Saturday 27 December 2014

Nine Great Men and One Oddbod, featuring The Third Man, Odd Man Out, The October Man...

When Screen on 4 showed The Third Man recently. I missed the greatest belated entrance in screen history (a cat snuggles up to someone’s shoes in a darkened doorway) but came in time for the cuckoo clock speech, the moment when the true subversiveness of the film is made clear. Evil is charming and sexy; virtue, on the other hand, is bumbling, strangely passive, and ineffectual, reduced to mumbling in a state of catatonic numbness, “Who’d have thought a parrot could bite a man?” This is the kind of virtue that betrays his best friend, and signally doesn’t get the girl in the final reel (ah, that closing scene, in the tree-lined avenue, so quietly devastating on first viewing, and inevitable thereafter). And still Holly Martins can’t leave Vienna, just like Harry Lime was a captive in the Russian Quarter, and stateless Anna lives in Limbo. The film perfectly captures the post-war slide from hell into Purgatory. The story and screenplay are by a Catholic convert, Graham Greene. It’s strong meat. and altogether too dark for a cradle Catholic like my mother, who, to my surprise, disliked the film intensely.  

Anyway, I was moved to make a Top Ten of Men, that is cinematic and singular Men. They’re all excellent except for one, which is a horror. 

1. The Third Man (1949)
Every frame and every line is iconic. My favourite film of all-time. 

2. Odd Man Out (1946)  
Carol Reed again, so more tilted angles, and a further study of humanity in extremis. The setting is Ireland, and the context is the liberation struggle of the old IRA, but the theme is nothing less than the passage of the soul from life. 

3. The Man Who Could Work Miracles (1936) 
Roland Young is splendid as a human worm randomly given supreme power on a whim of the gods. Again the author of the original tale provided the screenplay: in this case, H. G. Wells. It’s a better film than short story, and a rich entertainment derived from all the dusty debates Wells had with his Fabian chums, e.g. would a world without want and disease be desirable even if it was possible?    

4. The Man in the White Suit (1951) 
Coincidentally, that’s also the question posed by this Ealing cracker, a study in contrasts, and a razor-sharp exposition on the irreconcilability of idealism and pragmatism, science and capitalism, workers and industrialists, men and women, cleanliness and dirt. All this, and Joan Greenwood at her kittenish best and gurgling test-tubes. Sublime. 

5. My Man Godfrey (1936)
The Depression fairytale opens with a savagery worthy of Bunuel – rich socialites hunt “forgotten men” in a decadent party game. It then waters down the social criticism and decides that wealth and poverty are equally ludicrous: the classic screwball compromise. 

6. The October Man (1947) 
This Eric Ambler thriller is not much of a whodunnit, as the murderer of Molly Newman is obvious from the outset. The victim is a little too worldly for her own good in 1947, with her modelling work, her money problems and concurrent lovers with a married man in Birmingham and the man downstairs. (Yes, the man downstairs. It’s always the man downstairs. Indeed, I have suspicions about my own man downstairs.) The October Man is more a profound study of human alienation, interested in the psychology of Jim Ackland, played by John Mills, an outsider, stigmatised by mental illness, and  buckling under the strain of being chief suspect in a murder enquiry. But the shock of The October Man today lies its stark depiction of boarding-house life, where strangers are thrown together and expected to improvise some form of social life. The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) has a boarding-house too, so they really existed. Fawlty Towers is a survival of the type. But whereas The Lavender Hill Mob and Fawlty Towers are marvellous comedies, The October Man doesn’t allow the viewer that much consolation. It lays bare the drabness, the meanness of spirit and the joylessness of provincial England like no other film. Even Joan Greenwood flickers at dim bulb wattage, her  luminousness subdued by the stock girl-next-door part and the frumpishness of a skinny cardigan. She was soon to swap The October Man for The Man in the White Suit.   

7. The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)
Monte Woolley, Bete Davis, and Jimmy Durante. More bleak than intended, in it’s brittle, jaded sophisticate and stagey way, is my hazy recollection.   

8. A Man Escaped (1957)
The ritual of prison life is equated to the austerity of monasticism, and escape is given spiritual uplift by the deployment of the Mozart C Minor Mass.

 9. Man of Aran (1934)
A heroic celebration of life on a rock in the mouth of Galway Bay: so bare and sea-lashed that potatoes have to be planted in seaweed. Epic and exalted and eternal, and no, I’ve never seen it. 

10. The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)
The trailer intrigued me as a kid. To describe the film as a “disappointment” when I finally caught up with it would be an understatement. Poor old Basil Dearden. I have a soft spot for The Blue Lamp and The Smallest Show on Earth too. “Don’t tell your friends the ending… let them experience the shock,” proclaimed the trailer. It would be kinder not to let your friends see the film at all. With Roger Moore. 

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