This book combines mainly chronological coverage of all major stages of Carol Reed's career with special attention not only to the acknowledged masterpieces but also to films that deserve re-appraisal (e .g. Outcast of the Islands, Trapeze, Oliver!) . Reed's interest in the parent-child relationship, an interminable inquest across all the films into the origins of the self, is remarkable from the outset. Reed's characteristic fondness for low angle shots intensifies the atmosphere of doom from which none of the characters ever ultimately finds relief. Followed by The Third Man, Outcast of the Islands, The Man Between and A Kid for Two Farthings, The Fallen Idol was the first of five films made for Alexander Korda's London Films. Looking back at the film now it is clear that Outcast belongs to that group of 1950s films that challenge the conformist reputation of British films made during the decade. Reed's eye for detail and for creating atmosphere through photography or editing is unsurpassed in the British cinema. While the preponderance of father/son narratives may indeed be partly attributable, as some have argued, to feelings prompted by his illegitimacy, Reed's closeness to his mother is an equally significant contributory factor to the films' representation of personal and family relationships.
Robert and Raymond Hakim gave Diego Buñuel the opportunity of working with Catherine Deneuve on Joseph Kessel's scandalous 1929 novel Belle de jour, a book that caused as much uproar on publication as the first screening of Un chien andalou. The Hakim brothers offered him the luxury of a ten-week working schedule on what was to become only by then his third film in colour. The darker shades of the Deneuve persona are in even greater evidence in Tristana. The juxtaposition of the images of femme fatale and virgin mother recreates the ambivalent treatment of women in western culture. Catherine Deneuve, both as Tristana and as ' Belle de jour', allowed Buñuel to indulge an incurable fascination with the ice-maiden prototype, that incarnation of a fantasy of Olympian pallid aloofness so fitting for demystifying the equivocal sensibilities of the threatened male.
This introduction presents the key concepts discussed in the subsequent chapters of this book. The book combines mainly chronological coverage of all major stages of Carol Reed's career with special attention not only to the acknowledged masterpieces but also to films that deserve re-appraisal (e.g. Outcast of the Islands, Trapeze, Oliver!) . The marked patterns of his films, crime, foreign settings, parent-child relationships, seem to indicate, either a search for or a willingness to accept commissions for films concerned with loss, destabilised or marginalised characters, and difference and otherness. These are tendencies that led Raymond Durgnat to classify Reed as 'the most imposing pessimist' of the British cinema. Reed's exploitation of the resources of film language, as well as his handling of actors and actresses to draw out extraordinary performances from major stars.
As Carol Reed began to make his way in films the British cinema in the 1930s was already characterised. On the one hand, by the rise of the documentary tradition epitomised by Grierson and Cavalcanti and, on the other, by popular genre-based, star-studded films and studio production headed by moghuls like Alexander Korda. Reed's interest in the parent-child relationship, an interminable inquest across all the films into the origins of the self, is remarkable from the outset. Climbing High owed much not only to English stage comedy but also to Hollywood screwball and its British musical or non-musical variants. Reed seemed more in tune with the more conservative tendencies of the British cinema, such as in his war films, but romantic comedy encouraged greater dissidence. Climbing High is of a piece with the work of other inter-war artists, its very title an ironic commentary on social climbing and classless love.
The Stars Look Down was one of three films on coal mining themes made, at the end of a troubled decade, in Britain and Hollywood. Reed's characteristic fondness for low angle shots intensifies the atmosphere of doom from which none of the characters ever ultimately finds relief. Night Train to Munich and The Lady Vanishes are comedy thrillers; both concern the outbreak of the Second World War. The most striking difference between the two films lies in the shift of emphasis in relations between the couple, so that the male, not the female, becomes the driving force. Like Night Train, and Reed's next film, Girl in the News, Kipps was scripted by Gilliat, although the film did not meet with his ultimate approval. Reed, though, is no Godard. He avoids the directness of political discourse. The film's focus is more personal than political.
Well before their collaboration on three of Reed's most memorable films, Graham Greene (1980) wrote highly favourable reviews of Reed's work. Followed by The Third Man, Outcast of the Islands, The Man Between and A Kid for Two Farthings, The Fallen Idol was the first of five films made for Alexander Korda's London Films. Reed's reputation, on the back especially of his war films and The Stars Look Down, obviously attracted Alexander Korda. The adult world of marital strife, adultery, obsession and hysteria is the eventual destination of the child whose innocence is already compromised in The Fallen Idol through contact with unstable adults. Like Rebecca, The Fallen Idol traces the attempts of an immature character to sever itself from the mother, and to attach itself to the father, although in both cases the child displaces on to surrogates parent-related feelings of love and hate.
Any film directed by Carol Reed after The Third Man was bound to attract attention. Reviewers expecting another masterpiece found themselves almost unanimously expressing disappointment at Outcast of the Islands. Looking back at the film now it is clear that Outcast belongs to that group of 1950s films that challenge the conformist reputation of British films made during the decade. The film's key motif is exile, from the self, as well as from geographical and cultural roots. After the mixed reception that greeted Outcast of the Islands, Reed reverted to a trusted formula, one that had brought him his greatest critical successes, the thriller format of Night Train, Odd Man out, The Fallen Idol, and, above all, The Third Man. Reed's last film for Korda, A Kid for Two Farthings, sees him focusing more directly on aspects of British life before launching himself as an international, Hollywood-backed director.
After the death of Alexander Korda, for whose London Films he had made five films, Reed was keen to try his hand again in Hollywood. His last two films for Korda had been major disappointments both critically and commercially, so it was something of a surprise that he was commissioned by Hecht-Lancaster to direct Trapeze. This chapter demonstrates that even what are on balance rightly considered flawed films contain many remarkable moments. The Last Warrior and Follow Me brought his career to an end with a whimper in a final phase that was not without merit. Reed's next offer came from MGM, the chance to re-make Mutiny on the Bounty. Of all Reed's later films none has attracted as much patronising commentary and laboured humour as The Agony and the Ecstasy. Reed was offered The Agony and the Ecstasy after first choice Fred Zinnemann turned it down.
The film that gave a boost to Reed's flagging reputation was Oliver!, by any standards an impressive musical, and true epilogue to a long and distinguished, though variable, career. As ever, a film musical that owes its origins to a stage version, especially one that was a smash hit on both sides of the Atlantic, runs the risk of unfavourable comparison with other productions. Like the best musicals, Oliver! gives its audiences intense pleasures through narrative, character, star performers, as well as through its array of formal effects: music, dance, colour, décor, camera movement and so on. In this film brutality and kindness are constant companions. Oliver! is a film about not only the survival instincts of outsider figures like Fagin and the Dodger, skipping away into the sunset like Chaplin and the little boy in The Kid, but also the triumph of innocence.
By any standards, Reed's achievements are considerable, but his often self-deprecating remarks have not helped his reputation. Reed liberates his films from raw material provided not by divine inspiration, but by a host of collaborators. In producing the finished article from inchoate form, he nevertheless managed to stamp on it his unmistakable personality. Reed's eye for detail and for creating atmosphere through photography or editing is unsurpassed in the British cinema. Although many films concentrate on the shadow of the father over the son, they also include scrutiny of the son's quest for the mother. In addressing issues like these, sometimes through brilliant handling of film form, Reed stakes a legitimate claim to be considered one of the truly outstanding figures of the British cinema.