Director: Carol Reed
Writers: Graham Greene, Lesley Storm and William Templeton, based on the story “The Basement Room” by Greene
Stars: Ralph Richardson, Bobby Henrey, Michele Morgan
The Story: At a foreign embassy in London, the child of the always-absent ambassador worships the friendly butler. As the two play, the child is unable to understand that the butler’s marriage is falling apart painfully. When the butler’s wife dies accidentally after a fight, the child falsely assumes the butler did it and starts telling lies to cover it up, which only make the problem grow larger and larger.
How it Came to be Underrated: Greene and Reed re-teamed the next year to make The Third Man, which was far grander in scale and ambition. The well-earned success of that movie instantly eclipsed the success and reputation of this one, which was mostly forgotten.
Why It’s Great:
- Ralph Richardson, Laurence Olivier, and John Gielgud were considered the three “grand old men” of the English stage, but of the three, Richardson got the least time on the big screen, so his reputation has shrunk as those who saw his stage performances have passed on. This was a rare leading screen role that showed how great he was: beneath his proper demeanor, a war of contradictions is tearing him apart. He conveys it all with a sublime degree of subtlety.
- So Reed had hired one of the most acclaimed actors of all time, but his co-star was a young non-actor. Watching the child’s astonishing performance, you might assume that he was a great natural, but in the documentary, Reed’s assistant Guy Hamilton assures us otherwise: Before Reed found him, “he couldn’t act his way out of a paper bag. Much worse was his attention span which was that of a demented flea.” There’s a reason that there are so few movies about children this age! Most actors will admit that a great performance is 90% the accomplishment of the director and only 10% the actor. The fact that these two actors give almost equally great performances proves it.
- Greene divided his work sharply into two categories: literary works and “entertainments”. Like most authors who made such distinctions (Ed McBain, Cornell Woolrich) Greene was constantly confounded to see that both audiences and critics found more meaning in his “entertainments” than his “serious” works. Greene considered this an entertainment because it revolves around a police investigation, but according to my definition it should be considered literary. I’ll explain why tomorrow...
- Writers, especially beginners, hate limitations. The ultimate limitation is point of view. Writers know that the best way to build identification is to limit the audience to one character’s point of view, but then they get frustrated. The writer must know everything about the world, but they cannot convey everything from one character’s point of view, only one limited perspective. The more you write, however, the more you realize that the nature of truth is inseparable from the notion of point of view, and the nature of truth is what all great fiction is about. This movie beautifully shows a very limited point of view.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Richardson had another rare movie showcase as a dictator in Things to Come, another great Reed noir was Odd Man Out.
How Available Is It?: It’s got an excellent criterion DVD with a short documentary about Reed’s directorial style, warmly recounted by his collaborators.