact has been made, a bond established: ironic given the fact that Tatum is intending to milk the situation for what he can get out of it; doubly so, because he becomes Leo’s friend and finds himself fatally compromised by doing so. Herbie is struck by Tatum’s cheerful mood as he comes away from the meeting with Leo. ‘What is the story?’ he asks, to which Tatum replies: ‘Big.’ That line always reminds me of the moment in Citizen Kane when Kane says: ‘If the headline is big enough, it makes the news big enough.’ Tatum has not only got Floyd Collins, but Floyd Collins with an angle. ‘It’s Floyd Collins with an angle,’ he muses. ‘King Tut in New Mexico; white man half buried by angry Indian spirits… Collins was buried alive for 18 days… if I had just one week.’ That is almost a giveaway to Herbie, and he has to backtrack quickly. ‘I don’t make things happen,’ he says, ‘all I do is write about them.’ That isn’t what he told Herbie in the car. He is about to embroider the truth. In the light of the preceding events, a shot of Papa Minosa – a personification of trust and honesty – at the cave entry is poignantly timed. Tatum can throw the Deputy’s torch back at him in a gesture of contempt and have our endorsement, but the old man’s trust will continue to be an implicit rebuke to Tatum’s deviousness.
The importance of Lorraine (Jan Sterling)
Wilder adroitly picks up the pace now after the steady tempo of the cave sequence to reflect the urgency of the situation and Tatum’s expressed desire to get the rescue operation in motion. Nevertheless, we see how Tatum is still quite disconcerted by Lorraine’s seeming lack of wifely concern. She seems incapable of talking about her home or her situation in anything other than dull tones or without an edge of sarcasm or bitterness. Sometimes it seems to take even Tatum by surprise, partly no doubt because it doesn’t coincide with the story he is already composing in his own head, and partly perhaps because her cynicism is a little too close to his own for comfort. For all his expression of concern about Leo and the urgency of the situation, his first call is to his editor, Mr Boot about his front-page story: no question about Tatum’s priorities. Wilder’s only signal of Tatum’s possible uneasiness about that is his interesting body language around the phone. Firstly he moves to his right and closes the door to the room in which Mrs Minosa is praying: he doesn’t want her listening in to his exclusive story about the ‘Curse of the Mountain of the Seven Vultures’, which in turn implies his recognition that what he is doing is, to say the least, a bit unethical. And then he moves round in the other direction when he notices that Lorraine is watching him. That will make little difference as she is on to him already.
There are two great shots when Lorraine wanders on to the porch with her apple. Herbie is offering to pay for the gas; Papa Minosa wouldn’t dream of charging. (Wilder is very good at plotting the moments when Herbie has to leave the narrative, to make his delayed recognition of Tatum’s deceit more plausible.) Then she looks back through the window at Tatum on the phone, smiles and bites into her apple. The ‘innocence’ of Papa Minosa is well and truly undercut: Lorraine, the Eve in this despoiled Eden, knows the score (as Hugo Friedhofer’s music slyly underlines). Cut back to Leo in his mountain-trap, with a lizard crawling across the walls of the cave. It’s a reminder of the physical reality and discomfort of his situation, all the more telling because it’s going to be a good thirty minutes before we see him again: it’s as if he’s almost literally forgotten by some of those above ground who see him only in terms of a golden opportunity. Equally disturbing perhaps, Wilder, in developing his narrative, makes the audience almost forget him also.
It’s at this point in the film that Jan Sterling as Lorraine comes into her own. Wilder is setting up another suspense situation to keep our interest engaged; she’s packed and all ready to walk out, but the bus has not yet arrived. As she waits in the store with Tatum, we learn more about her background before meeting Leo, who has promised more than he delivered: she now wants out of the marriage. It’s the kind of characterisation that has sometimes led to accusations of misogyny in Wilder’s work: for example, Barbara Stanwyck’s murderous femme fatale in Double Indemnity, or the gold-digging ex-wife in The Fortune Cookie (1966), who sees through the scam but who, like Lorraine, will return to her immobilised husband when she senses there’s money in it. Yet Lorraine earns our grudging respect in one regard at least: she’s the one character in the film who can give as good as she gets when dealing with Tatum. ‘Yesterday you never even heard of Leo,’ she sneers, ‘now you can’t know enough about him. Aren’t you sweet?’ Tatum is clearly a bit taken aback by that; that’s just a bit too close to the truth for his liking. And Lorraine is reminding us that Wilder’s heroes are hardly more admirable than his heroines. I’ve always thought his films less consciously misogynistic than comprehensively misanthropic.
At this time in her career married to the actor Paul Douglas, Sterling had first come to screen prominence with her role in the prison drama Caged (1948). She was later to be nominated for an Oscar for her performance in The High and the Mighty (1954), but it is Ace in the Hole where we see her at her best, for this is a fearless, truthful performance of a character who could on the surface just come over as an unfeeling monster. Sterling herself thought her character was not unsympathetic but was acting as she did out of a deep unhappiness at a marriage that had failed to deliver on its promise and whose future looked bleak but for this unexpected development. This is not unlike Tatum, in fact, and she is not slow to point this out. She turns the tables on him when he is expressing his disgust at the timing of her desertion of Leo. ‘Nice kid,’ he says, scornfully, to which she replies: ‘Look who’s talking….Honey, you like those rocks just as much as I do.’ One again one can see from Tatum’s reaction that the point has struck home.
‘There’s three of us buried here’
The following sequence has always seemed to me an absolute master-class in screen writing and direction. The situation has been set up beautifully. We know the characters now; why Lorraine wants to leave; and why Tatum wants her to stay to add to the ‘human interest’ angle of his story. But what can he do to stop her boarding the bus that will her away? Cue the arrival of the Federbers (Frank Cady and Geraldine Hall) who have read about the story in the paper and have come to visit the site. Tatum comes out to join them and Wilder frames all four – hypocritical instigator, embittered deserter, morbid general public in the same frame. Wilder now cuts to a closer shot of Tatum and Lorraine as they both seem to grasp the significance of this arrival – when Tatum describes his relationship to Leo as ‘friend’, the word seems both ironic and sinister. ‘Wake up the kids,’ says Federber, ‘they should see this. This is very instructive.’ Off they drive to stake their claim to the best spot, as if they were attending a show – as it soon will be. In the meantime, Tatum makes one last pitch to Lorraine, his gestures becoming a little more violent to reflect his determination. (His inner violence will become less controlled as the film draws on and lead finally to his downfall.) There’s no pretence here, no appealing to emotion or sentiment: it’s entirely to do with what’s in it for them. ‘There’s three of us buried here’ he tells her, ‘only I’m going back in style.’ With a last crack about how they must have bleached her brains as well as her hair, Tatum returns to the store.
Having laid it all out, Wilder can now let the camera do the rest. Lorraine stands still, like the camera, but, as we hear the bus approach, she backs away slightly, suggesting a tiny weakening of resolve. Bus stops, blocking our view, adding to the suspense, then moves off and out of frame, like a horizontal wipe. Camera stares implacably as Lorraine walks back to the store, Tatum in long shot opening the door, the two now accomplices more than antagonists, the closed door sealing the bargain.
When Herbie returns later that morning, we can see that Escudero is coming alive, something adroitly underlined by Hugo Friedhofer’s score, which won a prize at that year’s Venice Film Festival as the score of the year and seems to me flawless and alert throughout in conveying atmosphere, momentum and connecting musical tissue. A supreme musical arranger for Erich Korngold and Max Steiner, Friedhofer had begun writing his scores in the 1940s, winning an Oscar for his magnificent score for William Wyler’s The Best Years of our Lives (which Wilder, incidentally, thought was the best directed film he’d ever seen and which was the first film score ever to be receive an extended analysis in a classical music magazine). According to the composer, Wilder was disappointed the score had no themes, to which Friedhofer replied: ‘Would you want me to soften the blow?’ Certainly Wilder is not softening anything here. Lorraine has immediately slapped an entry charge for anyone driving to the mountain; the carnival is beginning.
Tatum’s conversation with the doctor about Leo’s state of health has a sub-text that we see, but the doctor doesn’t: on the surface, solicitous, but underneath he’s checking on his investment. Herbie’s growing excitement at the way the story has developed is well conveyed by Bob Arthur. ‘You like it now, don’t you?’ says Tatum, to which Herbie replies: ‘Well, everybody likes a break. We didn’t make it happen.’ That’s the second time Herbie has quoted Tatum’s words back at him (remember ‘Cagey,eh?) and there’s a momentary double-take from Tatum, finely observed in Douglas’s performance: it could suggest his recognition that Herbie is on his side, but also a subliminal apprehension that these words might come back to haunt him. News of the sheriff’s arrival and his displeasure clearly doesn’t faze him, however: indeed he is ready for the next phase of his plan.
Dissolve to rattlesnake in a box, which cues in the appearance of the Sheriff, played by veteran heavy Ray Teal: the combination of those two things leaves us in no doubt how we are meant to view this character. Lorraine’s pointed disrespect seems entirely justified. Enter Tatum who is now ready to play his next hand, what he will call his ‘ace in the hole’ and explain how extending Leo’s entrapment for publicity purposes could be to the benefit of both of them. Tatum knows who he’s dealing with and is under no illusion that the sheriff’s re-election would serve anyone’s best interests other than their own. His opinion of the sheriff is conveyed in a gesture – he drops his cigarette in the sheriff’s drink.
Wilder is soon to bring into play two other crucial characters in this scene, Lorraine and Mr Smollett, the construction contractor. But before that, Tatum answers the sheriff’s query about what’s in it for him. ‘This is my story,’ he says. ‘I want to keep it mine.’ It’s striking how Wilder and Douglas play that line. It’s not said directly to the sheriff, it’s said more to himself, like that similar moment in Boot’s office; and it goes to the root of his motivation. This is not about money per se, this is his route back to self-esteem, recognition, his revenge on those back in New York who had put the boot in when he was down. There’s a neat bit of dramatic structuring at this point. The construction contractor, Mr Smollett (Frank Jaquett), has entered and, in calling for a coffee, he will bring Lorraine over to the table: she is to hear what passes between them and recognise what Tatum is up to. Smollett seems a decent working man and at first does not grasp the significance of Tatum’s question of how long the rescue operation is going to take. He asks the question twice and then cues in the sheriff with an almost imperceptible nod of the head, at which point the sheriff’s ‘HOW LONG?’ resounds as a threat. When Tatum suggests on health and safety grounds that they should drill an entrance from the top of the mountain and Smollett protests that that would take six or seven days, the sheriff is not slow to point out the consequences for him if he doesn’t do as he’s told: ‘You were a truck driver, now you’re a contractor, do you want to be a truck driver again?’ Tatum seals the bargain by attempting to assuage Smollett’s fears and sweetening his coffee (‘Sugar?’). You can’t help but be reminded of Lorraine’s rebuke to Tatum about his sudden interest in Leo – ‘Aren’t you sweet?’ So it’s appropriate then for Wilder at the end of the scene to move over to Lorraine at her till, able to change a $50 bill (which one suspects has not been a common occurrence in her life at the trading post) and watching Tatum move into a more comfortable room that has been vacated by Leo’s grateful father. Her look will carry us forward to the next scene – one of the most disturbing of the film.
When Tatum enters the room, one of the first things he notices are the two bottles that Herbie has brought for him and he’s vigorously rejected. It’s a temptation that must be resisted because his drinking got him in trouble in the past; and one of the later signs that things are beginning to unravel is the moment he starts drinking again. Enter Lorraine. Wilder can’t dislike the character that much, for he gives her some of his best lines. ‘I met a lot of hard-boiled eggs in my life,’ she tells him, ‘but you, you’re twenty minutes.’ We’re in film noir territory here. The hero’s face is in shadow, to suggest his shady schemes; and the heroine is a blonde siren turned on both by the money and by Tatum’s dynamism, even if it is at her husband’s expense. Disturbingly at this moment, she has never looked prettier, more alive: perversely, this is what Tatum can do to people, even decent ones like Herbie. Things are more exciting around him; he makes things happen. Lorraine makes a play for him; his response is to slap her across the face. That slap is shocking, much more so than Jimmy Cagney’s famous grapefruit in Mae Clarke’s face in Public Enemy. After all, Clarke was grumbling: here Lorraine has been anticipating a romantic embrace. To use a movie analogy, it’s like a brutal director getting the expression he wants from an unwilling actress to fit his conception of the role; and Tatum may be lashing out because he sees in Lorraine’s greed and ruthlessness something of himself, and he doesn’t like what he sees.
The big carnival: misery into spectacle
Three days have passed and, as we hear the voice of a radio broadcaster (Bob Bumpas), we can deduce that Leo’s predicament has become a media event. Indeed the disaster site now looks more like a drive-in, complete with cars parked in orderly rows, entrance fee, and even kiosks that sell hot dogs and popcorn. Wilder is developing a dark allegory of the morbidity of the film audience that might in some ways be said to anticipate Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954). A superb aerial shot from the top of the mountain discloses what the commentator calls this ‘new community’ that has sprung up. The cameraman on the film, Charles Lang Jr was one of Hollywood’s greatest and one of Wilder’s favourites, having previously worked with him on A Foreign Affair (1948) and later to photograph Sabrina (1954) and Some like it Hot. Intriguing and ironic that one of Wilder’s visually most spectacular films is at the same time one of Hollywood’s most corrosive attacks on the media’s capacity to turn human misery into visual spectacle.
Human morbidity surfaces in the interview with the increasingly appalling Mr Federber, who Tatum has earlier described as ‘Mr America’. His children are wearing Indian head-dress and licking an ice cream, and there are balloons in the background. Some pretty vigorous merchandising is obviously in full swing whilst Leo is trapped below. Federber is keener to insist that he and his wife were first on the scene than worry about Leo’s welfare, and he isn’t slow to advertise his business in insurance, a man who takes no risks, in other words, in contrast to Tatum (and an artist like Wilder).
When Tatum sees Lorraine and suggests she attends a special service that is being performed for Leo’s benefit, she retorts; ‘I don’t go to church. Kneeling bags my nylons.’ Wilder always credited his wife with that line; it catches the character to perfection. ‘Another thing, mister,’ she adds. ‘Don’t ever slap me again.’ Originally Wilder had added another line to that: ‘I might get to like it’. He cut it, possibly because it hinted at a sado-masochistic dimension to their relationship that would have been too daring for the times (it would have certainly have been in contrast to her relationship with weak and uxorious Leo). As it stands, the line has a different inflection: it’s a warning from a woman who won’t be pushed around – and it’s an omen.
The following brief scene in the car between Tatum and Herbie (and one notices that the admission charge to the mountain has doubled since we last saw it) is a reminder of the earlier car scene in the film just before the story broke, and offers a nice contrast. Herbie was a bit dubious about Tatum before: now he is completely under his spell. ‘Isn’t anything you can do wrong as far as I’m concerned,’ he tells Tatum, who seems slightly to back away from that: he doesn’t want anyone that close. Incidentally Tatum has changed his top from his striking black shirt, and this is the day his fortunes are to change also – and not entirely for the better.
The scene in the press tent serves as a reminder that Wilder himself was a journalist in Berlin before turning to screenwriting (and before the political situation in Nazi Europe prompted him to flee Berlin. Germany in 1933 was, as he put it, ‘not a place for a nice Jewish boy to be.’). It seems less press tent than bear pit, each man snarling his desires. Wilder was to revisit the press pack in The Front Page (1974), and they are no more sympathetically presented there. Kirk Douglas always felt that this was one of the reasons why the film got unfavourable reviews. As he put it in his autobiography, The Ragman’s Son, ‘critics love to criticize but they don’t like being criticized.’ Enter Tatum. This is payback time and how he relishes being able to turn the tables on his journalist colleagues. When one of them attempts to plead collegiality and says that they’re all buddies and all in the same boat, he replies with pointed relish: ‘I’m in the boat, you’re in the water.’ As he indicates when he displays his badge, he has the law on his side (he has it in his pocket as well). And just before he leaves to see Leo (this gloating has made him a bit late for his usual visit), he drops the news that he has quit his job but retains exclusive rights to this story and is open to the highest bidder.
Yet even Tatum is taken aback by the sight of the ‘Re-Elect Sheriff Kretzer’ banner draped across the mountain. Even by the sheriff’s standards that’s a bit blatant and seems to draw attention to the mountainous proportions of the deception. Tatum is now a media star and consents to a brief interview with the radio reporter, though, as he says, with unconscious irony: ‘Every second counts.’ Tatum is the one who has extended this situation for his own benefit so there’s more than a little hypocrisy here; but what he doesn’t realise is that time is running out. And he pauses on his return to the cave when someone in the crowd, a Mr Cusack queries the rescue methods, Wilder emphasising the tension of the moment by moving into close-up to show Tatum and Smollett momentarily in uneasy complicity, before Smollett gets the nod from Tatum to get back to work while he handles this. A woman’s inappropriate intervention breaks the tension and lets them off the hook; and then Tatum, like the gambler that he is, takes a risk, betting successfully that Mr Cusack’s recommended method of rescue was not successful in the case he remembered. The danger passes, but it’s been a tense moment. We see Tatum giving the gullible crowd a wave before entering the cave – it’s an anticipation of William Holden’s cheery farewell wave to the fellow prisoners he despises in Stalag 17 before disappearing down the escape tunnel.
The cheer fades into the sound of the drill and we are in Leo’s world now. This is a great shot, because it’s a contrast and a shock. It’s the first time Leo has been seen in the film for a good thirty-five minutes. By delaying this reappearance, Wilder has ensured that we have almost forgotten him as well as the crowd above and we might feel a bit guilty. His deterioration is alarming, and the pounding of the drill is understandably shredding his nerves. ‘I can’t stand it,’ he says, ‘it’s enough to wake the dead.’ The line is a reminder of Leo’s original feeling that this is some kind of punishment for defiling an Indian burial-ground. There is also the almost obsessive use now of the word ‘friend’, which during the film has become progressively devalued (remember Lorraine’s disdainful look when Tatum has described himself to the Federbers as Leo’s ‘friend’; or the sheriff’s phrase ‘friend of the family’ to the other journalists to defend his ploy of giving Tatum exclusive access to Leo). The word is assuming ominous overtones and making Tatum feel a bit queasy. Like Tatum’s second scene with Herbie in the car, his second scene with Leo is distinctly different from the first. Tatum seems less sure of himself: no rallying sing-song here. Leo’s reference to his imminent fifth wedding anniversary is significant, for it will bring things to a crisis. This dismal scene has been ironically prefaced by Tatum’s cheery wave to the crowd; Wilder brutally rounds it off by cutting from Leo’s ‘She’s so pretty’ to a shot of Lorraine, in bright sunshine in contrast to Leo’s gloom, actually looking quite pretty. Leo’s absence is doing her good. The carnival is arriving. When Papa Minosa is protesting, she barely bothers to make eye-contact with him: she’s too busy counting in the trucks and calculating the profits. A siren announces the appearance in their press car of Tatum with Herbie. Kirk Douglas’s performance here eloquently conveys that his encounter with Leo has left him shaken. His response to Lorraine’s ‘Means everything’s going to be fine, doesn’t it, Mr Tatum?’ is a look of utter distaste at her lack of genuine concern, but not far removed either, one surmises, from a barely suppressed self-disgust.
That feeling is to be carried forward into the next scene, modifying his ostensible triumph, nagging away at him like an aching tooth. There’s another window shot from inside the trading post, but in complete contrast to the one earlier when Herbie had stopped for gas. Now the room is teeming with people, a measure of the success of Tatum’s scheme. Yet when he enters his room, there is a strong sense that he’s still troubled by his meeting with Leo. A sign of that uneasiness is his taking the bottle, but hesitating still to pour a drink. It’s at that point, when his conscience is beginning to bother him, that Boot appears again – the very symbol of journalistic probity – and Tatum takes a drink almost in defiance. What will follow is an argument about journalistic ethics but also, to some degree, about old and new, about honest reporting as opposed to sensationalism to promote sales. Pointing to Tatum’s deputy sheriff star, Boot recognises that he has bought his exclusive coverage as part of a deal to get the sheriff re-elected. We know, of course, that’s only half the story; and Tatum seems a bit relieved he doesn’t know more. The phone will punctuate the argument at key points, with big-city editors bidding for his services and with Tatum waiting for the one call that will justify what he’s done – the call from New York.
When he tells Boot he has resigned from the Albuquerque paper, Boot’s reaction is one of regret. ‘I’m sorry to hear that, Chuck,’ he says. It’s the first time he’s called him ‘Chuck’ in the film and the sorrow feels genuine: partly because he thinks Tatum is a good reporter; and partly because he thinks he’s going in the wrong direction. Tatum raises the subject of that embroidered sign again and Boot takes it as a sign that it still troubles him, but Tatum brushes this aside. What he doesn’t brush aside is the moment when Boot wonders whether there is anyone buried down there at all. ‘Yes, there is,’ Tatum replies, grimly. ‘I’ve made sure of that.’ It’s a terrific line and marvellously framed and acted. When he says it, Tatum has his back to Boot – he doesn’t want him to see his expression – but the comment is almost made to himself as an accusation, the one thing about this situation that is making him uneasy. It’s also an answer to a criticism that is sometimes made of the film: that Wilder doesn’t create a strong enough antagonist to challenge Tatum and that the film suffers dramatically as a result. In fact, Wilder’s heroes are very often their own best antagonists, well aware of the dubiousness of what they are doing and wondering at what point they might feel they’ve gone too far.
Herbie’s entrance causes a distinct increase in tension, because, if Tatum is a lost cause, Boot thinks, Herbie isn’t: which way will he jump? At that particular moment Tatum does look a much more exciting and charismatic example and prospect than Boot. There is a particularly fine shot when all three of them are in the frame at the point where Tatum gets his all-important third call, this time from New York, as it brings all the tensions in the air to a point of crisis. Porter Hall’s performance here is terrific, as Boot never takes his eyes off Herbie, staring probingly like a stern father; for his part, Herbie won’t look at him. ‘He wants to be going, going,’ says Tatum about Herbie’s future, to which Boot replies, pointedly: ‘Going where?’ He exits, hat slightly awry, a physical sign of his emotional discomposure. Tatum dismisses him with a little nod of the head – Kirk Douglas’s head movements throughout the film are incredibly expressive, incidentally – but then deals with some relish with his old boss, Nagel.
The role of Nagel provides a ripe cameo from that fine character actor, Richard Gaines, who played the pompous boss in the insurance office in Double Indemnity whom Edward G. Robinson was always cutting down to size. He’s quite a contrast to the sombre civility of Boot – no wonder Tatum found Albuquerque so quiet by contrast – and the very manner of the man suggests the kind of journalism he represents: the journalism of screaming headlines. I always think that Wilder had some Hollywood moguls in mind here and, in that context, greatly enjoyed the squeal of pain he extracted from someone over a barrel. (‘Don’t you know there’s a war on? Somewhere?!’) However, again it is noticeable how Kirk Douglas changes his tone when Tatum is dictating terms: this isn’t simply about money, it’s about self-esteem: he wants his desk back. At this point, he seems to have achieved what he wants and for almost the first time, he can relax slightly. He has a drink, and he throws his suspenders in the bin, as if confident he no longer needs that kind of a safety net. He can even give Herbie a little hug. And at that moment, with a fine sense of dramatic timing, Wilder turns the scene around, bringing in Mrs Minosa to cut short their celebration, implicitly in dramatic terms offering a rebuke to their gaiety, and reminding us of Leo’s worsening predicament. Tatum, appropriately, loosens his grip on Herbie.
From the sacred to the profane. The following few minutes are probably the most extraordinary in the film, where Wilder pulls out all the stops. I am struck particularly by three things. There is now a hastily composed song about Leo (buy the sheet music for 25 cents), a tasteless little ditty entitled ‘We’re coming, we’re coming, Leo’. In a Film Quarterly article, Joseph McBride and Michael Wilmington thought the lyric was daringly sexual in implication, particularly when occurring in a section of the film where Lorraine’s attraction to Tatum is very apparent.
We’re coming, we’re coming, Leo
Leo, don’t despair
While you are in the cave a-hopin’
We are up above you groping
And soon we’ll make an opening
The song is by the fine song-writing team of Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, composers of such classics as ‘Buttons and Bows’ and ‘Que Sera, Sera’, and who appear as themselves in the New Year’s party scene of Sunset Boulevard.
Then there’s the carnival itself, whose set was huge – 235 feet high, 1200 feet across and 1600 feet deep, with over 550 extras whose numbers grew, as Wilder calculated, because of curious onlookers who came of their own accord to have a look. It is possibly the most spectacular set-piece of Wilder’s career, to convey his horror at the way human tragedy has been transformed into a mass spectacle. When the film flopped in America but did well in Europe, the head of Paramount, Mr Y. Frank Freeman (whose name Wilder, in conversation, tended to turn into a question) changed the title of the film, without consulting Wilder, into something he thought sounded more commercial, calling it The Big Carnival. In so doing, he highlighted the very aspect of the situation that Wilder was most strongly criticising. And then there’s the special train to the event, the Leo Minosa Special, people jumping off it before it has even pulled to a stop and swarming like locusts over the disaster area. ‘Who are these people?’ Leo has asked innocently, enquiring about the people up there who are taking such an interest in him. ‘They’re your friends,’ replied Tatum, but to Wilder, they’re a sensation-hungry mob, sunning themselves above Leo’s tomb and who will soon- albeit unwittingly- be dancing on his grave. ‘There’s the terrifying fact,’ said Wilder once in an interview, ‘that people are people.’
Against this disturbing backdrop of mass mentality, the personal stories continue. While Papa Minosa passes round drinks to the workmen on the mountain, Lorraine is being warned by Tatum against selling her story to the papers: she might make a slip. We see a slightly different side to Lorraine in this scene, someone with aspirations, a sort of tentative and defensive self-pride. But Tatum’s response is once again violent. ‘Why don’t you wash that platinum out of your hair?’ he sneers. The close-up of his fist in her hair is again shocking. In this context, it’s the equivalent of a screen kiss, or the nearest this dark film gets to one; and it crystallises in an image his pent-up aggression, tension, and inner turmoil. Why is he so obsessed with Lorraine’s hair? Because it’s fake: like him.
To follow that scene – the nearest to a love scene in the film – with Leo in the cave is very daring, particularly when one is very aware of the pounding of the drill. The sexual connotations are clear, but you feel that something is similarly pounding inside Tatum’s head. Leo’s condition is deteriorating rapidly and, with it, Tatum’s own scheme, which is beginning to show signs of faulty structuring. When Leo starts asking for a priest and talking about the ancient curse which he believes has brought his downfall (‘They’ll never let me go’), that what he did was sacrilegious and now he’s paying for it, Tatum gets angry, partly because he’s now afraid, and partly because his clever angle – Floyd Collins plus King Tut, the Mountain of the Seven Vultures – is beginning to curse him too.
‘You wouldn’t lie to me, would you, Chuck?’ says Leo when asking him about whether he’s going to survive. This is Boot’s motto ‘Tell the Truth’ coming back to haunt him with a vengeance. For once Tatum is at a loss for words. The whole foundation of their so-called friendship is built on a lie, and it’s a fascinating dramatic touch that Leo will die without ever knowing of Tatum’s treachery. This is unusual in a Wilder film. His films are invariably structured around some sort of deception or masquerade and the person who is being duped generally discovers it, with all the attendant consequences. This is not the case in Ace in the Hole, and consequently there is no real catharsis for Tatum, for he never has the release of confessing his sin. It’s one aspect of Wilder’s bold, harsh resolution of the fate of his characters in this film. Dissolve to the sheriff, who’s always been less interested in the well-being of Leo than that of his rattlesnake: Leo might be dying of pneumonia but at least his rattlesnake is putting on weight.
Tatum’s explanation for changing tactic here has a compelling application. ‘When you’ve a human interest story, he says, ‘you need a human interest ending’, and the priority now is to get Leo out alive, even if it will call into question their initial rescue methods. But Wilder is not going to be able to deliver a happy ending any more than Tatum; and it may be that he was unwittingly foreseeing the fate of his own film here. As T.S. Eliot said: ‘Humankind cannot bear very much reality.’ Closer to home perhaps it reminds me a little of Alfred Hitchcock’s comment about his film Sabotage where he said: ‘I should never have let that bomb go off…’ If you build an audience up in a certain way, they demand relief from that tension: if you can’t deliver, they get angry with you.
As we’ve seen, Tatum has become progressively violent during the film, but there’s a certain satisfaction here when he punches the sheriff, who’s been asking for it. However, the satisfaction is short-lived. When Smollett tells him that they can’t rescue Leo the other way because the drilling has weakened the foundations, there is a shot of Tatum where, naked to the waist and sharing the frame with the sheriff, for the first time in the film he looks vulnerable.. The chatter of his teller-type machine – until then an indicator of his energy and activity – suddenly sounds like a mockery of his ambitions, and rattles his nerves like the drill in Leo’s cave. He lashes out at it in futile rage.
It is the next morning and the teller-type machine is unattended to: the star reporter has deserted his post. Another machine is now preoccupying him more: the oxygen machine that is alone keeping Leo going. Tatum now really seems squeezed for space in the frame as his options recede. While Leo is deliriously talking of his anniversary present to Lorraine, Tatum has other preoccupations. ‘Breathe!’ he shouts, but the shout is surely as much for himself as for Leo: if Leo dies, then Tatum is effectively finished too.
‘Up the stairs, up the stairs,’ Leo whispers deliriously. His words serve as a sound dissolve to the following scene as Tatum climbs the stairs on Leo’s behalf, the words still playing in his head. Lorraine’s behaviour towards Tatum here is intriguing. She’s changing her hair again as if in response to his previous criticisms and seems altogether more casual and friendly, the film surely implying that something has happened between them, which makes Tatum’s self-loathing even more acute and her surprise at his behaviour more intense. ‘It’s your anniversary, Mrs Minosa,’ he says, giving particular emphasis to ‘Mrs’, as if she – and maybe him too? – needs reminding of it. And there’s no sentimentality here. The fur piece that Leo has bought her is surely intended by Wilder to look pretty hideous, and Tatum’s insistence on her wearing it despite her protests a case of displaced guilt and anguish on his part as well as cruel indifference on hers. It is at this point that Tatum’s steadily increasing violence now oversteps the mark and, like seemingly everything else at this point, starts striking back at him. A struggle ensues; and as he starts to choke her, she stabs him with a pair of scissors. At this point Tatum becomes the third Wilder hero – like Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity and William Holden in Sunset Boulevard – whose change of heart will also be followed by his murder at the hands of the woman he has involved in his scheming.
There is an interesting moment when Tatum has gone for the priest and, whilst he is in the church, some boys from the area gather round his press car in curiosity. Wilder probably just wanted to suggest a brief passage of time until Tatum reappeared without needing to cut, but to me it has something of the look of contemporary Italian neo-realism or the Buñuel of Los Olvidados (1951) in its quick evocation of a community of deprivation. The siren one of them sets off by accident will carry forward into the next scene, competing for attention with the sound of Leo’s theme that is blaring out from the fairground. To put it another way, a distress signal is almost drowned out by brash commercialism: the theme of the film in a nutshell.
The circus is over
The brief moment when Tatum and the priest enter the cave is filmed in a way that reminds us of Tatum’s first entrance there six days ago: how much has happened and changed since then. That feeling is taken a step further when they reach Leo, now singing the ‘Hut Sut’ song in a delirious, barely audible croak, in contrast to that first scene between Leo and Tatum when the song is sung to boost his spirits. ‘Bless me, father, for I have sinned,’ says Leo, but the camera there is on Tatum, emphasising the applicability of the words to him and implicitly convicting him of Leo’s death. Yet there is an added twist of the knife there, for if Tatum is now being driven to confess his sins, he has no one to confess them to and no one who wants to listen.
Tatum now addresses the crowd from the top of the mountain to tell them of Leo’s death. It’s only three days since he was waving to the crowd as a national hero on entering the cave; and before this particular day is over, he will have crashed to the floor. I am reminded of two roughly contemporary dynamic anti-heroes here: James Cagney’s Cody Jarrett in White Heat (1948), spontaneously combusting, as it were, when he’s on top of the world; and Orson Welles’s Harry Lime in The Third Man (1949), who has looked down contemptuously on humanity from a vast height on the Great Wheel in Vienna but who will perish in the city’s sewers. When gigantic egos overreach themselves, their fall should be correspondingly massive. Tatum’s address to the crowd is like Moses castigating the worshippers of the Golden Calf; and I also have an image of what Leland Poague called a ‘demoniacal Cecil B. DeMille’ addressing his cast and crew. The ‘director’ is in a way dismissing his audience, having lost control of the plot and with a message too painful to bear. ‘Now go on home… all of you,’ he says. ‘The circus is over.’ In referring to it as a circus, Tatum almost gives the game away there, but the criticism is lost in the general melee; and in a sense he has handed a scoop to his rivals in the press, who scramble for their phones. That might be an act of penance and small redemption, but Wilder is dramatically quite canny here, I think, for he leaves Tatum with another ace in the hole (the truth about the deception) that could trump the news of Leo’s death.
In the meantime we have seen Lorraine, pointedly not wearing that fur stole that was Leo’s anniversary present, turn away from the window when she hears the news of Leo. We know she will not be sticking around. Even the Federbers are upset; this is not the ending they have been expecting, and their original reason for staying – that it would be ‘quite instructive’ for their boys – now looks even more hollow: goodness knows what ‘instruction’ they will take from all this. Friedhofer’s score now goes into a dirge – like version of Leo’s song, which could now be entitled: ‘We’re going, we’re going, Leo’.
Even today it is still perfectly possible to imagine the dismay the film provoked as it moved with unerring logic to its tragic conclusion. For several years after its release – really until the storm over the controversial sexual politics of his 1964 film, Kiss me, Stupid – it was regarded as the most cynical film of Wilder’s career and one of the most cynical ever to come out of Hollywood, almost perverse in what one critic, Axel Madsen called its ‘utter disregard for box-office values or potentialities’ and in its seemingly antagonistic attitude to both press and public. A highly influential critic of that time, Bosley Crowther of The New York Times voiced the opinion of many of his profession when he wrote that in his view the film ‘presents not only a distortion of journalistic practice but something of a dramatic grotesque.’ If audiences in America stayed away, it might have been because, as Wilder put it, ‘they went to the theatre with the idea that they were going to get a cocktail whereas instead they got a shot of vinegar.’ He stubbornly stuck to his guns, always thinking of it as one of his best films; and over the years the film has come to be championed by some of his succeeding generation of directors, like Woody Allen, Spike Lee and Sam Peckinpah, who have all listed it as a particular favourite. Certainly the excesses of tabloid journalism are very familiar to us now. Even at the time, the film found more of an audience in Europe whose audiences, having recently witnessed and endured the horrors of war and ambition, probably thought Wilder’s portrait of human depravity and mass manipulation all too chillingly convincing.
Lorraine’s departure here clearly echoes the earlier intended departure, and our last sight of her – an unsteady walk away from the camera, unsure of her destination or transportation – makes one wonder what will happen to her, one of a number of plot strands Wilder refuses to tidy up at the end. (Another is: what will happen to Sheriff Kretzer?) When Tatum is down, his ‘buddies’ from the press come swooping like vultures to gloat and gorge over his failure. Now they’re in the boat and he’s in the water; and what we have is a replay of the scene in the tent except in reverse, where now Tatum’s words (not for the first time in the film) are thrown back in his face.
Tatum still has an ace up his sleeve (the truth), and one that might serve a dual purpose in both assuaging his guilt and topping all the other stories. But, alas, this time he has gone too far; the game is over. Gaines (like so many newspaper editors these days) isn’t interested in the truth if it doesn’t make a good story. I like very much the moment when Tatum asks Herbie if he believes him and Herbie says yes. A shadow suddenly falls across Herbie’s face for the first time, and in complete contrast to the open innocent face we have seen throughout the film: the curtain of experience has suddenly dropped and his vision of life darkened. As they leave, Tatum’s comment to Herbie about re-electing the sheriff is surely ironic: he knows that his revelation of the truth, if he ever gets to make it, will sink the sheriff’s political hopes. And the last shot of Papa Minosa amidst the debris of the deserted carnival is like the ending of Chaplin’s The Circus and every bit as forlorn: a tragic figure of solitude in a drama that, in no time, has just become yesterday’s news.
We are returning to where we began, when Tatum first entered the office. It’s as if nothing has changed and the staff at the Albuquerque Sun Bulletin are so immersed in their work – or stuck in their ways – that no one seems to notice that a dying man has just staggered into the newsroom. Tatum will never deliver his story, but maybe Herbie will.
Tatum’s final call is to Mr Boot, the film’s symbol of dull old-fashioned journalistic integrity, with an offer he can’t refuse. ‘How would you like to save a thousand dollars a day?’ he shouts, as Boot appears from the newsroom. ‘I’m a thousand dollar a day newspaperman. You can have me for nothing.’ And with a wonderful visual flourish, Wilder’s low-angle shot dumps Tatum in our lap, and delivers the film’s bleak moral with the emphatic thump of a Tatum headline: CORRUPT CAVE-IN REPORTER DIGS HIS OWN GRAVE.
Book review: Elsie Walker, Understanding Sound Tracks Through Film Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015). 435pp.
This is a fabulous feat of film scholarship, both for the range of material it encompasses and the lucidity with which it handles complex ideas. The book is aimed primarily at undergraduate and postgraduate students of film; and, as a concise scholarly introduction to the thorny theoretical topics of Genre, Postcolonialism, Feminism, Psychoanalysis and Queer theory, it could hardly be bettered. The theory is then applied to a variety of film soundtracks, and familiar films are paired with less mainstream examples for purposes of analysis, comparison and contrast. In the process dazzling insights are offered into acknowledged classics such as The Searchers (1956) and Rebecca (1940) as well as less well known films such as Dead Man (1995) and Ten Canoes (2006). One of the most revelatory sections is devoted to Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island (2010), where, through a closely argued commentary on the way in which the soundtrack reflects the hero’s difficulty in pulling things together, the chapter offers a convincing critical rehabilitation of a film that was widely derided and misunderstood on first release. A coda combines all these theoretical approaches in a brilliant reading of Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (2013), which makes the film sound a lot more interesting to hear than I found it to watch.
A primary aim of the book is to challenge what has been called the “visual chauvinism” of much film analysis and give equal attention to a film’s soundtrack. This yields some remarkable and challenging interpretations. For example, there is a detailed account of the way Max Steiner’s score for John Ford’s The Searchers seems to run counter to the film, in the author’s words “obfuscating threat and emphasising reassurance” in a way that adds yet another layer of complication to what is already one of the most troubling masterpieces of the American cinema.1 (I would love to see a similarly forensic analysis carried out on Steiner’s equally contentious score for John Huston’s 1948 classic, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which Huston claimed he only first heard at the film’s premiere.) The soundtrack for Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man is then used as a compelling visual and aural contrast to the Ford film. There is a similarly engrossing comparison and contrast between Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) and Ten Canoes to show the different ways they voice the Aboriginal experience. The visual elements of Howard Hawks’s To Have and Have Not (1944) might seem to reinforce Laura Mulvey’s influential description of the dominant patriarchal discourse of classic Hollywood film, but the author argues that aurally things are more complex, with Lauren Bacall’s vocal performance (and, contrary to movie myth, it is her actual singing voice on the film) challenging and even countering the film’s ostensible reinforcement of gender inequality. Conversely, a more overtly feminist film, Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993) “reveals some irresolvable mixed messages when it comes to the endurance of a female ‘voice’ in a patriarchal context.”2
Elsewhere the author demonstrates how David Raksin’s “consistently alarmist” score for Nicholas Ray’s Bigger than Life (1956) is “an important regulator of [the father’s] power, since no one in the film world itself is able to exert clear-cut control of him”;3 the way Rebecca and Mrs Danvers, and not Maxim, “hold the primary aural power” in Hitchcock’s Rebecca;4 and how Peter Dasent’s score in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures (1994) assists in “helping us to understand the extreme and emotional multi-dimensionality of its subversive protagonists who were all-too-easily labelled monsters in their own time.”5 The implications of all these assertions are eloquently followed through. The result is to make you want to experience all these films afresh – and through new ears as well as new eyes.
Two random afterthoughts, as stimulated by a couple of observations in the book:
1) In the chapter on Rebecca, the author notes that “in placing emphasis on the mesmerizing power of Mrs Danvers’s silent entrances in terms of her impression on us more than on ‘Fontaine’s’ experience, we are reading against the grain of what the auteur said. Though recognizing the significance of Hitchcock’s directorial role, we nevertheless explore meanings beyond the delimitations set out by him.”6 Although authorship is not one of the theoretical areas discussed in detail, the book cleverly intimates how consideration of the soundtrack inevitably complicates an auteurist approach to the cinema. John Ford’s legion of critical admirers often cite his method of cutting in the camera so as to minimise the possibility of editorial or studio interference with his footage, but that same control did not seem to extend to the soundtrack, which makes the discussion of Max Steiner’s score for The Searchers all the more intriguing and important (Ford grumbled about the score in his book-length interview with Peter Bogdanovich, saying “with that music they should have been Cossacks not Indians”). This issue of ultimate authorial control was surely partly behind Hitchcock’s legendary falling out with Hollywood’s most distinctive and original musical personality, Bernard Herrmann. To Hitchcock’s probable discomfort, Herrmann’s “voice” over the soundtrack was becoming too individual and insistent in its own right and competing for attention with Hitchcock’s, and you can’t have two auteurs in one film: not in a Hitchcock film, certainly.
2) In the chapter on The Piano, the author compares Michael Nyman’s score with Georges Delerue’s music for a roughly contemporaneous film, Steel Magnolias (1989), and writes: “the whimsicality, light textures and delicate timbres of the Delerue score seem innocuous and clichéd in comparison with the exuberant energy and stridency in Ada’s music as performed by [Holly] Hunter”.7 It is a curious comparison (the musical requirements of the two films are quite different) and also rather oddly expressed (Delerue’s “delicacy” is viewed negatively whereas Nyman’s “stridency” is seen as a virtue). Anyone who knows Delerue’s concert music as well as his film scores will readily appreciate that he would have been more than able to rise to the complexities of Campion’s film if he had been offered the assignment. Indeed, for me, it is a pity he was not, for I always find Delerue’s music infinitely more engaging, touching and beautiful than Michael Nyman’s, which, to my ears (and even when acknowledging its dramatic effectiveness in a film such as The Piano), invariably sounds like Philip Glass on an off day. But then: Benjamin Britten couldn’t stand Brahms; Andre Previn’s idea of musical torture would be having to sit through a Wagner opera; Leonard Rosenman described Maurice Jarre’s much-loved “Lara’s Theme” from Doctor Zhivago as “amateurish” and with “actual wrong notes” etc. etc. There’s no accounting for musical taste – even theoretically? Discuss.
Elsie Walker, Understanding Sound Tracks Through Film Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), p. 36. ↩