Archive for The Third Man

Decisions, decisions

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 17, 2013 by dcairns

Sternberg

“Directing a film,” said Buck Henry, “is like being pecked to death by ducks.” What he meant, if I dare parse the Great Man’s thought processes, is that the film director is beset from pre-dawn to magic hour and beyond with QUESTIONS, brought by actors, crew, executives (sometimes these are in the form of ORDERS, but directors prefer to see them as questions). What these questioners want from the director is DECISIONS. Film-making is decision-making. It’s more important to make a decision of some kind than it is to make a correct decision, which explains several entire careers.

Here are some decisions that could have gone another way.

1) Peter Mayhew, the tall hospital porter, was not originally cast as Chewbacca in STAR WARS. Kenny Baker was the first actor to play the part, because producer Gary Kurtz wanted to save money on fur. But in rehearsals,the diminutive Baker struggled to project the correct air of ursine authority. It didn’t seem likely that this four foot teddy bear could rip anybody’s arms out of their sockets. Even another teddy bear’s. It was too late to recruit fresh actors, so Lucas searched his cast for another suitable player, and immediately found the perfect man: Alec Guinness. But Guinness refused to play a role which would render him completely unrecognizable (“This frigging beard is bad enough,”) and replace all his dialogue with gargling grunts, so finally Mayhew got the role. He’d been finding the R2-D2 costume rather cramped anyway.

2) THE THIRD MAN was originally planned to take place on a sinking ship. “I was aiming for something akin to what Ronnie Neame eventually did with THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE,” said Carol Reed. “It was the perfect excuse for all those tilted camera angles.” When producer Alexander Korda insisted the film take place in Vienna, which is inland, to take advantage of some shares he had bought in a ferris wheel, Reed was initially despondent. But, by taking the metaphorical view that post-war Europe was itself a kind of sinking ship, he adapted his existing storyboard to the new locations without changing anything except metal walls for stone. He eventually admitted the change had been a positive one, and Cotten and Welles’ famous scene played better in the Volksprater than it would have in a dumb-waiter.

3) Much has been written about the colossal talent search to cast Scarlett O’Hara in GONE WITH THE WIND, but it is less generally known that an almost equally huge hunt was staged to cast the part of Mammy. Everyone had agreed that Hattie McDaniel was the only actress who could play the role, but McDaniel had just signed with RKO to play a crime-fighting cook in a series of B-pictures. Having failed to find another performer with McDaniel’s subtlety of expression, the unit turned to production designer William Cameron Menzies to solve their problem. Menzies drew up blueprints for a mechanical mammy. “I was aiming for something a little like what Rob Bottin would make in TOTAL RECALL,” said Menzies, implausibly referencing a film made thirty-three years after his death. “You know, the fat lady costume that Arnie Schwartzenegger wears to get through customs?”

“I was going to put little Billy Barty in a mechanical Mammy. The long skirts would eliminate the need for legs: he would cycle away in there and thus operate a concealed tricycle. There would be a series of buttons he could push to make the eyes roll. We had a problem with the arms: Billy, being used to short arms, would wave them about too much, which was potentially dangerous. One time, Thomas Mitchell nearly lost an eye. Finally, we had the arms worked on wires by puppeteers.”

In the end, film history records that McDaniels’ culinary detective series was mysteriously cancelled, leaving her free to play Mammy after all. But there are persistent rumours that Menzies’ racially stereotyped robot appears in some shots. It has even been suggested than McDaniel won the Oscar for a role actually played by a dwarf-propelled replicant. The relevant pages of the David O. Selznick papers have been sealed by court order until 2039.

repulsion-coming-out-of-the-wall

4) When Roman Polanski was preparing REPULSION, he very much wanted to get Catherine Deneuve for the role of Carol, the Belgian manicurist who goes mad. So he included the strange detail of the soft walls, knowing well that she was currently living in a house made of silly putty. Women love rearranging the furniture, don’t they? (I’m generalizing, of course — but all women do this.) Deneuve had worked it out so she could actually tear down entire walls and rebuild them in fresh, blobby shapes. It used to drive David Bailey mad.

Dr Winkle’s noises

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 5, 2013 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2013-08-03-23h32m40s116

THE THIRD MAN — a very well-known film, very well-documented (Charles Drazin’s In Search of The Third Man is recommended)… or so you would think…

IMG 1692 from David Cairns on Vimeo.

Via Randall William Cook this little iPhone movie, filmed off his TV, showing an old VHS release of Carol Reed’s masterpiece. Note when Dr Winkle is describing the fatal “accident,” the sudden screech of breaks which punctuates his account and creates a frisson of danger just at the tale’s climax.

The tape also is notable for containing five minutes of exit music running over a black screen after the film has ended, something not even Criterion included in their disc.

Well, this sound effect seems to be absent from every DVD of the movie. What happened to it? It’s so effective, one can’t imagine anybody deliberately removing it. And further evidence is given by a later Reed movie, FOLLOW ME (aka THE PUBLIC EYE), which re-uses the device to equally thrilling effect, suggesting that Reed was particularly pleased with it.

Note the whine of the elevator starting bang on cue as Topol is about to refer to the fatal fall — it actually helps motivate the camera movement in on the actors, adds to the intensity of the mood, and echoes in our subconscious when Topol refers to his colleague’s mishap. Note also that the elevator never actually moves: NOT a blunder, but rather proof that the filmmakers were willing to pursue a good idea even though it doesn’t make literal sense. A testimony to their skill. Oh, and the editor of the film is Anne V. Coates, who cut LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (containing the world’s best edit), THE ELEPHANT MAN, OUT OF SIGHT…

I hope next time we see THE THIRD MAN, this crucial little FX flourish has been restored.

Two more semi-random but related points.

Mr. Cook points out that the slightly artificial dog whimper sound dubbed onto Dr Winkle’s chihuahua (or whatever the hell it is) is actually a baby wolf noise previously heard in Alexander Korda’s production of THE JUNGLE BOOK.

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I enjoy Topol’s white raincoat with matching cap and briefcase, and am reminded of Eleanor Bron’s all-pink outfit in HELP! with pink turban and pink handgun. Both films were designed by the great Julie Harris. Colour co-ordinated effects in Richard Lester’s films may be discussed again soon…

Sidearm snookery

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on April 6, 2011 by dcairns

Did a class on editing — with the general purpose of getting students excited about the possibilities. And in the interests of making economical, environmentally-friendly use of my brain, I’ll recycle some of the thoughts here.

THE THIRD MAN offered an opportunity to examine a classic moment — Harry Lime’s first appearance — for defects and merits and weirdnesses — we noted the lack of sync on much of what Joseph Cotten says, including an extreme longshot where his arm movements as he yells to the figure in the doorway are noticeably unrelated to the words he utters. Remarkably, one can spot a sync problem even from a great distance when the lips themselves are not perceptible. A recent screening of THE SMALL BACK ROOM caused me to notice how often this kind of thing crops up in old movies. Even though the films were made for screening ONLY on big cinema screens, they were edited on little moviolas and sync wasn’t always looked after except in close shots. I’m all in favour of bodging things to get the best dramatic effect, but most of the sloppiness here didn’t seem essential to the scene, and would no doubt have been tidied away in a modern film. Unless the film is DIE HARD 4, which has the most appalling shooting and cutting of dialogue I’ve ever seen in a studio release.

But of more interest is what Orson Welles called “hanky panky and sidearm snookery” — magic trickster illusionism and time/space abuse, carried out for clear dramatic effect and narrative clarity. Apart from the fact that THE THIR MAN constructs its own dream Vienna out of ecstatic fragments, folding streets together like the architects of INCEPTION, and retouching geography by transplanting fake statuary to decorate bare foregrounds (a truck full of plaster fountains and cherubs shadowed the unit assiduously), there’s the vigorous bending of the laws of physics in this scene –

Cotten shouts at the figure in the doorway (played by assistant director Guy Hamilton, later of GOLDFINGER fame) –

An awakened neighbour starts yelling. Their window lights up –

And a few frames later, the light hits the face of the figure in the doorway, now revealed to be Orson Welles…

Well, light is quite slow, isn’t it? 299,792,458 m/s. Takes a good while to get from one place to another. If a window lit up, it would take a moment before the rays hit the face of a man standing in the street…

Not really, of course. A forgivable, indeed commendable, distortion of the laws of the universe allows us to clearly recognize both the source of the light and its effect. If we’d missed the few frames before the light struck Orson’s beamish countenance, or the moment where he lit up like a luminous balloon, we’d miss the magic.

Arguably naughtier still is the next trick. Cotten expresses appropriate surprise at his friend’s resurrection, a modest tracking shot enlarges Orson’s smirk, then Cotten starts across the street towards his friend. A vehicle, passing from out of nowhere, interrupts his progress, and by the time he reaches the doorway, which proves to be bricked up, Welles has vanished into the night, satchelfoot reverberations of slapping feet and an elongated shadow pointing to the direction of his flight.

The passing truck is intended to allow time for Welles to make a realistic getaway, and Carol Reed cuts in a deliberately confusing manner to another lopsided angle as it cuts across our path. So we believe that OW had the chance to slip away. But studying the sequence, it’s clear that the doorway where our quarry is lurking is never out of sight, so there is absolutely NO WAY he could slip away without being clocked. A less nervy director might have cut to a close shot favouring Cotten as he reels back from the oncoming truck, allowing a second or so for the doorway to be offscreen, which would make Welles’s getaway accountable. But Reed’s version is preferable, I think, since it TRICKS us into thinking we’ve seen something just about possible, while preserving the FEEL of a ghostly manifestation, incorporating, disincorporating, teleporting. Phantasmal and fantastic.

UK ~

The Third Man [DVD] [1949]

The Third Man (Studio Canal Collection) [Blu-ray] [1949]

In Search of the Third Man

USA ~

The Third Man (StudioCanal Collection) [Blu-ray]

In Search of The Third Man (Limelight)

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