Sir Carol Reed didn’t make movies as early as Alfred Hitchcock, and his career didn’t last quite as long, but they were contemporaries who were both gifted and prolific. So why isn’t the late Londoner more celebrated?
Maybe it’s because it took Reed longer to hit his stride and he didn’t develop a signature style like Hitchcock, who would never have taken on the big-budget movie musical (“Oliver!”) that finally won Reed his best director Oscar (an award that eluded Hitchcock). But “Oliver!” reveals three things that separate Reed from Hitchcock: his direction of children, use of locations and interest in humanity.
I’ve seen every Hitchcock film — I’m a huge fan — but I’m struggling to think of any memorable child performances in his dozens of movies, other than a couple of dandies in “Shadow of a Doubt.” But kids are everywhere in Reed’s work — literally in “Oliver!,” in which tuneful urchins climb all over the adult characters. In my favorite Reed film, “The Fallen Idol,” the protagonist is a boy who witnesses a murder. He’s played by Bobby Henrey in an utterly natural performance, totally out of keeping with the arch, stagy kids prevalent in movies of the era. Henrey had never acted before; later, both he and his mother raved about how kind and patient Reed was, words never used to describe Hitchcock.
Reed was much more interested in actual locations than Hitchcock. Hitch liked to be in control of every aspect of his movies; he often said he diagramed them so thoroughly ahead of time that he had basically shot them in his head. Reed, on the other hand, is guided by the sorts of accidental things that happen on location, which is why places such as Vienna (“The Third Man”) and gorgeous Malaga, Spain (“The Running Man”), provide so much atmosphere in his work.
Most of all, Reed’s movies make clear that he loves people, flawed and cruel as they often are. That was not true of Hitchcock, the man who delighted in turning that nice Jimmy Stewart into a necrophiliac in “Vertigo.” People are unknowable and wicked to Hitchcock, but the killers in Reed movies always kill for a reason we can relate to and the heroes are as confused and imperfect as most of us really are.
One disadvantage of him being less famous than some of his peers is that not all of Reed’s movies are available, but these titles are all streaming. In a few cases, you can find them in their entirety — and for free — on YouTube.
‘The Fallen Idol’ (1948)
Only a master could make a movie this rich, witty and suspenseful. Through the eyes of a child, we see a claustrophobic mystery unfold in a swank London home: The maid dies in a fall and young Phillipe believes her husband, who is both the butler and Phillipe’s best friend, did it. Is he right, and if so, is he in danger? It’s a riveting, slow-burn thriller as well as a poignant look at that moment in a child’s life when they realize the adults they love are imperfect.
‘The Third Man’ (1949)
The oft-quoted spy thriller captured the wheeling and dealing in post-World War II Vienna so vividly that visitors to Austria’s capital still have a choice of movie-themed outings, including a tour of the sewers in which a key chase scene is set, a ride on the enormous Ferris wheel where Orson Welles utters a timeless bit of dialogue about cuckoo clocks and an entire museum devoted to the film. Watch the movie and you’ll see why: Visually innovative, beautifully written and gripping from start to finish, the adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel is an undisputed masterpiece.
‘Night Train to Munich’ (1940)
Clocking in at less than 90 minutes, “Night Train” is a taut, clever spy movie, set during the years of World War II when Britain was still appeasing Hitler. That wouldn’t lead you to expect humor, but “Night Train” balances comedy and thrills in a way that’s similar to another train movie, Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes.”
‘Odd Man Out’ (1947)
Its poster billed it as “the most exciting motion picture ever made,” and that’s not far off the mark. The story of an Irish Republican Army member who is separated from his gang after a bank robbery boasts a surprisingly effective car chase, several foot chases and an elegant performance by James Mason. You can see Reed and cinematographer Robert Krasker working out some of the deep-focus, sharply angled, black-and-white visual ideas that would later result in Oscar nominations for both of them for “The Third Man.”
The best picture Oscar winner came at the tail end of a run of big, stodgy movie musicals, but it holds up better because it’s so much more fleet of foot. Count Mark Lester, in the title role of this “Oliver Twist” adaptation, as another kid who shines in a Reed movie and who still speaks glowingly of the experience. (Weird side note: Lester may be the biological father of the late Michael Jackson’s daughter.)
‘Our Man in Havana’ (1959)
This droll comedy’s charms begin with a look at revolutionary-era Cuba. The architecture, costumes and ceiling fans give a palpable sense of its humid capital city, where vacuum cleaner salesman Alec Guinness is sucked into the spy game. A Cold War-era precursor to “M*A*S*H,” it finds absurdity that wasn’t in Graham Greene’s novel and boasts subtle performances from a bizarro cast: Guinness, Noel Coward, Burl Ives, Ernie Kovacs, Maureen O’Hara and Ralph Richardson, also fantastic as the butler in “Fallen Idol.”
‘The Running Man’ (1963)
Lee Remick’s peachy lipstick is the first sign that this thriller comes from a specific moment in the early ’60s when the repressed ’50s were wearing off and the movies were getting pervy. Actually, the first sign might be the stylish credits sequence, designed by the guy who did most of the James Bond movies, Maurice Binder. It sounds like “Double Indemnity,” but “Running Man” plays out more like “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” It’s a psychosexual melodrama that explores the shifting dynamics among an impossibly hot trio: Remick, Alan Bates and Laurence Harvey, who fakes his own death so he and his wife (Remick) could collect the insurance. Investigator Bates falls for Remick, who begins to realize she doesn’t like the post-“death” version of her husband as much as the pre-death version.