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Winchester ’73 (1950)

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So I had the weird idea that Winchester ’73 could have gone in a different and more intriguing direction, and if it had done so I would have liked it a lot more.

And I’m not talking about the main plot, necessarily.  That’s a fairly conventional Western Movie story, with Jimmy Stewart as “Lin McAdam,” a frontiersman on the trail of a fellow named Dutch (Stephen McNally). They run into each other in Dodge City, but can’t settle their score because Dodge City’s sheriff, Wyatt Earp (Will Geer), has initiated a “no guns” policy in Dodge, requiring all travelers to surrender their arms into his care upon entering the town.  Lin and Dutch, reduced to eyeing each other warily, have little else to do so they both enter a marksmanship contest in town – the grand prize being a new 1873 model Winchester rifle.  Both soon take the lead, demonstrating greater and greater feats of shooting, but Lin finally wins – and Dutch ambushes him shortly after, stealing the coveted prize and leaving town, with Lin once again in pursuit.

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And here starts the most interesting part of the film, as the gun passes through a series of very different hands in a variety of different ways. It’s added to the pot in a poker match, it’s part of a trade with a Sioux war party, it’s dropped on a battlefield, it’s given to a milquetoast dandy, it’s used in a robbery; in short, it has its own set of adventures, and it’s peripatetic voyage – and the reasons people want this gun in the first place – made for a more interesting story to me than the Saga Of Lin And Dutch. Each of the little vignettes that make up the gun’s travels felt like their own little story, except for Lin and Dutch – even their backstory is only added as an afterthought, with Lin’s sidekick “High Spade Frankie” telling a saloon girl “how do Lin and Dutch know each other” in a very brief scene towards the very end.

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So to me, this looks like the filmmakers really wanted just to make a story of a gun – their title card at the beginning gives the history of the Winchester company and touts the fame of the 1873 model in particular – but were forced to throw in a plot about A Person to get the studio on board. Which is understandable. But I felt it was a lesser film as a result, and also feel like they could have chosen a better story to play up.

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All About Eve (1950)

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Like Treasure of the Sierra Madre, this was a film I knew by reputation only; and also like Sierra Madre, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by All About Eve.

As I told my roommate –   it’s like Single White Female meets A Star Is Born. Bette Davis plays Margo Channing, a renowned Broadway actress, and Anne Baxter is Eve Harrington, one of Margo’s mega-fans. Margo’s friend Karen (Celeste Holm) takes pity on Eve hovering by the stage door one night and invites her backstage to meet her idol, along with the rest of Margo’s creative team – playwright Lloyd (Hugh Marlowe), frequent creator of Margo’s star vehicles and Karen’s husband, and Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill), Margo’s usual director and longtime boyfriend.

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Everyone is charmed by the depth of Eve’s ardor, and then touched by her hard-luck story (brought up penniless, a young widow of a World War II pilot, saving all her pennies to see Margo again and again) and Margo spontaneously offers Eve a job as a sort of personal assistant, even though she already has one, longtime maid and dresser Birdie (Thelma Ritter).  Birdie’s the first to spot some of Eve’s “helpfulness” as ambition, but gradually the others start to realize that Eve doesn’t just admire Margo – she wants to be Margo, complete with a starring role in one of Lloyd’s plays, swank penthouse apartment, and an admiring boyfriend as her collaborator (although she’s gunning for both Lloyd and Bill).  Worst of all, everyone realizes just how skillfully Even has been manipulating them all from the very start.

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The story of an older star getting shoved aside by a younger one isn’t an unfamiliar one. What fascinated me about All About Eve, though, was how it addressed why Margo was in danger of being brushed aside. Margo is pushing 40, but the plays Lloyd has been writing for her still cast her as the same dewy-eyed ingénues she’s always played – because the public doesn’t want to see her playing women her own age.  One day – and it won’t be long – she’ll just be too old for the part, and Eve plans on being ready and waiting for that day to arrive (or plans on hurrying it ahead a bit).  There’s a lengthy conversation between Margo and Karen at one point where Margo laments her lost youth and the loss of options for actresses her age – and rails against the double standards that have left her with such few options in the first place, not just in acting but in life overall.  Granted that this film was just a decade off from Betty Friedan and The Feminine Mystique, but I was surprised to see these kinds of complaints given a voice.  Margo eventually finds a way through the situation with some grace intact, but after her conversation with Karen, it still feels the price is fairly high.

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Critics have pointed out that Sunset Boulevard (which I’ll be getting to soon) also dealt with a similar aging-actress-has-to-cope theme; both films came out the same year, so there must have been something in the zeitgeist.  All About Eve, though, is the one that took home the Oscar for best picture that year.

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The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

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feel that at this point I can get away with breaking out this riff again:  “It’s a film noir, you know the drill.”

Okay, it wasn’t that bad.  Asphalt Jungle is yet another look at the criminal underworld – gangsters, criminals, robbers, mob bosses, corrupt policemen, and crumbling streets.  In this case, the action follows a whole web of people drawn together in a conspiracy, concerning a jewel robbery in a smallish city and the many parties brought in to launch the plan and cover it up.  And there are indeed many parties – from “Doc” Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe), the recent parolee who thought up the plan while still in prison, to lawyer Al Emmerich (Louis Calhern), the corrupt lawyer putting up the money to hire the hired help and turning a blind eye to the caper in return for half the profits.  And there’s Dix Handey (Sterling Hayden), a criminal mercenary who’s only in the game trying to win big and buy back his family’s Kentucky horse ranch.  There’s a handful of other characters as well – smitten girlfriends, corrupt beat cops, your usual assortment.

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And yet the film caught my attention as time went on; it’s almost inevitable that the group’s plans go bust. But watching specifically lets you explore just how it does – a little petty jealousy here, a little distraction there, an errant gunshot here, a sharp-eyed witness there…the first half of the movie painstakingly sets up the machinations of the plot, while the second (the part I ultimately liked better) showed how the unknown elements both within and without the group caused the whole thing to collapse. It was like watching someone setting up an elaborate domino stunt and then getting to watch the whole thing finally fall down. And that got weirdly fascinating.

On the other hand, the script saw fit to throw in some painfully earnest lines about the nature of crime, the civilizing influence of the police, and the folly of man.  The plot lead me to forgive most of it, but there was still some dialogue towards the end – especially in a scene when the police commissioner is lecturing some reporters – that nearly made me cringe.

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Of special note: this was Marilyn Monroe’s first big part, playing the mistress of the disgraced lawyer.  I’ve had the breathy sex-kitten “Happy-birthday-Mister-President” image of Marilyn in my head so long that I literally didn’t recognize her when I first saw her – and through her biggest scene, I was squinting at the screen and thinking “dang, that looks a lot like Marilyn Monroe, I wonder who it actually is?”  This was a very different Marilyn – still kittenish, but with more sincerity than campiness. I was pleasantly surprised, especially with how she handled what were some pretty cheesy lines.

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Whisky Galore! (1949)

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Back when I did I Know Where I’m Going!I mentioned that I’d been expecting something different from it and been pleasantly surprised. What I was expecting was one of those low-key comedies about eccentric people and wacky hijinks in a small twee town; it’s a genre that the UK and Ireland seems to do a lot, with (just off the top of my head) Waking Ned Devine, The Full Monty, Calendar Girls, Brassed Off, Kinky Boots, Saving Grace, Millions, The Matchmakerand The Englishman Who Went Up A Hill But Came Down A Mountain all being more recent examples.  You know the kind – it’s usually set in a small town, often an economically depressed one, but one where everyone knows each other and has patience with each others’ eccentricities, especially when someone comes up with a Wacky Scheme that will improve their finances.  Usually there is a stuck-up resident who tuts a lot because they Do Not Approve and are determined to Put A Stop To This Sort Of Thing.  Often there is a government authority of some sort who is coming to Investigate The Goings-On and the whole town conspires to keep them in the dark; or, the main character is a person from the city who’s trying to settle in and Discovers Themselves.  Whisky Galore is one such comedy; and it reinforced for me that I’m getting kinda sick of such comedies.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s perfectly inoffensive and cute.  In this case the town is an island –  Todday, a tiny speck of land just off the northern coast of Scotland. There is little to do on Todday except work, chat, and have a drink at the pub – so there is great consternation when wartime rationing puts an end to Todday’s whisky supply.  But after a few weeks, a freighter runs aground off the coast of Todday.  The town rescues the crew, who mention in passing that the freighter – which they’ve abandoned on a sandbar – had nearly 50,000 cases of whiskey in the hold. And soon the whole town moves on from rescuing the crew to rescuing the cargo.

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Of course, there are those who don’t approve. Captain Waggett (Basil Radford), the stuffy English expat who’s the head of Todday’s Home Guard, considers raiding the freighter to be looting, and is determined to Put A Stop To It.  The Ultra-Religious widow Mrs. Campbell (Jean Cadell) is also unimpressed, as she doesn’t approve of drink.  But Waggett and Mrs. Campbell each have their sabateurs; Mrs. Campbell’s son George (Gordon Jackson), the town schoolteacher, is hoping to marry the lovely Catriona (Gabrielle Blunt), daughter of the local postmaster Mr. MacRoon (Wylie Watson). And one of Waggett’s underlings, the more relaxed Sergeant Odd (Bruce Seton), has his eye on Catriona’s sister Peggy (Joan Greenwood).  When both come to ask Mr. MacRoon for his daughters’ hands, MacRoon mentions that gee, there really should be a traditional Scottish betrothal party, and gosh, we’d really need whisky for that…

The plot is hatched, the authorities are thwarted, the hijinks commence, the women are wooed, the day is saved, yadda yadda yadda.

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I know I sound like a miserable cynic there; but I’ve just seen so many of these kinds of comedies by now that it’s starting to get stale for me.  And the hell of it is that I liked them at first; I saw Waking Ned Devine in the theater, as well as Saving Grace (that one was even as a date).  One of my favorite television shows is Northern Exposurearguably an American version of this kind of story.  But after having seen so many, I’ve learned to recognize the formula, and it just puts me off – even with one of the films that has ostensibly set the formula.

One of the elements that makes me roll my eyes, too, is when the films lean into the eccentricity.  There’s often a bit of point-and-laugh-at-the-kooky-country-people going on, particularly if the film is set in rural communities in Scotland or Ireland. While it’s not meant as offense, it can sometimes feel a bit like mockery of cultures that are still just a tiny bit “foreign” even within the United Kingdom.  It may be my Irish roots coming out, but a lot of the “kooky stuff” we’re being encouraged to find eccentric is more of a legitimate cultural difference, so I can get a little cranky.

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I grumbled about all this to the roommate, and when he asked, I admitted that no, the film itself hadn’t done enough to overcome that with me.  But when he asked if it was just plain bad, I had to admit that no, it wasn’t.  It was perfectly cute and pleasant. The biggest nit I can find to pick about this film concerns Cadell and Greenwood’s accents – I don’t know what accent the MacRoon sisters were using, but that sure as heck wasn’t Scottish.  Greenwood, in particular, was sounding distinctly un-Hebridean, and talked more like she was trying to do a Marilyn Monroe imitation. But everything else was perfectly charming and quaint and twee and cute, and it’s possible that that’s exactly why I ultimately sighed heavily and resisted.

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Rashomon (1950)

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Another film that was new to me, but that I already knew all about by way of reputation.  And I’m sure you have as well, or at least seen one of the gabillion works that it has overtly or subtly influenced over the years – any movie or show you’ve ever seen where you get to see two or more different versions play out for “how an event happened”, that’s Rashomon. 

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Usually the what of “what happened” is pretty clear, as it is in this film – somewhere in the woods in medieval Japan, a bandit (Toshiro Mifune) ran into a samurai (Masayuki Mori) and his wife (Machiko Kyō). The bandit ended up raping the woman, and the samurai got killed.  A woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) found the body and reported the crime, and the bandit captured soon after. The woman was found a bit later in a fugue state, and brought to testify at the bandit’s trial.

Those are the facts; but each witness has a different story as to how those facts manifested.  The bandit says the woman gave in, and that he and the husband had a daring duel for her continued affections. But the woman says it was rape, and that her husband still rejected her; and that she killed him.  The judge even calls in a medium to try to contact the ghost of the samurai for his testimony; his story is completely different from the bandit’s and his wife’s, including the identity of the killer.  We even get the woodcutter’s perspective; he saw a little more of the incident than he originally let on, but his own account varies from the others’ tales.

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Now, that bit I knew – that we’d get to see four different takes on a specific incident, all of which varied from each other.  What I didn’t know is that we wouldn’t ever get to see which version was “correct”. In fact, the film muddies things even further with a framing story, with the woodcutter and a monk telling the whole story to a third man, a traveler who runs into them as they wait out a thunderstorm.  And towards the end, the traveler figures out a reason to suspect that the woodcutter is fudging the facts on his own story – which casts doubt on all the other stories not only because each teller may have been lying, but also because now we can’t trust the second-hand reporting on their testimonies in the first place.

And ultimately, I learned that that’s what this film is “about”. There is no one right answer or correct version of events; we will never know, because every person telling their perspective is doing so through a skewed filter, one which may be muddied through distraction, or self-interest, or fear.  The monk in the framing story frets a few times about how the whole mess has convinced him that mankind is ultimately too flawed, and the world is ultimately too corrupt; it’s bad enough that the woman was raped and the samurai murdered, but with everyone telling half-truths about it, we can’t even agree on why it happened.  There is a small moment of goodness that redeems things for the monk towards the end, fortunately; but ultimately, this is more of a philosophical meditation on “what is real” than it is a fact-finding investigation.

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In a way, I’ve been set up to like those kinds of questions. My father has always enjoyed playing devil’s advocate in discussions, as a way to explore either the topic of discussion itself, or to examine how other people construct their own arguments. He’s taken this kind of Socratic approach to discussions about the death penalty, taxation, foreign policy questions, religious dogma – I even saw him once draw my entire 20-member extended family into a spirited debate on government food purity standards during one unusually memorable Thanksgiving.  Dad’s ultimate point is that different people have different perspectives on the same thing whether because of their backgrounds or just where they happen to be standing, and they are usually just as valid as anyone else’s.  Kurosawa’s film has a bit of a bleaker perspective on this paradox, but it’s similar, and it lead my brain down some interesting paths.

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There are those who get put off by the acting in this.  Director Akira Kurosawa was heavily influenced by silent film, and encouraged his cast to go a little broad; Toshiro Mifune can come across as especially hammy, since throughout the bandit’s tale he frequently stops to cackle evilly.  But the four different accounts of the same incident also lead to four different chances for the actors to change up their performances, and that can be an interesting exercise in comparison.  Two of the stories feature a “duel” between the bandit and the samurai, and while the bandit’s version features a full-on swashbuckling showy fight, the woodcutter’s version of their duel is a more panicked, inexpert scuffle, with both parties visibly terrified.

Kurosawa is a director I’ve wanted to examine more for a while, so I was looking forward to this as well.

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On The Town (1949)

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I used to write for a now-defunct theater review blog. One show I covered was part of a new-musical festival; I began my review by saying that “There are musicals, and then there are musicals.  ….And then sometimes, there are MUSICALS!!!!”  On The Town, quite simply, is a MUSICAL!!!!  As the roommate put it, “Jazz hands…..So many jazz hands….”

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Like most such shows and films, this has a paper-thin plot – three sailors have 24 hours of shore leave in the city during Fleet Week.  They want to see all the sights – but more importantly, they want to pick up girls.  And most of the women they meet are more than happy to be wooed- starting with Clare (Ann Miller), an armchair anthropologist they meet at the Museum of Natural History who notes that sailor Ozzie (Jules Munshin) resembles her favorite caveman statue, and falls for him instantly. Cabbie Hildy (Betty Garrett) sets her sights on Chip (Frank Sinatra), declaring herself the group’s personal cabbie just so she can try to lure him away from his sightseeing and upstairs to her place.  Sailor Gabey (Gene Kelly) is a little more fussy – sort of.  He spots a subway ad early on declaring that the MTA has declared a young miss named Ivy (Vera-Ellen) is that month’s “Miss Turnstiles”, and he is determined to find her, even if it takes him all day.

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And…well, it’s a musical. There are cute love songs, there are comic misunderstandings, there are kooky adventures, there is singing and dancing and hijinks and a wistfully happy ending when the three sailors bid adieu to their ladies and return to their ship.  The plot in such films takes a back seat to the production numbers.  At least the dancing is top-notch, with Gene Kelly taking on the bulk of the dancing (he also choreographed and directed the film).  This is the first time I’ve ever really paid attention to Kelly’s work; I’ve heard others describe his style as “athletic,” and there is something to that.  He’s not as suavely elegant as Fred Astaire; he’s more like a lively Golden Retriever in style. Different, but still fun to watch.  Similarly, we have Sinatra on hand for a couple of showier solo songs, which he delivers with aplomb.

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Speaking of Sinatra – his involvement may have lead to some headaches for the producers.  The studio boasted that this was one of the first movie musicals to film on location in New York City; while really it looks like most of the scenes were on a stage set, the opening number sees our sailors cavorting around various local landmarks while singing (“New York, New York, it’s a wonderful town…”), and these were indeed filmed close to me (in one case, very close to me – the sailors’ ship is docked in Brooklyn’s Navy Yard, and I live about five blocks away).  Apparently word got out that Sinatra would be filming in the city, and his fans turned up to gawk – in a scene when the three sailors are admiring the Prometheus statue in Rockefeller Center, you can see a huge crowd lined up just behind it, admiring him.

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Some of the bits have not aged all that well.  Ann Miller’s number, “Prehistoric Man,” is an ode to dating old-fashioned men – really old-fashioned ones, that is; she is looking for a big burly caveman type. And since the cast is ostensibly in the Museum of Natural History, there is much cavorting around with “primitive” artifacts – elaborate headdresses, ceremonial drums, spears, and the like.  There’s also a subplot with Hildy offering her nerdy roommate Lucy (Alice Pearce) as Plan-B option for Gabey when Ivy has to drop out, and she’s clearly meant to be the awkward comic relief.

And yet…somewhere towards the end there are also some small lovely moments. In one scene, when the sailors are trying to grab a table at a swanky club, using Ivy’s status as “Miss Turnstiles” as currency, Clare quietly steps aside and corners the manager, bribing him to get them a table and to make a fuss over Ivy.  And as for Gabey and Lucy – even though she knows she’s his Plan B, when Gabey sees her home, he gives her a sincere apology for not being very good company and wishes her well.  It was a surprisingly sweet twist.  I was also expecting there to be some kind of lengthier farewell between the sailors and the ladies; fervent promises to stay in touch, a sudden proposal, something like that.  But no – the ladies just follow the sailors back to the ship and stand ashore waving goodbye, as the next round of sailors up for shore leave start flooding ashore and singing “New York, New York” again.

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So despite myself, I ended up pondering my own Fleet Week memories (you can’t help but have a couple after living here as long as I have).  The exuberance of the opening number reminded me of a moment waiting to cross a street, with a knot of sailors beside me. And suddenly, one of them started completely freaking out and exclaiming to his companions: “Guys!  Guys!  It just hit me!  We’re in New York!  I’m in New York, and you’re in New York, and we are in New York!!!”  The light changed then and I crossed the street, but his enthusiasm was touching and stayed with me.

Later that same week, another group of sailors stopped me to ask directions to McSorley’s Ale House; at that time, it was en route for my commute home, so I suggested they simply follow me. I spent a lively ten minutes playing tour guide on the subway and then on the sidewalk, playfully bantering with six guys in dress whites – and then when we got to McSorley’s, they invited me to join them.  And of course I accepted.  One of the sailors ended up getting especially taken with me – he insisted on walking me the rest of the way home later, with another buddy as chaperone “so you know I won’t try anything”, and then gave me his email address, telling me I was “a fun gal” and asking me to stay in touch.  ….I considered it, but ultimately didn’t, and every now and then I regret that.

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The Third Man (1949)

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There’s so much to think about in The Third Man that it’s taken me nearly 24 hours after watching to realize that we never do find out who the “third man” actually is, or if he even exists.  I promise you it doesn’t matter, though, and nor would you care.

The story takes place in post-war Vienna – still occupied by the four main Allied powers and still sporting plenty of ruined buildings and rubble.  American Holly Martins (John Cotton), author of a series of pulpy Western novellas, has come at the invitation of an old college buddy named Harry, who says he can get Martins a job. But when Martins gets to Harry’s flat, the doorman tells him Harry was killed by a passing truck just that morning.  Well, darn.

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Martins attends the funeral, planning to head back to the United States right after. But a conversation with a British army official, Major Calloway (Trevor Howard), changes his mind – Calloway implies that Harry was a racketeer in Vienna’s black market. At first the scandalized Martins intends to stick around and clear Harry’s name. But further conversations with Harry’s other associates – a mean-faced Austrian baron, a shady Romanian thug, a secretive doctor – suggest that not only might Calloway be right, but that Harry’s death also may not have been an accident.  Martins also starts getting to know Harry’s girlfriend Anna (Alida Valli), a Czech actress living in Vienna with a false passport Harry forged for her. Anna was very devoted to Harry and wants to help, but has her own troubles – someone tips the Soviet Army off to her presence and she’s in danger of deportation.  The sympathetic Martins starts trying to help her as well.

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And right when Martins is starting to think he’s getting close to figuring out how Harry died – he learns there’s a possibility Harry may not even be dead.

And when it comes to a discussion of the twists and turns of the plot, I am going to stop right there, because everything after what I’ve just told you was a surprise for me and I am going to leave you all to enjoy the the same way.

This came across as a strangely modern take on the film noir.  During the opening credits, I chuckled when I saw that the entire film was being scored by a zither – an instrument I associate with my third grade school music teacher. But it works here – the music manages to be both perky and jaded simultaneously, and perfectly fits with the shabby and down-trodden daytime Vienna.  And for the nighttime shots, where Martins is chasing or being chased by one or another shadowy figure through the streets, the music comes across as an ironic and worldweary counterpoint.

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And what shots and what shadows!  The use of light and shadow here is gorgeous – the people Martins talks to are forever stepping into and out of darkness, flitting between shadows and pools of light as he chases them hoping for illumination.  Orson Welles has a smallish role in the film, and over the years some have claimed that he was an unofficial second director alongside the credited Carol Reed.  But that wasn’t the case (even though Welles didn’t try that hard to discourage the rumor); at best, Reed had seen some of Welles’ films previously and may have unconsciously been influenced.  Welles did throw something in, however – during one speech, he speaks about how a country suffering from social upheaval ironically produces amazing art and music at the same time.  Welles came up with an especially pithy, and often-quoted, new ending for his speech:

“You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock!”

It’s a punch line that manages to be both amusing and cynical – perfect for the world this film was creating.  Nothing ends perfectly for anyone; no one ends in disaster either, actually, but still no one gets everything they want, and everyone has to settle for “good enough” with a sort of shrug.  In the very last scene – when Martins tries to talk to Anna on the street, and she passes him by without a glance – Martins doesn’t try to follow her, or stop her, or even call after her; he just gives up and watches her go.

The film – rightly so – went on to win an Oscar for cinematography.