The Third Man

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Details:
Director: Carol Reed
Producer: Carol Reed
Writer: Graham Greene
Cast: Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Orson Welles, Trevor Howard, Bernard Lee
Studio: London Film Productions
Year: 1949

Why I DVRed This: So The Third Man is pretty much the definition of a classic movie. I’ve seen it probably five times and always try to come back to it every few years. Interestingly, I actually had it DVRed the last time TCM put it on, but my DVR erased it. Luckily, TCM seems to agree with me that it is a classic film and re-shows The Third Man nearly as regularly as HBO plays The Devil Wears Prada. While I might have chosen to DVR the film in any case, I was especially drawn to it recently because I have been talking about going to Vienna just because there’s a really cool-looking hotel and a great opera hall there (and I am one of those people… those people who like opera). Also, in Vienna, you can visit a museum dedicated to the film (and post-war Vienna as a whole)! That sounds fun.

Presentation on TCM: The Third Man was shown as part of TCM’s annual 31 Days of Oscar. The films shown the same night as The Third Man were connected like a before-and-after puzzle. Love Letters was shown before The Third Man and was connected by Joseph Cotten starring in both films, while The Fallen Idol was shown after The Third Man and was connected by sharing the same writer and director. Ben Mankiewicz introduced The Third Man as the film in which Cotten “gives perhaps his finest performance” before he discussed the director Carol Reed getting an Oscar nomination for his “stylish and inventive shot selections.” Though Reed did not win an award for best director that year, Robert Krasker received the Oscar for black and white cinematography for his work on the film.

After the film, Ben Mankiewicz came out again and discussed the film’s ending. He said, interestingly enough, that Graham Greene wanted the film to end with a happy ending, but that the executive producer (David O. Selznick) wanted a more “nuanced” ending. Mankiewicz also added the interesting tidbit that, at the last minute, Orson Welles refused to go through an actual Viennese sewer, so the film’s climax had to be filmed on a soundstage in London. I was delighted to get not one but two appearances from a TCM host, a rarity for the films I tend to DVR.

Zither Credits
The film opens with a close-up of a zither, the instrument that plays the catchy and unforgettable score. © 1949 – British Lion Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved

Synopsis: Holly Martins (Cotten), a broke Western writer, arrives in postwar Vienna as a guest of his childhood friend Harry Lime (Welles). However, when he arrives, Lime is dead! Martin begins to investigate the death and discovers that there was a “third man” (LIKE THE TITLE) present at the death. He runs into trouble from the investigating British officer, Major Calloway (Howard) and begins a love affair with Lime’s lover, Anna (Valli).

Analysis (contains spoilers): So longtime readers of this blog (all—maybe—three of you?) may recognize that I have a bit of an obsession with filmic subjectivity. I like when we see things from perspectives in which it’s clear there is a narrator even though the film itself is not “narrated.” Well, readers rejoice! The Third Man has both a narrator AND extreme subjectivity.

But then again, the narrator isn’t really a narrator. Rather, it’s merely a voice at the beginning of the film who frames the story and explains the rules of the diegetic world—how Vienna is divided into four zones, how the black market dictates all, and how, all that being said, Vienna doesn’t look much worse than any other postwar European city. The narrator never returns to the film after he introduces it, but he does make it clear that it is from his vantage point that we will see the story. Indeed, the narrator’s voice is that of Carol Reed, the film’s director, so the film truly is from his perspective. He announces to us that he “was going to tell [the audience] about Holly Martins, an American. Came all the way here to visit a friend of his. The name was Lime, Harry Lime.” Reed announces that he is in control and has chosen the story he wants to tell, and his narration further makes it clear that we will only see things from his perspective. Thus, we will not see “the old Vienna before the war with its Strauss music, its glamor and easy charm” because he never knew it, as “Constantinople suited [him] better.” This is a bit of an in joke, as the story he tells us is certainly Byzantine, but it also reminds us that the world of the film is one based purely on how Vienna is now, not how it was. And as much as we may want to explore the old Vienna, we can’t, for Reed wants us hear the story of Harry Lime. While all films present the stories their directors wish to tell, few overtly announce their directors’ control in the opening montage, but of course few movies are as clearly framed by their directors as The Third Man is. Luckily, Reed was at his peak as a director when he made it (he even sacrificed his health for the film, forgoing sleep with the help of stimulants to catch even the best b-roll footage), so his subjectivity makes for a terrific film-viewing experience.

The Third Man is meticulously crafted, and every aspect of it is crafted toward the vantage point of Reed. The zither score kicks in whenever Reed wants us to recognize something or have connections (between scenes, between ideas) made. And the cinematography is diegetic as well, as we do not see imitations of life in any way but instead shot structure that shows us how Reed wants us to see the film. Thus, so much of the film is shot with these fun, tilted camera angles. They help remind us that everything we see in the film is itself slanted and abnormal, showing us how Reed wants us to see the story while also offering his point of view that all the world is atilt after being destabilized by World War II.

Indeed much of the film is “about” the condition of the postwar world. The story was conceived by Graham Greene, who wrote a book called The Third Man alongside the screenplay (the novella was written as a treatment for the screenplay, but it was released alongside the movie, like a high literary equivalent of Burger King selling a Jurassic Park comic book). In Greene’s original story, Martins and Lime are British instead of American, but the story works better with Americans (especially when those Americans are played by two great actors with a rich history together, not unlike that of Martins and Lime). After all, with Americans, The Third Man seems more prescient. In the decades after the war, Vienna became something like a microcosmic America through the accident of American mass culture which impacted Austrian culture way more than any direct American foreign policy did (what the Austrian historian Reinhold Wagnleiter calls the switch from “the Monroe Doctrine to the Marilyn Monroe Doctrine”). Austrian youth ended up obsessed with jazz and—later—rock and roll records, American books, and especially American movies. The result was that Austria as a whole became essentially an American mall for a few decades. Thus, for The Third Man, it only makes sense that it would be an American dictating the terms of the marketplace in Vienna!

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This is a typical shot from the film. Nothing is centered, everything looks as crooked as the broken stairwell. © 1949 – British Lion Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved

More than all that, though, the film shows that the postwar world lacks moral clarity. And this is the struggle for Martins. He sees Lime as a childhood hero and friend, but the postwar Lime is a snake, selling often fatal, diluted black market penicillin to the needy of Vienna. Martins cannot believe it, in part because he and Lime are living in totally different worlds. Martins is a Western writer, and he seems to want to believe in the ideals of that genre: that there is an ordered world that can conquer and tame a rugged frontier as long as one man is brave enough, strong enough, and convicted enough to do so. Lime, on the other hand, sees the world as a warzone and recognizes that the entities in charge do no think in terms of right and wrong, of life and death. He tells Martins:

“Nobody thinks in terms of human beings. Governments don’t. Why should we? They talk about the people and the proletariat; I talk about the suckers and the mugs — it’s the same thing.”

Martins counters that Lime used to believe in God, and he challenges Lime to confront the reality of the victims his drug-stretching scheme has made. Martins is still thinking in simplistic terms of good and evil, right and wrong, truth and justice. Lime is beyond that. He is a man of shadows and deceit, trying to take advantage of a destroyed world. And he occupies a (to Martins) foreign new vantage point in which he distances himself from his deed and sees his victims as merely dots seen from above the world.

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Here we see Martins both navigating a spiral-like staircase and being preceded by the weight of his enormous shadow. © 1949 – British Lion Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved

Of course, the way Martins sees the victims is from his own vantage point, one rooted in outmoded ideals. Reed masterfully captures these separate vantage points filmically. When we see Martins, his shadow often precedes him and, as in most film noirs, towers over him. It is as though Martins’ rigid belief system and mythic understanding of the world are a burden on him and weigh down every aspect of his being. He cannot possibly understand the truth about his friend because he cannot possibly see past his own shadow, his own beliefs. Lime, on the other hand, successfully navigates the crevices. When we first see Lime, Martins is drunk and unable to see into the shadows. Lime, however, is watching a cat do just as he does—walk between worlds of light and dark with complete immunity. When Welles’s face ends up perfectly lit, he looks natural and comfortable as Reed’s own vantage point—the camera—zooms in. We see instantly how charming Lime can be if forced into the light (in part because he’s played by an iconic and charismatic star), but we also see how successful this character is at hiding in the darkness on the edges of the world. Lime lives and flourishes in the liminal spaces created by the destabilization of Vienna, a city that itself has four internal borders now due to the occupation zones, and Lime works them all, using the underground sewer system as his own highway.

Ferris Wheel
Only Lime can navigate both the surface and the shadows of Vienna. Here, Martins stands confused, the world spinning out of control behind him. © 1949 – British Lion Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved

In addition to the cracks between worlds, The Third Man shows the main world as a dizzying place. We see, for instance, Martins and others navigate a series of spiral staircases, and Martins literally spins around when he first sees Lime. But only Lime seems able to navigate these spinning realities. He is, of course, the only one truly 100% aware that he faked his own death, so the reveal that he is alive is not a reveal to him. But he also physically controls the world by being able to make a path in the shadows and the circles. It’s no wonder he makes his big speech and first face-to-face conversation with Martins aboard a Ferris Wheel, a contraption that both towers over the world and spins. Totally comfortable in the rotating amusement park attraction, he points down to the tiny people below, dots at that vantage point, and asks if anyone could care about a dot disappearing. Martins is sickened by it because of the romance he writes about and believes in, and he is naturally sickened by Lime’s request that Martins see the world his way and be cut in on the scheme. But really he just can’t see how Limes can view the dots as anything other than humans just as he cannot understand how anyone can manage the dizzying realities of Vienna. In another way, though, he cannot understand how someone can be so good in some ways (Lime is charming even while discussing dead children) and so bad in others.

Shadows
The world of Vienna is also shadowy, and Martins cannot figure out how to navigate the world that exists off screen, such as the world creating this shadow. He can see the shadow but cannot understand the reality of what created it. © 1949 – British Lion Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved

This is an American conflict. It is the battle between what is right and what is real, but it is also a battle between the lies Americans believe about their country and the realities Americans refuse to recognize. Martins believes in the legends and the myths, but Lime is a new type of American who recognizes what America is to become—a nation on the rise because of an ability to dominate a world off center through tricks, capitalism, and ruthlessness. Lime tells Martins that “the world doesn’t make any heroes outside of your stories,” and that’s ultimately Martins’ problem: He doesn’t recognize that the world is not what it is in his Westerns. While that world might never have existed, it certainly doesn’t exist now, not in Vienna.

Interestingly, though, Martins clings to that certainty of the old ways, especially when he is in the center of the world and not in those liminal crevices on the outskirts of the frames. It is interesting that Martins (and the audience) gets his facts about Lime in a montage. He learns a ton, but we learn nothing but the basic fact—that Lime is running black market drugs. We accept the truth because Martins does after getting hard evidence (photos, fingerprints, drug samples) that we only see in passing. Thus, Martins gets some tangible evidence and hard facts, where we only get subjective realities. But for Martins, everything he knows about Lime is now up in the air, as he cannot rectify the Lime he remembers from youth with the Lime he know has hard facts about in Vienna. Anna, who I have failed to mention up to now, although she is a fascinating character worthy of much analysis, tells Martins that “a person doesn’t change because you find out more,” but for Martins, everything has changed. He realizes he needs to help put a stop to Lime’s scheme and that do so he’ll have to enter the shadows to ultimately kill Lime.


And that death is a remarkable scene. Lime is chased through the sewers of Vienna and shot at from a distance by the British. He fires back into darkness, shooting a man cowardly rather than heroically. Martins is the final pursuer, and he would likely prefer to either not kill Lime at all or to at least kill him in a dignified way like would be done in a Western. Instead, he shoots Lime in the back while Lime dangles from a ladder. The look in Lime’s eyes when Martins is about to shoot him is incredible. It’s a look of sadness and shame but also a smirk. In a sense, it gives satisfaction that his attempts to bargain with his moral ambiguity are ultimately failures—he knows he’s a coward who shoots at enemies in the dark and gets shot in the back. But in another sense, the scene seems to show Lime smiling because Martins has finally gotten his hands dirty and entered the modern world.

Regardless, the world of The Third Man is a dizzying world of liminal spaces in which certainties are proven to not exist and in which bad things happen. Writing at the LA Review of Books, Martin Zirulnik refers to two Viennas, one that is comically ironic, and “one that exists in the margins of what’s presented on-screen, the one that only just eludes viewing… [and is] a truly miserable and humorless place.” This humor idea brings up the final thing I found particularly interesting on this latest viewing of The Third Man. For a dark dark dark movie, it really is a ton of fun. There’s a delightful mirrored structure (the film starts with Lime’s death and ends with it), a hauntingly upbeat zither score, some of the best lines ever in cinema (including the famed cuckoo clock speech that Welles claims to have written, although he also claims to have written all his dialogue in the film), a fascinating mystery, surprising twists, comic scenes, suspense, great acting, great shots, and really great pacing.

And finally, I love the shot at the end. Martins gets out of the car and stands cool, like a cowboy hero, to wait for Anna. She walks and walks and walks, and then walks right past him. Interestingly, the shot is long and stable—it is one of the only long shots in the film that is focused and centered and not askew—and suggests that the world is once again stable for Martins. He no longer will have moral dilemmas such as recognizing his friend as a killer, but he still has to face the consequences of killing Lime and ruining Anna’s life. She could run away with Martins and save herself, but she has avoided facing the reality of Lime’s evil, so why should she start dealing with his or Martin’s evil after Lime’s death? The touch of evil is now on Martin, and so there are consequences for his dabbling in the corners and the sewers.

So Lime was right after all—there are no heroes in the real world.

Should I Have DVRed This On TCM: Um, obviously. I think I could watch this film a thousand more times and notice a thousand more interesting details or topics of analysis. It’s truly a classic.

 

 

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Peeping Tom

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Details:
Director: Michael Powell
Producer: Albert Fennell, Michael Powell (both uncredited)
Writer: Leo Marks
Cast: Karlheinz Böhm, Anna Massey, Moira Shearer, Maxine Audley, Pamela Green
Studio: Michael Powell (Theatre), Anglo-Amalgamated Film Distributors
Year: 1960

Why I DVRed ThisPeeping Tom is one of those films I’d heard about for years and years but never had the opportunity to see (I mean, yeah, I could’ve Netflixed it or gone back in time and gone to Blockbuster to rent it if I really wanted to see it, but it wasn’t just presented to me ever…). It is one of those movies that divided audiences in its time but that has come to be regarded as a classic. I don’t know the context for this being on TCM, but I saw it on the schedule one night and DVRed it.

Presentation on TCM: TCM just played its “open all night” diner montage to indicate that this film was being shown in the wee hours. As I said above, I have no idea if TCM put it on for any reason or to fulfill any theme.

Mark shows Helen
Mark shows Helen a glimpse of his childhood. © 1960 – Michael Powell (Theatre). All Rights Reserved.

Synopsis: Mark Lewis (Böhm) is a freelance pornographic photographer who also works as a focus puller for a film studio. Additionally, he owns an apartment building he inherited from his father, a deranged psychiatrist who used his son as his guinea pig for experiments about human fear. He is unhappy and lonely and starts a relationship with one of his tenants, Helen (Massey). Oh, and there’s one more thing: Mark also likes to kill women by using a dagger attached to a camera. His goal is to try to capture fear on camera.

Analysis (contains spoilers): Peeping Tom is one of the defining horror movies of all time. It, along with Psycho, helped pave the way for the more sinister and psychological horror movies of the late 1960s and 1970s (as compared to the campy b-movies of the 1950s). However, unlike Psycho, which became a box office sensation (albeit with mixed reviews),

Watching Murder
The audience sees its first murder from the perspective of Mark’s camera, making it feel like the audience itself is killing the prostitute. Note also the red pillow behind her. © 1960 – Michael Powell (Theatre). All Rights Reserved.

Peeping Tom essentially ended the career of director Michael Powell. He continued to work but not to receive the acclaim or fanfare he had received as one of Britain’s premier filmmakers of the post-war years.

And that’s a shame. Peeping Tom is a delightful film and one that seems to have been years ahead of the times. It is a film that is largely subjective in view and works best when it makes the viewer culpable in the action shown on the screen. If Psycho made everyone in the audience feel like a victim, Peeping Tom makes everyone in the audience feel like a killer. And, unlike Psycho, there is zero mystery about who the killer is, so the film becomes more an examination of human psyche than a straight thriller or mystery. But the psyche most explored is the shared bond between the killer and the spectator.

From the opening shots, Powell establishes this subjectivity. He makes it very clear the film will not be subject to mimetic staging (which works like a stage set—the world of the narrative is contained in a rectangle that is separate from the “real world”). Instead, the film shows primarily the perspective of Mark, our obvious psycho, but at first, we don’t see Mark—we just see Mark’s view, which becomes our view and, by extension, our actions.

Opening Shots
Through his camera, Mark sees his first victim, a lady of the night wearing a dress so blindingly red that it manages to stand out even in the expressionistic hellscape of the nighttime streets. © 1960 – Michael Powell (Theatre). All Rights Reserved.

The film opens on a closeup of an eye opening before we see a very expressionistic depiction of a street. A man snaps a photo of a woman through a hidden camera. We switch to his camera perspective of her. She is a prostitute (“it’ll be two quid”) and we follow her into her apartment (still in the camera view). She undresses for us (in a very untitilating way) before we begin to attack her and she screams at us. Then, and only then, do we cut to a projector showing the very movie and a man, Mark, watching it while some piano-heavy music plays and the title is revealed.

Horror movies primarily rely on an impulse in the audience to want—no, to need—to see things that should not be seen. That is why we scream “don’t open the closet” while praying that the victim does open the closet. Peeping Tom takes the whole notion further—we beg Mark to kill because we need to see the action. Of course, in seeing the action, we become sick too, but it’s our own fault for watching the film. With such logic, it’s no wonder the film offended so many during its first release. Today’s audience is more desensitized to such violence (see the success of the Saw franchise), so Peeping Tom seems thrilling more than sick. We enter a world we don’t know and commit actions we would never commit in real life—and that is the thrill. The thrill is of living vicariously through a psychopath, not of living vicariously through a detective investigating a psycho.

Peeping Tom also does a very good job of making it clear that, though Mark is psychotic, there are different manifestations of the same psychotic behavior in others. Mark works as an occasional pornographer, and there is a terrific scene early in the film in which he talks to the owner of a newsstand. The shops owner asks Mark which magazines sell best, and Mark replies “those with girls on the front covers and no front covers on the girls.” In the same store, an elderly man is buying pornography and a daily newspaper, and the shop’s owner reminds him not to forget the newspaper he’s purchased. This scene establishes that many others in England are equally sex-obsessed as Mark; it’s just their obsessions manifest themselves differently (and, obviously, more healthily).

Unlike those of the casual masturbators, Mark’s impulses are primarily violent. But his violence is itself established as normal in the world he navigates. When Mark photographs naked prostitutes, they both ask him to cover up their bruises. This implies that they are used to getting roughed up by their johns, and it also implies that they want to be aesthetically pleasing in the magazines. There is a girl with a cleft palate who is particularly worried about the way she is photographed, and Mark precedes to obsess over her deformity. The world is ugly and violent, but Mark is comfortable with—if not outright intrigued by—it.

Prostitute 2
Mark becomes infatuated with the cleft lip of this model, here framed by her red hair, a red stool, and a red drape. © 1960 – Michael Powell (Theatre). All Rights Reserved.
Prostitutes
This model, also wearing red, is more worried about her bruises being covered up. © 1960 – Michael Powell (Theatre). All Rights Reserved.

While the girls being photographed are, of course, obsessed with the way they will be captured on film, other victims of Mark show an equal concern with their looks. Indeed, aesthetics and appearances seem to be an important part of the film. This is, of course, because the movie is mostly about looking. The Peeping Tom of the title is not Mark but, rather, the audience, looking at what Mark sees (or at what others see Mark see, as when he shows them his home movies). We in the audience become dazzled by the expressionistic technicolor canvasses that make up the disgusting figures that occupy one of Mark’s worlds, the filmmakers and actresses that occupy another, and the ordinary Britons that occupy the house Mark owns.

Color features prominently in the film too. While the worlds Mark occupies are all lavishly colored, he himself is always dressed drably in browns and dark greens. This provides him with an everyman status and helps explain his ability to navigate the interstices between his three worlds. The police are the only ones who even seem to suspect him of being capable of anything heinous, and only really after they follow him between worlds (a person who works on the set might not be a suspect in the murder of an actress on the set, but a person who works on the set and works as a pornographer certainly could be a suspect). Mark’s apartment too is plain and unassuming, with drab wallpaper and boring furniture. However, he of course has two rather interesting things in his apartment: a projector and a darkroom. He uses the projector to show Helen the films of the cruel experiments on fear that were performed on Mark as a child, and he also shows her the darkroom, a room that seems to serve as his objective correlative—it is the only world that unites all three of Mark’s worlds and that provides access to Mark’s dark inner life. And, as if to make even more manifest what is already apparent, the darkroom is colored red—the color so often used in the film to mark desire and sex.

Mark meets Helen
Mark meets Helen for the first time. Note his drab appearance and drab apartment contrasted with the bright reds of Helen. © 1960 – Michael Powell (Theatre). All Rights Reserved.
Mark in Brown
In front of the newsstand, Mark is again in brown, but the object that carries him between worlds is bright red. © 1960 – Michael Powell (Theatre). All Rights Reserved.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Red is indeed the clearest motif seen in Peeping Tom. All of Mark’s victims either have red hair or something very red about them (a pillow in the background of his first victim who was first seen in a garishly cerise skirt). When we meet the redheaded Helen for the first time (when he shows her the darkroom), she is wearing a red dress. All the other victims are similarly red either in hair color or costume or both. And many of the scenes seem to have a red tint to them, as though the whole film took place in a red light district (which it kind of does—the red light district of the audience’s minds!). Red is, of course, the color of fire and blood, so it is associated in art and literature with war, danger, strength, power, desire, and passion. And Mark himself seems to gravitate to the color, like a bull.

One final note: Many have remarked that the film clearly delineates good girls and bad girls. We see, for instance, prostitutes and nude models contrasted with the innocent Helen. But it seems the film actually implies that there isn’t really a difference. After all, regardless of if they are good or not good, Mark has access to them. He can work the seedy underbelly of London’s streets and porn shops just as easily as he can charm a nice woman like Helen. And both the good girls and the bad girls often have red hair, implying that, to Mark at least (and arguably to any pervert/psycho), the good and the bad are all the same—easily preyed upon women. As Powell seems to put the onus for all the violence on the audience (the sick fucks watching Mark’s films), the implication seems to be that the very act of looking or gazing on another automatically corrupts her. That is, it doesn’t matter if a person is good or bad once that person becomes an object of lust.

Powell is all too happy to direct us to this conclusion too. It’s worth noting that the doctor in Mark’s childhood movies is played by Powell (with his son playing the young Mark). Mark’s dad was interested in studying fear and human emotion. The filmmaker’s job seems to be not to study fear and emotion but to force them out of an audience. Given the cruelty we see imposed upon the cast by the director of the film Mark works on (not to mention the obvious cruelty inflicted on the stars of Mark’s movies by the filmmaker), it seems the process of making and screening films is not a job for the benevolent.

Should I Have DVRed This On TCM: Yes, yes, yes. This film is so rich, and I could’ve discussed it on so many levels (the career of Powell, the psychology of Mark, the idea of spectatorship, the connections between Peeping Tom and other voyeuristic films, etc.). However, at the end of the day, I was most drawn to the look of the film and the question of how the film is supposed to make you feel. I felt drawn in to Mark’s world, and so I felt disgusted by my own culpability in the action of the film (while not wanting to turn the movie off), but I imagine a person with better morals might end up feeling superior to Mark and disgusted simply at the film’s very existence, as though the attempt to make the audience feel guilty for Mark’s acts was itself a venal sin. Regardless, this is a film that I know I will come back to and probably draw a totally different conclusion about when I do.

 

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

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Details: 
Director: Tony Richardson       Producer: Tony Richardson
Writer: Alan Sillitoe
Cast: Michael Redgrave, Tom Courtenay, Avis Bunnage, Alec McCowen, Topsy Jane
Studio: Woodfall Film Productions (Company) British Lion-Columbia Distributors/Continental Distributing (Distribution)
Year: 1962

Why I DVRed It: This is a film I’ve long wanted to see but never gotten around to it. I first heard of it in 1999 or so, when I was perusing the British Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest films of the 20th century and being intrigued by the title. Years later, I got into running (although I want to make perfectly clear I’m not one of “those runners,” the kind who wear running clothes all the time and only talk about which trails they prefer and that kind of shit) and  became familiar with the sensation of being lonely on long runs. I used to run greater distances than I currently do (a foot injury has sidelined me from runs greater than 3-4 miles for the past two years), and I remember feeling quite lonesome on some of those runs. I’m not the type to feel fueled by the energy of others, and I remember running my first marathon and getting downright depressed when crowds of strangers would cheer for the marathoners like myself. It made me feel that there was something wrong with me, and maybe there is, but at least the title of this film says otherwise!

The film's opening shots reveal the pleasures of distance running but also the titular loneliness. © 1965 – Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
The film’s opening shots reveal the pleasures of distance running but also the titular loneliness. © 1962 – British Lion-Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

In actuality, that loneliness is precisely what I’ve loved about running my whole life. It’s also what I love about film. Watching movies is primarily an individual experience, and almost of my TCM movies are watched in isolation. I do, of course, love going to movies and watching movies with my girlfriend, but I don’t need the company to enjoy a film. Solitude and loneliness aren’t always bad words.

Regardless, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is movie that has fluctuated on critics’ lists for decades. Sometimes it’s off the lists altogether. Right now, the greatest movies list at  They Shoot Pictures Don’t They has the film at 995, but it wasn’t on the 2013 list. However, the movie tends to be more popular with English audiences, which makes sense—the film is largely about English working class life, a state most Americans only know of through popular songs such as the Squeeze jam “Up the Junction” or the underrated Kinks classic “Dead End Street.” This movie isn’t near as catchy as those tunes, but what movie is?

Presentation on TCM: Once again, I watched a TCM movie with no introduction or anything like that. It was on at 6:15, before a night of programming centered around B-sci-fi pictures. Obviously, this movie is not that, so I really don’t know why it was on.

Synopsis: An angry young man, Colin (Courtenay), is sentenced to a boys’ reformatory (what people in England call a “borstal”) where his prowess for long-distance running earns him the favor of the school’s governor (Redgrave) who hopes Colin can win a big race against another reformatory school. Colin likes his special status at first but reconsiders it in light of his own recollections of his past that he thinks about on his unescorted long training runs.

Analysis (contains spoilers): Before I get too far into this, I will admit that there were entire stretches of dialogue that went right past me. The cockney accents of some of the characters made it hard for my American ears to decipher meaning. I wish that Tony Richardson had thought about this when making the film; I mean, couldn’t he get his statements about class differences in England across without making use of working class accents? I am the most important viewer of this film.

Kidding aside, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is a terrific film. It tells the story of an angry young man, placing it into the “teenage delinquent” genre popular in American cinema in the 195os, a genre that, at least in the US, tended to be pretty lousy. Think of Rebel Without a Cause, The Wild One, and Blackboard Jungle. The best of those is probably Rebel, but aside from the iconic aspects of James Dean’s performance in it, it’s a pretty lousy movie. English versions of the genre include Loneliness and later efforts such as A Clockwork Orange (based on a novel published in 1962, the same year as Loneliness was mad) and the delightful If…, about a boarding school that turns violent. (Note, teenage delinquency was considered a crisis in the US in the 1950s (see this (much briefer than anything I have ever written) blog for more information), but the UK did not start to worry about the phenomenon so much until the 1960s, explaining the discrepancy in time periods.) The English versions tend to be better than their American counterparts, and Loneliness is no exception.

Look at how pretty that looks! © 1962 – British Lion-Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

The film opens on a man, Colin, running alone on a road in England, in a rural area. It looks like a bucolic setting, and one might think this is going to be a nice movie about a nice young man who lives in a rural area and does nice people things (falls in love with the girl next door, goes to sock hops, learns to say “thee,” takes a job as a ‘prentice for his uncle). But then, we cut from him running to him in a prison-type van, going to a juvenile detention center. Immediately, the film disorients the audience, something Richardson will do again and again. Indeed, the structure of the film is itself jarring—the film cuts from the present to the past and back again as Colin recounts his life of petty crime and anguish while solitarily running. We see the violence of the reform school as well as the emotional turmoil of his home life, and the only parts of the film that are remotely peaceful are his runs. But, of course, those runs turn into ruminations on pain shown from Colin’s perspective.

The film is highly subjective and disjointed, then. Loneliness makes frequent use of handheld compositions and occasional use of POV shots; for instance, the first night Colin is at boarding school, we see through the shaky eyes of the guard as he inspects the bunks. This shot gives us a subjectivity that then reverses into the viewpoint of our main subject, Colin; that is, we are looking from a guard’s perspective until we get to our narrator and switch back to his perspective. Occasionally, the film gives us other viewpoints as well, as some of the scenes involving the governor showing off the school to rich donors or talking to his peers do not feature Colin at all. These scenes give us a privileged viewpoint, although they do not complicate our own viewpoint. They simply reinforce that Colin is right to be defiant and angry. It’s not a terribly profound viewpoint, but it is an absolute one.

Richardson seems to have an especial fondness for clever editing. He likes to cut scenes so quickly that the audience is thrown out of the comfort of one scene and back into another, as though letting the audience get adjusted and used to something would be the gravest sin. He makes several uses of contrapuntal sound; that is, the sight of one scene often starts before the previous scene’s audio is finished, breaking rules of the “classical” style as the sound and image do not align. For instance, a destructive food fight’s audio plays as we cut to a calm and sedate board meeting of the school administrators meeting to discuss the fight (providing cause and effect). Then, we see school administrators brutally beating a student while the audio plays the end of the calm meeting (providing judgement and punishment).

Frequent flashbacks to Colin's former life reveal a bleak existence, albeit one that is perfectly composed. © 1962 – British Lion-Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
Frequent flashbacks to Colin’s former life reveal a bleak existence, albeit one that is perfectly composed. © 1962 – British Lion-Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Richardson also makes use of other anti-classical techniques. The film features several rapid camera movements and zooms to show us the character’s own focus. For instance, when Colin is doing free association with the psychiatrist, we zoom in on the tape recorder, which obviously has Colin feeling ill at ease. And structurally, the telling of two linear narratives (Colin in the borstal as he prepares for a big race and Colin’s journey from freedom to the borstal) is itself disorienting, even though the flashbacks are largely shown linearly and add up to a cohesive and simple story (boy’s dad dies, boy’s mom moves a bit too quickly on a new guy, boy feels purposeless and then gets into trouble). Thus, the structure of the story and the style of the film are far more interesting than the story itself or the film itself.

These stylistic flourishes seem somewhat antithetical to the gritty realness of the movie and its statement about the stark realities of working-class life in Britain, but they are actually in line with a style of documentary films Richardson and others made in the 1950s. In fact, almost all the stylistic flourishes used in Loneliness are trademarks of the “Free Cinema” movement with which Richardson was associated. Free Cinema was a style employed in a series of highly influential independently produced documentary films showcasing the working class in England. Christophe Dupin, writing at the BFI’s Screenonline website, describes the signatures of the movement as follows: The filmmakers “used black and white film and hand-held, portable cameras, avoided or limited the use of didactic voice-over commentary, shunned narrative continuity and used sound and editing impressionistically.” Loneliness makes use of all of these to disrupt the audience’s expectations and to promote a general rebellious spirit throughout.

As a fiction film with a realist bent, Loneliness feels somewhat documentary-like, but Richardson also uses several absurdist elements that further promote an antiauthoritarian and rebellious air. Courtenay’s mouth contorts in comical ways throughout the film, providing an indication that the words he says are not the words he means. Further, the governor’s pompous proclamations (such as his insistence that sports are ultimately what make boys into good honest men) are very clearly satirized, and, indeed, there is something absurd that Colin learned to become a world-class running man (to quote a great Mr. Show sketch) by “running away from the police” as he puts it, but that he is seen by the governor as a great athlete with a chance to reform himself through running. Richardson makes an even clearer absurdist statement in the flashback scene in which Colin and his friend mute the bloated politician on the telly (I felt like employing an English-ism at least once here!) as he rails against the youth of the UK. This makes the politician powerless, as an orator without a voice is a form without a purpose, a series of inscrutable faces and hand gestures, creating a simulacrum, an empty image. The kids laugh at the way it looks, but the audience laughs at the overall rebelliousness of simply cutting down the figure of power by cutting him off.

The big race provides Colin with a final act of defiance. © 1962 – British Lion-Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
The big race provides Colin with a final act of defiance. © 1962 – British Lion-Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Much of the movie, indeed, is rebellious without being rebellious in any sort of teleologic or hermeneutic sense. That is, the protagonist is an angry young man who does bad things (according to society), but he does not make a grand gesture or provide anything much to examine. He’s not James Dean in Rebel, who acts rebellious because he is stigmatized as a rebel (and has an emasculated dad!), nor is he Marlon Brando in The Wild One, who defiantly implies he’s rebelling just because he can (“What are you rebelling against?” “What do you got?”). Rather, the protagonist here is a kid who never had a chance. Add to that that his dad is dead and his mom doesn’t seem to care and has moved on to a new (in Colin’s words) “fancy man,” and we have Hamlet if he didn’t have the directions from a ghost. And we know Hamlet could barely handle fulfilling his assigned mission—what can the youth of this picture do without a chance or a purpose? He truly is, thus, a rebel without a cause. His only cause is to not be left “scarpering” for favor. As he puts it to another schoolmate (McCowen):

What’s the point of scarpering? The best thing to do is be cunning and stay where you are. You see, I’m gonna let them think they’ve got me house trained, but they never will, the bastards. To get me beat, they’ll have to stick a rope around my neck.

Colin is punished for his defiance by losing his privileges and being forced to make gas masks with the other borstal boys. © 1962 – British Lion-Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
Colin is punished for his defiance by losing his privileges and being forced to make gas masks with the other borstal boys. © 1962 – British Lion-Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

The movie ends with Colin living up to his goals of gaining human freedom and promoting a sense of defiance. Colin chooses to throw the race at the last minute, the film making very clear that he could win if he wanted to. But, like Clint Eastwood walking away from the town he saves in virtually every Eastwood Western, Colin is better off not tied down and beholden to anyone. The film ends with him being another loser kid at the school, stuck making gas masks in the shop. But at least he won’t have to breathe the noxious air of the governor.

Should I Have DVRed This on TCM: Yes, I enjoyed The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. TCM.com calls it an “essential,” and I agree. Speaking of which, it will be on TCM again on September 5, and I think it’s worth DVRing again (although I probably won’t, having just watched it!).