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Films with men and shadows

September 15, 2010

As all the cool kids know, The Third Man is the best British film ever with the possible exceptions of Trainspotting, The 39 Steps, A Matter Of Life And Death, The Life Of Brian, and, you know, loads of others.

But it’s definitely brilliant – for the wonderfully shady photography of cobble-streeted Vienna, for the pairing of Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles, and for a plot which weighs up the delicate balance of post-war politics and makes a face like a plumber with bad news.

I was so keen to find more cinema along the lines of the film’s famous backstreets and sewer chase that last year I picked up director Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out, a man on the run thriller with James Mason as an Irish republican paramilitary. And it was good – long, but with one very effective escape-through-the-city sequence, and, of course, James Mason.

The reason I mention all of this is that this week I watched another film with parallels to Reed’s classic as I reviewed a new DVD release of Jacques Tourneur’s Berlin Express. It was made the year before The Third Man – 1948 – and is set primarily in Germany rather than Austria. But the focus is the same, a preoccupation with the four-way power share between the victorious allies, and a warning about the undesirable types who might seek to benefit from the cracks in authority.

It’s far less elegant than The Third Man, with each of the four central characters representing an allied country like some kind of diplomatic superhero squad, and the plot about protecting a Professor due to give a talk about the reunification of Germany not so much on the nose as inside the nose building a house and smoking a pipe.

But the footage of crumbling post-war Germany, and Frankfurt in particular, is striking and savage, and full of the same kind of shadows that Welles emerged from and slid through so effectively in Reed’s film, giving en enjoyable sense of menace and loss to the film’s final half hour.

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A quick edit, in case anyone wants to get hold of these on DVD.

The Third Man is available on a decent R2 DVD here, or an even better Blu-ray here, with a commentary track from Steven Soderbergh (whose second film, Kafka, is a strange mix of The Third Man and Welles’ excellent version of The Trial).

Odd Man Out is available on R2 DVD with a few extras here.

Berlin Express is available as a barebones disc from here.

One Comment leave one →
  1. September 16, 2010 2:52 pm

    He Walked By Night is worth seeing. I think that's where Carol Reed got the idea for the chase scene through the sewer tunnels in the Third Man. The Naked City and Le Doulos are both also cracking b&w shadowplay films.

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